Major spoilers ahead for Metroid Dread.
“Metroids were originally created by the Chozo and named after their word for ‘ultimate warrior.’”
Metroid’s greatest strength is how distinctly unique each game ultimately is. The original leaves you to your own devices in a directionless world. Return of Samus shines a spotlight on environmental storytelling, seeding deep themes in Metroid’s DNA. Super encourages mechanical mastery by allowing skilled players to sequence break and radically alter progression. Fusion offsets its linearity with tight level design and a layer of horror that keeps gameplay tense. Remakes like Zero Mission and Samus Returns seek not to replace their source material, but offer a reinterpretation catered towards modern design sensibilities. Metroid sequels have always fostered a healthy balance between familiarity and a fully realized identity. Nearly two decades in the making, Dread calls back on its predecessors’ core values and forges something unforgettable: the ultimate Metroid.
Rumblings of Dread date back to the mid-2000s, with IGN having reported on a “secret document” the publication found in 2005 that listed several upcoming Nintendo DS games – Metroid Dread being one of them. Dread would then enter prototype development in 2008 and later feature as a behind-the-scenes product at E3 2009. From there, development would stall on account of limited hardware. While a great system in its own right, the DS could not capture the full scope behind Dread. Dread was set to include a stalker that would chase the player, an idea lifted from SA-X in Fusion, albeit tweaked to be far less scripted. An active predator who hunts the player proved to be too ambitious for the DS, however, and Nintendo were forced to take a step back.
For what it’s worth, Metroid has a long set precedent for skipping out on generations if the creative juices just aren’t flowing. The franchise notably skipped its transition to 3D alongside the likes of The Legend of Zelda, Super Mario, Star Fox, and F-Zero since Nintendo could not settle on a concrete game plan until after Shigeru Miyamoto met Retro Studios. History repeated itself with Dread as Metroid’s next step only manifested through the union between Nintendo and MercurySteam. Although the Spanish studio got their start in the franchise by remaking Return of Samus, series producer Yoshio Sakamoto explicitly sought them out to help make Dread a reality,
“In meeting with [MercurySteam], I got the sense that they were a team that I could work together with towards a singular concept and realize this goal that I had in mind for Metroid Dread.”
With this in mind, it’s easy to see Samus Returns as a testing ground of sorts for Dread. The 3DS Metroid brought with it revamped combat, a greater focus on intricate boss design, and incredibly large maps to play in. MercurySteam’s efforts were admirable and arguably brought the franchise back from the brink, but Samus Returns is very much a first attempt with clear room for improvement. Dread not only irons out SR’s edges, the game has the benefit of lifting from thirty years of design history. Where Samus Returns was a reminder as to why audiences loved Metroid to begin with, Dread is MercurySteam’s love letter to the entire franchise. The wait was long, but time worked in Dread’s favor. Especially since Dread has one of the most fluid control schemes in the series.
Samus feels amazing to control and her movement is the most responsive it has ever been. Y shoots, B jumps, and X activates Samus’ Melee Counter as is standard, but now tweaked so as not to impact her mobility. The Melee Counter no longer stops Samus in her tracks, allowing you to strike enemies while keeping your momentum. Just as importantly, Samus’ center of gravity is a tad lighter compared to SR, which results in less delay between actions. Wall Jumping makes a comeback in a limited fashion (no intended single wall jumping), but the level design now takes the skill into consideration more often as a trade off. Rounding out Samus’ abilities is her new Slide. Pressing ZL while running will let Samus duck underneath enemies or slide into tight vents without the need of the Morph Ball.
Dread’s gameplay is a bit more action heavy than the average Metroid, but classic adventuring is still a major focus. Although Samus’ trusty AI ADAM always makes your next objective clear, Dread does not mark on your map where to go. The game fully expects you to figure out where to go next and how, taking into account Samus’ abilities at all times. More so than ever, navigation is a puzzle. Spacious, interconnected maps full of secrets make it difficult to know for sure if you are on the right path. Doubly so because you are always rewarded for exploration. Areas finding natural ways to connect to one another also leads to seamless backtracking, which nudges you to go out of your way and explore. Dread’s player driven pacing has not been seen in Metroid since 2004’s Zero Mission. The return to form is refreshing.
