Reviewed on Nintendo 3DS*
Despite being the brainchild of Gunpei Yokoi, the man responsible for the original Metroid game as well as the original designer of the Gameboy, Metroid II: Return of Samus bears the unmistakable brand of an outcast. Released in 1991 for Nintendo’s first handheld the direct sequel sought to expand the Metroid universe both literally and symbolically with a plot that traces all the way back to the birthplace of the titular Metroids. Though well received by critics the ambitions of the game couldn’t quite be satiated by the capabilities of the handheld and the end result was a thoughtful but drab looking game that would go on to be eclipsed in relevance entirely the following year by Super Metroid, the mostly unquestioned peak of the franchise to date.
It’s an understandable, if unfair, treatment of a fascinating game that attempted something unique in the genre; a quiet, thought-provoking action game that looked to evoke desperation and loss rather than adrenaline. Metroid II had already spurred several fan remakes by the time this reimagining, a joint venture between Nintendo and MercurySteam, surfaced at 2017’s E3 and the end result, Metroid: Samus Returns for the 3DS is a fun if tonal misread of its source material.
The 2D Metroid have always adopted the ‘show don’t tell’ style of storytelling, conveying just enough emotion and information about the world so that players’ minds may fill in the gaps. It’s an approach that works extremely well for both the subtle horrors of the Metroid universe and the technically limited means of using pixel art. Samus Returns tries for the same feeling but doesn’t leave any gaps; between gaudy cutscenes and a “fully realised” version of SR388, there isn’t any room for interpretation. There’s an overtly dark tone to the plot, a tale about the intersection between genocide, colonisation and the hubris of man; having lost contact with a research team sent to the Metroid’s home planet, The Galactic Federation enlist bounty hunter Samus Aran to finally end the parasitic race. Once the initial promise of this setup slips away into the dark depths of SR388 players are left with the banal quest to hunt down X number of Metroid, one of the few elements of the original game that is staggeringly left untouched.
While the core premise of the original remains intact the reimagining makes some drastic departures with the gameplay and mostly for the better. Decades of innovation have resulted in a Samus that controls like an extension of the player, with swift movement and deadly accuracy. Several alterations to the Metroid combat formula are implemented here, including the ability to hang from ledges and acquiring power-ups earlier for a more fulfilling action experience. For the first time in a 2D entry, Samus has the ability to plant herself still and aim in a full 360-degree ark, emitting a laser sight that changes colour when connecting with an enemy, even ones off-screen.
The most contentious addition to combat is the inclusion of a melee counterattack. Almost all enemies will telegraph their intentions with a flash of light and a sharp sound (A sound you too will grow to hate), indicating when to slam the X button to make Samus swing an uppercut, deflecting the incoming attack and stunning the enemy. It’s not a bad mechanic, quite the opposite, but it does drastically alter the flow of exploration and combat, unintentionally resulting in Samus plodding along waiting for enemies to repeat attack patterns rather than blasting her way through immediately.
Samus Returns also adds Aeion abilities into the mix, a kind of space magic arsenal that make combat and exploration easier on the whole. The scan pulse is sure to be the one that divides fans the most; activating it will send out a kind of sonar wave around Samus, temporarily revealing undiscovered parts of the map and any destructible parts of the environment. It’s a welcome addition to those who don’t particularly feel like bombing surfaces inch by inch to try and progress but long-time fans of the series may find it to be an easy option, albeit an entirely optional one.
The remaining Aeion powers (a full body shield, time-bending movement and enhanced gun) are smartly incorporated into puzzle solving and combat but aren’t overly exciting changes. These abilities do alter the difficulty, which is already somewhat skewed; enemies deal massive amounts of damage but aren’t particularly smart, resulting in encounters that feel both too easy and unfair. The tight movement controls mean you are almost always responsible for whatever you get hit by but the damage ratios are never the less frustrating.
Mercurysteam have a way with the 3DS, utilising the system to produce some genuinely flawless animations. Crank the seldom-used 3D slider all the way up and the cavernous ruins take on a whole new layer of depth, stretching back as far as the eye can see. Samus moves through the world with outstanding fluidity, smoothly contorting into all manner of shapes as her arsenal of powers becomes more and more extravagant. Likewise, the later stage Metroids are menacingly lifelike, jaws and pincers clicking as they scuttle about the place, fevered in their defence of their homeworld.
SR388 is a planet of mythical proportions, the birthplace of the Metroids and a long lost race of avian beasts of war. It’s arguably the most compelling location to be explored in any of the Metroid titles, rich with a history that is rotting away in dark caverns, the unmistakable stench of death and tragedy imbued in the walls themselves. At least that’s what it should be; the reimagined version of the planet in Samus Returns is a much more sanitised place, lacking any kind of distinctive qualities. It’s an issue that plagues much of the games art direction, an uninspired reading of a rich lore that results in bland Sci-Fi looking fauna and creature designs.
That mishandling of the source material isn’t just in the art style either, as Samus Returns seems to fundamentally misunderstand the essence of a Metroid game. The corrosion is subtle at first; Samus poses suggestively in mid-air as time slows while she delivers the final blow to a boss, a glorification of action that is just shy of sexualisation. The ending of the game too is massively altered to be more in line with what Mercurysteam have interpreted Metroid to be about; I won’t spoil specifics but this reworking of the game’s climax drastically shifts the tone of the original and as a whole, the narrative suffers for it.
Samus Returns is also disadvantaged somewhat by releasing into a surprisingly crowded market.
Fuelled by Nintendo’s lack of support for the franchise, Milton Guasti and a team of dedicated fans set out to recreate Metroid II in the style of Metroid: Zero Mission, Nintendo’s own remake of the first game. After a decade of development and multiple hurdles AM2R: Return of Samus was finally released in 2017 to critical acclaim and, unsurprisingly, legal action by Nintendo. AM2R treats its source material with an almost religious veneration, altering gameplay only ever in service of the player’s convenience; it’s a phenomenal project and well worth seeking out.
Metroid: Samus Returns is executed well, with core mechanics that flourish and near impeccable use of an aged piece of hardware. It’s a solid little action title undercut by a fan-made remake of the same game and weakened by a developer’s misinterpretation of the source material. There is very little life imbued into it, a tonal misstep that almost entirely misses the point of what makes a Metroid game so special in the first place. A gem in the twilight of the 3DS, Samus Returns deserves to be played and appreciated in its own right, but those looking for a modern realisation of the depths of Metroid II will find little solace here.