NS Review – Metroid: Samus Returns (3DS)


There aren’t many games with a title more apropos than Samus Returns. After a long absence since the polarising Metroid: Other M and a controversial spin-off game last year, the future of Samus Aran had been in serious doubt.

At E3 this year, all doubt was thrown out the window as two Metroid titles were announced. The first is now here. Metroid: Samus Returns is a re-imagining of the Game Boy classic Metroid II: Return of Samus, developed for the Nintendo 3DS. It’s likely to be one of the last major releases for the handheld, as the evident success of the Switch will probably make it the sole focus for Nintendo in the new year.

It also marks the return of Yoshio Sakamoto, credited as the producer. The bulk of development was handled by MercuryStream – also the developers for the rebooted Castlevania series. The company’s passion for Metroid was made clear in the lead-up to launch, as stories surfaced of their rejected Metroid Fusion remake, along with a prototype game for the Wii U.

A lot of passion can be seen even in the intro sequence to Samus Returns. A text-based prologue is complemented by drawn images of the highest detail, enhanced with 3D. Samus’ landing is also a treat to watch, as the cutscene is backed by her dramatic theme tune. It’s a familiar feeling – last experienced too long ago – refreshed by the new art direction.

Speaking of which, Samus Returns does away with the pixel-art of previous 2D games, the last of which was Zero Mission way back in 2004. It opts instead for ‘2.5D’ by using rendered models rather than sprites, creating a 3D environment that’s wonderfully enhanced by the console’s stereoscopic feature. The charm of pixel-art is unavoidably lost, but 3D rendering brings lots of possibilities that the developers have capitalised on.

Several boss enemies utilise the 3D space, and the short action sequence that triggers after a successful melee counter shifts the camera to a more cinematic angle. The backgrounds also benefit from the new style, adding a new layer of depth and liveliness. The Metroid series already has fantastic games that use a pixel-art style, and popular fan-game Another Metroid 2 Remake even used this; using the 2.5D technique immediately makes Samus Returns unique.

While the visuals take a new direction, the audio is standard Metroid fare. The sound design is of the high quality that players have come to expect, and the soundtrack is gorgeous. Classic Metroid tracks by Kenji Yamamoto and Minako Hamono have been remixed, although they rightfully restrain to only a few old favourites. New tracks are arranged by Daisuke Matsuoka. The music is subdued and suitably atmospheric, with intense pieces enhancing the brutal boss fights. It’s a shame the 3DS speakers don’t capture the quality, but using headphones will fix that.

For those unfamiliar with the plot of Metroid II, bounty hunter Samus Aran has been sent to the planet SR388 to eradicate the Metroid species once and for all. There are 40 Metroids to defeat, and they grow stronger as Samus travels deeper. Each area is inhabited by a specific amount of Metroids that need to be destroyed before the next area becomes accessible.

There are several ‘stages’ of life that Metroids go through, starting with the simple Alpha Metroid, before later Metroids evolve and become more advanced. The revamped designs look fantastic, and the H.R. Giger influence on the series remains clear. Some Zeta Metroids appear in a fashion that wouldn’t look out of place in an Alien movie.

There’s an issue with some of the earlier Metroid forms that carries over from the original: they are battled multiple times throughout the game, and it can feel tedious fighting yet another Alpha Metroid when so many have already been defeated. In defence of this, the early Metroids could be considered elite enemies rather than true bosses; once the player has a grasp on the proceedings, taking one down is a quick task. The Metroid counter is still a unique mechanic in the Metroid series, and seeing the number drop after killing a Metroid is always satisfying. However, Metroids aren’t the only major enemy this time, and there’s bound to be a few moments that will catch even veterans by surprise.

The original Game Boy game was limited by the technology of 1991. Samus Returns improves in so many ways that it might as well be considered a new game, were it not for the same plot outline. The bounty hunter’s arsenal has been bolstered by many power-ups introduced later in the series, such as the Power Bomb, Screw Attack, and Super Missile. New to this game are the Aeion abilities, which are collectively powered by a single Aeion meter. These four abilities help Samus in various ways, from providing intense rapid-fire to activating invincibility for a few hits. The Scan Pulse, which reveals breakable blocks and nearby rooms, is entirely optional but will likely be needed at some point. The Aeion abilities are integrated into the classic “Metroidvania” formula. Areas need to be revisited once more abilities are found, and the genre’s standard backtracking is thankfully mollified by teleportation hubs, sparsely scattered around the planet as a form of fast travel.

Controlling Samus herself is mostly solid. Free-aim mode is a welcome addition as Samus can aim with precision. Partly because of this, movement is now mapped to the control stick rather than the D-Pad. This can’t be changed, as Aeion abilities are selected with the D-Pad instead. Samus only moves at one set speed, so it feels like the D-Pad could have been made an option for movement if Aeion selection was re-mapped to the control stick or touchscreen. It feels slightly awkward to quickly double-tap the control stick down to enter Morph Ball form, but it’s a very minor irritation, and Morph Ball form can also be entered by tapping the touchscreen.

Otherwise, Samus runs and guns with high responsiveness. The animation is great, particularly in the cutscenes and counter attacks on bosses. The design brief seems to have included the need to make Samus look as cool as possible, and that has definitely been achieved.

The map lives on the touchscreen, so players have a live view of it as they play. Pins can be placed on the map to mark important areas to revisit later. It’s probably the best decision the developers could have made with the touchscreen, as it doesn’t affect the pacing.

The sheer amount of power-ups, and the capability to use Aeion powers simulataneously, may suggest that Samus becomes overpowered. However, the inhabitants of SR388 are a force to be reckoned with, keeping up with Samus as she strengthens. Samus Returns is a tough game – even on Normal difficulty – but it’s not unfair. Boss enemies hit hard, and common enemies become problematic when attacking in numbers. This prevents the melee counter from being too strong, as the player has to consider when to use it. Larger enemies rarely open themselves up for a melee counter, which makes a successful attempt all the more satisfying. The melee counter can also finish off frozen enemies, which leads to a nice variety of attack options for the player.

Due to the nature of the mission, previous areas are only revisited for items. Despite this, Samus Returns is far from linear even for those uninterested in collecting everything (though it is recommended as it unlocks more content). Areas can be deviously labyrinthine, but the Metroidvania formula of locked doors and looping paths keeps it from getting too overwhelming. Metroids hide in nooks and crannies across the map, although finding them is made slightly easier with the new Metroid tracker. Even with upgrades, some items hide at the end of puzzle rooms, or through obstacles that may only be passed by a particular technique. Sometimes it’s not just about having the right abilities, but knowing how to use them in order to win the prize. Exploration is Metroid’s prime appeal, and this game utilises puzzle sections to complement the action and sense of discovery.

That’s what makes Samus Returns so satisfying to play. It’s been over ten years since the last 2D Metroid game, and this effort is a brilliant mix of action, atmosphere, puzzle-solving, and exploration. The 3D-rendered graphics don’t look quite as pretty as 2D, and while there are minor grievances with the controls and repeated Metroid battles, it’s otherwise a solid entry for the series and a character that deserves to be in the spotlight again. With Metroid Prime 4 still to come on the Nintendo Switch, the franchise appears to have found new strength. Samus Aran has returned, and she’ll hopefully stay for a while.

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