If there’s one thing I want from Metroid games above all else, it’s a feeling of dread.
That’s why I still admire the original NES game the most. It almost feels hostile to the player in its design. There are no maps, no health recharge stations, no modern amenities to aid you. Because of that, no matter how many energy tanks or missile packs I acquire, in Metroid, I always feel in danger. I actually feel like an intrepid bounty hunter exploring a hostile alien world that might mercilessly destroy me at any moment. I like some of the other 2D Metroid games a lot, but aside from the terror Metroid Fusion inspired the first few times I encountered Samus’ nigh-unstoppable clone, the SA-X, the series has never quite recaptured for me that same feeling of danger and foreboding. Having played one hour of Metroid Dread, I’m cautiously hopeful that this game might actually pull it off.
After an introduction that recounts the saga’s story up to this point, Samus heads to the planet ZDR. A mysterious transmission suggests that the terrifying X parasite, thought eradicated in Fusion, may yet exist on the unexplored planet. Equally troubling, the E.M.M.I., friendly research robots that were sent to investigate ZDR, have gone quiet. Though her sardonic ship’s computer, Adam, advises against taking the contract, Samus flies her spiffy ship to the planet’s surface. It’s a typical setup for a Metroid game.
But something unexpected happens. Rather than seeing Samus triumphantly emerge from her ship, as is now series tradition,, we flash forward to Samus prone on the ground, defeated, somewhere deep in the bowels of ZDR. Upon waking, she recalls what kicked her arse: a towering Chozo warrior in battle regalia. Its identity and intentions are unknown, but the fight leaves Samus without most of her abilities (of course), and now she’s far below the planet’s surface, far from her ship, stranded deep in alien territory. This setup leaves you on uncharacteristically uncertain footing, feeling at a disadvantage and concerned about survival.
The situation goes from bad to worse, though, when you start encountering the E.M.M.I.: agile, heavily armoured machines which hunt you on sight. Something has turned these research robots hostile, and they make formidable opponents indeed. In fact, so hopeless are your chances of defeating them in close combat, if you get caught by one you get just a single chance to stun it with a counterattack. If you fail, it’s an instant game over.
And that counter you can do isn’t an Arkham Asylum-style affair with a telltale flash and a wide response window. It feels like a shot in the dark. In my hour or so with the game, during which I was captured by an E.M.M.I. several times, I only managed to counter them once. I suspect that as I play the full game, I’ll get a feel for the timing and be able to pull it off more often, but at least Dread isn’t making it easy for me.
The design of the E.M.M.I. also makes them feel threatening. There’s a calculating and merciless quality to their movements, as they gracefully swap between bipedal locomotion and hunting you on all fours. And as they move, they emit a series of chirps, which are all the more chilling for the way in which they might have been cute and endearing when the E.M.M.I. were friendly. Now it’s the sound of your approaching doom.
The E.M.M.I. aren’t totally unstoppable, though, and the first one you encounter — sparking, damaged, a bit reminiscent of the metallic endoskeleton that pursues Sarah Connor at the end of the first Terminator film — serves as a tutorial of sorts for how Samus can eventually defeat them. By drawing energy from power sources located in an area, you can temporarily gain the ability to fire a blast from your arm cannon so powerful that even the E.M.M.I. are susceptible. However, until you gain this ability to turn the tables on them, encounters with E.M.M.I. remain tense games of cat-and-mouse. The labyrinthine environments provide you with plenty of opportunities to give them the slip, but it’s also easy to find yourself backed into a corner with little hope of escape.
Samus is as agile as ever, which helps make your attempts to elude the E.M.M.I. feel good and exciting, even as desperation sets in. She has a new move, the slide, which so immediately feels like such a natural part of her moveset that you’ll wonder why the series didn’t introduce it sooner. And in another break from tradition, Dread withholds the morph ball power-up for a while, which led to me feeling deliciously frustrated as I encountered so many crawlspaces I could have climbed or bounced into if only I’d been ballin’. I’m glad that Dread’s designers didn’t feel obligated to stick to the typical Metroid template in that regard; it makes me hopeful that the game may continue taking chances and defying my expectations.
I’m less excited about Dread’s apparent narrative aims. Your early encounter with the Chozo warrior, along with a lot of Nintendo’s promotional output leading up to the game’s release, suggest that this game might do a lot of explaining about the Chozo, about Samus’ past, about Metroid lore. I think Metroid stories are at their best when they’re at their simplest. One reason that the moment in Super Metroid in which the baby metroid sacrifices itself to save Samus is so iconic is its simplicity, and Samus is at her coolest when she’s shrouded in mystique. The series’ efforts to fill out her backstory and the wider mythos have often felt clunky and unnecessary. I’m keeping an open mind — Dread can certainly explore this narrative territory in ways that feel elegant and that preserve a sense of mystery — but I’m a bit on guard, in the wake of some earlier Metroid narratives.
My very limited time with Dread was spent on a Nintendo Switch – OLED Model (that’s its official name) which is probably exactly what you expect it to be if you’ve ever seen an OLED screen on a TV, phone, or PlayStation Vita. It’s bright and striking, and the slightly bigger screen (7 inches, compared to 6.2 on a standard Switch) is a nice upgrade. I particularly like the white Joy-Cons the OLED Model ships with — they lend the device a clean, futuristic look. However, the difference isn’t so drastic that you’ll be missing out if you play Dread or any other Switch game on your existing, perfectly functional Switch.
It remains to be seen if Metroid Dread can maintain that first hour’s unsettling feeling of being on edge in a hostile and deadly environment. Whether it does or not, I’m glad that it’s at least trying to make Metroid feel genuinely hostile again, pitting you against enemies you can’t overpower and stranding you far from the familiar comforts of your ship. It’s been 19 years since the last original 2D Metroid game, but I’ve been waiting even longer to feel this way again.