The Triumphant Return of Metroid
Quick note: I recommend that you listen to this whilst reading this article to help set the mood.
Nintendo has had a strange on-off relationship with Metroid. Once one of the greats on the NES that sat toe-to-toe with the likes of Mario and Zelda in the 1980s, it has suffered a love-hate relationship in the decades following. Fundamentally, it's not a series that has sold particularly well, despite critical acclaim for almost every entry in the franchise thus far. Both Metroid Prime and Super Metroid are frequently discussed as contenders for the Greatest Game of All Time, but the series has struggled to become anything more than a cult favourite (and inspiration to countless indie titles); never raking in high sales numbers comparable with Nintendo's A-Team IPs. Metroid has also never sold particularly well in Japan, which has given it an additional disadvantage.
With all of that in mind, it is perhaps staggering to think that the series has managed to keep going for as long as it has. Before the newly-released Metroid Dread, there had been four "main" numerical entries in the series, with the Prime spinoff series also totalling four entries, as well as Metroid: Other M, Metroid Prime Pinball and Metroid Prime: Federation Force - all of which are increasingly questionable releases under the Metroid banner.
Metroid started off strong, with the aforementioned NES release of the original game. Inspired by Ridley Scott's Alien series, it featured a dark sci-fi world full of terrifying creatures, exploration, intense atmosphere and a badass bounty hunter protagonist in form of one Samus Aran. It shook the world with its' reveal in the ending of the game that Samus was in fact a woman - something that I am sure was a lot more shocking in the 1980s. It then received a sequel on the Gameboy in the form of Metroid II: The Return of Samus, but where it really struck gold was with Super Metroid on the SNES in 1994. This game would send reverberations that rippled through the industry, inspiring one half of the genre that would be known as 'MetroidVania'. I'll let you guess where the other half originates. It's a clunky term, but it essentially refers to a 2D action-adventure platformer game in which the protagonist is free to roam a sprawling map, collecting upgrades and items along the way which open up the path ahead. These kinds of games often encourage or require backtracking, with tough-as-nails boss encounters and lots of getting lost. Super Metroid has all of these in spades, and it was a fan favourite. But after the success of this title, it was then that the series took its first hiatus, skipping the Nintendo 64 and Gameboy Color systems entirely, with series protagonist Samus only showing up in Super Smash Bros. to beat the shit out of Pikachu. Metroid had struggled to establish itself in Japan, and I think that this may be why it was shelved, despite how well it was critically received.
After seven years of being left in the dark, fans were met with something truly unexpected. Metroid was coming to Nintendo's latest console, the Gamecube.... In the form of a first-person shooter. Naturally, there were naysayers and skeptics, but Retro Studios managed to pull off something truly incredible with this stark departure from what the series had been known for thus far. Prime somehow managed to retain everything that had made the series great, whilst breathing new life into it. The first-person perspective made the world much more immersive and intense to experience, and the graphical capabilities of the Gamecube enabled players to explore rich 3D, detailed environments, with subtle details like rainfall and mist materialising on Samus's visor adding that extra layer of immersion and atmosphere. Despite the radical shift in perspective, the core tenets of the Metroid experience were alive and well in Prime. And, for those who weren't convinced, there was a more traditional 2D release in the same year in the form of Metroid Fusion for the Gameboy Advance. Fusion was the title for Metroid 4, acting as a direct sequel to Super Metroid. It stuck to the more traditional side-scrolling mechanics of the games of yore, whilst introducing more story-heavy elements and a chilling atmosphere. And, following Fusion, the Gameboy Advance also received a reimagining of the original NES classic in the form of Metroid; Zero Mission. This enhanced and reworked retelling of the original title brought with it a slew of features which were absent from the original game, as well as an overhauled map, extended epilogue sequence and many modernisations which brought the experience much more in-line with the likes of Super and Fusion. Meanwhile, Prime on the Gamecube enjoyed great success, and it spawned two sequels in the form of Metroid Prime 2: Echoes on the Gamecube and Metroid Prime 3: Corruption on the Wii, in addition to a spin-off; Metroid Prime: Hunters on the DS. All of these titles enjoyed critical acclaim and moderate sales success; and the fact that fans were treated to six Metroid games over the course of six years is astounding (as well as Prime Pinball on DS, which was...well, it was pinball). It was a true renaissance for the series, it seemed. The Wii even got a Prime Trilogy release, with the first two entries being reworked to feature the Wii pointer controls that Prime 3 used.
