It’s difficult to shake the notion that Nintendo and the developers that it works with are not quite sure what to do with Metroid. The formula is, of course, of an excellent standard. An entire genre (i.e. the “Metroidvania”) doesn’t get named after a game that isn’t outstanding at its very foundation. At the same time formula can easily become formulaic, and the curse that Metroid faces is that because it has defined a genre, it has also pigeonholed itself into being associated with a specific approach to game design. Metroid Dead is a decent effort to do something new within the narrow boundaries that the series is allowed to work with, but this is also a warning sign for the future of the series.
The main feature that Metroid Dread brings to the formula is stalker-robots that are, for the most part, invincible. The world of Metroid Dread is broken up into a number of “zones” and within those zones large areas are patrolled by these monstrocities. If they catch Samus in their sight ranges, they will chase. If they catch her then it’s game over (the game insists there’s a tiny chance that you can escape death after being caught, but I wasn’t ever able to get the supposed timing right). These sequences are an absolute highlight of the game, and beautifully designed. Not only do you typically need to navigate around challenging environments in these areas, but trying to do so stealthily (or at a rush, once spotted), brings an additional, thrilling dimension to the action.
Samus has plenty of tricks up her sleeve, of course, and the game is great at drip-feeding you those additional abilities, as the series always has. The caveat is that the robot-stalkers escalate their own abilities in kind, and so you’ll never feel comfortable when you’re in one of the zones that they patrol. And that is, of course, the point. These cat-and-mouse chases are meant to be tense and you’re never meant to feel like you’re the one with the advantage.
You do eventually get one shot at killing each of these robots, and it comes after you defeat a boss. After an hour or so (give or take), you’ll finally take on a classic Metroid boss battle. Once you defeat the enemy there, you gain a super-charged energy boost, which will allow you to finally destroy one tormentor permanently. This is a nice secondary reward for defeating the boss, making it feel like all the greater achievement, and it additionally streamlines the adventuring, since it means that that robot’s hunting grounds are, from that point on, basically free to wander around. As far as the impact of these big moments and overall progression goes, Metroid Dread is designed beautifully, and these moments were what largely kept me playing on.
What made me want to stop – and frequently – was the rest of it. Metroid Dread is organised in the non-linear way that the series is known for, but because it is so big, and so utterly in love with how clever it thinks its trail of breadcrumbs is, that I would spend huge chunks of time pouring over a very non-intuitive map trying to figure out just what I needed to do next. There was one particularly galling incident, which highlights just how obnoxious Metroid Dread can be (though it rarely goes this far): I had just cleared the first zone and got access to the second. However, in that zone the two doors I could access each led directly to excessive heat zones, which Samus couldn’t survive at that point. So, assuming that I needed to complete something in the (still not 100 per cent completed) first zone, I headed back to poke around and figure out what I had missed.
I spent about an hour doing futile laps around this zone before, in sheer desperation, I travelled back to the second zone and, purely by chance, accidentally shot a concealed block, which cleared a hidden pathway that I was able to use to progress deeper into this new zone. That’s not funny, Nintendo. You can follow Castlevania’s lead and hide roast chickens in hidden wall alcoves that you need to blow away, if you want to. You don’t hide the only path forward through the game that way.
This is my biggest issue with Metroid as a series: for something that has the illusion of flexibility, it is almost claustrophobically restrictive in how you can play it. Aside from some minor secondary stuff, you’ve got one path through the game, that you need to stick to like glue, and any experimentation or a basic effort to explore is punished, harshly, until you get back on track. I don’t necessarily need the series to go wide open and lose focus, but the backtracking becomes quite tiring when you realise just how arbitrary it is. It’s there because it pads out the game and forces you to run around trying to figure out the precise order of keys that unlock the puzzle. It is by no means an example of the “rich, exploration-based” gameplay that is often misattributed to Metroid.
I also have issues with the aesthetics of Metroid. In theory, the series plays in the same horror sci-fi space as something like Alien. “Metroid isn’t just an action franchise, but a horror game inspired deeply by the Alien movies, and one whose true terror and power are rooted in the female body,” a Wired article wrote a few years ago. And certainly the earlier Metroid games pushed this hard, despite the primitive hardware that they were running on.
More recent Metroid titles have lost that a little bit. There’s a pastiche of sci-fi horror in there, but the developers clearly don’t wish to actually scare anyone. The goal seems much more aligned with making these titles a kind of action space opera. That disconnect really comes through loudly in Dread. It’s a game with minimal horror ambience trying to pull off the same kind of stalker horror nightmare of a Clock Tower or Amnesia. It’s a disconnect that I felt almost immediately, and I was never quite able to look past it through the rest of my play through.
Mechanically, though, Dread moves beautifully. Samus with her full toolkit is a whirling dervish of tricks, and ducking, diving sliding, rolling, shooting and parkouring through levels with one of those robot monsters on her tail is an almost cinematic delight. The boss battles have some clever tricks, and hit the right balance between being challenging, and giving players a fair fight and also rewarding them for playing cleverly. There are better boss battle designers out there (play a Goichi Suda title sometime), but Metroid Dread is no minnow for people that enjoy their action games.
I left Metroid Dread feeling quite conflicted about it. On the one hand, I do think it is fundamentally well designed, and the main gameplay element – the robot stalkers – are woven into the Metroid formula beautifully. On the other hand, that Metroid formula is getting long in the tooth and Dread doesn’t do nearly enough to revitalise it. Dread is fine. It’s not just nearly memorable enough for a game that fans have been waiting for so many years for now.
Find me on Twitter: @mattsainsb