This should feel bigger. Metroid had been gone a long time. From 2007’s Metroid Prime 3, all we saw from the series was the widely disliked (I only played the first hour or so before my Wii quit reading the disc and I’ve just never found my way back to it) Metroid: Other M in 2010 and last year’s ignored spin-off Federation Force. That is essentially one real Metroid game, since Federation Force is a Samus-less spin-off, in a decade and that was easily the least liked game in the series. Metroid: Samus Returns should feel like a bigger deal. It is a remake instead of an entirely new game, but it is a pretty extensive remake. There are a few critical flaws, but for the most part this is the Metroid game that most people say they want.
If you are familiar with the series, not a lot of Samus Returns come as a surprise. Samus sets down on a big empty planet and starts exploring. This time her mission is to eliminate all the Metroids on the planet, like a space exterminator. You collect power ups and ammo or health expansions as you freely explore the landscape. It is a metroidvania game. For the most part, it is a really solid one.
The biggest problem I had with the game is its biggest new feature: the combat mechanics. Samus Returns adds a counter system to its fighting and it is the worst. Enemies charge and the player must counter and stun them, which makes them vulnerable. This turns early game encounters with just about every enemy into waiting for it to charge, countering and then shooting. It slows the pace to a crawl any time you encounter enemies. Eventually your firepower increases enough that it is not necessary, but by that point the frustration is great. The idea works in boss battles, though it mostly unlocks essentially QTEs where you can deal big damage. It is just a bad mechanic that doesn’t really fit into the game. Otherwise, Samus Returns is about as good a game as could be made out of the bones of the Gameboy original.
One thing I’ve always found underrated about the early Metroid games is how they actually tell a continuing story. Most games, of the era and even now, do not do this well. Mario is the same thing over and again, which is perfectly fine. Resident Evil’s between game changes make no sense. Final Fantasy changes its setting every game. Metroid, Metroid II and Super Metroid tell one continuing tale. In Metroid, Samus faces down the Space Pirates and encounters the metroids they were experimenting one. After defeating the Space Pirates there, her next mission takes her to the metroid’s home planet to exterminate them, which leaves on surviving baby metroid, which she leaves at a research station. That station is attacked by the Space Pirates and Samus is again called up to stop them. Later games try to fit in between these games and are inessential. Maybe Fusion fits better as an actual sequel than I’ve given it credit for, but three tell a complete story.
I didn’t love Samus Returns. Those combat problems turned the early going into a slog before things finally opened up. But I liked it well enough and I a damn glad to have Metroid back. Hopefully next year’s Metroid Prime 4 is at least this good.