Metroid Dread is more than the resurrection of a format that had been dormant for nineteen years; it is the coming of an adventure whose hands-off approach to map navigation and sharpness in design make it a worthy successor to the classic that is Super Metroid
As it usually happens when a considerable period of time separates two events that are somewhat related, one could put together a large list of changes that have occurred in that span to drive home the point that Metroid Dread is the first new sidescrolling entry of the saga in quite a while. Its direct predecessor hit the market in 2002, and the nineteen years that stand between that date and the arrival of Metroid Dread allowed the world to mutate into an entirely different place; to give a couple of basic examples, it should suffice to say that when Nintendo fans last got a chance to go through an original 2-D adventure as Samus Aran, the most popular social networks of 2021 were at best wild ideas in the minds of their creators and smartphones existed in a rudimentary format but were an alien concept to most human beings. Of course those are pretty considerable shifts, but when it comes to discussing Metroid itself, they are not specially relevant; yet, since gaming has certainly not stood still during these two decades, the industry in which Nintendo’s science-fiction franchise exists has also undergone some massive transformations.
To Metroid in particular, the most significant novelty that heroine Samus Aran encounters as she suits up for a sidescroller once again is the fact that the genre she essentially pioneered has gone from barren to crowded. In 2002, when Metroid Fusion was published, non-linear action-adventure quests that unfolded across a map of fully connected levels were a rarity. As such, the series’ gameplay was inherently unique and the very structure on which it stood was refreshing; in other words, no other property delivered what Metroid did. In 2021, though, the gaming universe is radically different, and after having taken advantage of the fact the ruler of the genre had been missing in action for a while, various franchises have rushed in to fill the void left in the wake of Samus’ disappearance.
Notably, that movement towards exploration and non-linearity has been so frequent among independent studios that arguments and even jokes could be made about the format becoming cliched. However, the phenomenon has been largely positive because it has generated a handful of classics (be them indie or not) that have used their clear Metroid inspirations as the trampoline to original ideas, including the deep stealth mechanics of Batman: Arkham Asylum, the brutal navigation of the gigantic Hollow Knight, the swift acrobatics of Ori, the mix of beat ‘em up goodness with platforming sharpness of Guacamelee, and the gauntlet of Dead Cells. With these and a few other rivals having emerged during its nineteen-year break, Metroid Dread appears with two clear goals in mind: to prove that the franchise that originated it all can keep up with its offspring and to revitalize the property to the point this fifth installment in the main Metroid saga does not come off as a mere regurgitation of the ideas that its predecessors already exposed.
Metroid Dread begins working on those tasks via a solid introduction that is quite true to the series’ minimalistic approach to story. After an opening that quickly goes through main events of the past four games, players see Samus receive some pretty shocking news. The dangerous X parasite that she had seemingly exterminated in Metroid Fusion resurfaces when the Galactic Federation receives an anonymous video showing a specimen in the wild. Tracing the transmission to planet ZDR and aware of the threat the organism poses to all lifeforms, they send a squad of elite robots to investigate; unfortunately, soon afterwards, contact with the machines is mysteriously lost. The federation, then, turns to Samus, who became immune to the parasite in Metroid Fusion. Warned of the danger by her ship’s computer, Adam, she arrives in ZDR alone, takes an elevator to the planet’s depth, and is brutally attacked by an unknown figure. Driven to within an inch of death, she wakes up without any of her abilities and with the quick way to the surface destroyed. All she can do is take the long path upwards whilst trying to survive.
It is a familiar starting point for any Metroid aficionado, but it is one that – nevertheless – comes with a great deal of relief. After all, the two most recent entries in the saga, Metroid Prime 3: Corruption as well as Metroid: Other M, fairly received criticism from fans due to how they featured excessive meddling from external sources, which stepped into the adventure to give Samus a helping hand. By stranding the bounty hunter in an extremely precarious position in a hostile planet that houses a major threat that can easily cut her to pieces when it all starts, Metroid Dread reveals that it has listened to feedback and that it understands one of the key aspects that makes the franchise click is its ominous sense of danger and isolation. Because although Samus sure knows how to solve problems that full armies could not handle, that ability often leads her to be in situations where she is alone and where all odds are stacked against her.
