Metroid: Samus Returns is often cited as a triumphant return to form for the Metroid series, after a seven year hiatus following Metroid: Other M and one year after the less than well received Metroid Prime: Federation Force, and in many cases this is rightly deserved praise. It was the first traditional 2D Metroid game in thirteen years, after Metroid: Zero Mission, as well as a much demanded (and much needed) remake of 1991’s Game Boy classic Metroid II: Return of Samus, so it had a lot riding on it. MercurySteam had only one “Metroidvania” style game under their belt, Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, a divisive game in an already divisive reboot of the Castlevania franchise, but they had proved themselves to Nintendo and Sakamoto after pitching a remake of Metroid Fusion to them.
Suffice to say, it worked out, as Samus Returns was critically acclaimed and heralded as a worthy entry fit for the lofty expectations that the series holds. But despite that, I don’t actually feel it really matches what Metroid II, bound by limitations of the time, actually set out to accomplish. There is a distinct failure to recognise what it had to do within the restrictions the original Game Boy hardware imposed, instead choosing to replace certain factors and inject a lot more action where there wasn’t any need for it. That’s not to say what they created was bad, quite the contrary. It’s all mostly well executed, tightly designed and, most importantly, very fun. But that still doesn’t ease the nagging feeling in the back of my head that any meaningful subtext the original had was stripped away in favour of more bombastic set pieces and a constant high octane pace.
We probably need to start from the beginning though, this isn’t something that can just be described through “subtext good, action bad” because that just doesn’t cut it.
Rewinding back to 1991, your objective: Go to planet SR388 and exterminate the Metroid species.
Metroid II had a very different structure to the original NES game, being much more linear with area-by-area design. This suited the Game Boy just right, with short bursts of portable sessions. Many design decisions in the game were made as such knowing that the hardware simply couldn’t provide the same experience as a home console. There are very limited enemies and bosses, owing to the lack of space on the cart, which meant a lot of repetitive encounters.
To combat this, the game eked out various evolutionary stages of the Metroid species once one form started to get tiresome, which aided in keeping the experience fresh. As such, a narrative started building that with each successively stronger stage of Metroid, the more impact they had on the environment. By the latter stages of the game, where only Omega Metroids lie, there are practically no signs of life other than the Alpha predators. They reigned supreme in the depths of the planet, effectively culling anything else. As a result, it stressed just how dangerous they were and how important it was to eradicate them.
By the time the Metroid counter hits only one, you should already be feeling unnerved by the lack of life heading into the Metroid Queen’s den, only to be shocked that the counter goes back up with freshly hatched Metroid Larva. Finally, after defeating the Metroid Queen, a lone infant Metroid hatches in front of Samus and implants on her, being the first thing it sees. In an act of mercy, Samus spares it as it follows her back up to the surface.
So what does Samus Returns do to expand upon this? Everything. Too much of everything, in fact. Enemies have been ramped up in numbers significantly, especially towards the end. The larger influx of creatures to shoot at has meant they end up overstaying their welcome, with enemy types getting repeated a lot, an issue the original didn’t have due to sparsely spacing them out. The final few areas, which were once foreboding warnings of the destruction the Metroid are capable of, are just further action set pieces filled with intricate labyrinths like the rest of the game.
They aren’t poorly designed, quite the opposite, but it’s all poorly executed with zero understanding of the original developer’s intent. MercurySteam saw an opportunity to overcome the limitations of the GameBoy as a means of adding more and more. The reflection of the empty hallways after the Omega Metroids is gone, the large empty cavern leading to the Metroid Queen’s lair is now a literal maze to overcome.
I think the largest elephant in the room, or the large space dragon to be more precise, has to be the inclusion of Ridley. I can’t fathom what the intent behind his inclusion is, it just feels like another high octane action sequence to top off the game where it wasn’t needed. It’s pure fan service, one that doesn’t even add up in the current Metroid continuity. Samus goes straight from fighting Ridley on SR388, to fighting Ridley again on Ceres and Zebes in Super Metroid, that feels tactless. Again, it’s not poorly designed from a gameplay perspective, it’s probably amongst the best Ridley fights in the whole series, but it’s still non-indicative of the tone the original game displayed on the small two and a half inch screen.
Despite all this, there are still plenty of good decisions MercurySteam made in adapting the game to a modern audience. They recontextualised the means of progression, from heavily video game-y “acid drops when you defeat more Metroids” to a newly expanded lore of the Chozo locking away sections of the planet to prevent the Metroids from escaping. The only way to progress deeper is the destroy the Metroids on the current level and bring their DNA to a lock as proof, showing that someone is in fact capable of eradicating them. Plus, upon beating the game, the baby Metroid joins you as an indirect upgrade, eating away crystallised blocks to open the way to previously inaccessible corners of the planet. The redesigned Metroid evolutions certainly bring some much needed variety to the table, though the Omegas aren’t as challenging as I’d have hoped.
Metroid: Samus Returns has me conflicted. I’m torn between how well designed it is but at how oblivious it is to what the original was aiming for. I fear sounding like a broken record with this article, as I no doubt have beaten into your skull by this point. The ending leaves much to be desired, having been transformed from a moment of reflection to an anticlimactic romp into another boss battle. It’s always disappointing to see an otherwise excellent game fail to stick the landing with its ending, and despite all my grievances I do still wish MercurySteam all the best with future developments. It almost seems certain that another 2D Metroid is in the works, be it another remake or the elusive Metroid 5, so I wouldn’t want my criticisms to be seen as disdain. Consider my article as something constructive, an opportunity to look back at what didn’t quite work and build upon it for the future.
See you next mission.
Written by KomodoZero