Dread likewise offers opportunities for light sequence breaking, striking a middle ground between Fusion’s rigidity and Zero Mission’s non-linearity. A series of careful slides and wall jumps in Dairon can net you an early Grapple Beam, which you can use to unlock Morph Bombs long before their intended pick up. Taking advantage of the Speed Booster to brave Dairon’s cold rooms without the Gravity Suit allows you to sneak into Ghavoran early. The Space Jump can be skipped, Super Missiles can be unlocked early if you learn how to Ball Spark, and Shinespark chaining through Burenia can get you the Gravity Suit as soon as you have Ice Missiles. Taking glitches into consideration, you can even skip Drogya. Dread’s level design is not as open-ended as Super, but there is an alarming amount of content you can play out of order.
“ZDR descended into chaos.”
Dread takes Samus to ZDR, a former Chozo homeworld teeming with dangerous alien life and the battleground of a vicious civil war. Following the events of Fusion, an X sighting on the planet lures Samus to investigate and wipe out the threat before the parasite can pose an intergalactic problem. Planet ZDR is far and away the largest overworld in 2D Metroid, dividing itself between eight fairly expansive maps and one last area for the final boss. In a rare framing twist, gameplay begins in medias res and Samus has to work her way back up to her ship on the surface from the planet’s depths. Dread is Samus’ fight through one of the most geographically diverse and dangerous settings in the series.
Artaria is one of the strongest opening areas in Metroid, taking no time at all to offer you full control. As the deepest part of the planet, only so much water and light make it this far into ZDR. Diverse cavern systems weave through different biomes, showing the full range of the planet’s hostility. Boiling hot rooms burn Samus to a crisp while low temperatures pose a serious threat to Samus’ Metroid DNA. Pools slow Samus down as she descends underwater. Elegant Chozo architecture can be seen adorning the background as exotic life goes about their business in the distance. Artaria has enough variety where it feels like a taste of what to expect from Dread on a whole.
Burenia is a heavily flooded research facility home to aquatic life. Fish swim in the station’s depths where live rock and algae sit in abundance. The deeper you go, the darker Burenia gets – crushed black shadows cast against glowing gold and bright blue lights. Samus’ armor bubbles as she moves and water ripples on the screen, flowing with life as you explore underwater. Reaching the upper half of Burenia reveals a nightly rainstorm pelting the facility from the outside, setting an almost somber tone to the abandoned aquarium.
Cataris is an overheated power station that channels energy to the rest of the planet and keeps ZDR functioning more or less automatically. Extreme temperatures are a common fixture in Cataris, with hot rooms a regular occurrence. Between an aggressive red tint and fire sparks floating through the air, Dread’s hot rooms are like a scene out of Hell. Exploration requires you to redirect magma between doors and floors in order to unlock them, fundamentally changing how you can progress. Lower Cataris is flooded with lava you need to platform around, but more notably home to an imprisoned Kraid — one of Samus’ oldest foes.
Dairon is a factory dedicated to creating Chozo tech, much of which is still operational. Most of the area is cast in darkness when you first arrive, prompting you to turn the power back on. Dread’s use of lighting (or lack thereof) builds a foreboding mood and sells the idea of Samus exploring the unknown. Deadly traps line the entire area and force you to move with some foresight. As the dead center of the map, Dairon serves as a bridge between the lower and upper sections of ZDR. This naturally makes Dairon one of the largest regions on ZDR, but smart level design keeps traversal fast paced whenever backtracking is necessary.