In spite of featuring an old-school setup that recalls the minimalism of Super Metroid, the game is not afraid to take some steps towards a more developed kind of narrative. Consequently, in that sense, Metroid Dread builds up on the punctual dialogues brought to the table by Metroid Fusion; therefore having a slightly bigger emphasis on eventual plot developments than even that game and showcasing a firmer belief that as non-linear and lonely as they may be, Samus’ quests can still be vehicles for a dose of storytelling. What that means is that in a handful of pivotal moments in the adventure players will be greeted with nicely produced and voiced cutscenes that reveal major plot points. And although it is true the script is not flawless, it is a hit in many ways, because it is entertaining enough to be interesting all the way through, it packs some memorable scenes, it manages not to be excessively intrusive, it enriches the experience, it adds solid lore to the property’s universe, and it proves sidescrolling Metroid games can have a relatively thick plot.
A successful endeavor in storytelling, though, would have gone to waste if Metroid Dread did not deliver the goods in gameplay. Thankfully, this is yet another front on which it seems developers MercurySteam and Nintendo chose to listen to what fans had been saying in relation to the most recent installments of the franchise. Although generally beloved, both Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption were met with reservations over what was perceived to be too much guidance and linearity. The same types of comments were aimed at the mostly disliked Metroid: Other M, which on top of guiding players down a predetermined path also had Samus following orders. After so many sequential outings where the tasty unguided exploration of Super Metroid seemed lost forever, Metroid Dread feels like a true return to form because it resurrects that hands-off approach.
The term that best summarizes Metroid Dread is old-school. Yes, this is a game that, fortunately, boasts a lot of traits that are associated with modern gaming. Its boss battles are preceded and followed by epic cutscenes. Dying to one of these big bad guys sends Samus back to the entrance of the room rather than to the last save point that she used, which diminishes frustration. And the world map, which is an asset that in Metroid games is as essential as health itself, is filled with helpful details that include a flashing light surrounding rooms where undiscovered items lie, the type of door or block that is stopping the heroine from progressing in areas that have already been visited, and even the ability to highlight icons of a certain kind; all of which greatly contribute for one to be able to collect all available optional upgrades without a guide. However, mixed with all of that is an adventure whose heart seems to have been transplanted straight out of the 32-bit era.
Starting from the moment players gain control of Samus after she is attacked deep in the bowels of ZDR, at no point whatsoever will the game tell one where to go. Metroid Dread is an experience with no blinking markers, no signposts, and no clues. Samus may talk to Adam from time to time, but the computer never gives her any specific directions. Even the map stations themselves have been nicely toned down, revealing just a very vague outline of each region’s area rather than the contours of every individual room. As if suddenly aware this is a property that mostly appeals to the very core of their fanbase, the one that has been longing for a quest with minimal to no hand-holding, Nintendo has gone ahead and fulfilled those desires, making Metroid Dread the most significant slice of old-school greatness the company has delivered in more than two decades.
The essential gameplay of Metroid Dread should be familiar to anyone who has played either a title of the franchise or one of its various recent offspring. Controlling a character that at first has no skills other than jumping and shooting, players must explore their surroundings, deal with enemies, go through minor platforming challenges, and overcome environmental hazards to increase that arsenal bit by bit. Whenever a new ability is gained, it is up to one to do some more exploration – or look at the map – to figure out where that tool can be used to open up a new path forward, creating an endless cycle of discovery that makes the large and fully connected world unfold progressively and become more complex by the hour.
