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Samus Returns: Metroid’s Second Coming

Samus Returns brought Metroid back from the brink and paved the way for a future full of Dread.

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Samus Returns Feature - image courtesy of GameSpot

Metroid has a history with hiatuses that stretches all the way back to the Super Nintendo. Super Metroid’s legendary SNES release was met with an eight-year lull as Nintendo struggled to conceptualize a 3D transition. It was only after stumbling upon Retro Studios that Shigeru Miyamoto felt confident enough producing a 3D Metroid — which by that point the series had already missed out on the Nintendo 64’s generation. History repeated itself after Other M’s launch, albeit for different reasons. The game’s negative reception, poor word of mouth, and lackluster sales more or less demanded Nintendo put Metroid on the back burner for six years to reassess what the series should be. While Federation Force’s 2016 release failed to assure fans of a bright future, Metroid’s second coming was on the horizon. 

Developed by both Nintendo and Mercury Steam, Samus Returns is a 3DS remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus and the foundation that the series’ fifth numbered installment, Metroid Dread, is built on. Although Mercury Steam’s intention was to actually remake Fusion, series producer Yoshio Sakamoto opted to return to Return of Samus instead;

“[Metroid II] is crucial to the story of the series, and I’ve thought for some time that the best way to retell that tale for a new audience of gamers would be via a remake.” 

Yoshio Sakamoto
Samus concept art - image courtesy of wikitroid

It makes sense to remake Metroid II for a number of reasons. Zero Mission remade the first Metroid for Game Boy Advance, so Return of Samus is naturally next in line. More importantly, Metroid II is a bridge to virtually every major installment in the series. Super Metroid picks up immediately after RoS’ ending; Fusion’s plot is a direct consequence of Samus’ actions in M2; Samus’ relationship with the Baby Metroid she spares ends up playing a huge role in Other M’s narrative; and Dread has been described as “a new start to something else” by Sakamoto — essentially bringing the story arc Metroid II started to a close. 

Samus Returns may be a remake of Metroid II specifically, but Mercury Steam and Nintendo recognized an important opportunity to honor the entire franchise. Virtually every game is referenced in some capacity, including Other M and Retro Studios’ Prime trilogy. The latter marks a first for the series, finally forging some connective tissue between the 2D and 3D titles. Samus Returns comes out the other end a genuine love letter to everything Metroid while still making radical (but welcome) changes to the core gameplay loop. More than a remake, Metroid: Samus Returns is a fresh start. 

As one of the last games Nintendo developed for the 3DS, Samus Returns takes full advantage of its hardware to produce one of the best looking and feeling titles on the system. Gameplay plays out on the top screen, with the touchpad displaying your HUD, map, and equipment. The top screen remains uncluttered at all times while key information is just a glance away. Gameplay runs at a smooth 30 frames per second, both in and out of stereoscopic 3D. It should be noted that SR’s 3D effect is nothing short of outstanding and only enhances Metroid’s signature sense of isolation. The 3D effect sharpens the visuals, heightening the game’s color palette and offering an immersive layer of spatial depth to the backgrounds. 

Naturally, Samus Returns uses 3D graphics over 2D sprites. This does mean the visuals are not as stylish or jaw-droppingly impressive as they were in Super, Fusion, or Zero Mission, but this is not to say that SR looks bad. Samus’ 3D character model allows for an incredible amount of flexibility that brings her confident stoicism to life. Cutscenes are dynamic when not relegated to a 2D plane and play up how in control Samus is even in the face of the most dangerous species in the galaxy. Samus casually blasting the Diggernaut in the face and dancing around enemies during counters are a treat to behold. After her butchering in Other M and Federation Force, Samus Aran reclaims her crown as Nintendo’s resident badass. 

Samus kills Diggernaut

Samus Returns’ score was composed by series newcomer Daisuke Matsuoka, whose soundtrack consists primarily of arrangements. There are next to no new songs present, but Matsuoka deserves a large amount of credit for maintaining Return of Samus’ strange and oftentimes off-putting ambiance. Tracks are ominous, building tension as you explore while playing up SR388’ alienness. Boss themes are the most epic they have ever been, with Gamma Metroids and Diggernaut deserving special mentions. A few tracks are even remixed from Prime, bringing Kenji Yamamoto’s 3D compositions into a 2D space for the first time. The only sore spot of SR’s soundtrack is how often Lower Norfair is used, taking over the music anytime you enter a hot room. 

