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  • Metroid: Samus Returns (3DS)

    October 4th, 2017GamespotUncategorized

    Thirteen long years have passed since intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran starred in a 2D side-scrolling adventure. In her absence a veritable cottage industry has sprung up on the indie scene, with titles like Shadow Complex, Guacamelee!, Teslagrad, and Axiom Verge offering the 2D "Metroidvania" experience Nintendo has been remiss in providing. So, how does this newest 2D Metroid, Samus Returns, stack up against the competition and its own impressive legacy? Relatively well. It manages successfully to replicate the formula that's made the franchise so enduringly popular — huge, labyrinthine maps; epic boss battles; and scores of hidden power-ups — and adds a few mechanical novelties of its own; some good, some bad, and some ugly.

    Like Zero Mission, the last 2D Metroid released back in 2004, Samus Returns is an enhanced remake. It's a retelling of the story of Metroid II: Return of Samus, a perennially overlooked installment in the long-running series. Between Metroid, which introduced the concept, and Super Metroid, which perfected it, came Metroid II. It established series staples like the Plasma Beam, played with the idea of Metroid evolution, and set the stage, narratively, for the masterpiece to come, Super Metroid. Even so, its status in some corners of the Metroid community as a "black sheep" made it ideal for a remake.

    The story is simple. The Galactic Federation, fearing the spread of parasitic lifeforms called Metroids, dispatches legendary bounty hunter Samus Aran to the Metroid home planet SR388 to eradicate them all. 

    Samus Returns, a collaboration between Nintendo and Spanish developer MercurySteam, honors this story. In fact, the game honors much of what Metroid II was and is, warts and all. In the original game, defeating a certain number of Metroids would trigger an earthquake, which granted players access to deeper parts of SR388. Likewise, in Samus Returns, players must bring a requisite number of Metroid DNA samples to an altar in order to clear an area of toxic liquid and move downward.

    It's an artificial construct, for sure, one that constantly reminds you you're playing a video game. It's aggravated by recycled boss encounters. Samus Returns boasts several different Metroid evolutions, each more terrifying than the last, but every evolution appears multiple times. MercurySteam attempts to mix things up with different elemental attacks and terrain specific to each encounter, but it's insufficient. One can only fight an Alpha Metroid so many times before it's "been there, done that." 

    Luckily, the boss fights in Samus Returns are spectacular across the board. The first encounter with each new Metroid form is breathless and scary. They move and attack quickly and unexpectedly — at least during initial run-ins — and inflict high damage. Samus Returns also includes two brand new boss battles unique to this remake, both of which require quick reflexes, perfect timing, and an eye for weak points.

    While boss battles are routinely excellent in Samus Returns, regular combat in the caves of SR388 is consistently disappointing, thanks mostly to the game's signature move: the melee counter. The melee counter, inspired by MercurySteam's work on Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, is Samus Returns' most advertised and, ironically, most unwelcome addition. This is how it works: many of the beastly denizens of SR388 will telegraph an attack, at which point players can press X to deflect the advance and stun the enemy, opening it up for a counterattack.

    It robs combat of its fluidity and strategy. In the early levels of the game Samus will again and again move toward an enemy, stop in her tracks, wait for the prompt, then activate the counter. This constant stopping and starting wears thin quickly. It's an addition that, like many in Samus Returns, seems designed for cinematic flair, not mechanical depth. If there's one thing series producer Yoshio Sakamoto needs to re-learn, it's this: flashy moves and movie-like cut-scenes don't make Samus a badass; players, using the tools at her disposal, do.

    Luckily, most of the other novelties in Samus Return work more efficiently within the game. Samus can now swing her arm cannon and fire in 360 degrees, allowing for a wide range of horizontal and vertical attacks. A quasi-magic system, in which Samus can activate Aeion abilities to either slow time, generate a shield, or scan for hidden passageways, manages to spice up the proceedings also.

    Scan pulse, the Aeion ability that marks breakable walls and shows unmarked paths, is something of a double-edged sword. Metroid purists might scoff at the idea of an ability that advertises the game's secrets when the process of seeking out such secrets is part of the genre's purpose. At the same time, however, it represents one of MercurySteam's triumphs: the replacement of trial-and-error snooping with skill-based problem-solving.

    Many of the dozens of power-ups hidden around the game's gigantic world map are located in (seemingly) impossible-to-reach locations. The challenge comes from using unlocked skills and Aeion abilities to reach those unreachable spots. In other words, in Samus Returns, MercurySteam isn't trying to hide its power-ups; it's daring you to attain them once found.

    This is a big part of what makes Samus Returns' final hours so mesmerizing. As players use fast-travel totems to travel across SR388's honeycomb interior, with all power-ups and weapons available, they'll finally snag those elusive missile upgrades and energy tanks that had been taunting them for 12 hours. Metroid games tend to get better as they go, and this is especially true for MercurySteam's remake.

    Samus Returns isn't the finest 2D Metroid, nor is it the best Metroidvania of the generation. Peculiarities imported from Metroid II and MercurySteam's own blunder with melee counter keep it from greatness. Still, it's a solidly-constructed and engaging action-adventure game with a terrific set of boss battles and a huge world filled with secret chambers, ferocious monsters, and a hint of things to come for gaming's most celebrated bounty hunter. Welcome back to the second dimension, Samus Aran. You've been missed.

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