Metroid games, particularly the early entries on the NES and Super Nintendo, have traditionally been at their best in isolation. Literally: Metroid games are at their most iconic when they’re presenting players with a haunting, lonely atmosphere that really sells the idea that series protagonist Samus Aran is all alone on an alien world where everything wants to kill her.
Ridley Scott’s Alien has been famously cited as a major influence on Metroid, and it’s not hard to see why. The games aren’t necessarily scary, but with their minimalist soundtracks and seemingly endless webs of barren alien caves, they’re absolutely spooky.
It would make sense for the recently released Metroid Dread to be more of the same. It’s the first mainline Metroid sequel in nearly 20 years, an obvious olive branch to a long-suffering fanbase, and the proverbial call up to the big leagues for developer MercurySteam (which released the 3DS’ Metroid II remake, Samus Returns, a few years ago). Nintendo would have no excuse to phone this one in, and no reason to dramatically change the Metroid formula. But there is something different… Metroid Dread is not, despite the title, spooky. Like, at all.
To be clear: The game is phenomenal, possibly the best thing Nintendo has done since Breath Of The Wild. But MercurySteam has deliberately stepped back from an aspect that that is supposed to be so integral to the Metroid experience. The reason is simple: Samus has become extremely awesome.
Dread is quietly a celebration of Samus as a character, partially because this is the first time in the main Metroid series that she actually feels like a character, and not just a woman in a cool suit. Samus was more like a robot in the old games, effectively a gun with legs, which is one of the reasons why it’s a twist ending in the first Metroid that she turns out to be a woman in a suit.
The graphical limitations of systems like the Super Nintendo and Game Boy Advance made it hard for developers to do much with her beyond that (especially when the environments, and the power-ups, are usually the star in a Metroid game). But keeping the side-scrolling 2D format on a (relatively) powerful system like the Nintendo Switch gave MercurySteam a chance to slip some personality into Samus’ armour, and instantly make her feel more fully realised than anything Nintendo has done in the previous decades.
The Samus of Dread always stands at the ready, with her big gun arm pointed ahead. But hit the button to switch to the more granular aiming mode, and Samus will shift her feet slightly to steady herself. Lean up against a wall and she’ll turn her head to keep an eye on her surroundings. Perform a melee counter move (one of the things MercurySteam adapted from Samus Returns) and she’ll kick out her leg for a little slide as she obliterates whatever poor alien creature got in her path. Every frame has been tweaked to give the appearance of a warrior doing what she does best.
It’s not just combat, either. Get on a tram that takes you from one area to another, and Samus will walk into the background, taking a slightly awkward little step onto a big railcar that wasn’t designed for someone human-sized. Hop onto an elevator, and Samus will ascend its little stairway with a speedy move that will be instantly familiar to anyone who has walked up oddly small steps. The animations are humanising, without ever compromising the character’s cool.
These little moments don’t really mean anything in the game, but like Sonic The Hedgehog tapping his toes if you don’t hit a button for a while or Link’s giant cartoon eyes in The Legend Of Zelda: Wind Waker, the animation in Dread finally gives Samus a personality. She’s never just standing there or just firing her gun, she’s always moving or positioned in a way that says, “I’m a person who moves like people do, I just happen to be a stone-cold professional alien-killer in a metal suit.”
The end result of this is that Samus is cooler than she’s ever been, having become the action hero that she always looked like on box art — the action hero that Nintendo has insisted that she is. At the same time, though, Samus is too awesome to be scared now. If Metroid still has any similarities to the Alien movies, then Samus is now firmly in Aliens territory, Ellen Ripley strapping a flamethrower to her rifle and taking the fight to the Xenomorph queen. She’s a pro, she’s not concerned with a desolate alien planet where everything wants to kill her. She has a job to do.