However, after Prime Trilogy on the Wii, things began to wind down. A few years passed, and it was announced that Team Ninja, the studio behind Ninja Gaiden and the Dead or Alive franchise, would be leading on a new Metroid project, in the shape of Metroid: Other M - a personal tale that would delve into the backstory of the series protagonist, Samus Aran. It was a bold new direction to be sure, but Prime had proven that change isn't always a bad thing. The game released in 2010 to incredibly mixed reception - some praised the game for its gameplay, but few had many positive things to say about the storytelling and overall direction that the game took. In the words of gamecritics.com reviewer Sparky Clarkson, "The innovations are few, and the unskippable story is outright destructive of the series' heritage.", citing that it featured "a series of insufferable cut-scenes that introduce a new character and try to make her a relevant and sympathetic figure by dropping an enormous payload of backstory." Samus had gone from being a mostly silent badass bounty hunter to a melodramatic PTSD-stricken damsel in distress, and I think it's safe to say that it's not entirely surprising to see why the series took another hiatus after the release of Other M.
Rewinding slightly back to the mid 2000s, there were whispers in the wind of a traditional 2D Metroid project - Metroid Dread. Whilst it was never officially announced by Nintendo at, it was listed in Nintendo's Official UK Magazine as scheduled for release in 2006. Needless to say, the game did not surface. Metroid Prime 3 even featured a not-so-subtle hint to the supposed project, with an in-game note reading "Experiment status report update: Metroid project 'Dread' is nearing the final stages of completion". Prime 3 was released in 2007. And again - silence. Nothing more came of the supposed Project Dread.
In 2010, series producer Yoshio Sakamoto confirmed that Metroid Dread had at one point existed, but said that Nintendo would need to "start from scratch" if they ever intended to return to it. Many (wrongly) assumed that the unreleased project had become Other M, or scrapped entirely, and slowly but surely, fans of Metroid had to come to terms with the fact that Dread wasn't going to happen. Dread then became one of those games, appearing on lists all over magazines and websites of Games that you'll never, ever play. It was safe, then, to assume that Dread was forever lost; another infamous title in gaming's history of elusive non-releases.
Following the lukewarm reception to Other M, and the cancelled game that was never actually announced in the form of Dread, it was another quiet few years for Metroid. Samus was once again absent from another console generation, with no series representation on Nintendo's struggling Wii U platform (aside from another appearance in Smash Bros., and a minigame in Nintendoland).
The year was 2016. It had been six years with no news whatsoever of any new Metroid context. This year marked the 30th anniversary of the series - a milestone which Nintendo had celebrated spectacularly with the Mario and Zelda franchises respectively. Super Mario Maker had released in conjunction with the series' anniversary, Zelda had its hugely popular Symphony of the Goddesses orchestral tour, and both enjoyed a plethora of amiibo, books and other merchandise to celebrate their anniversaries. As for Metroid.... well, Metroid received possibly its most tone-deaf release yet on its 30th anniversary, in the form of Metroid Prime: Federation Force. It was a four-player co-op spin-off title for the 3DS, in which players didn't even get to play as Samus. One reviewer, Carlos Leiva, writing for Vandal.com, stated: "Federation Force can be fun, and it is actually fun played with friends. The problem is that it's short and forgettable, and if you're planning on playing alone, it doesn't have much to offer." IGN's Jose Otero shared similar views in his verdict: "Due to a painfully imbalanced single-player experience co-op with friends is really the only viable way to play it, and even then it’s not really recommended." That just about summed it up - for long-time fans, it simply didn't have much to offer. It was so far from what the vast majority of Metroid fans wanted, and with such bad timing after no news on a new entry into the series after so long - Federation Force felt doubly disappointing. Needless to say, its launch was a commercial failure - shifting a measly 4,000 copies in Japan during its launch week, and failing to reach the top 10 charts anywhere in the world. Metroid had never been a huge seller in the first place, so an unpopular entry in a cult franchise was always doomed to fail.
