I wonder what it must be like to be a gamer playing Metroid Dread as their first “Metroid” experience?
I owned Metroid for the NES and wore the cartridge out. Like many my age who had the game, I had a huge map of Zebes drawn with colored pencils, as large as four notebook pages taped together. I consulted it so often I ended up just thumbtacking it to the wall above my TV. Even then I knew the value of being able to consult a map while playing the game. The first Metroid was a chore to get through, and when I say I wore the cartridge out I don’t just mean running through frustratingly similar-looking hallways, I mean trying every possible password combination I could think of to try and unlock some new powerup. Trying to play the game from start to finish was brutal, not just because the difficulty was “Nintendo hard,” but because every hit from an enemy knocked off a stupid amount of health, and deaths meant having to grind through enemies to get back to full strength. There were a lot of brilliant ideas in that first game, but the total package was raw and unpolished. It felt like a game held back by the limitations of the system and in need of a little more testing and refining.
When the sequel was released for the Gameboy, I had it and it basically never left the console. I grew up on a farm out in the middle of nowhere, so going anywhere—even to get groceries with my mom as a child—was at least a fifteen-minute drive, plus another fifteen to get back, plus a good hour wandering around the local Piggly Wiggly. I didn’t mind because while my mother was choosing between jars of pickles I was deep in the caverns of SR388. No matter how many times I beat the game, I kept going back to it, determined to beat it faster and faster than before.
Super Metroid is the perfect game. Modern players will criticize the sometimes random solutions to puzzles (“just bomb that corner over there that looks like nothing out of the ordinary….then just walk through that wall that isn’t actually a wall but looks just like every other wall. Obviously.”), the floaty jumping, and the dedicated run button, but we players who grew up with it can’t help but see it with rose-colored glasses. The mood, the music, the environments, the enemies, the pacing, the insane sequence breaking, the memorable ending; it all adds up to an experience unlike any other. My “best games ever” list shuffles around a lot, but the top-top entries have never changed: Mario 3, Chrono Trigger, and Super Metroid. To me, when I think of Metroid this is the game that comes to mind. It took everything that was attempted in the original, plus all the new mechanics and concepts of the Gameboy entry, and brought it all together with a stunning 16-bit coat of paint. For my money, it’s never been bested as a 2D adventure experience.
Metroid Fusion was never going to be able to supplant Super Metroid. It had too many things working against it, particularly the limitations of a handheld (with two fewer buttons than on the SNES) and the reputation already solidified around the SNES release. That said, Metroid 4 did manage to add something new to the franchise, and that was the occasional feeling of abject horror. The controls were refined a bit and the progression through the game was a little more hand-holding than in the past, but in the end, it was the same Metroid experience, albeit just different enough to be a new entry in the series. As with the others, I played it, I liked it, I was happy to have it, and when I was done, I was eager for the next one.
In the meantime, the Metroid Prime games managed to translate the series to 3D better than any 2D-to-3D conversion since The Legend of Zelda. I own all three titles and played them exhaustively, but despite how much I love Prime 1, appreciate Prime 2, and can enjoy a lot of Prime 3, none of them brought out the same feelings as the 2D entries. By the time I played Prime 3, I was already a dad with a newborn. I was an adult who still played video games, though not as fanatically, and I tended to revert to the titles I grew up with whenever I had time to play anything. I was more likely to play Bump-n-Jump for the NES than I was Halo or Call of Duty. Whenever I would get the itch to play Metroid, it was usually Super Metroid that I fired up. My hopes for a DS 2D Metroid game never materialized, and by the time the official remake of Metroid 2 came out for the 3DS, I had a trio of kids all hogging the system.
I was just beginning to think I was never going to get a proper console Metroid game again, at least not a 2D experience, so you can imagine my shock and euphoria when Nintendo announced Metroid 5 was finally coming and that it was the long-rumored title code-named “Dread.” The day I downloaded the game for my Switch was the first day I’ve sat down to play the thing in months (in the meantime, I’ve been dying a bunch in Sekiro on the Xbox Series S).
My kids were even a little surprised when I told them they were all forbidden from playing the system for the next week or so. Just between you and me, I was hoping they would get bad grades in school or get into a fight or something; anything so I could ground them and take the Switch without having to listen to their pity parties.
You can’t win them all.
So how is Metroid Dread? Does it live up to the decade-long hype? Does it earn its place as a numbered title in the mainline 2D Metroid series? Does it unseat Super Metroid as the best game in the franchise? First, it is excellent. Second, it does live up to the hype. Third, it absolutely earns its place as “number 5.” Finally…no, it’s no Super Metroid.
But that could just be me being a grumpy old man.
The problem with Metroid Dread is a “me” problem, not a “game” problem. The problem is I have almost thirty years of muscle memory playing Super Metroid in me that can’t just be switched off overnight. Playing a 2D game with a control stick, free aiming with the L-button, switching to missiles with the R-button, parrying with X, sliding! Sliding! I’ve been at it for hours and I still haven’t gotten the morph ball, but I can run, aim-and-shoot, leap and parry, land and slide like a shortstop…and sometimes do it all while looking halfway adequate. Sometimes I hit the buttons at the right moments and what appears on the screen looks as fluid and smooth as peak Bruce Lee. Most of the time, though, I look like Michael Scott trying to do parkour. I run, then stop and aim, then run and jump and mistime the parry, then run into a wall, and clumsily initiate the slide animation.
Metroid Dread is designed in such a way that, if you get the hang of the controls, the animation will make you look like a world-class gamer, charging through a game as though you’ve played and beaten it a thousand times. It brings a level of speed and style that the series has never had before. Super Metroid was slow. Newer fans might call it plodding, but to me, the game was never meant to be hurried through (despite how fun it is to watch speedrunners do just that). Super Metroid was meant to be explored, to be poked at to see what it was hiding. Those times when a boss or mini-boss fight happened were sudden bursts of adrenaline amidst an overall “deliberately paced” experience. Metroid Dread on the other hand is played on the run, at a near-constant breakneck speed, and those times when a boss fight happens are when the game actually slows down, cramps your environment, and makes you think about strategy. It’s an inverse to what the franchise has been known for, but it doesn’t not work, either. It’s just not what I’m used to. As I said, the problem is with “me” not with “Metroid,” and as soon as I get the hang of it…watch out.
The game’s biggest new feature is basically an expansion on the horror sequences that made Metroid Fusion so memorable. Here, instead of being hunted by an evil doppelganger, Samus is hunted by robots that can one-hit-kill you. The E.M.M.I. robots are confined to certain segments of the map within each area, and there’s a powerup found in each area that will allow you to take the robot on and defeat it, opening the area’s map without constantly being on the run, but in the meantime, you’re going to feel your heart race as you move through the “EMMI Zones.” And because there is no dedicated run button, when you press forward on the stick, you’re not creeping forward quietly, you’re charging straight ahead and loudly.
It’s in these “horror moments” where the game lives up to its subtitle, and it’s here where all of Dread’s additions and changes to Samus’ agility and speed become critical. They’re so effective, in fact, they make every change to the way the main character controls completely justified, and as much as I struggle with remembering which button is slide and which is free-aim, I know that when I do get the hang of it all, I will probably look like a world-class gamer as I flee for my life. That point may not come until my fiftieth playthrough, but that’s okay; this is Metroid…
I’ve been playing these games since I was a child, and I’ll be playing these games till I’m dead.
10/10 – Metroid Dread manages to feel like a fitting continuation to a series that began in a much different era of gaming, as well as a remarkably polished modern game with all the stylings and trappings that current-gen gamers crave.
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