When Metroid Dread was announced, I kind of freaked out. That reveal trailer was a real rush. First, we saw the Metroid 5 text. Woah. Then, we saw that the title was Metroid Dread. No Way. Finally, we got the imminent release date. Whaaaat! It was the classic three-hit combo that sent me to the edge of sentimentality. I had wanted this for so long. One of my favorite Nintendo franchises was coming back with a vengeance, finally executing on design ideas that persisted since the DS era. We were finally getting the sequel we never got back in the mid-00s. It was a huge moment, and one that certainly wasn’t guaranteed. Needless to say, I was deeply excited and relieved that finally our cries for a brand-new Metroid weren’t just shouts lost into the abyss.
No, that certainly wasn’t the case, because MercurySteam heard all our calls and responded with what is perhaps the single greatest Metroid game of all time. Let me hit you with a TL;DR right here: I love Metroid Dread. Go play it right now. It is not only my favorite game of the year by a wide margin, but also my favorite Nintendo-published game since Splatoon 2 all the way back in July 2017. But since that alone won’t suffice as a review, I suppose that I’ll explain why Metroid Dread is such a revolution.
the magic of great movement
It all begins with how MercurySteam modernized Samus herself. For being an agile, badass bounty hunter, Samus Aran used to be oddly methodical in her movement. Sure, once she could shinespark six ways from Sunday and Space Jump to Zebes and back, Samus could zip around her older outings with no trouble. But for the majority of most Metroid games, running, jumping and the like were deliberate in a way that felt distinct… but also a bit stiff. The GBA titles helped on this front, and there is certainly a tempo to older Samus’ actions that flowed once you felt the rhythm for it. But even the most optimal movement then absolutely pales in comparison to even the most suboptimal movement in Dread.
Samus has been outfitted with a wonderful array of new movement options from her slide to others that I won’t spoil here. Unlike Nintendo, I want you to discover some things in this game on your own instead of revealing everything myself… but I digress! The point is, Samus has never felt better to control. From wall jumps to shinesparks, what existed before is more intuitive now. And what existed before has been supplemented with fresh mechanics and animations which finally realize Samus as the super acrobatic, empowered protagonist that we’ve always imagined.
This has a direct impact on the success of Metroid Dread’s moment-to-moment gameplay. Samus’ fluidity instantly buoys every facet of the experience. Platforming feels so much more natural and nimble, which makes backtracking and exploration totally seamless. Combat is much more engaging too, because Samus’ movement allows for enemies to attack in more complex ways. The act of evading and striking them is so much snappier as a result.
Plus, MercurySteam also complicated its counter system from Samus Returns, which was effective albeit too simple in that 3DS adventure. Here in Dread, counter windows are a lot more varied, making it harder to head-empty parry and blitz each foe in Samus’ surroundings. This point in particular speaks to how the studio is already evolving its own formula, as Dread sharpens many of Samus Returns’ duller elements beyond the counter, such as the Aeon Ability system. It returns here and enables a host of compelling powers, but it’s recontextualized as a rechargeable gauge instead of a depleting resource as it was before. This is a small change, but one that pairs nicely with Samus’ new Aeon abilities.
exploring the depths of zdr
In short, the fundamental Metroid gameplay returns here, but it returns with a much slicker coat of paint. The success of these base level mechanics builds the rigid foundation that the rest of Dread sits upon. One of the most effective elements beyond that core gameplay is what frames the entire adventure. Or, more aptly, the location which houses it. The planet ZDR not only manages to recapture the nonsensical but nonetheless intriguing naming ethos of SR388, it also manages to be beautifully designed.
The cornerstone of a good Metroidvania is a good map, and Metroid Dread has a great one. From a conceptual standpoint, ZDR is wonderful. Its landscapes are geographically varied yet decidedly cohesive. Its backgrounds stretch for miles, dotted with detail and complete with environmental storytelling beats. In this sense, ZDR’s vibrancy reminds me a lot of Tallon IV and the general storytelling modes used in Metroid Prime. That’s a very high complement, and a testament to how MercurySteam did a wonderful job looking across this franchise for inspiration.
