It was about time. For some reason, Nintendo had left Samus Aran stranded on an unknown planet for many years, a full decade without a main entry, even with Metroid fans repeatedly asking for her return. A classic by-the-book return, that is. The story-driven experiment Other M failed to impress gameplay-wise, and with Federation Force also trying a new approach, they finally listened to those fans, and hence Samus Returns is here, a side-scrolling adventure on the 3DS ahead of her next immersive first-person odyssey on the Switch, Prime 4.
Now, enough wondering why this hasn't happened before, because what matters now is that the Metroid experience is back in full force and Mercury Steam seems like the perfect choice for the job, as the franchise's trademark gameplay returns with a very fitting modern twist.
A combination of throwback nostalgia and pretty cool, but nevertheless respectful new ideas, this reimagining is truly accessible to all players, no matter your previous experience with the series. Fans will, of course, enjoy the references and the many little, almost hidden nods, such as being able to spin attack as soon as you get your charge beam, how you can place bombs to reach higher ground when a morphball, or the legendary music playing in the lava areas. But the top-notch labyrinthine level design, along with the very satisfying abilities the bounty hunter acquires throughout her mission, make for a very compelling and renewed Metroidvania experience, especially now that we rarely see the genre outside of the indie scene.
The two main new features gameplay-wise fit Samus like a glove. The parry melee move, which seems more important during the first half of the game, feels both natural and rewarding and offers an interesting, well-integrated way to counter several types of enemies when they enter close quarters, as long as you react quickly and in a timely fashion.
The second one is so good that we'd love for it to stay in future iterations: the 360 aiming. Perhaps feeling a bit off for the first hour for long-time Metroid fans, it makes a lot of sense the longer you play, and opens up a whole range of new combat and puzzle possibilities. Especially when 360 aiming, but also in other situations, Samus's poses and animations feel as stylish as the game feels modernised, while at the same time cool, agile and useful, and no longer cumbersome due to old school mechanics.
With CQC counters and free aim in one hand, plus the usual plethora of upgrades (armour, rays, morphball, missiles, with a couple of new ideas as well) in the other, you have the tools to explore the intricate map full of secrets and hidden corridors, with ability-locked doors or areas you need inventiveness to access, offering you missiles and energy expansions. Add to this the new Aeion abilities, again fitting and stylish, and you have many, many parameters to consider, even if it's really accessible and easy to understand.
All this considered it rarely feels like a remake; for the most part, you'll think you're playing a completely new entry. A couple of additional modern touches that might feel irreverent to fans, at first sight at least, are the map scanner (one of those Aeion features), the teleport points, and perhaps the quick checkpoint system. However, all make for a more pleasant experience, most of the time. It's a bit of a spoiler to know there's a hidden upgrade nearby, but it's also cool to scan the rooms like in Metroid Prime in search of breakable blocks, and it doesn't tone down the sense of exploration too much as you still have to find ways and solutions to grab your rewards. In terms of teleporting it's the same; backtracking is still a must, so it's just a way to travel quickly between already cleared areas. And those quick "retry" points might prove useful when you're facing a Metroid room and don't want to walk from the (sometimes distant) last save point. In this regard, the option to add your own custom markers to the map is a really welcome addition.
However, and not only due to these navigation features, you rarely feel that usual urge to reach the next save point in the same way as you did in, say, Metroid 3 and 4. Nor the thrill when tackling bosses. Nor the absolute dread when the SA-X chased you in Fusion. It's not a matter of difficulty, as in our opinion it's well balanced, but more a matter of not achieving the truly thrilling and mysterious design found in other entries. Perhaps this actually has to do with it being a reimagining of the second entry, as it's clear the talent is there to produce a bit more excitement.
In this regard, the blandest design choice here is the Metroid hunt. There's a bunch of mutated creatures that you have to find and take down around the map to get their DNA sequence and to consequently unlock new areas, and even if the collect-a-ton approach makes for more open, free-roaming navigation (as much as it can, given your current abilities and constraints), the encounters themselves are dull and repetitive, far from the quality of the rest of the experience.
Other than that it's a truly enjoyable and thoroughbred Metroid, and in terms of visuals the 3D re-imagining not only adds an impressive stereoscopic depth effect; it also allowed the designers to create much richer environments, full of details across their several layers, and a stronger identity compared to the old school sprite patterns (there are large open rooms, or endless corridors going into the background). Texture quality takes a hit, but it's smooth, clean and, again, the animation impresses. And both music and the very fitting sound effects do a great job too.
The game is well paced, you gain abilities fast, and the moment you start to feel powerful the difficulty increases significantly, as it should. Samus Returns when fans needed it, and she does it in the best possible way: a classic, pure Metroid experience with a good range of well-thought, smart modern additions that plays better than ever. It's a better Metroid game than the latest interpretations, and Mercury Steam has proven that they have the talent, the love and the respect to bring the series to both old and new audiences, and we'd love to see them tackling more side-scrolling entries... or, why not, the game still shrouded in mystery: Metroid Prime 4.