You know, there’s a reason why they call it 'Metroidvania' and not 'Castletroid'. As much as the Castlevania series took the whole ‘interconnected 2D map’ ball and ran with it over the past decade while Metroid fans had to do without, it’s Nintendo’s series that first defined the rules and, when handled properly, did it best.
Now here we are, a ridiculous thirteen years since the last 2D Metroid game (2004’s Metroid: Zero Mission), and it’s time for Samus to once again show why she’s the queen of the genre. And who better to make this happen than the team who, just a few years ago, breathed new life into the Castlevania franchise too?
Spanish studio MercurySteam is the outfit that’s been handed the hallowed keys to Nintendo’s sci-fi series, albeit under the watchful eye of Metroid co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto. The result is a game that feels unmistakably like a Metroid title – no doubt thanks to Sakamoto-san’s influence – but also introduces a host of new features that actually manage to improve on the classic formula.
This is particularly impressive when you consider Metroid: Samus Returns isn’t actually a ‘new’ game because it’s based on the Game Boy title Metroid II: Return Of Samus. Rather than a modern-day remaster, though, it’s a completely re-imagined take on the 1991 release. It’s been transformed so much that if you put this new release side-by-side with its predecessor, you’d genuinely struggle to see the similarities other than some enemy designs and the fact Samus is the protagonist.
One of the things that’s remained, though, is the plot (such as it is). Since it was released during the 8 / 16-bit era, it’s a fairly simplistic one: Samus has to head to planet SR388 – the place where the first Metroid was discovered in... well, the first Metroid – and make sure there are no more of the little sods left, so they can’t be captured by Space Pirates in the future and used for evil means. There are a total of 40 Metroids in the game, so it’s up to you to explore the large world map to find and destroy every last one of them.
All of the elements that make up your typical 2D Metroid game are present and accounted for in Samus Returns. As ever, you’re exploring a massive map full of areas that are initially inaccessible and, as ever, you’ll discover new weapons and abilities on your travels that will help you finally reach these areas. Samus is initially armed with little more than her basic Power Beam and missiles, but it isn’t long before she’s got the sort of powerful arsenal that Arsene Wenger could only dream of.
Those familiar with the Game Boy Metroid II will already be aware of some of the abilities Samus gains as you progress through the game. The likes of the heat-resistant Varia Suit, the Ice Beam and the High Jump Boots all make their return and are each conveniently located right next to a section of the map that requires you to make use of them in order to proceed (a classic method of encouraging you to discover how each ability works through experimentation, rather than just instructing you through a tutorial).
This being a complete reworking rather than a straight remake, however, there are a bunch of new abilities that weren’t in Metroid II. Some will already be familiar to Metroid fans because they appeared in later games: the Grapple Beam, Power Bomb and Super Missile from Super Metroid all turn up here too, mixing things up substantially and making for a far more varied adventure. Naturally, this is also one of the reasons Samus Returns only bears a passing resemblance to Metroid II: the entire game world’s layout has been completely redesigned to add new puzzles incorporating these abilities that didn’t previously feature.
More exciting though are the four completely new abilities which have never appeared in any Metroid game before (let alone just Metroid II). These are activated with a new yellow energy source called Aeion, which depletes as Samus uses them (it can be replenished with yellow orbs you get by defeating enemies). Since they’re new we won’t spoil them all, but it’s worth noting that the first you get – which turns up early on – is the most useful of the four. The Scan Pulse reveals some of the unexplored map layout near your location for a short while, but more importantly it also makes any hidden destructible blocks in the room flash.
This is a big deal because these hidden blocks are all over the place, and without the ability to easily locate them there would be a whole load of hit-or-miss frustration. Some will consider this taking the easy way out, but the days of getting lost in labyrinthian 8-bit games are over and this new feature ensures you’ll never get so completely stuck that you’ll get annoyed with the game, chuck it to the side and never finish it. It’s a simple ability, but it’s such a useful tool and makes Samus Returns far more entertaining as a result.
There are two even more revolutionary additions, however, which will completely change the way you play Metroid. These aren’t special abilities you unlock, but completely new combat moves that Samus has from the moment the game begins. The first is the melee counter: while you can keep your distance from your enemies and blast away at them with normal shots like you’ve always been able to, you can now also trigger a special counter move at certain times.
When most enemies get near you they’ll briefly flash then charge at you: if you can time it perfectly and hit the X button just as they reach you, Samus will parry their attack with an energy wave and stun them, leaving them wide open for attack. If you fire right after stunning them, most enemies can be finished with a single shot.
It’s an interesting addition that could have potentially gone so wrong – a 2D Metroid game that encourages you not to shoot on sight? – but it’s actually immensely satisfying and learning the timing for each enemy attack gives such a rewarding feeling. By the time you’re only five or six hours in you’ll be strutting through corridors, brushing all manner of ground and air-based enemies out of the way like Uma Thurman at the end of the first Kill Bill. It gives the game a sort of 2D Arkham Asylum feel to it at times, and you feel cool as hell if you can pull off a string of counters.
