Release Date: Oct. 8, 2021
Developer: Mercury Steam & Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo Switch
It’s almost hard to believe that “Metroid” is back. “Metroid Dread” is the first new “Metroid” game in over a decade, following the oft-maligned “Metroid: Other M” in 2010. “Dread” is also the first game following the original storyline in nearly twenty years, a direct sequel to the 2002 Game Boy Advance game “Metroid Fusion.”
The original “Metroid” games were never hugely successful but were so masterfully designed that they inspired an entire genre of video games that exists to this day. The Metroidvania genre, named for both “Metroid” and “Castlevania,” is known for the sidescrolling exploration of large environments, where finding upgrades allow players to backtrack and open passageways they’ve already seen, but which they did not previously have the tools to open.
The last time Nintendo produced a “Metroid” Metroidvania was “Metroid Fusion” in 2002. “Dread” actually entered development as a sequel to “Fusion” in 2005, but after starting and stopping several times, even being teased within other “Metroid” games like 2007’s “Metroid Prime 3: Corruption,” the game wouldn’t be formally announced and released until 2021.
“Metroid Dread” was worth the wait. Somehow “Dread” manages to be a revitalization for an effectively dormant franchise, a direct sequel to a twenty-year-old GBA game, a conclusion to the “Metroid” story that spans more than thirty years and five games, and an absolute blast to play.
“Dread” begins right where “Fusion” left off, but I wouldn’t suggest newcomers interested in this game make an effort to catch up with the older titles. Though there is a story connecting the five games of the main saga, it has never been much of a focus. There is a story for people like me who care to search it out, but it isn’t even necessarily communicated by the games. The only one worth playing for story is “Fusion,” which Nintendo has failed to make available on modern hardware. Fortunately, the game does a fine job of recapping what matters to “Dread” specifically.
Samus finds herself yet again trapped on an alien planet without her weapons and powers, something that just keeps seeming to happen to her. She has to rebuild her arsenal, investigate reported sightings of a deadly bioweapon, and find a way back to her ship.
To do this, players will need to explore vast two-dimensional environments fighting monsters and looking for upgrades. Each new piece of equipment opens further doors, allowing players to explore further and find further pieces of equipment. “Dread” does a really great job of constantly making the player feel like they are lost while also guiding them in the right direction to progress. I almost constantly felt like I wasn’t sure where I should be going, but never struggled to progress.
While exploring, Samus will often enter areas being patrolled by EMMI, a team of indestructible robots that can send a player to a game over screen with a single touch. These are described by the game’s director as the reason for the “Dread” title, as they hunt for Samus and introduce a unique horror element. The reason “Dread” was canceled so many times is reportedly because the EMMI mechanics could not be implemented how he wanted.
I was nervous about how these would be implemented, forced stealth sections that can end so quickly, but these actually wound up being a highlight for me. Fortunately, though the EMMI can very quickly put an end to Samus, the game pretty conveniently places the player right back at the door to the EMMI zone, placing the focus on completing the challenge of navigating the space and avoiding capture.
For this reason, the EMMI encounters totally worked as intense stealth challenges, whether hiding and waiting for an EMMI to pass, or desperately making a run for the exit after being spotted. Players also have a very brief window of opportunity to escape after being captured, which the game describes as being a desperate move and hard to pull off. I only managed the counter a couple of times, but it feels so satisfying when it works.
The other big challenge in the game is the bosses. There are a handful of really cool cinematic bosses in the game, and they are staggeringly difficult. I struggled a lot with the question of whether or not they are too difficult. Ultimately, though the difficulty was such that I had to walk away from more than one of them, the focus really is on learning each encounter, and even the hardest bosses in the game I eventually managed to learn such that I cleared them with almost all of my health remaining when the time came.
That satisfaction of mastering the fights is such that I pretty much entirely came around on the bosses. There are some individual moments or attacks that I would point out as being too opaque, but overall the bosses are some of the highest highs in the game for me.
Much of “Metroid Dread” is about making Samus the cool space bounty hunter she always has been. 2010’s “Other M” is often pointed to as the reason “Metroid” disappeared, and its poor characterization of the lead character is a big part of why. Samus in “Metroid Dread” feels like a direct response and rebuke to “Other M.” In this game, Samus is effectively a silent protagonist, but her personality and style shine through in nearly every scene. Subtle animations paint a very different picture of Samus than her last outing. Finally, Samus is capable, independent and dangerous.
“Metroid Dread” is a triumphant return for Samus Aran, and the game is reportedly selling extremely well. Hopefully “Dread,” though the conclusion of the “Metroid” storyline as we’ve known it, will be only the beginning of a resurgence for the series. The game doesn’t seem to tease any further adventures for Samus, but if a sequel to “Dread” ever surfaces, I’ll be beyond excited to jump back into the power suit.
If not for the difficulty the bosses create, I’d feel comfortable recommending this game to anyone. The exploration and combat is incredible, and the story isn’t enough of a focus to alienate newcomers. The bosses are really hard though, something Nintendo hasn’t made a point of in marketing, and which this franchise hasn’t been known for in the past. As long as players know what they’re getting into, there’s a ton of fun to be had returning to “Metroid.”