It was around this time that a fan project by the name of AM2R (Another Metroid 2 Remake) began to gain traction online. It was an unofficial project to remake the GameBoy title Metroid II: The Return of Samus in a style more akin to the later Zero Mission / Fusion titles. It was in development for around 10 years, and created entirely by a small team of fans in their own time. It was released for free, and - needless to say - Nintendo issued the release with a DMCA notice. The team were using Nintendo's Intellectual Property, so they were within their rights to defend the use of their own assets. It was, however, a tough pill to swallow, as Nintendo themselves hadn't exactly been delivering in the fans eyes for over six years at this point. This moment in time may have been the all-time low point for Metroid players. Snubbed during the series' 30th anniversary with only a mediocre co-op spinoff in an otherwise barren release schedule for the series, with a fan project which had attempted to pick up the slack being shut down and prevented from being distributed. Only a decade earlier the franchise had been enjoying an explosion of new content, and now the future looked uncertain. Would there even be another Metroid game after Federation Force's miserable performance?
2017 was here, and it had the answer to fans' uncertainties. Seemingly out of nowhere, Nintendo announced not one, but two new Metroid titles during their E3 presentation in June. Metroid Prime 4 was in production - they didn't have anything to show us beyond a logo, but it was something. It was enough to know that the series would live on, and it was a proper Metroid game. In addition to this, though, was an even more surprising reveal - Nintendo themselves had been working on their own remake of Metroid II. Series producer Yoshio Sakamoto had teamed up with Spanish developer Mercury Steam to build the reimagining from the ground up on the 3DS, and it looked excellent from the footage shown - and what's more, it was releasing that very same year. Metroid: Samus Returns release towards the end of 2017 and was met with critical acclaim and...moderate sales. This wasn't entirely unexpected, but the fact that this game released at all was enough to soften the blow of the AM2R debacle, and it was great to have Metroid back in its more traditional format. No Other M-inspired story, no Federation Force-inspired co-op; this was Samus back to doing what she does best.
Unfortunately, precious little was revealed of Prime 4, and it was eventually announced that the project was to be scrapped and started again from scratch as it wasn't meeting expectations. And so it was back to the drawing board. We're still waiting to hear more about the project, but what we do know is that it is back in the hands of Retro Studios, the team behind the original trilogy. And it was at least referenced at this year's E3 presentation...
...Alongside a title called Metroid Dread. That's right, the same Metroid Dread of legend from 15+ years ago. It was real. And it was coming to Nintendo Switch this year. Following on from Metroid Fusion, and with the same team at Mercury Steam from Samus Returns, it was set to conclude the main Metroid saga.
Metroid Dread has been out now for a couple of weeks, and I can happily say that it is a true return to form for the series. It looks and feels exactly how it should - it captures the ambience and mysterious feeling of the classic titles, whilst incorporating modern gameplay mechanics and visuals. It truly feels like a refined modern take on the classic formula, and I don't think I've played a game that I've found quite as enjoyable to play on a moment-to-moment basis as this for quite some time. Samus controls with tight precision, and she has the most abilities I've seen yet in a Metroid title. The game delivers a compelling narrative without drowning the player with exposition or undermining Samus. It challenges the player with an excellent difficulty balance that is tough but fair, and it nails the elements of backtracking, navigating and hunting for secrets that series is known for. It features the largest map in a 2D Metroid game, with varied and intriguing settings that are packed with detail that remind me of the Prime games. The game runs at a buttery smooth 60 frames per second, and it's a contender for one of the best looking games on the Switch. It ramps up in intensity throughout the experience and leads to a satisfying conclusion that had me on the edge of my seat.
And, although the game does stand on its own merit, it is made all the sweeter by the fact that it's Metroid Dread; the rumoured and teased secret of yore. And after such a turbulent history, it's so exciting to see such a triumphant return for one of Nintendo's lesser known series.
Nintendo clearly went above and beyond in terms of marketing for Dread, as I've seen adverts for it everywhere, from YouTube ads to banners on the side of buses. The game has had a lot of attention in the press leading up to release, and now that it's out, it's reviewed extremely well too. It's sitting at an impressive 89 on Metacritic at the time of writing, and it has reportedly broken several sales records for the series. It's been sitting at No. 3 in the UK sales charts, sitting behind FIFA and FarCry 6 (but let's be honest, it was never going to outsell those two), and it has already outsold almost every Metroid game in Japan.
As a self-confessed Nintendo fanboy and a long-time Metroid fanatic, I couldn't be happier with Samus's return to glory.
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