There are few games lonelier than Metroid. The series has always derived power from stranding players deep inside some hostile alien world, then letting them stew in moody, haunting music and subterranean seclusion. Recent games—most notably, 2010's Wii-based Other M—have toyed with that formula, adding in more structured story elements, characters, and dialogue. The addition of all that noise to the blissful silence has rarely been a plus. It’s something of a relief, then, to find that the series’ first “official” outing in years, the aptly titled Samus Returns, dispenses with all that newfangled storytelling nonsense pretty much from the moment it finishes its opening expository crawl. In a narrative sense, this is Metroid in its purest form: No talking; just Samus Aran, ominous extraterrestrial caverns, and a ton of alien parasites for her to put down.
A reimagining—à la the Game Boy Advance’s Metroid: Zero Mission—of the 1991 Game Boy title Metroid II: Return Of Samus, the plot sees heroic space warrior Samus in full-on bounty hunter mode, tasked with wiping out the dangerous Metroids before they can be weaponized by enterprising Space Pirates to threaten the galaxy yet again. To that end, Samus makes her way to the species’ home planet, where she performs all of the typical Metroid activities—jumping, exploring, morphing into a ball, shooting, and decking herself out with a massive arsenal of conveniently placed tools and toys—along with a few new tweaks. These range from inoffensive, like a shield that burns through a store of refillable “Aeion energy,” to marked changes to the rhythm of how these games play.
One of the most notable new additions is a melee counter attack, which can be used to expose the weak points of charging enemies and score an easy kill. It’s satisfying to pull off, complete with a flashing light and encouraging noises every time you do, but it also speaks to some wider changes in the way Samus Returns handles its fights. Namely, they’re hard as hell and frequently more inconvenient than seems necessary. By giving Samus a way to avoid damage, the game apparently feels empowered to then pile it on in all sorts of other circumstances. Every hit Samus fails to counter or otherwise suffers snatches a surprisingly sizable chunk off her life meter, and even regular enemies frequently require countering or specialized weaponry to easily kill. (Presumably to compensate for the fact that there aren’t very many different varieties of them littered throughout the caverns of SR388.)
That gets cranked up even higher in the fights with the actual Metroids, who come in a variety of evolved forms, from Alphas all the way up to the Queen herself. Here, at least, there’s something like a real learning curve at play. The first time you encounter a fire-breathing Gamma Metroid, capable of setting the floor you’re standing on aflame for a quarter of your health, you’re probably going to die. By the time you’ve killed your fifth one, you’ll be an accomplished, alien-hunting veteran, dodging every attack with space-faring élan.
And you are going to fight a lot of them. It’s a consequence of Samus Returns’ throwback design to the original Game Boy game, which gated forward progress by making the player kill off every Metroid in an area before allowing them to move on. While these individual spaces are often big enough to trigger the classic Metroid feelings of cave-crawling solitude, the underlying linear structure—moving from numbered area to numbered area in sequence—is never going to be as exhilarating as the majestic sprawl of something like Super Metroid, still the pinnacle of the series’ map design. At least Samus Returns adds in an auto-map of the planet to aid hunting the Metroids’ lairs, complete with a proximity-based tracker designed to narrow down where each of the little suckers are hiding.
That tracker is just one of several convenience features Samus Returns bolts onto Metroid II’s 26-year-old skeleton. Teleporters now abound to cut down on backtracking, while advanced Metroid techniques like wall-jumping and bomb-jumping have been made easier to pull off. It also feels like the game doles out Samus’ more powerful exploration tools, like wall-crawling or the limited flight of space-jumping, at an accelerated pace, although that might just be a consequence of the game’s relatively light playtime (roughly eight hours).
But the most significant of these time-saving additions also points to Samus Returns’ occasional over-eagerness to sand off its source material’s rougher edges: the Scan Pulse ability. It’s one of the first items Samus gets, sending out a ping that marks uncollected collectibles on the map and causing any and all undiscovered breakable blocks in the player’s vicinity to start flashing and beeping for roughly 30 seconds at a time. Metroid games have played around with this kind of exploration assistance before—most notably with Super Metroid’s X-ray Scope—but those always required some level of active investigation on the player’s part before they could be employed. Scan Pulse is much more passive but pervasive; fire it up, listen for the beep, and start hunting around for the road to the item you definitively know is there. If time runs out, just fire it up again, and repeat until every segment of the map has been exhausted.
And if that seems like an unfairly strong negative response to a minor piece of hand-holding, it’s worth remembering how key the scavenger hunt for secret items and hidden paths is to Metroid. There’s something disheartening about seeing such a firmly cultivated sense of mystery offered up on the altar of convenience, even if the ability presents itself as an almost irresistible temptation. That’s at least partly thanks to the graphics—a lovely 2.5-D presentation that gorgeously masks these maps’ Game Boy origins—which are frequently too busy to make out the fine details such item-hunting would otherwise normally demand.
Samus Returns is an imperfect Metroid. Its exploration is just a little too simplistic, its levels are a tad too cramped, and its combat is just a hint too unforgiving. But it is, undeniably, a Metroid game, and that has become a precious rarity in a world where the best we otherwise get are games like last year’s utterly forgettable Metroid Prime: Federation Force. For all its minor failings, Samus Returns fundamentally feels like Metroid in dozens of little ways that add up to an aesthetic satisfaction that easily overcomes its flaws. It’s all in the little details: the handling of Samus’ spin-jumps, the way she aims her arm cannon, the irresistible musical sting that accompanies every hard-won new toy. It’s been a while since anyone made a real Metroid game, and for all its minor faults, that’s what Samus Returns is. For the first time in years, she’s back, and finally, so are we.