There are some games that require lavish presentations, elaborate scripts totalling hundreds of thousands of words or enormous multiplayer worlds, filled with references, throwbacks to franchises. These extravagances are often considered necessary, the price studios must pay to stand out in an ever-crowded gaming calendar. Metroid Dread requires none of this.
Dread is the first 2D addition to the Metroid franchise from MercurySteam and Nintendo EPD, although it’s better to think of it as a reboot. Metroid Dread was conceived back in the early DS era, but the developers scrapped the idea because consoles at the time couldn’t support the developer’s original vision.
Now, that vision has finally been realised.
How much you immediately appreciate Metroid Dread, a Switch exclusive available from October 8, depends on your experience with the prior Metroid games. It’s been a while since there was a proper 2D Metroid game, and in the years since modern indie titles have filled the void Nintendo left behind. Axiom Verge, Ori and the Blind Forest and the Australian brilliance of Hollow Knight have all offered their own spins on the genre. A lot of Dread‘s DNA can be found in the 3DS exclusive Metroid: Samus Returns — which shipped months after the Switch was released. Samus Returns still hasn’t made the jump to Nintendo’s latest handheld console, so many fans might have missed its more modern additions.
But other classic Metroid inclusions — like charge beam, morph balls, the bombs, bomb jumping, the Varia Suit, diffusion beam, pulse radar, elevators taking you from one underground area to another — all make a return. If you’ve loved Metroid in the past, Dread will feel immediately familiar.
The big drawcard early on is the research E.M.M.I. robots, all of whom have been corrupted once you awake in the bowels of ZDR. Samus is separated from her ship, and journeying to the surface will require as much patience as it does careful platforming. The E.M.M.I. cannot be directly killed, at least not until you find each area’s central core and absorb the energy they provide. Until that point, Samus has to evade Nintendo’s creepy take on the Boston Dynamics robot — all of which are capable of chasing, and hearing Samus, with extreme efficiency.
Each E.M.M.I. robot has a fixed area, usually a space encompassing several rooms, that it can search. Any time you enter one of these areas, all the colour is stripped from the room. There’s a heavy film grain applied, almost like the life is being sucked out of Samus. The only things with any real colour and vibrancy, save for the UI elements, are the E.M.M.I. robot’s cyclops-esque eyeball and the light it emits, or the occasional magnetic surface (seen above). The sound becomes more intense and frantic, quickening as soon as the E.M.M.I. detects Samus’s presence.
When you’re caught, it’s basically game over. There’s the smallest of chances to counter, but it’s exceedingly difficult — at best, I’d estimate I only managed to counter about 15 percent of the time I was captured. Better players and speedrunners will get the timing downpat eventually, although I noticed that E.M.M.I’s triggers were also affected by the dynamics of the room you were in. But given the quicktime sequence is difficult enough as-is to surpass, that wasn’t much of a help.
What helps is that Metroid Dread‘s performance is fundamentally flawless. MercurySteam hasn’t tried to push Dread beyond what the Switch is fundamentally capable of. If anything, it feels like they upgraded on the solid vision they established with Samus Returns, maintaining the sharpness of the animations and crisp combat instead of overhauling the entire aesthetic.
It works on multiple levels. For one, Samus Returns was a good looking game on the 3DS even in 2017. It didn’t need a total overhaul, merely a slight resolution bump. Dread‘s beauty is in motion, especially on the newer screen of the Switch OLED. Dread‘s many levels feature a lot of underground blacks or areas with high contrast, and the upgraded OLED screen does an excellent job of making all of this pop on screen.
Uncannily, handheld mode is probably where Dread shines best. When blown up on a bigger screen, either via screenshots or when played in docked mode, it’s easy to identify a lot of the areas where Dread visually struggles. When you’re playing in handheld mode, it’s harder to identify those jagged edges and lack of refinement. The almost flawless frame rate — almost a perfect 60 FPS throughout, although there are drops in some cut scenes and during battle when a certain amount of effects and explosions all trigger at once — keeps your focus on the action, the platforming and the level design.
Concentrating on that fluidity is essential not just to any Metroid game, but what people expect from 2D platformers in general. Dread also provides closure for Metroid fans through a proper, long overdue introduction to the Chozo, Samus’s adoptive parents. The Chozo have been in the background for the entirety of the series, appearing in the original Metroid Prime manual, being hinted at in almost every Metroid game, and their more direct mentions through Samus Returns‘ Chozo Memories. The embargo restrictions prevent any real discussion of what happens there, so I won’t go into detail.
Dread‘s boss fights also aren’t fundamentally more challenging than previous Metroid titles. But part of what makes Dread work so well is its restraint. And outside of the E.M.M.I. robots, much of your moment to moment experience in Metroid Dread will be similar to previous Metroid games, only on a newer console, with sharper graphics, larger levels, and more secrets to discover.
Dread isn’t trying to reinvent the wheel. It doesn’t overwhelm with a barrage of new mechanics, retakes on old ideas or new concepts for the Metroid franchise. It understands that good level design, solid platforming, the right amount of challenging foes and bosses without unnecessary padding, and just enough story coupled with a player’s imagination, will carry a game in 2021 just as well as any 8 or 9-figure development or marketing budget.
Metroid Dread is a lesson in simplicity. MercurySteam and Nintendo knows what makes a good game, but more importantly, they know what makes a good Metroid game. It’s a masterclass in pacing, giving level design and new abilities time to breathe. It’s a masterclass in making the most out of portable hardware, and building on everything Metroid fans have internalised after two decades.
Is it the most innovative 2D platformer in years? Undoubtedly not.
But then again, you’re not buying Metroid Dread because it does things no other platformer can.
You’re buying Metroid Dread, because no other platformer can truly replace the void Metroid left.
Metroid Dread is out for the Nintendo Switch on October 8.