SR388 was designed around the original Game Boy’s monochrome palette, leading to incredibly detailed sprites and a tight camera that added to the planet’s claustrophobic structure. Samus Returns reimagines SR388 into a lush world, giving each area distinct coloring and heavily remixing environmental details. The Surface’s green sky, looming moon, and bizarre mushroom-like flaura set a more adventurous tone than RoS’ quiet — almost somber — opening level. Area 1 is aesthetically bright, spacious, and action-packed compared to its Game Boy counterpart. The jarring transition from the safety of the surface to SR388’s hostile cavern loses its impact, but the added visual effects are quite nice. 

Area 1 is transformed into a set of Chozo Ruins that have fallen apart and been partially flooded. Rays of light peek in from openings in the ceiling and waterfalls can be seen flowing in the background. Broken-down structures cast in a gold light illuminate a lost culture and immediately make it clear that Samus Returns is very much committed to environmental storytelling. Area 2 functions as a Chozo power station, with a massive dam and man-made waterfalls off in the distance. Elaborate Chozo statues speak to their spiritual side while an artificially heated room shows off Chozo technology at its most elaborate. 

Area 2 - image courtesy of NeoGAF

Area 3 is a hot mining facility littered with abandoned Chozo robots who now mindlessly patrol the environment. Area 4 is a beautiful cavern lined by blue, purple, and red crystals that pop in 3D. Area 5 is a bizarre jungle where pink plants grow out of coral and water clouds the screen in a light haze whenever Samus is submerged. Area 6 is an underground wasteland covered in sand, long since forgotten by the Chozo and an untouched barrier to Area 7 — an elaborately built Chozo laboratory dedicated to researching SR388’s native Metroids and X-Parasites. Area 8 loops back to the Surface, but not before cutting through the Metroids’ oddly peaceful den.

Progression in Samus Returns is completely linear, with Samus filtering through Areas in their numbered order. There is no way to sequence break and visit Areas early, but each Area tasks you with tracking down a set amount of Metroids who you can hunt in just about any order. Exploration is linear on the macro scale, but non-linear on a micro scale. The touchpad sports a Metroid Radar that keeps track of how many are alive on the planet and how many Samus has killed in the Area while beeping whenever one is nearby. The faster the beep, the closer a Metroid is. This keeps exploration fast-paced and naturally guides you without need for the map. 

Teleport Samus - image courtesy of wikitroid

SR388 is not as claustrophobic as it was on 8-bit hardware, replaced with relatively large maps for each Area. Despite the level design’s linearity, backtracking is still encouraged. There are plenty of optional secrets to find and paying close attention to the environment will often net you upgrades. SR388 being as large as it is, Samus Returns introduces a teleportation system that allows you to easily warp between Areas. While this would be out of place in any other Metroid, SR’s structure outright demands leniency for backtracking to remain a reasonable expectation.

Areas are dense with enemies in order to show off Samus Returns’ revamped combat. The original featured less common enemies the closer you got to the end, to the point where the home stretch was devoid of life. This is not the case in Samus Returns, which only increases enemy density as the adventure goes on. This runs counterproductive to the story’s theme of genocide. The more Metroids you kill, the more you hurt the planet. More importantly, the lack of enemies at the end hammers in the isolation Samus herself has enforced on SR388 — nearly wiping out an entire species from extinction with no regard for the natural order of things. This is one instance where less was so much more. 

For what it’s worth, combat is damn fun. While you fully lack control over her jump height, Samus controls great. Her movement is fluid and her actions are as snappy as they are responsive. Just about every facet of the 3DS is used as part of SR’ control scheme, integrated naturally enough not to be a nuisance. The analog stick moves, B jumps, Y shoots, X triggers Samus’ brand new Melee Counter, and A activates mystical abilities through the use of Aeion. The touchpad lets you swap between your main Beam, the Ice Beam, and Grapple Beam with a quick press. Holding down R equips your secondary weapon and allows you to swap between Missiles and Super Beams on the touchpad. The real star of the show, holding down L locks Samus into place and allows you to rotate her Beam 360°. 

