NS Preview: Samus Returns


This year’s E3 event proved to be quite a success for Samus Aran. With two games announced – one for each of Nintendo’s premier consoles – she is back in the fold after her absence from Metroid Prime: Federation Force. Technically she wasn’t absent, but the player didn’t control Samus, nor should she have been in the game at all. Her last role as a protagonist was in the divisive Other M, released in 2010.

The first game of the announced duo is almost upon us. The appropriately titled Samus Returns is a modern re-imagining of the Game Boy’s Metroid 2: Return of Samus. With the help of developer MercuryStream, it’s a return for Yoshio Sakamoto as well, who was thought to have left the series for good after Other M.

Along with Pokémon Ultra Sun and Moon, Samus Returns is likely one of the final major releases for the Nintendo 3DS and looks set to be a popular late entry. Given the evolution of the series and gaming in general since Metroid 2, it will be interesting to see just how many upgrades Samus Returns has.

In the preview session I attended, I was only allowed to explore and clear Area 1. At this point, things look very promising.

It starts how it usually does. That recognisable, ominous Metroid theme plays over the title screen and menu. Immediately I would recommend people grab a pair of headphones when they play the game, to experience the sound and music at a higher quality than what the 3DS speaker can offer.

The plot premise is delivered through text, with each page showing a lovely piece of art filled with detail. Once that’s done, a cutscene shows Samus landing on planet SR388. It certainly feels triumphant and grand, perhaps due to the long time that’s passed since the last time this was seen.

The main objective of Samus Returns is to wipe out the planet’s Metroids. Following some research and soldiers going missing, the Galactic Federation decides to send in Samus Aran to do the job.

Rather than scatter all forty Metroids across the map in one go, the game progresses in phases. There’s a pleasant introductory section that leads to the first Metroid encounter, and Samus quickly learns that the Metroids can evolve past their squishy jellyfish-like form. Even in this first section, players will recognise a few nooks and crannies that aren’t yet accessible, and require revisiting once they have more abilities.

It’s in Area 1 – after the initial Metroid encounter – where the map opens up a little. You’re given the number of Metroids in the area, and it’s on you to seek and destroy. Once these Metroids are wiped out, the next area will open up. Area 1 alone is quite big, and remember this was the only area I experienced. From the perspective of the map, Area 1 is essentially one huge ‘block’ of smaller rooms and open spaces. The area loops nicely back to its starting point, and the Metroids can be well-hidden in the labyrinth. Empty Metroid shells give the player a clue to their whereabouts, along with a new tracker that starts to beep when drawing close.

A lot of this will sound familiar to those who played the Game Boy classic, but Samus Returns adds a plethora of upgrades and new features.

Samus can now use a “360 Free Aim Mode” while standing still. By holding down the ‘L’ button, the bounty hunter will stay in place – whether she is standing, crouching, or hanging on a ledge – and a laser sight will appear on the screen. The player can then use the left stick for some precision aiming at any angle. This mechanic can also be used while jumping.

The left stick is used to control Samus’ movement rather than the D-Pad, and the movement felt responsive and swift. Jumping left and right from platform to platform up a vertical room felt very fluid. Wall-jumping is back, taking its style from Metroid Fusion by having Samus jump well away from the starting wall.

Another new mechanic is a melee counterattack, mapped to the ‘X’ button. This can be used when an enemy attacks Samus. With a well-timed counter, the enemy gets repelled and stunned for a few free hits. If used on an evolved Metroid, the camera shifts to a more cinematic view to match the heightened intensity of the fight. Common enemies simply get countered and stunned with the player retaining full control over Samus. This attack can also be used while hanging from a ledge.

It may seem like a questionable addition to a 2D Metroid title, but the enemies have been designed with the melee counter in mind. Almost all of the enemies have direct attacks, and the game doesn’t hold back on putting them in your way from the start. Most will attack Samus as soon as she comes into view, and countering requires a fast reaction.

Timing is key, and even in the early stages, you get an idea of how difficult Samus Returns is. Unless you’re a virtuoso (or maybe just careful unlike me), you’ll see the classic ‘power-suit breaking’ death screen a few times before your quest is complete.

A lot of power-ups return, as Samus quickly recovers her Charge Beam, Ice Beam, and Morph Ball. The Morph Ball is now activated by either double-tapping the control stick down, or simply tapping the bottom screen. The major powerup in the original game, the Spider Ball, is back as well. Even in Area 1 some locations were off limits, requiring later abilities for entry.

The big addition to power-ups is the “Aeion” abilities, used from their own energy meter that can be expanded with pickups. While the whole game appears to have four, I was only able to use one: Scan Pulse. This ability alerts the player’s attention to any breakable blocks that otherwise appear normal, by highlighting them blue and omitting a bleeping noise. Without the use of Scan Pulse, it can be very difficult to find hidden pathways that are necessary to progress, without obsessively blasting at each wall and floor. Overusing the Scan Pulse – or any of the future Aeion abilities – will deplete the meter, but enemies drop boosters just as they do for health and missiles.

 

Metroid 2 is infamous for its way of helping players navigate the labyrinthine SR388: it doesn’t help at all. Almost certainly due to the Game Boy’s limitations, perhaps the hardest part of Metroid 2 was finding your way around. Thankfully, Samus Returns isn’t bound by the same limitations and provides plenty of features to help. The map lives on the bottom screen, and the player can use pins to highlight certain areas to return to later. The touchscreen also offers a quick way of switching between weapons.

There are new teleportation points for fast travel, available once Samus unlocks them. While backtracking for items is part of the Metroid formula, it’s nice to have an option for instant travel, and the game wisely limits the quantity of teleportation points.

With plenty of pick-ups and diversions in the first area of the game, it’s a great impression of how many secrets the full package has. It’s the first 2D Metroid title in over a decade, and brings the strongest gameplay elements from all of its predecessors.

Of course while it plays on a 2D dimension, Samus Returns utilises 3D models and environments: a style more specifically known as 2.5D. It makes sense for the team to go for this kind of perspective given the hardware. Generally, the visuals are of a high standard for the handheld, and Samus cuts a lean figure, standing out in her shiny power suit as always. The stereoscopic 3D looks fantastic, although it felt tough on the eyes when glancing between the top and bottom screens with 3D-mode on.

The audio’s quality is why headphones are recommended; the sound effects are up to the usual Metroid standard, with the pick-up jingles sounding like they were taken straight from Metroid Prime. The soundtrack is also enjoyable, and it includes a glorious version of the original game’s Surface Theme. Metroid 2 has a very understated soundtrack, so it’ll be interesting to see what Samus Returns does with the rest of it.

If any Metroid game needed a remake, it was Metroid 2, and Samus Returns could well be a strong instalment in the series. With plenty of secrets and exploration to be done in the first area alone, it’s a grand return to the classic 2D Metroid style we’ve wanted to experience again for years. There’s a steady balance of old and new features, and that’s perhaps the best route for Samus Returns to take.

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