Thursday, September 21, 2017

Metroid: Samus Returns Review

Metroid: Samus Returns is a remake of the 1991 Game Boy game, Metroid II: Return of Samus. They dropped the II for some reason. It was developed by MercurySteam, developers of the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow games, along with Nintendo. Series director, Yoshio Sakamoto, who was not involved in the development of the GB game, is credited as the producer of the game. Originally, MercurySteam wanted to remake Metroid Fusion, but Sakamoto wanted a Metroid II remake instead. I’m glad they decided on remaking Metroid II, because it definitely needed a remake more than Fusion, which I don’t think needs a remake at all.

Samus Returns takes place shortly after the events of Metroid (Zero Mission). The Galactic Federation decides that Metroids are too dangerous to stay alive and hires Samus to exterminate the remaining Metroids on SR388. If you’ve played the GB game, or any of the other games that retell the ending of Metroid II, you know where the story is headed. The biggest addition to the story comes in the form of the Chozo Memories, which are basically an art gallery you unlock as you collect items, like Missile upgrades and Energy Tanks.

The main method of progressing through the game has gotten a bit of an upgrade and is now tied into the story. In the original Metroid II, you opened the path to new areas by killing all the Metroids in one area, and making the lava recede. It made no sense and there was no explanation for it. In Samus Returns, you still kill Metroids to progress, but now you collect their DNA and put it into a Mayan calendar looking Chozo machine. When you put the DNA of all the zone’s Metroids in, the poisonous liquid will recede, opening the path forward. The story behind these locking mechanisms is explained in the Chozo Memories.

While Metroid II had a lot of the usual items and abilities, the level design was very straightforward and didn’t require the same kind of exploration the series has become known for. Samus Returns feels much more like Super Metroid and Zero Mission. Every area is full of obstacles that require specific abilities, hidden paths and items, and tons and tons of Morph Ball mazes. There are also plenty of reasons to go back to previous areas when you get new abilities, unlike in the GB game.

The Metroid battles are a big improvement over the originals. Every Metroid evolution has new patterns and attacks, and feel like real boss fights. Most of the Metroids in the original just lunged at you over and over. It was lame. The late game Metroid evolutions are especially cool. I love the Zeta Metroid, which looks like a Xenomorph Metroid, and crawls on the walls and ceiling. Some of the Metroids have even acquired elemental properties, like fire and electricity, which give them different attacks, keeping even battles against repeat Metroid forms fresh. There are also a few non-Metroid bosses, some of which are the most memorable in the game.

Samus Returns improves upon Metroid II with many of the the great things the series has done since then, so it’s baffling to see them keep one of the worst things about Metroid II in this remake, the refill stations. In Metroid II, there were save, health refill, and Missile refill stations, and they were all separate and scattered all over the map. It was a huge pain to refill your stuff and save, because everything was so far apart and only some enemies dropped health or missiles. Samus Returns completely ignores how later Metroid (and Castlevania) games fixed this problem. All the refill and save stations are scattered all over the place, and now they’ve also thrown teleports and Aion refill stations into the mix, so something as simple as refilling your stuff and saving before a boss becomes a huge ordeal. That’s 5 different things to travel to, to do what could have been done with two. Enemies also drop very few items and are on some kind of respawn timer, so grinding for items isn't as easy as in other games. This stuff is a huge waste of time. Metroid and Castlevania games have moved past this, so why are we going back to Game Boy era design?

The graphics in this game look fantastic. I imagine if Retro Studios had made Metroid Prime in a 2D perspective, it would have looked something like this. Every area has a very distinct look and all the backgrounds are full of detail. There’s Chozo structures and machinery, waterfalls, plants, creatures, and even bosses in the backgrounds. They put a ton of work into making each area much more than rocky caverns. I would have loved to have seen another 2D sprite-based Metroid, but this looks great too. They definitely put the polygons to good use here.

The music is a big improvement over Metroid II’s soundtrack, but aside from a few remakes, it’s just not that memorable. The weird chirps and boops tunes from the original have been replaced with haunting ambient music with some of the old sounds thrown in. Some of these new tunes sound more like something out of a horror movie than a Metroid game, though. All the boss battle themes are fast paced electronic music. I guess they were going for something like in Metroid Prime, but it sounds weirdly out of place. The remixes of songs, like the Maridia theme really stand out, because they’re the only ones that sound like real Metroid music.

If you’re a 2D Metroid veteran, you’re probably used to controlling Samus with the d-pad and aiming in 8 directions with the help of a shoulder button. In Samus Returns, you move around with the circle pad and aim in all directions by holding down the L button, but unlike in previous Metroids, you can't move while aiming with L. That means there's a lot of stopping and going now. It really slows down the combat. You also have to hold the L button down to cling to walls with the Spider Ball, instead of toggling it on, like in Metroid II. All this L button usage means you’re going to be holding your 3DS in a pinch grip that’s pretty uncomfortable, especially during long play sessions. I would have preferred regular 2D Metroid controls, like in Fusion and Zero Mission. Yes, the 360 aiming allows you to post yourself and shoot without having to move around so much, but I was fine with moving around in the other games.

Lots of items from all over the series make a return here. Most notable is the return of the Grappling Beam from Super Metroid, which hasn't been in any other 2D game until now. Unlike in Super Metroid, the Grappling Beam doesn’t become obsolete once you get the Space Jump. Since you can aim it in any direction now, you can use it to pull special blocks around, or pull yourself across spike-filled tunnels. I think they did a pretty good job with the returning items. They didn’t just throw all of them in because they could, and kept most of them useful throughout the game.

The big new ability is the parry, a melee attack in which Samus smacks enemies with her arm cannon. It doesn't do any damage, but if you time it just right, you can stun an enemy and kill it more easily. There's a big focus on this move and you’re expected to learn how to use it. Keeping the Metroid II tradition alive, a lot of the enemies have lunge moves, which you’re supposed to counter with this attack. The enemies will flash right before lunging at you, but the timing for each enemy’s attack is different, so this isn’t a great way to tell when you should press the button, you just kind of have to memorize all these different animations. I really don’t like this move. It reeks of Other M and slows the pace of the combat down even more. Thankfully, you can pretty much ignore it when fighting normal enemies once you get more powerful attacks.

Also new are the Aion abilities. This is what they used the d-pad for. These are new Chozo-made upgrades, which use a new resource called Aion. You get Aion from parrying attacks and killing enemies. There’s an ability that slows down time, a lightning shield, a machine gun-like beam, and one that scans the area, revealing breakable walls and uncovering the map. They’re not super creative. You could have probably rolled some of these into other items or gotten rid of them altogether and had a better game. Getting rid of yet another refill station, at least, would have been appreciated.

This game is far from perfect. It has some questionable controls and mechanics, and it doesn’t come close to touching the best 2D Metroids in terms of level design, but it is an OK game. It’s a huge adventure. It’s probably the biggest 2D Metroid game ever. It has tons of Metroid fan service, great graphics, and good boss battles. It’s a big step up from the Game Boy game, and I’m glad they made it. I just wish they would have taken a few hints from AM2R. Some control options and a few quality of life improvements would have made this a much better game.