Date: October 8, 2021
Metroidvania is one of the most popular genres out there, with titles such as Hollow Knight, Ori and the Blind Forest, Dead Cells etc. being among the highest rated games in recent years, by critics and fans alike. But did you know that the “Metroid” part of “Metroidvania” comes from the Metroid franchise of games, owned by Nintendo?
You might, but it appears that Nintendo doesn’t. There have been no new 2D Metroidvania Metroid games (a very funny sentence, admittedly) since 2002’s Metroid Fusion for the Game Boy Advance. If you’ve been waiting for the next Super Metroid, all you’ve gotten since are either spin-off games like 2010’s Metroid: Other M or 3D Metroid Prime games, so your latest fix was in 2002, which was forever ago — I checked my calendar.
Things got even worse for Metroid fans when Metroid Prime 4 got delayed indefinitely. But then, Spanish studio MercurySteam came to our rescue, impressing fans with 2017’s Metroid: Samus Returns for the 3DS — which itself was a remake of 1991’s Metroid II: Return of Samus for the Game Boy, so not a completely new Metroid game. It would appear that series producer Yoshio Sakamoto was also very impressed, as he gave MercurySteam the task of developing Metroid Dread for the Nintendo Switch, the first new game in the series since 2002.
Warning: This review will contain light spoilers.
Dread picks up the story where Metroid Fusion left off, serving as a direct sequel. It has very clearly been influenced by MercurySteam‘s distinct style, featuring fast and snappy gameplay, while still very much retaining the core of what makes a Metroid game, expanding it in one very interesting direction: horror.
No, not quite the Resident Evil or Silent Hill type of horror, there’s no jump scares or zombies or anything of the sort. If I had to put it in simple words, it would be more akin to 1979’s Alien movie. And boy does it pull it off: the game still induces fear in me even after having beaten it, and it’s all because of the E.M.M.I.
The E.M.M.I. are robotic enemies that you encounter throughout the game. They are initially completely invulnerable and will kill you in 1 hit, so you have no choice but to evade them, a task which is made extremely difficult by the fact that they can tell your location from multiple rooms away through sound. Fortunately for you, they only roam through specific parts of the map, called E.M.M.I. Zones, which have special doors leading up to them, so you always know you’re walking into trouble.
Unfortunately for you, you have no choice but to go through E.M.M.I. Zones in order to advance, usually only for a couple of minutes at a time — but those couple of minutes can be absolutely dreadful. You generally don’t know where you’re supposed to be going, so you have to explore a little bit, all while being terrified by the E.M.M.I.’s robotic sounds in the distance, worried you might get heard any second now. There’s even a film grain effect applied while inside an E.M.M.I. Zone, adding to that Alien-esque feeling of hopelessness and anxiety.
Eventually you get the Phantom Cloak upgrade that lets you become invisible for a short amount of time, helping you evade the E.M.M.I., but it never becomes an easy or relaxed task. The E.M.M.I. will still hear you in many cases, and if your Cloak starts running out of juice while the E.M.M.I. is nearby… run.
At some point in each area, something happens and you can finally damage the E.M.M.I., though it is still by no means an easy fight. I died a dozen times fighting the first E.M.M.I., until I figured out a strategy for defeating it. I cannot even begin to describe the feeling of having defeated the zone’s E.M.M.I. – elation and relief come to mind, as you can now traverse the area without the fear of death lurking around every corner. At least, that’s until the next area, where another E.M.M.I. lurks, with new, unique abilities.
Beyond the inclusion of the E.M.M.I., the core Metroid recipe has not changed much. You run around a huge world, exploring areas and fighting bosses in order to collect power-ups that allow you to explore more of the world, rinse and repeat. That’s the tried-and-tested essence of Metroidvania, and MercurySteam have executed it near flawlessly. They clearly learned many lessons from Metroid: Samus Returns, improving on it while keeping many of the things that fans loved about it, like the extremely responsive and precise controls.
Learning from the mistakes of Metroid Fusion, Dread is somewhat light on the story, which in turn helps it avoid being as ham-fisted with its narration style. You still get ADAM’s monologues, but this time around they’re scarcer, shorter, and only offer crucial details — they’re not as much of an exposition dump. We get some more Chozo lore and information on Samus’ background, which is certainly very interesting, but if I’m being frank, the story is not the driving force in this game — the gameplay clearly came first.
That isn’t to say it’s bad — it’s just not all-encompassing, which should please fans of the old classics which only offered up as much information as they absolutely needed to. I do wish we had gotten a more Metroid Prime-esque approach, where the lore is there for anyone seeking to discover it.
One thing that was promised with Dread was a more hands-off approach to exploration, making it more similar to Super Metroid than Metroid Fusion. I feel this was one of the areas the game lacked in, as it can be very on-rails and linear, at least at the start — you’re only really allowed to explore the world after you get to the 3rd area, likely a couple of hours in your playthrough.
That’s a fairly small complaint though, as overall the game has vast potential for sequence breaking, which die-hard Metroid fans will surely love. After I gained my freedom, so to speak, I ran around exploring every nook and cranny, particularly trying to get to secrets that the game would have me believe I can’t reach without a future power-up — and to my surprise, more often than not, I could!
Additionally, while the E.M.M.I. Zones are indeed very dreadful, the rest of the world isn’t. Basic enemies are extremely weak at the start and pose no threat whatsoever to the player, they’re just nuisances while you’re merrily strolling through each area. That lasts until the half-way point in the game, as a certain event causes enemies to power up and become substantially more threatening, finally adding some dread to the general world. I think if the world had started in that state, there’d be slightly more dread in Metroid Dread.
