(Source: arstechnica.com)

Game details

Developer: MercurySteam
Publisher: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Release Date: September 15, 2017
ESRB Rating: E-10+ for Everyone 10 and Over
Price: $40
Links: 3DS eShop | Official websiteRemaking a popular portable game from more than two decades ago is a delicate balancing act. If you’re too faithful to the original, the new game will likely look and feel a bit dated after years of hardware and game design advances. Change too much, and fans of the original classic will wonder why you even bothered using the established template in the first place.

Remaking a popular portable game from more than two decades ago is a delicate balancing act. If you’re too faithful to the original, the new game will likely look and feel a bit dated after years of hardware and game design advances. Change too much, and fans of the original classic will wonder why you even bothered using the established template in the first place.

Metroid: Samus Returns on the Nintendo 3DS manages this balancing act pretty ably. Developer MercurySteam’s ostensible remake of the original Game Boy’s Metroid 2: The Return of Samus plays pretty loose with its source material, layering on new abilities, enemies, and features from later in the Metroid series as well as quite a few that are completely new to the franchise. Despite all the differences, though, the game shares a certain thematic familiarity with the very first portable Metroid that should please retro-minded fans.

The more things change…

Like the original Metroid 2, the overarching goal of Samus Returns is to track down all of the floating, amoeba-like, life-sucking Metroids hiding below the surface of planet SR388. Like almost every other Metroid game, this involves searching the maze-like underground caverns for suit upgrades that let you get past otherwise impassable barriers and enemies to find the Metroids’ hiding places.

The design of those caverns and barriers makes Samus Returns a joy to get lost in. Even when you’ve found the new ability you need to make progress, it takes careful observation and strong map-reading skills in the best Metroid tradition to figure out exactly where to go next or to find hidden upgrades peppered throughout the world.

Using the second screen

When it comes to navigating Samus Returns’ sprawling, labyrinthine caverns, the automatically populated map on the 3DS’ bottom screen is a huge help; just glance down to get your bearings at any time. The lower touch screen also gives you the ability to place colored arrows to mark spots you may want to return to later, which can free up some valuable brain space.

More annoyingly, large touchscreen buttons on the lower screen are also used to switch between certain weapons later in the game. Reaching over to tap the screen in the middle of a firefight is extremely awkward, making me wish there was a way to map these to an actual physical button.

Maximizing your power also means doing a lot of annoying backtracking through familiar areas, which open up more fully after you find later upgrades. Thankfully there’s a robust “fast travel” system that lets you quickly warp between statues to cut down on the rote travel time.

Maximizing your power also means doing a lot of annoying backtracking through familiar areas, which open up more fully after you find later upgrades. Thankfully there’s a robust “fast travel” system that lets you quickly warp between statues to cut down on the rote travel time.

Samus Returns starts you off with a slightly more powerful version of Samus than usual. This bounty hunter comes complete with the capacity to carry 25 missiles from the outset, and she quickly finds an ice beam and charge beam that lets her freeze most enemies in place easily. This comes in handy, because most frozen enemies can be utterly destroyed with a completely new, up-close melee attack. Why waste time blasting away when you can just freeze an enemy, run up, and smash it to bits instantly?

More than that, though, Samus comes to her latest adventure with the newfound ability to aim freely in 360 degrees. Hold down the L button, and the 3DS analog nub switches from controlling movement to controlling aim, complete with a faint laser sight to guide your gun arm.

It’s a liberating feeling for a character whose firing has traditionally been limited to eight (or fewer) cardinal and ordinal directions. It ends up changing the way you evaluate threats as a player, too. In previous Metroid games, half of the challenge was getting to a position that offered a clear firing angle without putting yourself in harm’s way. Now you can hit any visible enemy from any desired angle without worrying overly much about where you are (this is especially true after you find the wall-piercing wave beam).