In doing just that, Metroid Dread found a wonderful balance between Metroid Fusion and Super Metroid in terms of map design with respect to progression. Metroid Fusion, for as much as I love it, is barely a Metroidvania in my eyes. It centers its narrative so directly that exploration is basically null. Samus took explicit instructions on where to head next from the navigation computer, removing any need to figure out where to go. Player-driven exploration is so important to the genre, and Fusion largely undercut that. On the other end of this spectrum is Super Metroid, which basically drops you on Zebes, says “???” and asks you to figure everything out on your own. This works, but left progression feeling awfully abstruse from time to time. Both styles have their merits, but neither felt ideal.
Metroid Dread takes Fusion’s narrative focus and Super’s openness and synthesizes them into something wonderful. There is a lot of Fusion-like plot here, and Samus’ story is concluded in a truly satisfying, surprising way (no spoilers) but it never becomes overbearing from a gameplay standpoint. How you get from A to B is largely your problem, and this facet of the structure is very Super-like. But, progression never feels aimless here like it can in that game. In part, this is because MercurySteam is very good at designing maps which offer strategic bottlenecks which push the player toward a goal without showing an overtly linear hand. That said, there are the occasional moments where the path forward is hidden behind arbitrarily breakable walls. These instances are few and far between, but they’re surprisingly sloppy in a game that is impeccably designed otherwise. Luckily, these are the scant exceptions to the rule.
The map screen itself does a lot of heavy-lifting by offering a wealth of information, such as exactly where you can use newly acquired powerups in old areas. Before, when you got, say, the Speed Booster, you’d have to remember all the places that it could be used across the map. It was a memory exercise, and a frustrating one at that. In Dread, you can pour over the map and see exactly where you encountered Speed Booster blocks so that you can revisit and break them.
This is the sort of streamlining that adds to a sense of exploration instead of diluting it. You’re offered various threads to pull on and places to investigate. Sometimes you’ll be rewarded with the path forward, and sometimes you’ll be met with another missile upgrade. Either way, you will have gone there of your own volition, and will not have been stumbling around blindly as a result. Due to choices like this, I spent a lot more time exploring for missiles and E-Tanks than I usually would because it was just so natural to do so. And again, Samus just felt great to control, which made this sort of backtracking even easier.
a bit about the bosses
But make no mistake, Metroid Dread is not an easy game. But, it’s not that hard either, at least in my opinion. It’s satisfyingly challenging, but never too difficult. Between great auto-checkpoints, plentiful save rooms, and really understandable enemy patterns, achieving mastery in Metroid Dread is not only doable but right within reach. Every time a boss would kick my teeth in or an E.M.M.I. would catch me, I felt empowered to make progress on the next attempt because I learned something new with each life. I got a better sense of how a foe moved because of how clearly every attack was telegraphed, and I was able to consistently use that to my advantage. I never had to put in more than five tries on any given boss, and that is due to how cleanly they’re all designed.
That said, there is a bit too much repetition on this front. If I had to point to one clear problem with Dread, it would be this. The E.M.M.I. fights are perhaps the most disappointing example. The E.M.M.I.s themselves are awesome. When you have to flee from one, it checks the boxes that the SA-X was never able to. They’re genuinely frightening and really well balanced. You’re always under their upper hand, but never to the point where meeting one feels oppressive. They’re consistently a foreboding challenge, but then you have to fight one.
The first time, it’s really empowering to finally land the killing blow. And that’s true for each encounter. But by the last one, I was wishing for a bit of mechanical variety in the fights. That never materialized unfortunately, which is likewise the case for some late-game foes which appear time and time again with nearly identical patterns and phases. This is just underwhelming given how excellent the bosses are on the whole. Had this repetition been addressed, then the bosses would’ve been an across-the-board success. As it stands, they’re largely awesome, but there are a few exceptions.
But, largely awesome pretty much sums up Metroid Dread. MercurySteam’s sophomore Metroid outing is as confidently designed as it is cool. The game radiates style and love from every screen. I just couldn’t get enough. I forced myself to only play a few hours a day in order to make the adventure last longer. I did not want to leave ZDR. Samus’ big Switch debut is nothing short of wonderful, and MercurySteam is nothing short of impressive. Given the team’s exponential improvement between Samus Returns and Dread, I can’t wait to see what their next adventure will hold. And luckily, I don’t think we’ll have to wait twenty years to find out.