No game could have possibly made up for the thirteen years that went by without a new Metroid sidescroller, but Samus Returns is as close as Nintendo could have gotten to total redemption
Nintendo’s fondness for looking back on the company’s treasured past and reviving many of its classics by bringing them to the latest consoles has had both negative and positive outcomes. On one hand, there have been titles whose releases preceded their remakes by such a short period of time that little to no value was gained with the use of new technology, as it was the case with the remastered versions of the Zelda franchise’s The Wind Waker and Twilight Princess. On the other hand, there have been efforts whose releases lied so far back in the history books of gaming that a revival of their gameplay worked towards not only putting it in the hands of new generations of gamers but also vastly improving the original experience, as it has occurred with many of the remakes of the Pokemon property.
Given it was put on store shelves back in 1991, and since it was constructed on a console (the Game Boy) that lacked colors as well as a solid amount of buttons, any attempt to reconstruct Metroid II: Return of Samus on recent hardware would naturally have great chances of being filed under the brightest spectrum of Nintendo remakes. Additionally, as the Metroid franchise, which has historically been responsible for many of Nintendo’s finest sidescrolling moments, had spent an unjustifiably long amount of time without a 2-D release, which had not happened since 2004’s Metroid: Zero Mission (a remake of the game that introduced the series to the world), the impact and reception caused by such an endeavor would naturally be greatly amplified by a fanbase that had gone through more than a decade lying in wait for a new opportunity to dive back into a 2-D version of the Metroid universe.
Due to those reasons, it is easy to see why Metroid: Samus Returns (the rebranded 3DS remake of Metroid II) is so excellent: firstly, it gives a masterpiece that was limited by its original platform’s hardware room to breathe and to grow, hence making it universally appealing to both younger and older gamers; secondly, it quenches the thirst of an audience that was dying for a new Metroid sidescroller. The greatness of Metroid: Samus Returns, however, is not solely a product of the context in which it is inserted; it stems from how Nintendo and MercurySteam are able to capture the uniqueness of Metroid II while adding the right amount of new flavors and improvements to make the remake justifiable from more than a technological standpoint.
In Metroid, Samus had traveled to the planet Zebes to fight the Space Pirates, which represented a major threat to the galaxy due to their experiments with the titular jellyfish-like creatures, whose resistance and ability to suck energy out of living beings made them a powerful bioweapon. With the evil group seemingly out of the question, and the Space Pirates’ headquarters on Zebes blown to pieces by an armored woman who packs a greater punch than a considerably sized army, the attention of the Galactic Federation turned towards SR388: the planet on which the Metroid originated and where the final specimens of the organisms are found. However, the first squadrons sent to investigate SR388’s surface go missing, and the task of scanning the planet while exterminating all remaining Metroid falls on the shoulders of Samus.
What follows is the traditional genre-defining Metroid gameplay. Armed with nothing but a weak laser beam, Samus arrives on SR388 and must – on her own, and with no external help – explore its numerous regions to accomplish her mission; as she does so, she will slowly encounter pieces of equipment that will give her suit new powers which will, in turn, allow her to reach previously inaccessible areas. The world is, therefore, a puzzle in itself, and it is up to players to figure out how to slowly gain access to all regions of SR388’s complex web of tunnels in order to find the Metroid.
Metroid: Samus Returns, however, has some quirks of its own, a fact that makes it somewhat unique when compared to the sidescrollers that represent the pure and classic Metroid gameplay: namely, the original game and Super Metroid. While some of its defining traits come from the source material on top of which it is built (Metroid II), others are new ideas implemented by Nintendo and MercurySteam. And those two sets of elements come together to form quite an experience.
Metroid II was a game that presented a very clear progression path. In Metroid and Super Metroid, Samus often transited back and forth between the various different areas of Zebes during the natural development of her quest: a region was not completely cleared before she moved onto the next one, and returning to previously visited areas was inevitable, as the whole map was solved in conjunction little by little. Metroid II, however, shifts that perspective: the surface level on which Samus first arrives leads to Area 1, which in turn has a path to Area 2, which has an elevator shaft that goes into Area 3, and so forth until the furthest depths of the planet.
All connections between the areas of Samus Returns are blocked by mysterious portals and pools of poison, which are only drained when all Metroid of the current area (whose total is displayed on the portal) are eliminated. Therefore, it is possible to say Samus Returns is a far more linear than its peers, as an area must be completely explored and freed from Metroid before the next one can be reached; yet, even though there is a great degree of linearity in the way the map is progressively unfolded, the exploration that occurs within each area is anything but straightforward.
Differently from most modern Metroid games, which have the tendency of telling players where to go next via markers on the map, Samus Returns – true to its old-school roots – does not do any of that. As Samus gets to a new area, she will quickly encounter the portal, which will then show how many Metroid exist in the region. Following that, there are no signs whatsoever indicating where the creatures are: a delightful turn that leaves it up to players to find ways to move around the place, slowly uncover the map, and analyze the explored areas looking for doors that have not been opened or shafts that could lead to new places where the Metroid may be.
