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Metroid: Samus Returns – the alpha and omega of a series

After completing Metroid Prime I summarised the game as, “a good Metroid in 3D, but not a Super Metroid in 3D.” Of course, a Super Metroid in 3D would never happen. Metroid Prime was successful enough for the developers to not mess with the new formula and it culminated in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption. Effectively that game was “Zelda in Space”. Intricate skill challenges had been replaced with the high-density of instantly solved puzzles, previously Spartan mazes were filled to the brim with triggers and “things to do”, and the overpowered combat aspect was removed to feature more careful aiming and ammo conservation tactics.

The Prime branch had grown into a distinctly different beast compared to its 2D ancestors; a great game series in its own right, but even after the trilogy was completed the crazy holy grail of Super Metroid in 3D seemed farther away than ever. Nintendo had gutted any and all glitches with the potential to become abilities and skills for the branch, and a fear of alienating its newly found audience meant everything got spelled out. Puzzles were often nothing more than bringing a newly ability to the table. Applying them in a skilful way was almost frowned upon. If you were searching for challenges of those kind, then you might find one or two at the end of the game, always completely optional.

Classic branch

On the other end of the spectrum was the Super branch: Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Zero Mission took the bugs-turned-features of the older games and moulded them into distinctive parts of the game experience. That culminated in Zero Mission’s Horizontal Bomb Jumping and its infamous Chozodia Energy Tank. Picking up that item required an intricate knowledge and application of Shinesparking. And while Zero Mission had two distinctive routes built in – one for newcomers and one for veterans of the series – Samus’ repertoire was as complicated as it was big.

Maybe it had gotten a bit out of hand.

So, after the crazy pill that was Metroid: Other M – recasting Samus as a damsel in distress despite her abilities and a linear combat-heavy game that did away with most of the series’ hallmarks – and the misguided and misunderstood 30th anniversary gift that was Metroid Prime: Federation Force, Nintendo was in a bit of a pickle. Which of the two branches can finally launch the Metroid series next to Mario, Zelda and, cripes, even the likes of Kirby? After all, each of those series have now picked the bones clean of Metroid’s previous instalments. Breath of the Wild was even launched into the stratosphere for allowing creative use of skills and abilities to solve puzzles. By all accounts then, Metroid should be a tent pole for the company.

The answer then is Metroid: Samus Returns, a remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus on Nintendo 3DS. Metroid II was arguably the least popular instalment of the series until Other M Federation Force came along, yet incredibly influential at the same time. But hey, Zero Mission recast the very first game into a completely different daylight, so we can do that again right? Only now we have moved on a good twelve years since Zero Mission and there’s a whole new generation having nostalgic feelings.

Not towards Super Metroid, but towards Metroid Prime.

The result is ugly and beautiful at the same time (much like the Game Boy original). Gone is the Mega Man-like shoot ‘n jump style rhythm. Most enemies are either up in the sky or down on the ground, so aiming is a necessity. Which is performed with the same input as moving around: the Circle Pad. If you’re a veteran of the series this might make you feel uneasy. And sure enough for the first few hours (or roughly half the game) you’ll probably rage against it. It feels as if you are playing your favourite video game whilst wearing mittens. Sure you can play it, but why would you when there’s a fully functional and more direct directional pad on the device as well?

The aiming also creates a very harsh stop-start rhythm: most enemies require you to stand still and deal with them. Early on, the game introduces its hallmark parry counter ability, and while it looks cool and adds a bit of the (good!) dramatic flair of Other M to the game, it only emphasizes this rhythm. The game is completely infatuated with parry counter, and until you finally get the Ice Beam, it really, really wants you to use that to defeat enemies. Try anything else and you’ll be bleeding energy into many game over screens.

Samus VS. Alpha Metroid
Samus VS. Alpha Metroid

Defiant

It’s such a weird deviation from the traditional 2D Metroid experience that my initial feeling was one of disgust. This made no sense. It became even worse when classic 2D skills turned out to have been neutered once more: wall jumps worked differently and only in specific places, bomb jumps were made easier but didn’t give you any real advantage, the Charge Beam could still suck up items left behind by defeated enemies, but these already auto-gathered if you moved anywhere near them.

The puzzles and challenges are now very discreet. Gone is the careful analysation of the environment. Scanning around for that one bump in the ground that denoted a Shinespark opportunity or a subtle wall pattern that might indicate a hidden passage. Instead puzzles are now obviously signposted and walls and floors decorated accordingly. There’s now a sickeningly yellow paste slathered across surfaces that means you cannot use the Spider Ball to cling to it or use the wall jump to launch off of it. This already feels very “man-made” when you encounter it, but overcoming these challenges makes them even more artificial. The Super branch tried to sneak in power-ups at the least expected places making you appreciate the environment leading up to it, Samus Returns simply grabs your face with both hands and screams the solution at you.

