For a start, it looks stunning – the developers, MercurySteam, have done a phenomenal job with the look of the subterranean caverns you fight your way through, particularly the 3D backdrops. One memorable moment sees you traversing a gigantic cavern with waterfalls reaching off into the far distance, and one of the later boss battles makes some excellent use of 3D – it’s one game in which you’ll want the 3D slider turned up to max throughout.
And MercurySteam has outdone itself in terms of updating the gameplay of Metroid II: Return of Samus, the 26-year-old Game Boy title that serves as the basis for this remake. I attempted a playthrough of Metroid II a few months back, and I’m sad to say that it doesn’t hold up all that well to modern scrutiny. The basic gameplay is fun enough, but it’s brutally hard, with long gaps between save points and – almost unbelievably for a game about exploring – it has no map. I struggled on for a while, using maps from the Internet as a guide, but in the end I gave up somewhere in Area 2.
The remake does a fine job of sanding off the rough edges of the original while adding a few new tricks of its own. For a start, it has a map – praise the lord! – and there are now restart points just before major boss fights. The latter is an absolute boon, as I found myself dying repeatedly on some of the tougher boss battles while I gradually worked out their attack patterns.
And there are plenty of bosses to get your teeth stuck into – the game tasks you with hunting down 40 Metroids on their home planet of SR388 in an effort to wipe the malevolent species from the galaxy. They become more powerful and more highly evolved the further you go into the planet, so it’s a case of getting tooled up and adapting to their changing attack patterns. They even attempt to scarper if they start losing, so sometimes you have to hunt them down across multiple caverns.
And speaking of hunting, the feel of Metroid: Samus Returns – and Metroid II – is quite different from some of the other Metroid games. Whereas games like Metroid Prime and Super Metroid see you investigating mysterious incidents, often focusing on piecing together what happened and reacting to changing circumstances, here you’re very much the hunter, sent on a definitive mission to destroy a species. It makes for a game perhaps more focused on action than exploration, and the addition of a counter move in this remake reflects that focus on combat. The counter is great fun to use: a well timed swipe will bat the enemy away and leave it exposed for a one-shot kill, and it’s a great addition to Samus’s move set. Likewise, the four Aeion abilities that MercurySteam have added, which are all powered from a new Aeion meter that’s refilled by killing enemies, also add a great deal to the game, giving you more choice on how to approach battles and more options to consider when solving puzzles.
Sadly, however, there’s one thing that MercurySteam couldn’t really change, and that’s the structure of the game itself. Ultimately, it’s a fairly linear experience – the further down you go, the more abilities you gain, which in turn allow you to push further downwards. But in Super Metroid and Metroid Prime, one of the great pleasures of the game was in heading back to a previously explored area to unlock a new route with a newly gained ability. That’s here to some extent, in the sense that various missile expansions and energy tanks are hidden away on earlier levels, inaccessible until you have the right ability to obtain them. But there’s none of the elaborately looping paths of Super Metroid – the only way onward is down.
Exploring a previous area to simply gain yet another missile expansion is just not as much fun as heading back to open up a brand new route, and after I’d got up to 250+ missiles – far more than I’d ever need – the only reason I was tracking down the last few was to gain that elusive 100% completion rate. To be far, this criticism also applies to other games in the series – missiles (and power bombs) aren’t hugely useful in the game, so finding them all isn’t exactly thrilling. In whatever game comes next, it might be time for Nintendo to consider taking out missiles entirely, perhaps replacing them with another batch of unique collectibles – maybe individual artefacts that add to the lore of the planet you’re exploring.
So Metroid: Samus Returns is a little linear compared to other Metroid games, and missile expansions are dull, but aside from these minor gripes, I had an absolute blast with the game. It’s by far the best-looking 2D Metroid game yet, and I had a helluva lot of fun exploring the weird caverns of SR388, obliterating the wildlife as I went. Judging by their accomplishments here, I’d love to see MercurySteam take on a remake of Metroid Fusion next – or even come up with a whole new 2D entry in the series.