As someone who struggled through the entirety of Metroid 2 many years past its prime, I jumped at the chance to get my hands on Metroid: Samus Returns, a 2.5D remake of what has historically been the weakest link in the Metroid series. I played the first 90 minutes of Samus Returns this week and compared it to what I remember of the old Gameboy classic, and the other Metroid titles that have come since.
It makes a lot of sense to remake Metroid 2. There's a reason the fan-made AM2R (Another Metroid 2 Remake) exists, and there's a reason it's not even the first attempted remake.
Metroid 2 is almost unplayable today. Released on the original Gameboy, its colourless caverns are incredibly difficult and frustrating to navigate. It's still a quintessential Metroid game — and even shook up the classic formula with unique new abilities like the spider ball — but it lacks the lush colours and cavernscapes and soundtrack of the games that came after.
What makes a theoretical Metroid 2 remake even more important is where it sits in the extended storyline of the franchise. Metroid 2 is the game where Samus meets and bonds with the metroid hatchling, which is pivotal to the story of Super Metroid. A lot of people who may have been fans of the SNES title — or even the later Metroid Fusion that continued the hatchling's story — never actually played through this moment.
If you've seen the trailer for Samus Returns, you can probably tell it's not as huge a departure from the formula as Metroid Prime (unfortunately) or Metroid: Other M (thankfully). In fact, it looks to be as faithful a 2D Metroid title as we're ever going to get on the 3DS.
Starting a new game immediately took me back. As someone who's played Super Metroid and Fusion and Zero Mission over and over, it feels instantly familiar.
The game opens with a short cutscene explaining the context of the game, and then drops you straight into the overworld of SR388 with a simple mission: eradicate the metroids once and for all.
While there's a little more tutorial than Metroid 2 had, it's still pretty sparse. Samus Returns certainly doesn't hold your hand, which feels like a throwback to the often punishingly difficult 2D Metroid games. Interestingly, the game starts you off with the ability to use missiles but without the classic morph ball, which you'll have to go seek out in the caverns below.
I was happy to discover that the spider ball, an ability that lets you defy gravity in morph ball form to navigate walls and ceilings, lives again in the new game. This is the unique upgrade's first appearance in a 2D Metroid since the original Metroid 2, after becoming a mainstay of the 3D Prime series. Surprisingly I found this upgrade in the first hour of the game, quite early for an ability that was fairly overpowered in the original title.
It's not just the spider ball — there's one more big thing that will be familiar to players of the original Metroid 2. The minute you land on SR388 you get a small counter in the bottom right hand corner of your lower screen, consisting of a picture of a metroid and the number '40'. The directive to kill all the metroids is quite literal and this counter will tick off as you progress through the game. What's new to the remake, however, is a kind of metroid tracker — the countdown will flash and beep when you're near one.
Samus Returns also retains the unique metroid designs of its predecessor. You won't just be hunting jellyfish-shaped flying metroids on SR388: here they evolve into various insect-like forms of increasing power. One of the earliest cutscenes shows a larval metroid's transformation into the first of these forms, which you'll then have to fight.
The opening title music reminded me a little of Other M's soundtrack in its remix of the classic Metroid theme — though this surprisingly isn't a bad thing. Other tracks throughout the sections I played revealed skillful re-imaginings of the original Metroid 2 soundtrack, including a chirpy theme for the game's opening area that, as far as I remember, has only ever appeared in the Gameboy title.
That's everything familiar about Samus Returns, so let's take a look at what's been added.
As the first 2D Metroid game on the 3DS, the main upgrade is to the graphics. While I wasn't a huge fan of what was shown in the initial E3 trailer, I had no misgivings about the way the game looked when playing it on the 3DS itself. Some people will miss the classic 2D sprites, but for me the rest of the game felt so familiar that the new graphical style wasn't jarring at all.
The animations in Metroid: Samus Returns are really fluid and beautiful. I was always amazed by the attention to detail, such as the nuanced animations used for Samus's new 360 degree shooting angles. Simple things like more nuanced animations even for opening doors really add an extra dimension to the world of SR388.
This ties in really nicely with the controls themselves — the game doesn't just look great, it feels great to play. The new game really captures the fluid, easy to learn but hard to master handling of classic Metroid titles. One big change is the upgraded aiming system, which lets you shoot in any direction by holding down L. I'll admit I didn't use this ability often in the demo, but it was incredibly useful when sniping annoying enemies from a lower platform or an awkward angle.
One thing that I think may polarise fans is the new melee counter ability, however. It's pretty straightforward — when you see an enemy charge, press the melee button to momentarily stun the enemy and unleash a few powered-up attacks. It's one of those abilities, like Metroid: Other M's SenseMove, that almost feels like cheating when you easily obliterate enemy after enemy, but can also feel really satisfying when you use it in a combo. You can also use the melee counter while jumping or otherwise moving, which lends a beautiful flow to the controls once you get into the swing of things.
It's not one of those 'sometimes' moves, however, which is where it may start to annoy people. You end up using it on almost every enemy you encounter, and if you mess it up the combat becomes suddenly a lot more awkward.
The other major feature that has been added is Samus's new 'Aeion Abilities'. These are just extra powers you can unlock — the one we collected in this preview was a 'Scan Pulse' ability, where you could scan the surrounding area for breakable blocks or hidden secrets. It was one of those things that I often forgot existed, or accidentally activated by pressing the wrong button. When I used it purposefully however, it helped get me out of a few frustrating places where I had been stuck.
From the parts of the game I've played, I'd say Metroid: Samus Returns is going to be exactly what it should be: a classic 2D Metroid game in a modern format, one that also fills an important gap in Samus' story. It feels incredibly familiar, while still offering everything you'd expect from a modern 3DS game.
Metroid: Samus Returns releases in Australia on September 16.