Melee Counter - image courtesy of Polygon

Having full control of Samus’ aiming lets enemies fight more aggressively while simply testing your ability to aim on a deeper level than other 2D Metroids. Although well implemented, the Melee Counter, unfortunately, makes it difficult to appreciate just how much variety you have in your combat approaches. Just about every enemy has an attack that can be countered, indicated by a white flash before they strike. The Melee Counter makes combat easier, is an expected skill to master, and feels downright encouraged. It is not actually necessary for most encounters, though, especially later in the game. If anything, the Melee Counter should be used as an accessory to your Beam — not the other way around. 

Samus’ Beam starts out weak, which builds a reliance on the Melee Counter, but upgrades even the playing field. Freezing enemies with the Ice Beam and then shattering them with a Melee Counter is a great alternative to waiting for enemy attacks. Early on, you can use Missiles to snipe enemies from afar before they become a problem. Later in the game, Beam upgrades make blasting through most enemies a piece of cake. The progression from the Power Beam to Wave, Spazer, and finally Plasma is well-paced, giving you all the tools you need to hold your own by mid-game.

Crouching down still turns Samus into a Morph Ball, allowing her to crawl through tight spaces. Y drops the Morph Bomb and can be used to chain Bomb Jumps easier than ever. While sequence breaking is a non-starter, a few minor upgrades can actually be unlocked early through tight Bomb chaining. Samus’ Ledge Grab ability makes its comeback from the GBA games, pairing nicely with the return of the High Jump Boots. The level design even makes use of some tight vertical shafts surrounded by spikes you need to carefully jump through to progress. The Space Jump and Screw Attack likewise return, both of which make natural use of SR388’s wide, open spaces. Wall Jumping also returns, but is about as limited as it was in Fusion (and nowhere as prominent). 

Morph Ball Samus Returns - image courtesy of wikitroid

Part of what made the original Metroid II so unique was its added emphasis on the Morph Ball for platforming and navigational challenges, introducing both the Spider and Spring Balls. Samus Returns stays faithful to RoS’ love affair with the Morph Ball, playing up how often you need to use the Spider Ball or Spring Ball. The former lets Samus cling onto walls to reach otherwise inaccessible areas. The latter lets Samus jump without the need for Morph Bombs, giving you greater control of the Morph Ball. SR388 also embraces Morph Ball mazes for several of its upgrades, making smart use of the planet’s geography. 

Samus’ kit is rounded out by her brand new Aeion Abilities, mystical techniques that offer a wide variety of effects. Each Aeion Ability can be equipped via the D-Pad before activation and you can equip multiple abilities at once. Using an ability consumes the Aeion Meter so you need to be smart about what to use and when or why. Up equips the Scan Pulse, which fills in a small section of your map — upgrades and all. This goes against the spirit of Metroid in a lot of ways, but the Scan Pulse is completely optional, actually marks down which areas you pulsed in as a soft penalty, and just makes obtaining 100% completion easier.

Left equips Lightning Armor, a buff that increases Melee Counter’s range and lets Samus negate damage at the cost of draining Aeion. Right activates the Beam Burst, boosting Samus’ damage output while allowing you to rapid-fire shots by holding down Y. Down equips the Phase Drift, basically Samus Returns’ interpretation of the Speed Booster. The Phase Drift slows downtime and allows you to run over breakable blocks or simply better prepare yourself for an upcoming attack. The longer you stay Phase Drifted, the more Aeion you lose. Aeion Abilities ultimately evolve 2D Metroid’s gameplay and open the door for even more creative techniques that push what Samus is capable of, from combat to platforming. 

