When it came to time for questions during our hands-on demo with Metroid: Samus Returns for the Nintendo 3DS, the very first thing we asked was, “Why now?”
That's because, one deviation aside, Samus Aran has been out of the public spotlight for seven years - it's been a whole decade if you trace her absence back to the beloved Prime series. Yet even still, if you were to ask a Nintendo fan to name the company’s top franchises, Metroid is a lock to be name dropped. This is 2017 though, and it’s fair to wonder how much relevance this storied but almost dormant franchise currently holds to the company. To this, we were offered just a single explanation by the Nintendo Treehouse members:
Metroid: Samus Returns is a “revisioning” of the classic Game Boy title Metroid II: Return of Samus, which released way back in 1991. That old, monochrome adventure continued the basics of the franchise: 2D platforming through nonlinear maps, the exploration of which reveals secret pathways, character upgrades and much more.
It was a formula so innovative for its time back in 1986 - after the release of the original Metroid - that it spawned a genre based on the two franchises that originally (a decade apart) employed it, still endearingly referred to as “Metroidvania” games. The second part of that portmanteau, the Castlevania series, is not so coincidentally attached to this project in the form of Spanish developer MercurySteam, previous developers of the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series and the team behind this new Metroid project.
And so it all comes full circle like a rolling Samus ball: Castlevania, Metroid and Samus herself, are all returning in one small package that was handed to us running on a New Nintendo 3DS XL, the 3D turned up full blast and speakers pumping those classic, ominous space vibes.
Much like the original handheld title, the game begins with Samus emerging from her signature helmet-shaped spaceship. Unlike the original title however, a full fledged cutscene with storyboards precedes any gameplay, allowing for a more modern take on storytelling within a game. Though if you’re worried that excessive story might bleed into the traditional isolation of the classic Metroid titles, don’t. Even the basic “how-to” dialogue text that teaches you how to use Samus was unobtrusive and functionally bypassable in this demo.
And every square inch looks the part of a murky planet without qualification: it all looks great on the 3DS.
As for the gameplay, Samus functions largely the same as she always has by using the system’s analogue stick, not the D-pad. She can jump, wall jump, shoot beams from her hand cannon and crouch, with more abilities slowly becoming unlocked as you discover them within the game. This time around, once unlocked, she can charge and hold a shot while still moving. Overall, it feels great. Her movement feels weighted but fluid, all without a hitch.
From a gameplay perspective, the game’s most obvious change is the addition of a melee attack, Samus swinging her hand cannon in an uppercut with just the push of a button. The attack is moderately powerful, and it noticeably has a few seconds of cooldown.
It may seem redundant or even sacrilegious to introduce hand fighting into the Metroid universe, but it became quickly apparent why Nintendo and MercurySteam did it. Aggressive enemies by and large produce subtle visual clues to their attack patterns, which if properly timed with an uppercut triggers a parry mechanic that deflects the enemy away while also stunning them, immediately allowing you to auto aim your traditional weapon fire straight into them. It’s an addictive play mechanic that feels sexy-smooth, and it’s just difficult enough to pull off that you’ll feel a rush of dopamine every time you land it. It’s a fantastic way to make the old feel new again.
Not new, however, is one important trademark of the series.
Within the demo we stumbled upon a massive shrine that subtly suggested we bring back something to its alter. Said our Nintendo Treehouse guide - “Nothing in the game screams out to bring something back here, which shows in part how the developers wanted to keep the exploration of Metroid intact.” This muted guidance is a crucial hallmark of the series, and we’re happy to report it seems carefully observed and upheld.
General exploration was easy thanks to the system’s second screen. The 3DS may be aged, but it still does the job. The game’s map unfolds on the second screen beneath the gameplay, which is so helpful it's hard to imagine life without it. Especially considering the original title didn’t have a map whatsoever.
Also behind second screen menus are a glossary of in-game items and terms, a current loadout of Samus’ abilities across her body, still unannounced amiibo functionality, and an icon mapping system that allows you to place up to ten permanent beacons onto the map, creating visual bookmarks for you to casually reference. Anyone who has played Nintendo’s recent blockbuster The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild will understand how immensely useful this pin feature may prove to be, and it's functionality that once again brings to mind MercurySteam's oft-overlooked Castlevania: Lords of Shadow - Mirror of Fate on 3DS.
As the demo progressed, what began as simple A to B progression quickly evolved, with more pathways making themselves options with hidden power-ups to those who could piece together their puzzles. Those familiar with the original game may have a leg up on everybody else; outside of Samus’ signature grapple beam, which was originally absent in Metroid 2, Nintendo was coy as to whether the game would feature any new areas or bonus gameplay. But the new presentation and modern aesthetic really made this feel like an entirely new experience in our time with it. It’s worth saying that the 3D effect created a nifty feeling of depth, making a two dimensional game feel much deeper for those who enjoy leaving it on. Seeing the planet’s nooks and crannies actually went a long way to making us feel alone and vulnerable.
Also helping players feel alone is the lack of omnipresent music. Again, this is an experience that presents music only when it wants to, making the remixed versions of classic Metroid tunes all the more impactful when they arrive. We’re not sure we’ll ever tire of this excellent approach to sound in games.
The game neared its end when we encountered the rogue Metroid present in the game’s reveal trailer. Here is where we’ve saved the best gameplay innovation for last: pressing the “L” button smoothly puts Samus in a standstill and her cannon on a 360 degree swivel, allowing you to precisely shoot anywhere around yourself. Never was the need for this more present than during this mini-boss fight, which combined with the aforementioned parry system, makes fighting larger enemies come alive.
We were jumping, diving, punching and aiming with the fidelity of a far more complex game, yet all within the confines of a 2D platformer. It all just works, and it feels as polished and refined as any game in the series.
In dramatic fashion, we disposed of the Metroid and in turn, our time with the demo. Having experienced it first hand, it’s that much harder to understand why Nintendo has left the Metroid franchise - in its traditional style, at least - on the backburner for an entire generation of potential fans. But whatever the real reason they have for doing so, we came away from the game feeling the exact same logic that was shared with us by Nintendo's team: