Upon first booting up Metroid: Samus Returns, you are given a sense of scale and grandiose that is not traditionally seen on the Nintendo 3DS, making it apparent that this is the game fans have been wanting for In a Metroid title.
Metroid: Samus Returns places you in the boots of Samus Aran, a bounty hunter that has been hired by the Galactic Federation to exterminate all the Metroids on their home world so they may never be used as a weapon again. This limited backstory is the extent of information the player is given, and soon as the game starts, you find yourself on this mysterious planet with a mission to accomplish. This extremely light-on-the-details storytelling is indicative of how everything else in Metroid: Samus Returns is presented. Metroid as a franchise has always been one to explain little to the player, rarely is the player given instructions or information directly, rather, it is up to the player to find out what to do; exploration is no different.
One of the main staples of what makes a Metroid or Metrovania game is the emphasis placed on backtracking. In Metroid: Samus Returns you will be forced to explore winding caverns and vastly different locales to find your targets (Metroids) and eliminate them. While the main path to follow will be obvious to players, discovering the many branching paths that lead to additional Metroids, secrets, or upgrades will require a bit more out the box thinking and attention to details. While running through a portion of a level you might find a tile or area that looks slightly out of place, shooting that area may reveal a destroyable tile that requires a certain upgrade to access. Sometimes, revealing these secrets can be as simple as an “upgrade check” that just requires the player remembering to revisit the area with the specific upgrade needed. Others will open to whole new sections that require further exploration to see the extent of the path, many times eventually leading back to the main path that you originally traversed. Trying to discover these various little-hidden areas is generally enjoyable, further feeding into the theme of exploration. However, discovering some features can be by pure chance without explicitly checking every little area that may potentially lead somewhere. Luckily these are left few and far between and even when they do exist, it’s generally for stations that refill health or ammo.
Gaining upgrades is an essential part of what makes a Metroid game, a Metroid game. Metroid: The Return of Samus brings back all the series’ staples such as the ice beam, which allows Samus to freeze enemies and the spider ball, allowing Samus to climb up walls. Unlocking new upgrades not only gives Samus new ways to traverse or fight enemies, but also serves as the primary gating mechanic to areas besides eliminating more Metroids. Being able to climb at walls will allow not only new, but previous areas to be explored in new ways. An area that you went through from the start of the game may contain an upgrade to your missile reserves that previously wasn’t reachable. One issue that does crop up in Metroid fairly early on in the game is simply a number of upgrades you can receive in a limited amount of time. While upgrading your health and ammo are one thing, receiving too many upgrades that allow you to access new areas in a short amount of time creates a scenario where all the areas you are exploring in the immediate area become dictated by said upgrades. Multiple times you will find yourself reaching a point where finding one upgrade, leads directly to another, and another, rather than being spaced out or hidden away in various areas that came before. While it can be enjoyable gaining so many powers so quickly, it slightly removes the fantastic emphasis on exploration that Metroid is known for.
While exploring the planet, Samus will face a multitude of different enemies all requiring different skills to tackle. Thankfully, Samus has a few new skills that have been introduced not present in other Metroid games. The melee counter serves as one of the best additions to grace the Metroid franchise. When an enemy attacks, Samus—when timed correctly—can counter enemies directly near her, allowing her to inflict a large amount of damage. This creates a greatly beneficial scenario for 2D Metroid games in that it both adds to the intensity of combat while also speeding it up, enabling more time for more exploration. The other addition is Aeon abilities. These various abilities will pool from an energy gauge that can only be filled by defeating enemies enabling Samus to scan the area, put on invulnerable armor, beam burst, and even slow down time. Largely, these abilities are not needed and can usually be ignored outside of when they are first acquired (to learn them) but they do add a limited number of accessibility options to new players. Of course on harder difficulties, these may be seen as essential. One final—small—but important addition has been added, Free Aim. In previous 2D Metroid titles, Samus was restricted to shooting in only six directions, with the introduction of Free Aim, Samus can now choose to stand still but tactfully aim at targets from a distance.
All these new abilities all come into play when fighting the game’s’ main enemies, Metroids. In the case of Samus: Metroid Returns, these creatures are nearly exclusively viewed as minibosses. However, because they are usually the same creature, these fights can become somewhat predictable and even boring, especially after certain powerups (i.e. ice beam). Luckily, not every Metroid is the same, while most are simply these floating jellyfish, others will evolve into more vicious creatures, creating far more exciting and thrilling fights that will keep players on their toes. It is simply a shame that these evolutions are so few and far between since the main focus of the game is to eliminate Metroids.
Metroid: Samus Returns, in the end, serves as a stark reminder of how good Metroid can be in a modern environment, even in a 2D environment. Players looking for a game to round out their 3DS library that is focused on exploration will not be disappointed. Outside of a few minor hiccups, Metroid: Samus Returns represents what the Metroid franchise is at its best, a 2D side-scrolling exploration game that tells its story through actions and combat.