It is not an easy task. First of all, because the map of Samus Returns is gigantic. Nintendo and MercurySteam preserve the general structure of SR388, but they do so while adding elements, puzzles, details, and making pretty much everything bigger and more complex, giving birth – in the process – to what is by a comfortable margin the largest world to ever appear on a 2-D Metroid. Secondly, because the Metroid, the other creatures of the planet, and the environmental hazards are simply out to kill Samus: not only are they very aggressive, but the damage they do is quite considerable, transforming death into a rather commonplace event; turning the optional quest for extra energy tanks, missiles, and bombs into a necessity; and easily making Samus Returns qualify as the hardest game of the saga alongside Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.
The size and difficulty of Samus Returns, however, never become frustrating. The former is alleviated by numerous teleport stations located throughout the regions; a true blessing and an absolutely perfect addition when one considers how the linear structure of the connections between areas would make traveling between Area 1 and Area 8 into a nightmarish chore. The latter, meanwhile, is treated via checkpoints; in Samus Returns, boss encounters are common, as each of the forty Metroid found on SR388 works as a boss battle. Differently from what happens in other Metroid games, though, where being defeated means returning to the last save station that was used, in Samus Returns the character is sent back to the entrance of the room where the Metroid is located, easing the misery of failure and allowing players to retry the combat right away.
The only pain point that is found in the thrilling Metroid encounters surfaces in how some have the tendency to, more than once, move to other rooms when heavily damaged. It is a habit that adds the chore of going back and forth between two or three places and tracking down the Metroid to the already difficult battles. Moreover, it may force players to go through that process many times if they do not succeed in killing the Metroid on their first attempt, consequently diminishing the sheer fun and exciting challenge of some of the battles.
With a total of forty Metroid encounters, one easy complaint to make about Samus Returns is that boss battles can lean towards the repetitive side. Truthfully, the Metroid are found in many different evolutionary states, and those mutations do add some variety to the quest. Still, in the midst of a series that is always so varied and iconic in terms of big bad guys, Samus Returns stands out in a negative way. With the knowledge that such a problem is inherent to the premise of Metroid II, Nintendo and MercurySteam pleasantly try to counter it by adding two excellent bosses to the game, one that aligns itself with the puzzle-like menaces of the Metroid Prime series, which require a lengthy process of different attacks and phases to be beaten; and one that resembles the classic bosses of the Metroid sidescrollers, featuring a focus on dodging an infernal arsenal of attacks and the timely use of missiles.
This new take on Metroid II gains an extra degree of novelty via other features as well. For the first time ever, Samus can perform a melee counterattack if players press the action’s button right when she is about to be hit. If the move lands, enemies will be left vulnerable for a short period of time, allowing her to blast them away quickly. That addition means that many of the game’s enemies (and bosses as well) will perform rush attacks that will send them towards Samus, which alters the usual Metroid gameplay flow to a certain level, as she is forced to stop on her tracks to react instead of simply firing away. The change, though, is not harmful; coming off as a nice little quirk.
Furthermore, as the adventure progresses, Samus will unlock a set of four Aeon Abilities, which – when activated – slowly consume a specific energy bar. With those, she can slow down time, transform her arm canon into a rapid-firing gun, protect herself with a shield, or use a pulse to scan the environment. The first three are nicely employed in many new puzzles or are necessary to face more powerful enemies; the pulse, meanwhile, is incredibly useful to reveal unexplored areas or hidden items, unveiling all portions of the map that are within a four-block range off Samus.
Like Metroid and Super Metroid, Metroid II enjoys hiding rooms and optional items behind breakable walls that do not visually indicate they are frail; as such, the scan is a great addition that lets players seek full completion of the game without either the aid of a guide or the need to bomb every inch of the game’s environment. The challenge of getting to the places that the scan reveals or of clearing the puzzles that lock items away still exists; the scan represents a helping hand that lets players know there are secrets to be found in the area and does not take away from the exploration that has always been such an integral part of the franchise, as its effect is limited to the area that is immediately around Samus.
The final changes brought by Samus Returns when compared to Metroid II come from the hardware improvements. Thanks to the 3DS’ analog stick, Samus can aim in all directions whenever the L-button is pressed. Visually, the interminable similar-looking caves of Metroid II have been dressed up in distinct themes, with rocks and more barren regions being alternated with labs, temples, and abundant nature; and have gained great depth with details stretching far onto the background. More importantly, however, the scenarios tell a story; one that is related to the extra lore regarding SR388 and the origin of the Metroid species that Samus Returns adds to the saga. It is a successful case of visual storytelling, which falls into place when the 100% completion bonuses are revealed, giving purpose to all areas that Samus goes through. When it comes to the soundtrack, Samus Returns falls a bit short of the usual high Metroid standards; it excels in the sound effects, but in relation to the songs it always touches its peak when classic tunes are reused, as the new compositions do not leave much of a mark.
Through updates, changes, and additions, Metroid: Samus Returns qualifies as an excellent remake of a classic adventure that had remained for way too long stuck in the black-and-white limitations of the Game Boy. In size and challenge, it sets new standards for the 2-D games of the saga; and all extra collectibles (which can extend the adventure to fifteen hours), additional difficulty modes, and speed-running and sequence-breaking opportunities make it an infinitely replayable adventure. No game could have possibly made up for the thirteen years that went by without a new Metroid sidescroller, but Samus Returns is as close as Nintendo could have gotten to total redemption. It is a remake the franchise as well as its fans needed, and the company has delivered.