Elun is an abandoned Chozo palace in shambles. Tattered curtains and broken statues line the walls, as light peers its way through the ruins. Chozo sigils suggest royalty once lived here, but those days are long gone and evidently did not end well. The smallest region on ZDR, Elun shares a lot in common with Ferenia — a holy Chozo city full of culture. Ferenia is covered in murals depicting Chozo history and statues made in their image. Chozo architecture glows with dynamic lighting that changes depending on your angle. Ferenia’s sprawling layout and attention to detail speaks to the spiritual nature of the people who lived on ZDR.
Ghavoran is an alien jungle dense in greenery. Light becomes more prevalent, streaming between the trees in the distance as Samus gets closer to the surface. Pink fungus and giant mushrooms forest the region alongside blue spores, plants, and moths. Vines and moldy pipes lend the impression that Ghavoran has been left untouched for ages. Tall vertical shafts make platforming difficult, forcing you to come back with better upgrades of master Samus’ core movement mechanics. Largely devoid of the Chozo’s presence, Ghavoran is reflective of ZDR in its most natural state: utterly dangerous.
Hanubia is the planet’s surface and home to a Chozo military base. A heavy lightning storm casts the sky as Samus marches her way up to Itorash — a floating fortress high above the clouds — before she can return to her ship. Itorash is high enough where everything glows golden thanks to the sun’s light. What can be seen of ZDR through the fortress’ windows paints a picture of a more serene planet than the one Samus had to endure: almost beautiful and at peace. It makes for some fantastic whiplash when Dread’s escape sequence loops back through Hanubia as the planet shatters at the seams, ZDR’s very foundation shattering.
ZDR’s level design is more interconnected than the map lets on. Trams and elevators connect multiple areas from different ends, stitching regions together. Colored Teleportals only wrap between specific areas this time around. You can conveniently jump between huge stretches of the map, but Dread still expects you to familiarize yourself with the level design intimately. ZDR’s regions are large as is, but they get even larger once you start uncovering secret passageways that make backtracking even faster. ZDR is Metroid’s best overworld since Zebes.
“You are faced with overwhelming power. Accept your helplessness.”
Dread’s level design is quite strong, but ZDR gains an important edge from gameplay’s main gimmick: E.M.M.I. Zones. Along with investigating the X sighting, Samus’ main goal on ZDR is to subdue the seven E.M.M.I. units that were monitoring the planet. By the time Samus arrives, the E.M.M.I.s have all gone rogue and patrol different zones as they actively stalk her. To make matters worse, E.M.M.I.s are impenetrable robots designed to extract DNA from living organisms. Not only are they impervious to all basic damage, they can kill Samus in a single hit. Surviving an E.M.M.I. encounter requires foresight, reflexes, and sheer determination. You need to outsmart your opponent to escape them.
As tense as E.M.M.I. Zones are, they can never catch you by surprise. Each Zone is clearly marked on your map and just entering one tints your screen with a high contrast, grainy filter to make it clearly something is off. Music is replaced mainly with ambience, placing an uncomfortable emphasis on the E.M.M.I.’s noises. Where SA-X was your stalker in Fusion, the E.M.M.I.s are bonafide predators you need to do everything in your power to avoid. Direct confrontation will not work. Dread builds a natural dread as you walk into each Zone. You know you’re going to run into an E.M.M.I. eventually, you just don’t know when or where.
E.M.M.I.s have set patrol patterns within their Zones, but they will break formation and hunt you down if they detect a whiff of Samus. You need to think ahead while you move forward. Encounters are entirely player driven. There is always a safe way around an E.M.M.I. if you know what you are doing and pay attention to the level design. Certain passages and shortcuts will also be locked while the E.M.M.I. is active, funneling you into dead ends if you mindlessly explore. Dread demands a more involved level of stealth out of you than Fusion did with SA-X. These are not puzzles where you find a hiding spot and stay put — E.M.M.I. Zones are legitimate stealth sequences with multiple options for progression. Careful players never even need to alert an E.M.M.I. to their presence except when necessary to proceed.
