It seems hard to believe, but, after years of Metroid 2 being the black sheep of the Metroid family (or at least its most ignored entry), we now have three different perfectly valid Metroid 2 experiences readily available. The original Metroid 2 is right there on the 3DS Gameboy Virtual Console, AM2R is an amazing fan remake available in the secret corners of the internet, and now we have the official Nintendo reimagining, complete with amiibos and an honest-to-God advertising campaign (admit it: it’s hard to remember if Federation Force actually happened). Metroid 2 is king of the Metroid Hill, and it’s great to see there’s a Metroid Hill in the Nintendo Kingdom at all.
Of course, it’s not so great that Metroid: Samus Returns is the Metroid 2 I’m least likely to ever play again.
That sounds a might pessimistic, so let’s first cover the good stuff. First and foremost, somebody at Nintendo learned from the Metroid: Other M debacle, and Samus Aran is now delightfully mute. Granted, there’s something unnerving about the fact that the only way Nintendo seems to be able to maintain their bad ass bounty hunter’s bad ass status is through keeping her from opening her mouth for an entire adventure… but still! Samus is cool, calm, and collected, and, at no point does she worry about “the baby” or space dragons that may or may not have eaten her parents. That’s what we like to see! And, while she doesn’t talk, she does take a few moments to have “cool” moments in cutscenes (like casually blasting a defeated foe post battle), so what little personality that seeps through is Adam-free and Aran-appropriate. Oh, and this game has the Screw Attack! That’s a great little item. Love that thing.
And now for the bad parts.
I think it all boils down to one thing: this video game is too video game-y.
Yes, this is an odd complaint, but it’s valid for this interpretation of SR388. Metroid 2 was a game about a made-up heroine fighting random space monsters until there were no space monsters left. It’s a videogame, and it’s not like someone put serious thought into the ecology of the planet that houses frightening space bugs living among infinitely spawning flying worms. But… that seems reductive. Despite the small screen, despite the complete lack of color, and despite the music that was clearly composed by randomly spitting on a Casio from a distance of at least eleven feet, there is a lot of care and consideration in the original Metroid 2. The “Metroid life cycle” is ridiculous (jellyfish -> bug -> bug with tusks -> fat dragon -> tyrannosaurus), but it seems… possible. Metroids are a weird and wondrous species, and, sure, some of them can breathe fire, but it does make a certain amount of sense that they wouldn’t be amoeba-looking “larvas” for their entire life cycle. Butterflies don’t look that much like caterpillars, after all. Similarly, the other creatures of SR388 seem like actual fauna that might have to live side by side with space vampires. Metroids are given a wide berth, and, aside from the occasional errant robot, if it moves on SR388, it’s staying clear of those apex predators. In fact, this is epitomized during the final area of Metroid 2. The Queen Metroid’s lair is completely devoid of non-metroid life, and this leads to entire screens of Samus exploring empty corridors.
Unfortunately, the staff of Metroid: Samus Returns likely found those vacant hallways boring, because that kind of environmental storytelling is absent from this iteration of the Queen’s Lair. Now that area is choked with rampaging robots, angry bats, kamikaze bugs, and murderous hedgehogs. This is just like the area before, which is crowded with rampaging robots, angry bats, kamikaze bugs, and murderous hedgehogs. And the caverns before that also include rampaging robots, angry…. You get the idea. Yes, as you progress in the game, you gain new and exciting ways to battle these monsters, and the different areas generally have different layouts and configurations so it doesn’t all become rote after Area 3, but… It gets exhausting. Samus’s armor has been reduced to Fusion levels of softness, and, at all times, you have to be on guard, else you’ll lose an entire energy tank to an errant angry bat. So you’re always defending yourself, always in rooms filled with rapidly respawning opponents, and always… drained. There is no rest for Samus, because this is a videogame, and if you’re not doing videogame things at all times, what’s the point?
And if you think this is an exaggeration, consider that the larval metroids appear in this adventure just as they did in Metroid 2, Super Metroid, and almost every other metroid game. The difference here, though, is that when you clear a room of metroids, and return to what should now be an empty room, there are now all new monsters skulking about for your endless fighting pleasure. Yes, this game can’t even let Samus rest for three hallways.
This need for a constant stream of encroaching encounters is obviously to showcase the new combat features of this Metroid adventure, but… they’re not that great, either. Don’t get me wrong, the new multi-directional aiming is a godsend, and the whole “melee counter” system is fun and exciting when you smack that X button right in time, but it’s more… videogame problems. The average metroid boss battle (which happens somewhere around forty times over the course of the game) involves a lot of hopeful chucking of missiles at a weak point that may or may not be guarded by random electrical discharges at the moment. But you can counter at just the right time, and blast off half a metroid’s health in one quick quasi-QTE. Obviously, the fastest way to clear SR388 of its indigenous life forms is to exploit these counter moves. But it quickly becomes clear that if you miss an early pass at your counter opportunity, it’s often faster to just suicide poor Samus (only takes like three hits anyway…), restart the battle, and save yourself ten minutes of clumsy missile aiming in favor of thirty seconds of mastering the counter timing. This is generally just convenient with the alpha metroids, but it’s practically essential by the time you get to the “invincible for 90% of the match” gamma metroids. And, given the vast time difference between countering vs. not countering, victory over any given boss feels less like “mastering” the encounter, and more like “Oh, I finally hit X when I needed to.” It’s not about skill, it’s about following the pattern like an obedient puppy. And the last thing Samus Aran should be is obedient.
And for further evidence, please find me someone that enjoyed that Digby the Drillanaut boss fight. That was the most “this is a pattern, follow it” boss I’ve seen since the NES days.
Now, I want to make something clear: none of this makes Metroid: Samus Returns a bad game. I enjoyed my time with the game, and my hand may have cramped into a Kid Icarus claw from playing the game nigh-continuously since its release. I did not rest until the last Metroid was in captivity, and the game was good enough to hold my interest through repeated demoralizing game overs. But am I going to rush back and play it again? No. Going to fish out every last item because they stuck friggen plasma beam doors randomly in the first area? Nope. Hard mode? Absolutely not. Even the old standard of “it’s a Metroid game, now do it faster” doesn’t seem at all appealing. Sure, I could do this quicker, but it would be because I’d be able to best the various bosses faster… assuming my counter timing skills stay consistent. If not, I’ll be spending another hour taking down four damn omega metroids, and I really don’t want to do that ever again. Heck, I’m not even sure I want to see another one of those stupid snail monsters again. How can the most elite bounty hunter in the universe be thwarted by a mollusk!?
So here’s the state of 2017: we have Metroid 2, which is the deeply flawed story of a bounty hunter eliminating space monsters on their home planet. We have AM2R, which is a remix of that story with modern design conventions and a loving attention to detail. And we have Metroid: Samus Returns, which is a videogame.
… I’m pretty sure I have other videogames to play.
FGC #328 Metroid: Samus Returns