In more than one way, this basic gameplay loop is brimming with many of the franchise’s staples. Aside from a few additions, a couple of which have rather important uses, the skills Samus must recover include all classic pieces of her arsenal, like the Morph Ball, which lets her access tight spaces, and the Varia Suit, which protects her against the heat. Furthermore, and more importantly, Metroid Dread is filled with the wonderful comings and goings fans expect out of a bona fide Metroid game. Firstly, feeling lost after having acquired a new item and having to analyze the map in order to think about where to go next is an occurrence that all players will encounter, regardless of their experience with the saga. Secondly, with one exception, none of the many areas of ZDR will be completed in Samus’ first trip into them, meaning that players will always have to come back to previously visited zones with new powers to gain access to mandatory rooms that were originally impossible to reach.
Aligned with the title’s wise choice not to partake in any sort of hand-holding, those two characteristics do wonders to define Metroid Dread. Within the franchise itself, the game ends up aligned with the more non-linear and hands-off entries, like the original NES ouring, the iconic Super Metroid, and the first two Metroid Prime chapters. In the now overpopulated gameplay style it basically founded, meanwhile, those traits have a similar effect since most contemporary examples of the genre usually feature some kind of guidance and only light backtracking due to how they tend to tackle the zones that make up their world one by one, just proceeding to another after wrapping one up with a big boss battle. Therefore, Metroid Dread could have easily called it a day and taken advantage of the nineteen-year separation between itself and Metroid Fusion to make a splash as the resurrection of a beloved series. Nonetheless, smartly assessing that property rebirths that come with no major progress attached to them are highly likely come off as lazy, MercurySteam and Nintendo carve a firmer personality for Metroid Dread by aiming for some heart-pounding fear.
Truthfully, a degree of horror is not anything new to the franchise. For starters, starring a character who stands alone in hostile alien planets that are sure to have ominous threats, all Metroid games produce feelings that fall somewhere in the neighborhood of fear, even if they rarely hit that particular emotion directly. Moreover, keenly perceiving that essence, Metroid Fusion had already set out to more strongly explore the possibilities that existed within that realm by famously having the bounty hunter punctually come across an invincible and deadly copy of herself at predetermined rooms that led to her immediate demise in case she failed to hide on time.
In a way, Metroid Dread – like its predecessor – also chooses to give special attention to the aura of tension that quietly lies in the background of every Metroid game. However, the nature of what it comes up with in that search for suspense is far more developed, prominent, and full-fledged than what was achieved in Metroid Fusion. And because of that, this Nintendo Switch effort emerges like the fully realized version of a vision that excellent Game Boy Advance title sought to materialize.
In Metroid Dread, the segments of thrill are created with the aid of the scientific machines sent to ZDR by the Galactic Federation: the Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifier, or E.M.M.I. As it turns out, the reason the governing body of Samus’ universe lost contact with those robots is that they have mysteriously gone rogue. To make matters worse, in the process, they appear to have developed quite an affinity for tracking down the heroine and using their built-in gigantic needle – originally employed to extract DNA from local lifeforms – to brutally murder her. As a consequence, besides the usual troubles she has to overcome in her missions, Samus will also have to deal with being chased by killer robots.
The E.M.M.I. are neither infinite nor omnipresent: there is a total of seven of them, with each one roaming a specific zone of ZDR. Additionally, they are not free to walk everywhere: their movement is limited to areas clearly delineated by special doors. Nevertheless, they are quite a threat.
Once Samus enters a part of the map that houses one of these ferocious mechs, players will need to be extra careful with what they do. Keeping an eye on the mini-map on the upper right corner of the screen is vital because if the E.M.M.I. is in the vicinity it will be shown as a large red dot. On top of that, given abrupt movement produces noise, which in turn lures the robot, trying not to make too much of a racket is key. If the bounty hunter is detected, a chase will ensue, and Samus will be unable to leave the E.M.M.I. area until she manages to lose it. In case she is caught, death is almost certain, as the only way to escape the machine’s grip is by pressing the counter button as a red light flashes; and given the triggering of that event is essentially randomized, it is nigh impossible to learn how to time the action properly.