The other major combat addition is Free Aim. Throughout the entire history of 2D Metroid, Samus’ attacks have always been locked to eight directions: horizontal, vertical and diagonal. For the first time you can now hold the L button to aim your shot, with a laser sight attached to Samus’ Arm Cannon. The level of freedom this gives you while playing is tremendous: you can easily pick off enemies climbing walls, take out baddies who are on a platform just slightly below you or hit grapple points that don’t happen to be precisely above you, or at 45 degree angles.
It may sound like an exaggeration, but once you’ve spent time with the Free Aim you’re going to wonder how you ever managed to do without it, and will possibly struggle when you go back to older 2D Metroid games. The laser sight even glows when you’re aiming at an enemy or other viable target, which means you can continue to aim at a creature even if it wanders off-screen, or hit grapple points that are way above you. It’s fantastic.
The Metroid series is generally known for its spectacular boss battles but Metroid II was the exception, instead focusing on a load of smaller fights. Samus Returns follows suit; instead of a bunch of big battles, the 40 Metroids you have to kill instead serve as mini-boss battles of sorts. These Metroids come in five types – each representing a stage in the creature's life cycle – and as you progress through the game you'll come across increasingly more advanced versions. As you work your way through these variations they'll also pull off a wider variety of moves; some will fire large energy bursts, others will drop to the ground and scuttle towards you, others will run off into the walls mid-battle and require you to find them again in another room to continue the fight. While the idea of 40 slightly evolving mini-boss battles may seem a little repetitive to some, these fights do make bagging each Metroid feel like more of an accomplishment than simply locating them would be. And don't worry, there's still at least one big fight in there, but we're saying no more.
Samus Returns plays great, then – but it looks sensational, too. Given that we’re talking about a move from the monochrome 8-bit Game Boy to the 3DS, it should come as no surprise that this ranks as one of the most stark leaps in quality from original to ‘remake’ that we’ve ever seen in any game on any system. That said, MercurySteam has gone above and beyond the call of duty: this game doesn’t just look better, it looks phenomenal. It’s not necessarily in the way Samus or her enemies look or move: you more or less know what you’re getting there so while they look detailed enough, it is what it is. The jaw-dropping element is the background environments, which are so detailed and give such depth you often forget you’re playing on a 2D plane.
Creatures occasionally wander around in the distance. Industrial areas span back as far as the eye can see, with demolished robots and pneumatic presses showing there was once intelligent life on this planet. In one section, a faraway stone pillar crumbles as you walk past, emphasising that the environment is unstable. The whole thing is mesmerising: Metroid fans will spend half the time looking into the distance instead of what’s going on in the foreground: this is a planet they’ve explored before in Metroid II, but that game had a completely black background: they’ve never actually been able to see or study SR388’s environment in this much detail.
Better still, the game makes incredible use of 3D. The 3DS’s original main gimmick may have been relegated to a mere quirk these days, but Samus Returns’s magnificent backgrounds are an even greater spectacle when they’re given real depth and you get to see just how far into the distance they stretch.
MercurySteam has prior form in this regard, as its handheld Castlevania game Mirror Of Fate is already one of the best 3D games on the 3DS (the theatre section is a personal highlight). The studio has far and away outdone itself here though, and for once anyone with a 3D-enabled system who usually has the effect turned off may find themselves sliding that dusty slider back up to the top (especially on an XL, where the effect is nothing short of an auto-stereoscopic showcase).
Not only are your eyes being treated here, your ears also get the VIP experience. The terrific soundtrack offers grandiose versions of the classic Metroid stings, while fans of Metroid II will be chuffed to hear modernised takes on many of the Game Boy entry’s often forgotten themes. The entire package, both in terms of sight and sound, makes for a gushing love letter to all things Metroid.
It’s big, too. Far, far bigger than Metroid II, in fact. The Game Boy version could be completed in around four or five hours: indeed, beat it in less than three hours and you got to see Samus in a bikini (look, it was a different time back then). This is far from the case with Samus Returns, thanks to the completely redesigned map and the addition of all the new features and abilities. Put it this way: we played through the first few hours of Samus Returns at a solid pace. We didn’t really get stuck and only died once or twice during that time. After four hours – roughly the time it takes to beat the Game Boy version – we decided to save the game and check the save file to see our progress, just for the sake of comparison. With exactly four hours on the save file we were under a quarter of the way to the percentage completion. And that’s on normal difficulty, before you unlock Hard mode (or use the new Samus amiibo to unlock Fusion mode).
Don’t be fooled by the connection to Metroid II: this game has been revamped, redesigned and rejuvenated to such an extreme degree that to all intents and purposes it’s a brand new adventure. This is far and away one of the best Metroid games ever made, and one of the best examples of the entire Metroidvania genre as a result. Melee counters and free aiming have made combat feel fresh and exciting again, while the environments are incredible – especially when viewed in auto-stereoscopic 3D. It’s a given that this is a must-buy for Metroid fans, but it’s also essential for those who’ve never played a 2D Metroid and want to see what the fuss is all about. This is what the fuss is all about, and the wait was so, so worth it.