Video Games Review: Metroid: Samus Returns (3DS, 2017) is so much more than just a remake

Who the hell was asking for a remake of Metroid II? Nobody, that’s who, and Nintendo made it anyway. Metroid: Samus Returns takes the general thrust of series’ largely-forgotten 1992 Game Boy adventure and updates it with fresh, modern mechanics and the kind of visuals I wasn’t aware the 3DS could pull off. It takes a game consigned to history as “the safe but kind of boring one between Metroid and Super Metroid” and makes it a must-play.

Metroid: Samus Returns begins following the conclusion of the original Metroid. The Space Pirates and Mother Brain have been defeated and their plan to weaponise Metroids as a source of power and influence in the galaxy is now a memory.

The United Federation, sensibly, wants to make sure that no-one can ever capture Metroids for such diabolical purposes ever again. Their solution, scorched earth though it may be, is to dispatch bounty hunter Samus Aran to the Metroid homeworld. Her objective — kill every last one of them.

All of this is explained in a very brief animated cutscene at the beginning of the game designed to explain who you are, where you’re going and why. The moment Samus makes planetfall is also the last line of dialogue in the game. For those concerned about the wordier approach to Metroid backstory taken by recent custodians of the brand (we’ll never be over it, Team Ninja, what were you thinking), don’t worry. This is Metroid as you know and love it — isolationist, atmospheric and silent.

Metroid: Samus Returns follows the long-held series conventions of Exploration, Gear Acquisition and periodic Boss Battles that demand you leverage all of your accumulated toys. For those who actually did play a lot of Metroid 2, you’ll find that the map has been completely resdesigned. Not only does it feel like all its disparate areas fit together more cohesively now, it’s also orders of magnitude larger than the one built for the Game Boy decades ago. Your goal, however, remains the same: locate an altar that asks for Metroid DNA from x amount of Metroids. Collect the DNA, return to the altar, the altar will react and you will find the path deeper into the planet opens up, with more Metroids awaiting you in the briny depths.

What I’ve just described sounds rather bland, and perhaps that’s down to my being an underwhelming writer, but its actually really engaging in practice.

Combat has also received a sensible tweaking to take advantage of the 3DS’ updated controls. Combat is something Metroid has always seemed to grapple with in 2D. Samus’ ability to only fire her weapons in eight directions had the unintended consequence of making certain battles rather frustrating and fiddly to navigate. Samus Returns allows our hero to aim in a full 360 degree range of motion by simply holding the left trigger. This causes Samus’ gun arm to shine a laser in the direction she’s pointing to help you better line up your shot. It’s very Metroid Prime because it makes you stand still while you’re doing it.

Another improvement the game brings to the table is Samus’ new ability to counter-attack. I can’t tell you what a relief this mechanic is. Almost every enemy in the game can be countered with a well-timed tap of the X button right as they begin their attack. Getting it right lets Samus hit the enemy with a stun, allowing her to devastate them with ease.

These two mechanics will be ones that come into play again and again during fights of every size. From each Metroid you have to hunt down to bigger, badder enemies lying in wait within the bowels of the planet, in each battle you will find your aiming and counter-attack moves to be of extreme utility. This is especially helpful during the Metroid fights where the critters evolve often, creating mutli-stage boss fight headaches full of unique problems to solve. One of these battles, placed toward the end of the game, ranks among the most challenging encounter of any game in the series to date even when playing on Normal. It beat me again and again and I never once felt like I wanted to stop playing. That’s the mark of a great design philosophy for 2D combat.

Graphical fidelity, on the other hand, has never once been a problem for the Metroid series. Every new entry in the series to date to seen its host hardware pushed to its limit, and Samus Returns gives the 3DS the same treatment. The 2.5D visuals are fully rendered in 3D but locked to the game’s well-known landscape view. Environments are detailed and varied beyond what it feels like should be doable on a handheld. The Metroid homeworld is home to caves and lava reefs and the further in you get, the more mind blowing it becomes. By the time you’re exploring technological ruins near the core, you’ll wonder how Nintendo got this thing to run on the 3DS at all. Switch on the 3DS’ 3D visuals (if you can bring yourself to do so) and you’ll find even more amazing work in that regard.

To even refer to Metroid: Samus Returns as a remake fails to communicate the totality of what Nintendo have set out to do here. It’s more than a lick of paint and a control remap. Samus Returns is what more video remakes should be — a ground-up rebuild, an experiment in how to take a game that came out a quarter of a century ago and update it for the modern age. I hope Nintendo can take this momentum and bring us a totally original Metroid adventure in this same vein soon. Like Samus, I will always be ready for more Metroid hunting.

Score: 9.0 out of 10
Highlights: Visuals; Design; Environments; It’s Metroid!
Lowlights: The crushing void in my life after completing it
Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Platforms: Nintendo 3DS
Available: September 16, 2017

Reviewed on a New Nintendo 3DS XL.