E.M.M.I.s move in three key phases: Patrol, Search, and Pursuit. In Patrol Mode, an E.M.M.I. will stick to their pattern. Should you make a sound and the E.M.M.I. hears it, they will swap over to Search Mode and begin actively looking for you. Noise traps alert E.M.M.I.s to your location and exits lock you in. Getting grabbed by an E.M.M.I. almost always means death, but you have two opportunities to escape. At this point, you need to either hide or lose the E.M.M.I.’s trail by leaving. If caught, the E.M.M.I. will activate Pursuit Mode and chase after Samus throughout the whole Zone. Press X right before the E.M.M.I. attacks and Samus will briefly stun them with a Melee Counter. Fail both, however, and she gets insta-killed.
Aeion Abilities make a comeback from Samus Returns and are particularly useful for E.M.M.I. Encounters. Phantom Cloak turns Samus invisible by clicking the Right Stick. This also slows down her movement, but allows her to quietly sneak past E.M.M.I.s and security cameras. Phantom Cloak starts draining Samus’ health once her Aeion is fully depleted, but the risk/reward is downright necessary in the heat of pursuit. Flash Shift lefts Samus dash up to three times by pressing A while tilting the analog stick. Flash Shift can be used mid-air to dodge enemies, dash over motion sensors, or put some distance between you and an E.M.M.I.. Finally, the Pulse Radar shows any breakable blocks in your general vicinity by holding down Right on the D-Pad. The ability is perfect for finding secrets, along with any shortcuts while an E.M.M.I. is on your tail.
With the exception of the first and last encounters (which are scripted sequences), each E.M.M.I. is progressively more aggressive than the last. Every E.M.M.I. save for the first also has their own unique ability that influences how they primarily stalk you. The White E.M.M.I. uses the Spider Magnet to climb up walls, the Green E.M.M.I. uses the Morph Ball to squeeze into tight spaces, the Yellow E.M.M.I. uses the Speed Booster to rush straight at you, the Blue E.M.M.I. can freeze you with Ice Missiles, the Purple E.M.M.I.’s Wide Beam can stunlock through walls, and the Red E.M.M.I. is equipped with the super powerful Power Bomb. All these different abilities add a unique edge to each EMMU encounter, preventing you from relying on a single strategy.
You need the Omega Cannon before you can actually fight E.M.M.I.s on even footing. Each E.M.M.I. Zone has a boss room where you battle a Central Unit — a Mother Brain-esque enemy — in order to drain them. Once drained, Samus’ Arm Cannon is replaced with the incredibly powerful Omega Cannon. Holding down L to aim swaps your perspective to an over the shoulder view where you can aim directly at an E.M.M.I. walking towards Samus. Holding Y triggers the Omega Stream, a rapid fire attack that can melt down an E.M.M.I.’s face plating to reveal its weakness. Holding down R while aiming charges up the Omega Blaster and unleashes a massive energy blast capable of downing an E.M.M.I.I.
The Omega Cannon can only be used to kill an E.M.M.I. and is depleted as soon as the Zone is cleared. Since each E.M.M.I. has their own unique ability, you need to bait them into a safe part of the Zone where they won’t pose a problem. In some cases, you might even need to partially melt down an E.M.M.I. with the Omega Stream, escape, and then finish the job once you create some distance. Dread’s evolution of SA-X as a concept is bound to overwhelm players who prefer relaxing exploration, but the rhythm E.M.M.I.s add to the overall pacing make for a better game.
“Don’t worry… I’ll end this. Once and for all.”
Basic combat is not as strenuous as E.M.M.I. Zones, but Dread does not go easy on players. Enemy placement sees a massive improvement coming off Samus Returns. Regions are no longer filled to the brim with baddies who force you into combat. Enemies are carefully spread out, rarely appearing in abundance except at specific chokepoints. Samus Returns put enough emphasis on the Melee Counter where you had no choice but to stop and fight through most encounters. A healthy mix of combat improvements, tighter level design, and better enemy variety ensure Dread never falls into the same trappings as its direct predecessor.