In nature, the E.M.M.I. are a pretty straightforward feature. In practical terms, throwing them into the mix of an old-school Metroid game is an endeavor that comes with numerous challenges. Here is a franchise that has always thrived on meticulous exploration as well as frequent backtracking; yet, right in the middle of all portions of its world there will be large zones where the focus will shift from looking around calmly to getting away as quickly as possible. Clearly, that could dent the flow of gameplay. In addition, there is the matter of level design, because areas built for stealth and chase are naturally quite different from rooms constructed for a non-linear action-adventure like Metroid; therefore, one has to wonder if the two concepts are able to gel seamlessly. These are worries that are by all means justified, but both MercurySteam and Nintendo seem to have been aware of those pitfalls from the start because Metroid Dread is designed with enough care not to fall into them.
Yes, the E.M.M.I. zones have particularities in their overall design. After all, they have to be more open – offering Samus various routes to escape – and present tight corners where she can hide by using the Phantom Cloak, a new skill that makes her temporarily invisible and is very helpful to elude the machines as long as the heroine stands still to avoid making noise. Yet, their general construction feels smoothly integrated with the rest of the world. To boot, dealing with the robots and going through their stomping grounds does not detract from the traditional exploration and backtracking; in fact, aside from infusing a unique gameplay twist into the fabric of what is an old-school Metroid, the whole process of dealing with the E.M.M.I. actually adds to the flow of the adventure.
The reason for that is that the E.M.M.I. can be disabled, and doing so with every one of them is part of the mandatory path towards the game’s finish line given every downed robot will give Samus a new skill. Taking them down, though, is not easily done, as the process requires locating their control unit, destroying it, absorbing a large amount of power, and then using that boost to unleash a barrage of shots that will expose the core of the E.M.M.I., which can then be basted to oblivion. Needless to say, this chain of actions is weaved into the quest’s natural progression since it entails exploration and backtracking, hence adding to the meat of the game. On top of that, because every E.M.M.I. has a special behavior (with encounters getting progressively harder) and due to how firing the mighty canon at them demands a solid amount of space, these duels end up featuring a bit of puzzle solving as players attempt to figure out a way to position themselves to land the killing blasts.
Overall, there is plenty to like about the E.M.M.I. Before they are destroyed, their zones have a menacing grainy visual filter. Their AI is rather clever. Their animation is quite creepy, as they alternate between standing on two legs and crawling wildly according to the terrain. Running as well as hiding from them is a thrill. The random chance to escape from their clutches is smartly implemented because it gives players a shot at getting away without letting them master the move to the point the E.M.M.I. become useless. Being killed by them is not too frustrating because Samus always immediately respawns by the door she took to enter the area. And ultimately crushing them is incredibly satisfying because other than the fact they are disturbing menaces, getting to freely roam through the whole region without the risk of instant death is a joy.
Another notable aspect of Metroid Dread that stands out when compared to other 2-D titles of the saga happens to be how smoothly Samus moves across the screen. Sure, given the gap in technology between the Switch and the platforms that housed past sidescrolling Metroids, the comparison is not exactly fair. Yet, even if the franchise has usually done fine in this regard, with a few minor choices from Metroid: Other M being the exception, it is unavoidable to say that controlling the bounty hunter has never felt so wonderful, to the point Metroid Dread easily ranks as one of the best implementations of movement ever seen in a sidescroller.
It is not just that Samus is rather speedy, hence making traversing the long distances of the large world a breeze; it is also that built into her arsenal are a trio of skills that make movement more stylish than usual. Firstly, there is the counter, which had already been implemented by MercurySteam in Samus Returns to mixed results. Allowing players to timely press the X button to block flashing attacks from foes before blasting them to pieces, here it makes a comeback in a more balanced form since its usage is now mostly optional. Secondly, there is the dash, which gives the character newfound flexibility to evade incoming blows, lending her a touch of the fast movement often found in action heroes. And thirdly there is the slide, which lets the heroine quickly squeeze through small gaps without having to stop and activate the Morph Ball.