Like the dungeons in the Zelda Oracle games, this slight adjustment means there’s not as much pleasure gained from solving or overcoming a challenge and often they become frustrating as the solution is abundantly clear, it’s just that the game doesn’t seem to cooperate, while in truth you need to perfect the sequence of actions. In the Super branch of games, these solutions usually aren’t clear, meaning that every time you do solve one or apply skilful actions, it feels like you are cheating the game out of one of its treasures. This also sums up the main difference between Zelda and Metroid: Zelda gives you a roadmap, Metroid lets you intuit the roadmap. Samus Returns is much more like Zelda in that respect.

And, with that in mind it becomes clear that Samus Returns was never meant to be a 2D Metroid. Never meant to be a sequel to Zero Mission in all but name. Never meant to be a remake of Metroid II. It was to be Metroid Prime rendered without the addition of a third dimension. Sure, it’s more 3D than ever thanks to the Nintendo hardware, but the game itself plays distinctively 2D. And once that influence becomes clear the rest slots into place. The start-stop rhythm, the focus on combat, the simplistic challenges. It’s a beautiful “Metroid in 3D” remade in 2D. It’s nostalgia for a new generation. As such Samus Returns forms both the alpha and omega of the series as a whole: doing away with the legacy of the 2D games and fully embracing the 3D games, creating a new 2D template in the process.

Odds and ends

Despite the game finding its groove and making holistic sense, it has made a few decisions that don’t sit right with me. First of all the graphics: there’s an incredible amount of care that visibly has gone into the 3D backgrounds, but it’s kind of wasted. Areas in the game as a result do not feel distinctive from each other. Water, lava and cavern environments can be found everywhere and the cues in the background that would tell you what this environment was used for, are lethal to pay attention to with the combat current pacing. It doesn’t help that the areas are literally numbered and the only way to keep them apart from each other in my mind was to look at their shape on the world map. It’s pretty much their only distinctive quality.

That theme, yes.
That theme, yes.

Music and sound as such is also a mixed bag. Literally lifting sound effects from Prime and Super at one hand, rearranging well-know tunes on the other. Special mention goes out to the Lower Norfair theme (known in Prime as Magmoor Caverns), whenever there’s lava around, and I truly mean every time there’s lava around, this bombastic death march will blare from the 3DS’ speakers. Which is utterly confusing as just about every area has zones containing lava. Maybe there was a conscious decision to evade the stereotypical fire world, ice world and plant world, but the result now is that everything is mixed and nothing stands out. Well, apart from one area near the end, which is pretty much the only one maintaining consistency.

Then finally, there are the Metroids themselves. The core game of Metroid II revolved around a large sprawling world where you had to hunt down the last Metroids alive. The planet was unknown hostile territory and you could bump into Metroids at every corner. Here, they are always properly signposted and are presented in their functions as keys to the next area way too literally (in much the same fashion as challenges are presented). They are often repeated, sometimes flavoured with an elemental attack, and sometimes made frustrating by running away and playing hide and seek in three identical areas. The first encounter with a new type will be hard and then the pattern will be known and the battles become predictable and boring.

Metroid II kind of solved this issues by changing the environment, forcing you to adapt your tactics. Samus Returns doesn’t even try to attempt this. There’s always a box you’re locked into, always a platform you can stand on (to facilitate its glorious parry counters), and  always an elaborate combat pattern to wait through in order for you to actually hit it. Gamma and Zeta Metroids especially can make your game a waiting hell. The only thing missing is accompanying on-hold muzak. The Omega Metroids are so much more fun because these are the first enemies you encounter that behave like a boss from Super Metroid. Hit its weak point with everything you got and evade its attacks; but the others require lots of waiting, and finally hitting the weak spot that’ll be visible for a few seconds.

Interestingly, for a game that does try to remove the complexity of the Super branch, it does add a wrinkle of its own involving Power Bombs. It might even be seen as a clever replacement for Shinesparking, but because of its one-the-nose application and presentation in the rest of the world, it doesn’t even come close in exhilaration to the classic skill. When you uncover it, suddenly the last curtain drops  around remaining unclaimed items and any hope for complexity and intricacy is lost.

Conclusion

And yes, that sounds overtly negative, but as someone who delights in the Super branch, who was astounded by AM2R’s reverence to the series, fascinated by the truly alien aspects of Axiom Verge, and mesmerised by Guacamelee!’s combat, this feels like a giant step back. At the same time, those games aren’t going anywhere (despite Nintendo’s shouts in the direction of AM2R) and it’s very clear Samus Returns was not intended for me in that respect.

Yet, a lot of reviews I’ve read so far seemed to suggest this is Metroid, this is 2D, hence a masterpiece. They even go as far as claiming it is a classic Metroid experience. It is not. It is most definitely a modern Metroid experience. One that started with Retro Studios as they remade the series under the auspices of Miyamoto. And in a way, it’s all the better for it and more suitably poised to survive and grow into that Nintendo tent pole it should’ve always been.

So yes, in hindsight we were never supposed to get Super Metroid in 3D, and of course Metroid: Samus Returns was going to be Metroid Prime in 2D. We’ve moved on and it has been more than 30 years already.

Super Metroid is dead.
Long live Metroid Prime.

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