Life on ZDR is hostile, but there is a way to counter everything — whether that be through a literal Melee Counter, sliding underneath an enemy, or jumping over an attack. Samus’ tool kit is the most versatile and flexible it has ever been in a 2D space. Dread’s moment to moment gameplay never lets up its momentum as you smoothly transition between platforming, battling, and stealth. MercurySteam strikes the right balance between quality of life and core mechanics that are easy to pull off but difficult to master. This can be best seen in just how much ZDR rewards players who master the Speed Booster upgrade.
Clicking the analog stick while moving activates the Speed Booster. After running an uninterrupted distance, Samus will break into a sprint that allows her to dash through enemies and certain walls. Holding down the analog stick once Samus has activated her Speed Boost triggers the Shinespark — one of the most skill based moves in Metroid. Chaining a Shinespark requires careful platforming, a keen eye for level design, and tight mastery over Samus’ controls. ZDR’s level design regularly throws slopes and tight passages at you that hide secrets designed around creative Shinesparking. Of note, the fact the Speed Booster is manually triggered makes the technique easy for anyone to practice without simplifying how Shinesparks work.
In general, Dread’s upgrades are incredibly smooth without removing the core of what makes Metroid’s gameplay fun. Ducking into the Morph Ball is as simple as pressing ZL and it comes spring-loaded with the Spring Ball this time around, but sophisticated Morph Ball mazes are a constant to compromise. The new Cross Bomb upgrade increases your Morph Bomb’s blast radius if you hold R after planting a bomb. This allows you to Bomb Jump over crumbling floors and up shafts without the need for Bomb Jump Chaining. Even then, Bomb Jumps are easy to pull off with some patience and can help you sequence break.
The brand new Spider Magnet lets Samus cling to blue surfaces and climb up them, opening up the level design in unorthodox ways. You can use the Grapple Beam to rip open doors by holding down ZR and pulling back on the analog stick. The Spin Boost is Metroid’s first proper Double Jump, but also improves Samus’ mobility underwater. The familiar Space Jump lets Samus jump continuously through mid-air and the Screw Attack deals & blocks damage as you jump through enemies. Beams fully stack on each other, upgrading from the standard Power Beam to the Charge, Wide, Diffusion, Plasma, and finally Wave Beam. Samus’ Arm Cannon fires nice and fast in Dread, making it satisfying to land shots on enemies or bosses. Suit upgrades also increase your Melee Counter damage, resulting in a much stronger Samus by endgame.
Holding down R equips your Missiles while holding down L locks Samus into place so you can freely aim her Arm Cannon in any direction. Like Beams, Missiles stack and Samus will upgrade to the Super and Ice Missiles before the story’s end. Similar to the Seeker Missiles from the Prime trilogy, Storm Missiles lock onto targets and fire several missiles at once. Simply hold down R to charge up your Missiles and use Free Aim to hone in on any nearby targets. Aiming is much smoother than it was in SR and Dread’s snappier controls pave the way towards reflex heavy boss fights.
You can dodge everything a boss throws at you and virtually every boss can be killed in no time at all if you know what to do. On that same token, Dread expects you to carefully learn patterns, quickly catch telegraphs, and have the dexterity to combine different techniques together. Kraid and Experiment Z-57 will rip through Samus’ health if you let them, but both can be easily subdued with some out of the box thinking. Kraid can even be insta-killed if you got the Morph Bombs early. Chozo Warriors are relentless duels to the death that demand you successfully Melee Counter to land the killing blow, prolonging their fights until you master the mechanic. Dread hits the holy trinity of Metroid boss design: patterns, secrets, and reflexes.
“The time has come. Samus, fulfill your destiny.”