To make the difficulty issue a small bit worse, the weakness of basic enemies comes at a stark contrast to the difficulty of boss fights, which are VERY punishing the first time you fight them. I imagine this can be quite jarring for players who are new to the franchise, going from breezy-easy difficulty to super challenging bosses very abruptly.
But that specific criticism also pales in comparison to just how amazing boss fights are in this game in general. I would go as far as to say that they are some of the best boss fights in any Metroidvania I’ve ever played, and I happen to be a very big fan of the genre, so that is certainly no light praise.
But before we get to the awesome bosses, let’s address the elephant in the room: mini-bosses. There’s a multitude of them throughout the game, and they are definitely fun… the first time you fight them. The issue is that they can get fairly repetitive, as e.g. you end up having to fight one particular mini-boss 5 times. It gains a new ability each time, so it is never the exact same fight, but only the first and last time truly feel unique.
But then you have the actual bosses, which are the stuff of legends. I had vivid memories of my time playing Dark Souls while fighting Metroid Dread‘s bosses. They are difficult and feel unfair at first, but they instill a drive to persevere in you, due to how flawlessly they are choreographed.
What do I mean? Well, the first time you fight them you’re probably going to die, horribly. The second one, slightly less horribly. Then the third, something may “click” and you now understand what you need to do. Without spoiling anything, you will need to use your full arsenal in order to succeed, which includes abilities that many players may have not practiced much, like the melee counter. Simply put, the game will force you to practice.
This can be frustrating for new players, specially when you have no idea how to avoid specific attacks that feel unfair. Thankfully, MercurySteam made the decision to have you respawn right in front of the boss’ room, so you’re always just a few seconds away from trying again. It can feel rough, dying after several minutes of intense fighting, but the fact that trying again is that easy prevents you from getting demotivated. And eventually, you will know the entire fight like a dance routine you’ve grown to love, resulting in an extremely satisfying boss kill that makes you feel that you earned it, that you grew as a player.
All of this comes together thanks to the game’s impeccable controls. Anyone who played Metroid: Samus Returns or any other MercurySteam game knows that these guys can REALLY do controls, and they outdid themselves here. All of Samus’ tricks from Samus Returns are back, like the melee counter, and we get most series staples, like the morph ball and the fan-favourite Shinespark. There’s some new abilities, like the Flash Shift, which allows Samus to dash a short distance horizontally up to 3 consecutive times before it has to recharge.
There’s a clear focus on mobility in Dread, with many of the new and returning abilities revolving around movement, both during exploration and boss battles. Traversing the world is an absolute blast with all of your awesome mobility in the late game, and boss fights feel absolutely hectic, with emphasis on constantly dodging attacks and projectiles. If I had to describe it in simpler terms, the game feels a lot like Ori and the Blind Forest when you’re speeding around the world, and like a mix between Hollow Knight and traditional bullet hell games while fighting bosses.
And it all goes back to the controls. Samus’ movement just feels right, with the right speed and weight. Most abilities have very fast animations, and several of them can be cancelled into other abilities, so fights feel extremely dynamic. You never have to just sit there, waiting for the boss to attack, lest you get damaged during your own animation. The only exception here is the double jump. While every other ability feels intuitive and responsive, the double jump has “windows” you can activate it in that are not clearly indicated by an animation, unlike other abilities like the Flash Shift. You have to learn its strange timing via muscle memory, which can feel very off during hectic boss fights.
On the visuals front, Metroid Dread isn’t the most impressive game from a strictly technical standpoint. Like with most Switch games, models can have slightly low polygon counts and there’s a lack of anti-aliasing, which may or may not bother you. However, it’s still very much a gorgeous game to look at. What they lacked in processing power, MercurySteam have more than made up for with careful effort placed on the game’s environments and lighting effects.
I was captivated by the popping colors found in many of the lush environments the game had to offer, particularly during darker scenes, that let the various neon colors on Samus’ suit and on the enemies shine.
Finally, we have the game’s soundtrack. I’d be remiss in neglecting the game’s music, which does wonders to support the alien, oppressive atmosphere of the world in Metroid Dread. It is not quite on the same level as Metroid Prime, but when you notice it, you notice it. And it’s no wonder – series veteran and Nintendo music legend Kenji Yamamoto came back to reprise his role as music director, to the delight of Metroid fans. The man clearly understands Metroid, and for Dread in specific, appears to have gone out of his way to change up his style to accommodate the new horror / isolation elements.
After finally beating Metroid Dread, I just wanted more, even though I got a 100% clear rate. So I went back and did a speedrun on hard mode, which took me about 1/3rd of the time my first playthrough did. It was still a blast the second time through, so I’m certain I will do many, many more runs, and that’s something I don’t say for many games anymore.
I was heartbroken when Metroid Prime 4 got delayed, as the first Metroid Prime ranks among my favourite games ever. Metroid Dread has more than filled that void, unexpectedly finding its way onto that list with its riveting boss fights, extremely precise controls, and feelings of dread.
So my only hope is that there’s more. I sincerely hope MercurySteam make their partnership with Nintendo official so we can have more games like Dread — they have certainly proven they know the genre and the franchise. In the meanwhile, we can all relish in the fact that Nintendo finally remembered that Metroid exists, and the franchise once again sits where it should: comfortably atop the throne of Metroidvania games, a genre it is literally the namesake of.
Metroid Dread sends a clear message to other would-be Metroidvania games: the king is back!
Check out some beautiful screenshots from the game I took during my playthrough below!