It’s hard to believe, but we haven’t received a proper Samus-starring Metroid adventure since Other M launched seven years ago - the role of Metroid Prime: Federation Force will always be disputed. Our chozo-suited heroine has finally come back to us in the aptly-titled Metroid: Samus Returns. It’s a reimagining of 1991’s Gameboy-only Metroid II, which is a direct sequel to the NES original.
Compared to both the original and Super Metroid, perhaps the best-known game in the series, Samus Returns is a bit of a different animal. Rather than focusing on finding and defeating space pirates, Samus is instead tasked with hunting down the remaining metroids on SR-388, the energy-sapping species's home planet. There are 40 metroids on the planet in total, and to unlock the way to new areas you’ll need to defeat the metroids in a given section of the map to drain some of the acid preventing you from moving onward. In each area there’s a statue that displays how many metroids you must find; when you defeat them, you’ll need to extract their DNA and return it to the statue to open the way.
All of what we’ve talked about so far is par for the course for a Metroid game, and isn’t unique to Samus Returns. As we mentioned, Returns isn’t a simple remake but instead a reimagining, and that extends to the gameplay mechanics. New to this game are Aeion Abilities; there are four of them and each gives Samus a unique new power. One allows you to reveal large portions of the map as well as find destroyable blocks in your immediate area, while another creates a lightning armour around Samus that will deflect damage; we’ll save the full list for you to find on your adventures. Each of these abilities is powered by a new gauge called the aeion gauge - each ability uses a small portion of the gauge and you can refill it by either countering or killing enemies.
Samus’s ability to counter is the second brand new component to Returns, and as its name implies it allows her to counter an enemy attack with one of her own. The counter is a powerful new tool in Samus’s arsenal but it’s not one that can be used in any situation. Many enemies will charge Samus, and you’ll need to precisely time your counter to match their charge. Every enemy that can be countered emits a telltale glow before their attack which will help you time your button press. Initially we had a hard time with this, but within a few attempts we were able to catch on, thanks to the brief tutorial the game provides in its opening minutes.
There are, however, some enemies that are impervious to the counter, and we feel the game doesn’t do the best job of explaining that. We encountered a Metroid early on that could cloak itself in energy and rush you. The counter wasn’t effective on the enemy, but the game didn’t really give us any clue that would be the case. It was only after repeated trial and error that we determined it wasn’t the timing, but rather that the enemy was invulnerable to the move. When you do land a counter on an enemy, they’ll be knocked back and left open for attack. In our experience countering enemies worked well one-on-one but was more difficult when there was even two enemies trying to come at Samus at the same time. Landing a counter with the right timing is immensely satisfying, though, as time slows for just a moment and the camera zooms in to emphasise the impact. We were initially skeptical of the mechanic, but a few hours in we find ourselves setting up counter attacks even when it’s not strategically necessary.
Both of these new abilities are interesting, but it seems unlikely that they’ll become staples to the series as a whole. The tweaks Nintendo EPD and MercuryStream have made to the series’ shooting mechanics should make their way into all future 2D entries, however. Rather than being limited to shooting diagonally, vertically and horizontally, by pressing the L button, Samus will now stand in place and you can fire in any direction. It’s a simple change that goes a long way. When Samus is aiming, her arm cannon will produce a helpful tracking beam so you can see where your shots will end up as well, making it easy to peg even moving enemies.
Beyond these changes, if you’ve played a Metroid title before you’ll be right at home playing Returns. All the face buttons still do the same duty, but directional movement has been moved to the Circle Pad as Samus’s new aeion abilities are mapped to the D-Pad. Pushing a direction on the D-Pad equips the ability while the A button activates it. MercurySteam has wisely chosen to move as much of the UI - including the map - as it can off to the 3DS’ touch screen, keeping the action up top as uncluttered as possible. This is a great decision because the game looks fantastic.
Moving a 2D metroid to use 3D models has really paid off. The result is the cinematic feel fans of the Metroid Prime series have come to love, with the tight mechanics and engrossing exploration that lovers of the retro classics have been yearning for. We enjoyed smaller details like sparks shooting from damaged doors, or being able to see heat distortion and flames licking out from behind doors where the environment beyond was too hot for Samus to brave without a suit upgrade. Tweaks like these make the game feel a bit friendlier to newcomers while not ratcheting down the difficulty as to be frustrating to seasoned veterans.
If you are needing that bit of extra help, however, the included amiibo functionality will give you a bit of a boost without breaking the game. Each of the four existing Metroid amiibo, including the two that will release alongside the game, grant Samus an energy, missile or aeion tank to help give you a refill when you’re running low. They won’t make the game any easier, but it should be enough to help those that haven’t spent the last couple of decades hunting space pirates. There’s certainly no shame in using these amiibo, however, as the challenge in Returns is the real deal. In the early going especially, before you’ve found too many energy tanks, enemies can take you out rather quickly if you’re not careful. As with many Metroid games, the game gets progressively easier as you locate more beams, missiles, bombs and suit upgrades, but the journey to get them is fraught.
We’ve been playing Return of Samus for just a couple of days, but we’re liking what we see so far. It’s a successful mix of elements from past and more current Metroid titles that comes off as the best of both worlds. The old-school challenge combines with a dash of modern convenience and visual flair to make something that feels simultaneously new and familiar. We’ll have much more on Metroid: Samus Returns as its release day approaches, but for now we must return to getting the last metroid in captivity and restoring peace to the galaxy.
Edit: This article has been updated to remove an erroneous reference to SR388 as the the planet on which the original Metroid took place. We regret the error.