The other big change to Samus’ suit this time around is an extra gauge of yellow “Aeon” energy. At first this can only be used to do a quick scan of your immediate environment, revealing destroyable blocks in the room and nearby rooms that would otherwise be hidden on the map. For someone like me, who can’t find my way out of a paper bag, this kind of gentle hint system ended up being hugely important to getting around. That said, more than a few times, I still found myself searching for the one secret passageway or hidden door I needed to continue.

As the game progresses, that same Aeon energy gauge can be used to provide extra armor, rapid-fire attack, or slow down time. Each of these is needed to progress past certain hazards, but they also open up the game’s combat options a little bit, especially in difficult Metroid fights. You’ll have to decide whether you want to devote your extra energy to offense, defense, or mobility to suit your own play style.

Upgraded foes

The enemies have adapted to Samus’ newfound suite of abilities, though. Where other Metroid games saw most enemies just move about in a limited preset pattern, almost every enemy in Samus Returns will charge at our heroine with a telegraphed burst attack shortly after spying her. You can technically dodge these attacks, but it’s usually easier to use a well-timed melee attack to knock them back and stun them for traditional gun shots.

Turning even basic battles into glorified quick-time events in this way might sound annoying, but I eventually came to value the way it let me make quick work of otherwise annoying enemies; just wait a second, knock them back, and move on to the exploration that forms your main focus. At the same time, the game introduces enough armored and electrified variations on a few basic enemy types to keep things interesting, especially when a few different enemies are forced together in narrow corridors. Enemies are more generous than normal with health and item drops in Samus Returns, too, giving encouragement to go for the kill rather than just avoiding them.

In contrast to the mere annoyance of the normal enemies, the frequent fights with dozens of Metroids throughout the game are a highlight. The titular enemies start off as simple floating energy suckers that can be easily warded off with a quick melee attack and a few well-placed missiles. Soon, though, you face evolved Metroids that can skitter quickly on the ground in between floating strikes, send out tough-to-dodge fiery or electric attacks, and rain down garbage from the ceiling to boot.

Looks aren’t everything

Being on the relatively underpowered 3DS hardware means Samus Returns looks noticeably blockier and lower resolution than portable games you can find on the Switch or modern smartphones. The game makes up for this somewhat with strong art direction that makes wonderful use of color to provide a believable underground world.

Despite being limited to two dimensions as far as gameplay is concerned, Samus Returns also makes some of the best use of the 3DS’ stereoscopic features, giving a real sense of depth to the heavily detailed backgrounds as you run by. People playing on a non-stereoscopic 2DS will be missing out on some of the game’s most impressive graphical features this time around.

The Metroids’ often hidden weak points and quick movements make it hard to sleepwalk through these battles, even after the fifth time you’ve fought essentially the same version of the enemy. There’s just enough variety to the battle arenas and Metroid evolutions to keep things from feeling too repetitive, though. And fighting these Metroids over and over also gives a good baseline to evaluate your power increase; what was a tough-to-defeat Metroid earlier becomes easier when you’re equipped with more Super Missiles, energy reserves, or an infinite “Space Jump.”

Thirteen years after the last two-dimensional Metroid game, Samus Returns feels like a return to form. The game’s basic maze-like structure and Metroid-hunting gameplay link it immediately to games like the original Metroid 2, while a cache of well-thought-out new abilities and features keeps it feeling fresh. As long as you think of it as a spiritual successor more than a straight remake, you’ll come away with the same feeling of satisfaction that the series is known for.

The Good

  • Well-designed, labyrinthine caverns to mine for secrets.
  • Huge cache of well-designed new abilities, including 360-degree aiming.
  • Memorable battles with titular Metroids.
  • Fast travel system to speed up backtracking.
  • Great use of stereoscopic 3D effects and strong art direction.

The Bad

  • Non-boss enemies can get annoying.
  • Graphics are noticeably blocky and low-res.
  • Some annoying touchscreen controls.

The Ugly

  • Going back to the 3DS cramped screen after playing the Switch.

Verdict: A more-than-capable entry that advances a storied action-adventure series while staying true to its roots. Buy it.

More Info: arstechnica.com

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