THE Metroidvania genre evokes a very specific kind of gameplay: you’re let loose inside a massive, labyrinthine world that’s crammed full of secrets, and as you collect various power-ups and upgrades, you gain the abilities necessary to unlock previously inaccessible areas of the map.
More often than not, the gameplay also involves some 2D platforming challenges, as well as enemies that require a fair amount of skill to overcome.
The best Metroidvania games invoke a sense of exploration and discovery that’s rarely found in other titles, and while the genre as a whole might be relatively niche, it’s extremely popular among gamers who love its combination of adventure, geographic puzzles and skill challenges.
With all that said, it shouldn’t surprise you to learn that when Nintendo released a new title for the Metroid series – one of the progenitors of the genre and an excellent series that has been lying dormant for the past few years – the fans were ecstatic. As they should have been, because the aptly titled Metroid: Samus Returns is an excellent reminder of how Metroidvanias can be so damn awesome.
Samus Returns is a modern 3DS remake of the second Metroid game, the Gameboy’s Return of Samus. Explaining the plot of Metroid may prove largely unnecessary, as the game subscribes to a very minimalistic storytelling method that only sets the scene enough so you can focus on enjoying the gameplay.
But, for what it’s worth, here’s the context for the game: you play as Samus Aran, an intergalactic bounty hunter who wears an overpowered suit of alien armour, wields a massive arm cannon, and typically solves issues of alien infestation by obliterating the entire planet they are on. (This, incidentally, is why she is one of my favourite characters of all time.)
In Samus Returns, the titular character is sent to the planet SR388 to personally exterminate every single member of the dangerous energy- sucking Metroid species, which given Aran’s insanely destructive track record, is possibly something she just does over a weekend.
Love the world
Gameplay-wise, Samus Returns is essentially a very basic return to the original forms of Metroidvania games. The game looks like a side- scrolling platformer, and the joy comes primarily from exploring the world map, which is a huge maze of cleverly interconnected subsections. Although you start off with a very basic set of abilities, every piece of equipment you discover in the course of your travels lets you access more areas – the Morph Ball lets you shrink to enter tight tunnels, for example, and the Grappling Hook puts distant ledges within reach.
One of the things that I love about Metroid games is that Samus herself is a bit of a cipher – the real character that you bond with throughout the game is actually the world itself. The levels are so well designed that every area has a unique look and feel, and you’ll quickly learn the features of each location like the personality of your favourite TV character.
Whether it’s that power-up sitting tantalisingly out of reach at a distant ledge, or this seemingly uncrossable corridor with disappearing floor tiles, or the weird door blocked by overgrown plants that’s begging to be revisited with a fire weapon, you’ll soon see SR388 as a person that’s relentlessly teasing you with secrets waiting to be discovered.
While strongly rooted in the classic gameplay design, Samus Returns does have a few modern flourishes. For starters, the game is rendered gorgeously in 2.5D, and unlike others of its kind, Samus Returns really utilises its point-five-dee. The world makes full use of its background elements, and if you play close attention to the crumbling ruins of the Chozo civilisation and the strange ecosystems in the distance, you’ll be rewarded with a better appreciation of the ambient alien aesthetics that makes SR388 feel like a living planet.
The other touch of modernity is that Samus Returns is significantly more cinematic. Not “cinematic” in the sense of Metroid: Other M, thank the Chozo gods – that title was an atrocity to good storytelling – but in the sense that Samus Returns really likes to show off its action scenes.
Cutscenes (done stylishly without dialogue) sometimes appear to punctuate tense dramatic moments, displaying Samus’s action movie hero cred before quickly dropping you back into the action, and that’s always great.
The only odd bit of “modernisation” in Samus Returns is the new counter attack mechanic, which allows Samus to obliterate enemies if she times a melee uppercut just right. It’s not bad, mind you – it does make Samus feel like more of a badass – but the mechanic does add a reflex-based element into a game that usually leans towards patient puzzle-solving and adventure, and that feels slightly out of place.
Strangely though, despite how much I love Samus Returns, I’m not really sure if I can recommend this to series newcomers.
The reason is, essentially, that the difficulty curve will sometimes become a difficulty spike. Through the chest. The parts where you poke around the corners of SR388 are fairly stress-free, as the game provides ample health recovery and checkpoints so you can focus on exploring. The numerous mini-bosses, while initially challenging, soon become a little repetitive and fairly easy.
And then, out of nowhere, you’ll be thrown into the big boss fights where you’re forced to counter arcane attack patterns and master the kind of split-second dexterity that you had hitherto never needed. Even Dark Souls bosses look at Samus Returns’ boss fights and go, “Whoah, maybe dial it back a bit!”
You’ll need both crazy mad skills, and the patience to not go crazy mad on the umpteenth retry. Or, if you’re like my gamer mum, have a small child with better reflexes on retainer.
If you’re a newcomer to Metroid, I’d actually recommend that you first try Super Metroid, which is available as a 3DS and Wii U Virtual Console game. It’s one of the best games in the series (and incidentally my first Metroid game) and has, I feel, a more balanced difficulty curve.
Of course, if you’re already a fan of Metroidvanias, then absolutely get Samus Returns. And if you’re already a fan of Samus Aran, then try getting the Legacy Edition and all the new Metroid Amiibos, which, of course, unlock (arguably unfair) bonuses for your playthrough.
Metroid: Samus Returns is easily one of my favourite games of 2017, as it taps into the core *fun* of the Metroidvania genre – the thrill of exploration, brilliantly designed levels that are jam-packed with secrets, and clever new abilities that fill you with glee once you discover how they let you traverse previously inaccessible areas.
The game is a slick and beautifully presented package that I’d happily play in short sessions during a bus ride to work, or during marathon sessions on the weekend. As a series fan and someone who simply appreciates well-designed games, all I can say is: welcome back, Samus.
Metroid: Samus Returns
Metroidvania platforming game for Nintendo 3DS
Rating: Four stars
Price: US$39.99 (RM170)
Pros: Excellent level designs that promote exploration and discovery; the world map is practically a character in its own right.
Cons: Small boss fights get repetitive and easy while big boss fights can get insanely painful.