Nowhere are the benefits brought by Samus’ newfound nimbleness more evident than in the game’s many boss battles, which are surprisingly fast-paced. Aided by them, Metroid Dread builds a creative collection of big bad monsters that outshines those of every previous sidescroller of the saga. True to the tradition of 2-D Metroid games, these creatures demand the usage of a whole lot of missiles to be taken down; however, drinking straight from the Prime series, they sport a varied range of attacks that truly test players’ mastery over Samus’ abilities and the chance to heavily damage them sometimes only comes up after performing sequential actions to reveal weak spots. Furthermore, on news that should be a delight to those who appreciate a challenge, there is not a single boss that does not qualify as a challenge; and considering all of them have one or two attacks capable of depleting an entire energy tank in one hit, they not only force players to learn their patterns correctly, but they may also push some to go back and look for energy upgrades before trying again.
Both newcomers and veterans can encounter flaws in Metroid Dread. Given this is the hardest game Nintendo has put out in many years, the former group might be frustrated by the very fair – yet pronounced – difficulty, and, to address that, the title could have had an easy mode. Meanwhile, the latter crowd may point out small moments of uncertain level design, such as a few largely minoritarian occasions when Metroid Dread blocks paths to funnel players down a certain road or when it uses a couple of teleport devices to transition between locations.
In a more general sense other issues might arise. The E.M.M.I. sections are likely to be divisive due to their nature. The soundtrack is decent in its atmospheric leanings, but falters when coming up with remarkable melodies. The game’s environments are great from a technical standpoint and varied to a degree, including a fantastic underground forest and an ominous underwater facility, but the fact sterile labs are used too frequently can cause one to wish for a little more variety. The twelve hours (between fifteen and twenty for full completion) it should take for one to finish the adventure may be perceived by some to be too little even if they fall right within the average length of the genre, with Hollow Knight and its twenty-hour journey being the point out of the curve. The usage of quick-time events to finish off a couple of specific mini-bosses can generate frustration in case players fail to time button presses correctly only to be thrown back into the fight with the enemy having a small part of its health restored. And a couple of Samus’ skills could have been better mapped in the joystick, with the grappling hook being an obvious choice since three buttons have to be pressed in order to trigger it.
Yet, the fact all of these problems are either nitpicks or largely dependent on one’s perception should, when weighed against the title’s vastly more numerous and significant qualities, be quite telling of the excellence in design that permeates the whole of the quest. Metroid Dread is more than the resurrection of a format that had been dormant for nineteen years; it is the coming of an adventure whose hands-off approach to map navigation and sharpness in design make it a worthy successor to the classic that is Super Metroid, even going as far as vastly outpacing it in fluidity of movement and boss design. And since the game also finds the time to push the series towards new grounds by seamlessly weaving thrilling chase sequences into the saga’s signature exploration and backtracking, it should be no wonder many will look at it as the peak for sidescrolling Metroid.
All in all, there are points that could have been improved, but Metroid Dread is a rare combination of Nintendo’s usual nearly untouchable level of polish and design cleverness with old-school gaming staples like brutally challenging bosses and the absence of any sort of handholding. In other words, it is precisely what devoted fans of the property had been waiting for. Meanwhile, to those outside that tight circle, the quest works to prove that even if the genre the franchise originated is now overpopulated by efforts that used its basics as a trampoline to various creative ideas, the presence of this pioneering saga remains essential. After all, although its offspring have done quite well in carrying the torch, the truth is no other game delivers the type of experience found in Metroid. And for that reason, it is absolutely delightful to have it return in such a spectacular shape. All players can do now is hope that, this time around, Samus has come back with the intention of sticking around for good.