The most impressive feature in Nintendo’s new Switch model is its seven-inch OLED screen, giving games more vivid-looking colors and deeper contrast. It also has an improved kickstand that’s more functional and versatile than the one on the default Switch. But what’s a new system launch without a killer app? I was able to play the first 90 minutes of Metroid Dread, and not only does it look like it was worth the 19-year-long wait for a sequel to Metroid Fusion, but it might also be the ideal showcase for Nintendo’s new OLED Switch.
Dread is coming to the Switch on October 8th, 2021, the same day as Nintendo’s latest iteration of the tablet / console hybrid. There are many games that I’m looking forward to trying with the OLED screen, but Dread looked particularly stunning. Its sci-fi world seems even more fully realized (and creepy) on a display that allows for deeper blacks. The details in the 2D-meets-3D environments really stick out as a result of this screen tech, as do all of the new enemy varieties.
Nintendo says the new $349.99 OLED-touting Switch model isn’t faster than the standard Switch or the Switch Lite, but where I might be quick to notice graphical rough spots on my launch unit from early 2017, those quibbles weren’t nearly as apparent given the big boost in image quality that this OLED screen delivers. It’s still a 720p screen, but I was more impressed by the differences than I thought I’d be. Given the boost in contrast, text on the screen was a little easier to read, and the graphics overall look better than I’d expect from the Switch’s aging chipset.
I played the game in handheld mode, but I briefly tested out the new kickstand. It can smoothly articulate between about 80 degrees to 10 degrees, or so, making it much easier to find your desired angle in tabletop mode when you’re, say, playing on a plane. With this model, it seems like the days of your kickstand snapping off under normal use (whether to actually prop up the console or just to access the microSD card slot) are gone. The newer kickstand still hides the microSD card slot, but you might not be reaching for that as quickly, as this Switch OLED model comes with 64GB instead of the 32GB default amount in previous Switch consoles.
Nintendo suggested that I try playing Dread through this Switch’s improved speakers, and they were loud and clear enough for me to easily hear at a somewhat-loud press event. They probably won’t outclass most headphones, but they seemed better at creating a virtual bubble of sound that I felt like I was in the middle of.
Nintendo hasn’t lost its step in making stellar Metroid games
Regardless of how you feel about these improvements in the OLED Switch, it still feels like a Switch when you’re playing it. And importantly, Dread feels like a Metroid game. The story picks up right after the events in Fusion, and — following a quick recap of prior events — Dread drops you right into the game. Within the first 15 minutes, you’ll be chased by E.M.M.I robots, which are fast, tough opponents programmed to hunt and capture Samus. It’s a dreadful feeling, reminiscent of encountering SA-X, Samus’ deadly clones in Metroid Fusion. Though, instead of guaranteed annihilation, Dread sometimes grants Samus the ability to melee counter an E.M.M.I to get away. It’s tense and exciting. The E.M.M.I robots only patrol fixed sections of the map, gated by strange doors made of floating cubes (seen in the image up top), but you’ll have to get by them to proceed through the game. Of course, there’s a host of new enemy types and bosses, too.
Dread also wastes no time introducing you to some new tricks and heavy weaponry that’ll help you navigate the challenge. From the start, Samus can slide under spaces that used to require a Morph Ball by tapping the left trigger. And like in Metroid: Samus Returns for the 3DS (which Nintendo also co-developed alongside Dread studio Mercury Steam), the melee counter is back. If an enemy glistens before an attack, you can hit X to stun them to get an easy hit in. Even this limited moveset in the early game served up some of the most cinematic encounters I’ve seen in a Metroid game, 2D game or not.
Metroid Dread shares plenty in common with its predecessors. Each section of the game has its share of areas you can and can’t access due to your suit’s limitations. There are map download and save rooms, missile and health recharge stations, and plenty of secrets hidden in the terrain. But going through the usual paces, like stopping in a save room or interacting with Chozo statues, which dole out suit upgrades, isn’t the multi-second affair it has been in previous games. Samus runs quickly, and encounters are brisk, yet visceral, aided by solid performance that rarely seemed to dip below a smooth 60 frames per second.
The series’ signature difficulty is still here, but it’s far less punishing in the sections that I played, thanks to save points being spaced out no more than a few minutes apart. That’s great, given the portable nature of the Switch, where you might be trying to squeeze in a short session on the go. On top of that, the divvying out of challenge and reward in Dread seems finely balanced to the point that it shouldn’t scare off new players or feel too easy for returning veterans.
From what I was able to play, Metroid Dread feels inspired and energetic, not like how I imagined a game that was effectively canceled for over a decade would be. And while a question mark hangs over Metroid Prime 4, which was rebooted while still in development back in early 2019, playing Dread served as a reminder that Nintendo hasn’t lost its step in making stellar Metroid games.
Photography by Cameron Faulkner / The Verge