The return of Samus to 2D splendor makes a great first impression.
In the first few hours of Metroid: Samus Returns, “course correction” kept repeating in my head. It’s been 13 years since the last traditional 2D Metroid from Nintendo. In the interim, producer Yoshio Sakamoto has only one other Metroid game to his credit - the much maligned Metroid: Other M. Whether you abhor Other M or dig it (I sit somewhere in the middle), the emphasis on story was a far cry from the subtle majesty of Super Metroid and Zero Mission. Voice-acting, long cut scenes, endless inner monologues, the “Remember Me” guy, The Deleter. Other M had an infatuation with hearing its own voice.
“Course correction” came to mind again. Metroid: Samus Returns starts not with spoken words, but just a few brief slides with a few sentences to set up the story. The quick recap covers the story of the original Metroid and lays out Samus’ new mission: Metroid genocide. After that? It’s all you and your Power Suit, with the only text being the explanation of power-ups when you acquire them. It’s a welcome return to isolating form, and the very structure of this Metroid II remake makes for a great experience, recalling the finer aspects of its 2D predecessors.
Samus Returns tasks you with killing 39 Metroids and separates the map into chunks that are opened up as you murder Metroids. Whenever you enter a new area, it’s a completely fresh start and a new area to get lost in. Unlike Metroid Fusion, which was broken into similar chunks, the areas are nonlinear, letting you attack the Metroids in the area in a variety of ways. Of course, you’ll need to get certain items to progress, but especially as the amount of Metroid you need to take down in an area increases, so does the feeling of freedom.
That natural free-flowing design is a stark contrast from Zero Mission and Fusion, which both consistently pointed you to different mission objectives. Samus Returns does do that on occasion, but it’s generally just at the end of areas, to remind you where you have to go to move on. The brilliance is that the option for a more specific hint of where to go next is nestled in the game. Using the new Scan Pulse ability, you can reveal the map around you and reveal perishable blocks. Certain locations will show you where Metroid husks are located, giving you a deliberate hint of where to go next. If you have the new Metroid amiibo, you can scan it in to show you where the nearest Metroid is. Samus Returns has an element of Nintendo’s old Super Guide initiative in it. The Aeion abilities, which include Scan Pulse as well as lightning armor and a powered-up blaster, essentially function as a difficulty modifier. Having trouble with a boss? Pop on the lightning armor and you can soak up more damage.
Related to the bosses, I had a few concerns that killing multiple versions of the same type of Metroid would get repetitive. So far, that is not the case, thanks to varied boss patterns and rooms. It also helps that, thanks to the new melee counter, the fights are far more hands-on than usual Metroid bosses. You want to risk getting close to them to hopefully draw a counterable attack. Cheesing it and sitting to the side and firing missiles, which was a viable strategy for a lot of 2D Metroid bosses, is generally ineffective here.
The melee counter has, thus far, been an absolute revelation. Not only does it mimic Samus’ Smash Bros. attacks to a degree, but it also completely changes how you fight in Metroid. Timing becomes integral, especially as some enemies will do tons of damage if you mistime a counter. It’s probably a little overpowered, but the enemies so far have steadily increased in difficulty and complexity, so even if countering is usually the best strategy, it hasn’t felt like a win button.
I still have a handful of Metroid left to kill before I’m done with Samus Returns, but so far, it’s an extremely impressive entry in the storied franchise. Any lingering doubts I had about MercurySteam’s Castlevania work or Sakamoto’s ability to lead a killer Metroid game post-Other M have been washed away after the first few hours. This game is excellent so far.