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Metroid: Samus Returns

Platform(s): New Nintendo 3DS XL, Nintendo 3DS
Genre: Action
Publisher: Nintendo
Developer: Mercury Steam
Release Date: Sept. 15, 2017


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3DS Review - 'Metroid: Samus Returns'

by Chris "Atom" DeAngelus on Oct. 3, 2017 @ 1:00 a.m. PDT

Metroid: Samus Returns is a modern reimagining of the 1991 Game Boy adventure Metroid II: Return of Samus.

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Theoretically, Metroid 2 is an incredibly important title that represents the first appearance of the classic Samus Aran power suit (with bulky shoulders), and the plot points radiate throughout the franchise. As a Game Boy-exclusive sequel sandwiched between the genre-defining original and the classic Super Metroid, it was the awkward middle child. Metroid: Samus Returns, from Castlevania: Lords of Shadow developer Mercury Steam, has a difficult challenge ahead. It's been over a decade since the last 2D Metroid outing, and fans have a lot of expectations, but fortunately, Samus Returns proves that 2D Metroid is far from dead.

In Samus Returns, players are Samus Aran, who has lost all of her power-ups except her traditional mecha-suit and laser cannon. Gameplay begins on the surface of SR-388, the home planet of the deadly parasitic Metroids, and gamers must deeper into the planet. As players progress, they'll encounter various obstacles that can only be circumvented by finding new equipment, items and weapons, including grappling hooks, missiles, the ability to transform into a small mobile ball, and new suits of armor that allow Samus to survive in different environments. The goal is simple: Reach the lowest depths of SR-388 and wipe out the Metroid thread once and for all.

New to the Samus Returns update are Aeion abilities, four of which are unlocked as players progress in the game: a scanning ability that reveals surrounding segments of the map, lightning armor that reduces the damage taken, a booster for the main laser cannon, and a boost that temporarily slows time. All four abilities run on Aeion energy, which can only be gained by defeating enemies or finding certain power-ups. Each of the four abilities can be swapped at will, and multiple abilities can be activated simultaneously but at a proportionally greater cost.

The Aeion abilities didn't add much to the game. The cannon upgrade power can even kill specially armored enemies and greatly damage bosses, while the other three powers are situational at best. The lightning armor lets you take a couple of extra hits, it's rarely helpful to slow down time, and the scanning ability effectively adds more work to the basic ask of finding a map station. However, it's nice that it makes finding the map optional, which is fun for those who like to explore.

Combat in Samus Returns follows the basic formula of the older Metroid titles. There's the main weapon and missiles, and later on, players unlock super missiles, which do more damage but have limited ammo. Games gradually gain increased power as they progress, and they'll also get the ability to use the Ice Beam to freeze enemies in place, but by and large, it's pretty much point-and-shoot. Most enemies die quickly or have special tricks, such an armor plating, which requires you to be patient to shoot them.

New to Samus Returns is the Counter feature. Samus can swipe her arm for a basic melee attack that knocks back enemies and shatters frozen ones. If this melee move is carried out when an enemy is coming in for an attack, which is signified by a quick white spark, you'll counter the enemy. This will not only refill the Aeion gauge but also leave foes vulnerable to counterattack. Both regular enemies and bosses have these counter moments, and they're the most effective way to kill most foes, though the counter feature becomes less important as players unlock better weapons.

The counter is a nice feature that's integrated well in the game. It's never necessary but keeps combat feeling fast. You don't have to wait for weak enemies to show their vulnerabilities but can lure them into attacks so you can tear through them quickly. It also makes boss battles feel tense, as you have to put yourself at risk to do the most damage to your enemies. The low enemy variety means that once you learn counter tricks, you never have to adapt to them. Enemies who look similar, including the deadly Metroids, can be countered in the same way, and it gets repetitive after a while. The high-damage weapons unlocked later in the game mean that countering becomes less important right around the time it starts to get boring.

What sets apart Samus Returns from the other Metroid games is Metroids. In every other game in the franchise, the titular space jellyfish is a rare encounter that shows up near the end. In Metroid 2 and its remake, however, Samus is sent to the Metroids' home planet to exterminate them before they can escape and wreak havoc on the galaxy. As such, your goal is to track down and kill every Metroid in the area. There's a limited number of Metroids in the game, and you can't advance further until you exterminate everyone in the area. It gives the game a distinctive feel, as you're hunting down space jellyfish while looking for ways to advance.

The bosses are divided into two types: Metroids and regular bosses. Metroids are the most common bosses, and there's a small variety that you'll fight multiple times. Their patterns don't change much, and due to Samus' ever-increasing power, the battles get easier as the game progresses. Ironically, it's easier to kill the hardest Metroids than the earlier ones because your arsenal is more expansive.

On the other hand, the other bosses are easily the high point of the game. They present interesting challenges that encourage players to use every ability in their arsenal, sometimes in nonstandard ways. My favorite was a fight against a giant robot that constantly shifted and changed patterns, and players had to figure out how to damage him without taking damage. I looked forward to such challenges, and the downside is that these boss fights can be surprisingly nasty if you're not prepared. The aforementioned giant robot hits like a brick and has several attack patterns that require you to notice small hints so two-thirds of your health isn't obliterated in a single attack.

By and large, the level design in Samus Returns feels like a solid update of the Game Boy original but with enough new content and redesigns that it's pretty much an entirely new Metroid title with some familiar trappings. The flow of the stage is quite good, and you're never left in one area for too long. The game is also good about providing hints without forcing them on to the player. You can see where to go next but only if you hit an optional hint trigger. The game is fairly linear and structured, so there's less room to break the sequence than compared to Zero Mission and Super Metroid.

There are some pacing problems that drag down Samus Returns. The rate at which you get power-ups is rather skewed; some come in quick bunches while there's a long gap between others. This isn't a crippling problem but leads to a few areas where things feel slow. A bigger problem is that the very last upgrade comes in the last five minutes of the game. It's not a very interesting upgrade, but several collectibles are locked behind it, forcing you to backtrack through the game to collect what amounts to a couple of missile tanks and power bomb upgrades that can only be used on the final boss who's not particularly vulnerable to them.  I'd rather have gotten the content earlier when it felt like there were things to use it on, rather than having a last-minute power-up thrown in for no reason other than to add a few minutes of backtracking.

Visually, Samus Returns looks quite good. The character models are bright and well-animated, and they stand out against the environments, which feel a tad repetitive and lack the distinctive charm of some older Metroid titles. The enemy designs are lacking in variety, but almost everyone looks good, and the game runs smoothly. The soundtrack is atmospheric and contains some nice remixes of classic tunes. It's a 3DS game, so it shows some of the increasing limitations of the system, but it's a huge step up from Castlevania: Mirror of Fate, which was by the same developer.

Metroid: Samus Returns is a solid remake that doesn't reinvent the wheel or eclipse the high points of the franchise but represents an enjoyable and well-made return to what makes Metroid work. It's low on story and high on exploration, and that's all it needs to be. The frustrating moments are few and far between, and the 3DS iteration eclipses the Game Boy original in pretty much every way. It's a Metroid title that shows why the old 2D classics were popular, and it succeeds wonderfully. With a ton of hints dropped throughout the game about a new Metroid game after Samus Returns, it should be interesting to see what Mercury Steam can do with an original game.

Score: 8.5/10

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