Aeion Ability - image courtesy of wikitroid

Return of Samus was a boss heavy game on account of all its Metroids. Most fights were relatively simple and onenote, which makes Samus Returns’ stellar boss fights all the more impressive. The addition of checkpoints before and after battles results in dangerous bosses who can kill Samus in just a few attacks. All four main Metroid stages –– Alpha, Gamma, Zeta, and Omega — have aggressive attack patterns that are sure to overwhelm on first encounters, but gradually become easier with practice. It’s extremely rewarding to finesse a Metroid who was giving you trouble just a few Areas ago. As fun as the Metroids are to fight, SR’s two new bosses are far and away the best combat encounters in the game. 

Diggernaut takes cues from Prime’s boss philosophy, requiring a mix of puzzle-solving and quick reflexes to defeat. You need to carefully dodge attacks with the Space Jump, use the Spider Ball to destroy the machine’s arms, blast away at its face with Missiles while dodging rotating lasers, drop Bombs into its mouth as it tries to suck Samus up, and fight through several stages of non-stop carnage as you slowly wear it down. The Diggernaut also shows up in a tense, reflex-based chase sequence that establishes how dangerous of a threat it is long before your boss battle. 

Samus Returns swaps the final battle from the Queen Metroid to Proteus Ridley, whose appearance here is a mix of his Prime 3 and Super designs. The battle is a three-phase showdown that is entirely skill-based. You need quick reflexes to dodge, a keen eye for telegraphs, smart thinking to know when to attack, and the sheer willpower to withstand Ridley’s hostile attack patterns. The cinematics during the final battle are downright incredible as well, showing Samus working together with the Baby Metroid to put down one of her fiercest foes. The inclusion of the battle does take away from the original’s introspective ending, but the gameplay is too good to dislike and the fanservice almost feels like a necessary palate cleanser after Other M. 

Samus vs Ridley - image courtesy of Samus Aran x Solid Snake (Tumblr)

Samus Returns has a much lighter tone than Return of Samus, but this is still a game about genocide. Environmental storytelling focuses more on fleshing out the Chozo’s culture on SR388 as if to distract you from your act of genocide. Boss fights convey how dangerous the Metroids are, each evolution deadlier than the last. Walking into their eerily quiet den only for 10 new Metroids to hatch still hands with as much weight as it did on the Game Boy. Samus sparing the Baby Metroid even gets a reasonably emotional sequence where the camera cuts to first-person and we see Samus decide to spare the last Metroid in a moment of vulnerability. 

The level design outright encourages you to bond with the Baby Metroid, featuring several secret paths that can only be accessed in the post-game. The Baby eats away at certain minerals, opening new ways forwards. 100% completion is not possible without hunkering down and spending time with the Baby. It’s a great way of getting completionists to bond with an important piece of Metroid history while clarifying the Baby’s importance to Samus through gameplay. This likewise makes the Baby’s sacrifice in Super Metroid retroactively more impactful.

Beating the game once unlocks access to Chozo Memories, a gallery of photos detailing the Chozo’s time on SR388. The gallery is fully unlocked by obtaining 100% completion and adds a host of depth to the Chozo without a word of text. Chozo Memories depict the Chozo settling on SR388, discovering the Metroids, researching them, ominously speaking amongst themselves, and then suddenly breaking out into a violent civil war — the first act of Chozo aggression depicted in Metroid. The Chozo’s creepy recontextualization is mainly foreshadowing for Dread in hindsight, but nonetheless does a great job at shaking up the status quo. Samus Returns’ story does exactly what a Metroid plot should do: trust the audience to figure things out without text. It’s frankly refreshing. 

Samus and Baby - image courtesy of Make a Gif

Samus Returns certainly leaves room for improvement, but mainly by virtue of trying out a brand new style of gameplay. Mercury Steam knocked their first effort out of the park, creating an experience that respects Return of Samus without replacing it. Just as importantly, Samus Returns sets the stage for Metroid’s future. The Melee Counter and Aeion Abilities have the potential to radically change gameplay more than they already have, turning Samus into a killing machine while still respecting the series’ methodical pacing. Time will only tell when the series will go on hiatus again (and for how long), but Samus Returns brought Metroid back from the brink and paved the way for a future full of Dread.

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and The Legend of Zelda, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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