As the final chapter in Metroid’s first main story arc, Dread finds a balance between traditional cutscenes and environment storytelling — intelligently skewing towards the latter. Rich backgrounds full of depth turn ZDR into one of the most comprehensive planets in the series. Each region serves a clear function, inferring who the Chozo of ZDR were and what life was like for them before their civil war. The X Parasites take over the planet roughly halfway through the story. Anyone who played Fusion will recognize the immediate threat when an X suddenly pops out of an enemy. By endgame, every single creature on ZDR has been infected and Samus is left with no choice but to obliterate the planet.
Dread reserves cutscenes for quick boss interactions and a few dialogue centric scenes, making sure that neither style overstays their welcome. It goes without saying that Dread has more story than Super or Zero Mission, but the grand majority is fully skippable and paced out well enough where you might not even want to skip cutscenes when they do come up. Excellent cinematography — both in and out of action — highlights Samus’ unwavering confidence in an oppressively hostile world. The camera places a considerable amount of focus on Samus’ eyes, conveying her emotional state without needing to say a word. When Samus does speak, she speaks in Chozo and keeps her one statement short. Fusion’s elevator monologues are missed, but Dread’s Samus lets her actions do the talking and is all the better for it.
Metroid Dread’s story is framed as the culmination of everything Samus has been through. Raven Beak, a powerful Chozo warrior who wiped out his rival tribe in a bloody war, lures Samus to ZDR with the explicit goal of awakening her latent abilities and recruiting her ala Darth Vader. Raven Beak considers himself to be a father of sorts to Samus, donating his DNA to save her life on Zebes when she was a child. Samus’ connection to Raven Beak elevates her childhood amongst the Chozo into more than just subtext and ancillary material. The fact Dread is essentially a training arc devised by Raven Beak to weaponize Samus into the ultimate warrior adds a sinister edge to the plot. All the same, Samus never loses her narrative agency and grows strong enough to beat Raven Beak at his own game.
Dread’s last battle is a tour de force and one of the best bosses to come out of Metroid. Raven Beak is a genuine final exam of all your skills. You need to carefully use the Screw Attack to dodge around him as his blaster follows you around the whole arena. You have to carefully slide underneath his strikes and Melee Counter whenever he gives you an opening. You cannot brute force your way through Raven Beak on any level. Dread demands nothing but mastery on your part, each phase more hectic than the last. The battle comes down to finding brief windows to fight back with your Missiles and Beam; dodging with finesse; and strategically using Power Bombs to nullify Raven Beak’s strongest attacks. His final phase is a glorified victory lap where Samus — realizing Raven Beak’s vision of becoming the ultimate warrior — vaporizes him into nothing.
For as much dread as Dread instills throughout its story, the ending is downright empowering. Samus becomes a literal Metroid in a power fantasy escape sequence where the only thing that can kill you is ZDR’s literal destruction. In a sense, you go on to embody the full threat of an E.M.M.I.: an unstoppable force of death that has the potential to destroy anything in your path. The game ends with the last X bonding itself to Samus and offsetting her Metroid mutation, offering her some chance at normalcy. There are no more Metroids or X left alive by the end of Dread. The Galaxy is at peace. Only one trace of their legacy remains: Samus Aran.
Dread is a love letter to all things Metroid that never feels derivative or fanservicey. Ridley is nowhere to be seen, Kraid making a very rare and welcome comeback in his stead. The soundtrack is mostly original and ambient, reserving notable remixes for major cutscenes while carving out a unique musical identity. E.M.M.I.s are the natural next step from SA-X and offer players an alarming amount of agency in how they approach each encounter. Samus’ controls are fluid to the point of making gameplay addictive.
All the best qualities that define the franchise are on display. Gameplay’s lack of direction mirrors Zebes as it was in Metroid 1. Dread’s environmental storytelling owes its success to Return of Samus. Super’s DNA flows through ZDR’s level design, from sequence breaks to carefully crafted regions. Fusion’s tense atmosphere has only been amplified and Samus Returns’ mechanics have improved tenfold. A step forward for the franchise mechanically, narratively, and philosophically, Metroid Dread is the ultimate sequel.