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Metroid: Samus Returns - artwork of Samus Aran kneeling in space

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Metroid: Samus Returns review

An essential addition to the Metroid catalog

Russ Frushtick is the director of special projects, and he has been covering the world of video games and technology for over 15 years. He co-founded Polygon in 2012.

Metroid: Samus Returns is the remake no one was asking for.

Sandwiched between the birth of the franchise and the beloved Super Metroid, Metroid 2: The Return of Samus was the first portable entry in the series. And it was a very solid, if safe, follow-up to the original game. Which is why no one was really demanding that it be remade.

But thank god it was. Metroid: Samus Returns reforges the broad concept of the Game Boy original while adding modern gameplay mechanics and the best graphics yet seen on the 3DS, making it an essential part of the Metroid catalog.

Metroid: Samus Returns - Samus helmet art Nintendo/YouTube

Metroid: Samus Returns takes place immediately after the events of the first game. The Space Pirates, helmed by Mother Brain, have been defeated and their nefarious plans to use creatures called Metroids as an unlimited power source have been mostly thwarted.

Step two for the United Federation: Ensure that no one will ever be able to use these Metroids again. To that end, the organization sends resident bounty hunter badass Samus Aran to the home planet of the Metroids to straight-up murder every last one. Yes, it’s a classic story of heroic genocide!

The story lines up pretty much exactly with that of the original Game Boy game, and is told with an animated cutscene at the outset, followed by zero dialogue throughout the rest of the game. If you’ve been put off by the remarkable amount of backstory in later Metroid entries, worry not. This is silent Samus at her very best. The peaceful simplicity of the early Metroid games really works in their favor, and Samus Returns is no exception.

Your quest of hunting down the Metroids predictably involves exploration, gear gathering and laser blasting. And even though the map is completely different (and much larger) than the one in the original Metroid 2, the objective is the same: You’ll enter a new area and soon discover an altar that is asking for the DNA from X number of Metroids. Once you collect that Metroid DNA, you return to the altar; then, some poison goo lowers, and you’re able to explore deeper into the planet, where more Metroids await.

This sounds redundant on paper, but is far more interesting in practice. For one thing, the combat in Samus Returns is fantastic. 2D Metroid games have always struggled with control limitations. Simple problems, like only being able to fire in eight directions, made certain encounters frustrating. Even small, puny enemies were a pain because you’d have to line Samus up perfectly to make a shot.

Samus Returns, however, introduces the ability to aim in 360 degrees by holding the left trigger. Upon doing this, Samus’ gun will emit a laser pointer that turns red upon targeting an enemy, even if it’s slightly off-screen. This plays into puzzles as well, where missiles must be fired at a precise angle to access a collectible.

The other major improvement that Samus Returns brings to 2D Metroid: the ability to counterattack. Just about every enemy in the game can be countered by hitting the X button just as they’re attacking. Timing the counter will allow Samus to stun the enemy and finish it off with ease. The countering system works with 360-degree aiming, as it auto-locks onto the enemy you just countered so you don’t have to stress about lining up your shot.

Metroid: Samus Returns - Samus counters a Metroid MercurySteam/Nintendo

This combination plays into fights with all enemies, big and small. For smaller foes, countering will let you one-shot them, progressing through areas without taking any damage so long as you’re careful. Larger enemies can be countered as well. In boss fights, countering often yields a cutscene with Samus flying through the air, landing on the head of the beastie before unleashing rockets aplenty. This makes the combat in Samus Returns feel more like an action game and less like a geometric problem.

The combat is best on display during the game’s many boss fights. Effectively there are more than 40 of them, as each Metroid you hunt down is like a miniboss in and of itself. Early Metroids are pretty simple, going down with a counterattack and a few rockets. But the Metroids quickly evolve, eventually presenting complex, multi-stage battles with challenging attack patterns to memorize. Toward the end of the game there’s one fight in particular that is one of the most challenging in the history of Metroid, even on normal difficulty. And thanks to the combat enhancements, these battles never feel like a chore. It’s the pinnacle of 2D combat in a franchise that has always suffered on that front.

Visuals have never been an area where Metroid has struggled, though. Each entry has pushed its hardware to the limits, and Samus Returns continues that tradition. The game’s graphics are in full 3D, albeit locked to a side-scrolling perspective, and the level of detail in each of the environments is remarkable. The Metroid home planet is quite varied, from plant-ridden caves to lava pools to technological wonders deep beneath the surface. If you can stomach the 3DS’s 3D effects, they’re a serious treat here. The sense of depth in these environments is perfect. Even on older 3DS handhelds, the level of detail pours through the screen in buckets.

Wrap up

To call Metroid: Samus Returns a remake feels unfair. Remakes are old games with new coats of paint: an upgrade in resolution here, reworked artwork there. Samus Returns is far more than that. It’s a top-to-bottom reimagining, bringing the bones of a game that’s over 25 years old into the modern era with fantastic results.

Metroid: Samus Returns was reviewed using a Nintendo 3DS physical retail copy provided by Nintendo. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.

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