Thanks to one of Nintendo’s slowest game-release eras in its modern history, this week’s Metroid Dread stands out as arguably the company’s biggest new first-party game of 2021.
Most of the Japanese game maker’s usual suspects arrived this year as ports or undercooked affairs (sorry, New Pokemon Snap, but you know it’s true). This left fans yearning for galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran to redeem Nintendo’s weird game-launch calendar. The best thing I can say about Metroid Dread is that it absolutely stands up to that kind of pressure. This is the 2D sequel anyone who’s played old-school Metroid could have hoped for.
That doesn’t make it a 10/10 game, either for hardened Metroid fans or anyone new to the series. Both sides of that divide will have to make their peace with certain weirdness and concessions. But after decades of so many game makers putting their own stamps on the well-trodden “seek adventure” concept, it’s good to see the series that started it all show up with fresh ideas and improvements that’ll have you giddily back-and-forthing through a substantial and satisfying 2D world.
Meet me at the ZDR
If you are oblivious to all things Metroid, the newest entry to the series (technically Metroid 5) wastes no time strapping you into a Varia Suit full of obtuse lore. As the announced conclusion to the series’s traditional timeline (not the same as the Metroid Prime series, which will continue), Dread opens by recapping years of Samus’ adventures against a variety of Very Evil Aliens. Long after their 1986 debut on Famicom, the series’s titular monsters have seemingly been wiped from the galaxy, as were an even nastier alien species called X that metroids were originally created to kill. Dread opens with a tip: somehow, a single X survived and was seen on a faraway system known as ZDR. (Try saying that sentence out loud on a first date and see where it gets you.)
Samus only suits up and ships off to this faraway system because a previous mission has disappeared. A septet of powerful droids, known as EMMI (or Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifier, if you like your droids with verbose names), flew off ahead of Samus to scope out the planet, only to vanish without a trace. Hmm. I’m sure the disappearance of seven near-invincible killing machines while they were searching for a rare and dangerous renegade alien won’t factor into anything going wrong.
Dread is eager to communicate story and lore in concentrated bursts, and this is delivered primarily by Adam, an AI derived from Samus’ former space-marine colleague. (He died a while back, a plot point that Dread barely acknowledges, so if you have no idea who or what he is, you may be left confused by this disembodied narrator who calls Samus “lady” for some reason.) Reach a certain kind of save point in Dread, and Adam will pipe up with fully voiced dialogue, all run through a creepy, machine-like voice modulator. This “occasional, massive dumps of lore” approach better resembles 2002’s Metroid Fusion on Game Boy Advance, which took a similar narrative tack, as opposed to the “scan every object for small, story-filled clues” concept of Metroid Prime.
Metroid Dread (available October 8)
My “story in games” preference usually leans toward something like the latter, where plot morsels gradually emerge during a lengthy adventure. To its credit, Dread stops its action for reasons other than dumping walls of text. The game also likes to deliver something relatively uncommon in 2D Metroid games: cinematic cut scenes. During these moments, the camera pulls back to a more three-dimensional perspective, and the subsequent scenes alternate between Samus cautiously approaching a mysterious new environment and meeting some kind of massive, new adversary. In the latter case, a quick, flashy back-and-forth between Samus and the baddie elegantly does a few things: it gives players a sense of a new enemy’s size and ferocity, and it subtly points out what to expect in the battle to come (including an occasional, visible gesture toward a weak point that you should totally pummel with missiles in roughly seven seconds).
Compare that to 2010’s disastrous Metroid Other M, which constantly yanked its in-game camera around to emphasize dramatic moments while barraging players with horrible, unskippable text. There’s no contest: Dread wins handily on the “cinematic Metroid” front. The latest sequel’s cut scenes generally include zero dialogue, as well, so they can focus on looking rad.
Samus returns—more confidently this time
I’m leaving a lot unspoiled about the plot in the above description, by the way. Suffice it to say, if you care about the Metroid series’s lore, you’ll have plenty of canon-reverberating discoveries to sink your teeth into by the end of Dread. And if you don’t know your Adams from your EMMIs, that’s OK, too. Most of the action takes place from a traditional side-scrolling view and works without a single line of text—especially since the cinematic cut scenes tell a compelling, wordless story of Samus’ emerging dire journey.
In terms of action, the new game picks up where 2017’s Metroid: Samus Returns left off. This makes for a weird timeline, since M:SR is a remake of the 1991 Game Boy classic Metroid II: Return of Samus. Anyway, the idea is that, somehow, that remake introduced new abilities that Samus knew all along, and they’re all here in the mainline series’s fifth entry. Arguably, this is all because the studio responsible for that 2017 remake, MercurySteam, has remained aboard to develop Dread—and MercurySteam was apparently eager to maintain the positive momentum from that project. To that, I say: screw the timeline. Letting the studio stick to its mechanical guns was (mostly) a good call.
The biggest of these returning moves from the 2017 game is a melee attack, which Samus is encouraged to use whenever an approaching enemy glows with a white flash. Do this, and you’ll insta-kill the monster in question and receive a bonus chunk of health and ammo for your trouble. This adds a welcome risk-reward component to average Metroid battling, and unlike M:SR, which was arguably chained to its source material, Dread gets to run wilder with its enemy-pattern designs. Massive four-legged beasts posture, stutter, and charge at Samus with interesting rushes, while distant flying monsters can converge on Samus with their own high-speed dashes. You’re generally more compelled to wield your melee attack in response this time, and it slides effortlessly in the adventure’s flow.
In some ways, MercurySteam has cut back on the complications this time around. M:SR added an “Aeion” ability meter whose associated superpowers were a bit too much to juggle. Samus still has the meter, but it’s different and better this time, since it’s focused on fewer abilities. In traditional “seek action” genre fashion, Samus also adopts a healthy variety of special moves that don’t require any meter, particularly a useful grappling hook. And I’m a huge fan of whatever math formula the devs at MercurySteam figured out: Samus learns new, ability-enhancing abilities at a perfect cadence, always at the right moment to spice up the path ahead. (The devs boldly delay Samus’ famous “morph ball” ability for nearly two hours, which somehow works out.)
However, MercurySteam loses a few points here for a major omission: customizable controls. Dread doesn’t let players remap any of its every-single-button control scheme. My preference would have been to assign the melee ability to something more comfortable and convenient like a shoulder button, for example, but that apparently isn’t in Nintendo’s cards. Worse, in the case of precise aiming, the dev still makes players hold down one button to plant their feet. At which point, the left joystick changes from movement to weapon aiming—all while the Switch’s dedicated right joystick sits untouched. Some boss battles emphasize a mix of precise aim and carefully dodging powerful attacks; giving players a dedicated joystick for the former would have been a lovely option. That’d be the first time the concept was ever used in a 2D Metroid game, but it’s not like Robotron didn’t figure out the same concept nearly 40 years ago.