Samus Aran has always had an uncanny ability to adapt to the problem at hand. Most famously, of course, by curling into a small ball with an efficiency that would embarrass a world-class contortionist. But with each new adventure she also further expands her repertoire as the situation demands, right up to Metroid Dread, which integrates new abilities like flash shift and phantom cloak into her tactical arsenal.
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I doubt I’ll tire of Metroid games, in large part because of their endlessly flexible hero. And even now, despite my familiarity with Metroids past, Dread retains a hint of freshness. It helps that, after the remakes, spin-offs, handheld games, 3D Prime series and whatever Other M was supposed to be, Dread actually is a little fresh. As the first new 2D Metroid console release since 1994, it’s closer than anything to a direct descendant of the great Super Metroid itself.
Of course, 27 years on, Dread lands on a very different gaming landscape, and can’t have the same impact. Super Metroid, after all, was one of the progenitors of the Metroidvania sub-genre. There was Metroid, and there were ‘action adventure’ games such as Wonder Boy III: The Dragon’s Trap, where different character forms could access different sections of an interlocking map (in another universe perhaps there’s a genre called WonderMetroid). But since then, in the last decade or so, a thriving indie scene has taken the genre in all kinds of fascinating directions.
Yet Dread manages to feel cutting edge in some ways precisely by returning to and intensifying the specific qualities of classic Metroid games. One reason it stands out is that many of the modern titles we call Metroidvania are really more Vania (or Wonder) than Metroid. These are games in which we focus on uncovering the corners of the map, and ornate rooms full of sword-fodder monsters marry with light RPG trappings to produce an occupying grind between set pieces and boss encounters.
Metroid, in contrast, is a precision machine whose parts must align exactly, else it doesn’t tick. And where many Metroidvania games shy away from such a challenge, Dread grabs it with both hands, adding more components and slotting them together with absolute precision. The result is less level design than a feat of engineering.
The word I kept thinking of while playing Dread was ‘density’. Its map looks crowded because it is, packed with countless locks, one-way systems, linking elevators and teleporters. Open spaces exist to house significant events, and progress never comes from travelling in a straight line. You wind around, double back and detour, and none of this shuttling around could be called padding. A rapid feed of upgrades ensures you’re always trying something new, areas change as you backtrack, and if any screen seems unnecessary, you haven’t figured out what it’s for yet.
It’s also crucial that in good Metroid games upgrades aren’t mere keys, but skills to be mastered. The most obvious and extreme example is in how some optional items demand ingenious use of the speed boost ability to reach. But even something as simple as a double jump – for many Metroidvania games the most bog-standard offering – asks something of you. You don’t merely press the button again in mid-air, you time it, and only during a sideways spin jump. Dread’s environments are built to coax out your abilities as well as those gained by Samus.
Other Metroidvania games have a similar focus on careful execution, like Ori or Guacamelee, providing an expertly crafted challenge in each of their spaces. But compared to the interconnected density of Dread, these feel like blocks of individual challenges bolted together. Most of all, I think Dread captures the unfolding sense of empowerment that we expect of the genre. It imprisons you with almost vice-like confinement, then slowly lets you loosen the screws, one deliberate turn at a time. Until, towards the end of the game, you’re free, a legendary bounty hunter smashing through blockages and steamrollering monsters. There’s a relentless coherence running throughout its systems of progression.
That’s not the whole story, however. Because for all its confidence and class, in some ways Dread feels less comfortable in reckoning with its own history, or advancements in the wider Metroidvania field. It’s a heavyweight in every way – a hard hitter, but with that a little cumbersome too.
For starters the series has struggled to move outside its comfort zone for some time. From Fusion to Other M, attempts to introduce new features to distinguish individual entries have been hit and miss. In this case the big deal is the injection of ‘EMMI’ robots that stalk you through certain parts of each area. At times, they turn into a kind of cat-and-mouse puzzle, and elicit a sense of panic. But mostly for me they boiled down to trial and error, and a little luck. They don’t evolve in ways that are tactically interesting, nor do they integrate into the game’s clean, reliable systems.
Dread’s control system also feels needlessly complex. Stuffing its map with so many different obstacles equally means packing the controller with commands to navigate them. It’s not surprising then that I sometimes got the inputs confused, detracting from Samus’ slick dynamism. Metroid has had this issue since Prime, which forced you to constantly switch visors and beam weapons. While other Metroidvania games streamline their controls, Metroid only knows how to bulk up. I have to hold down three buttons to stand on the spot and fire a missile, and I’m not sure why.
And what about that heavy-weight price tag? Nintendo can’t have failed to notice that the 2D Metroidvania genre has long become the domain of high quality yet inexpensive downloads. Against those, Dread can boast of its polish and density, but are its production values really much grander than the likes of Ori or F.I.S.T., which sell for around half as much? And don’t the likes of Hollow Knight or Guacamelee 2 offer substantial, captivating challenges for even less?
I’m not suggesting you buy F.I.S.T. in place of Dread (although it’s a decent game), and of course value is subjective. But price does help determine my expectations, and although I love a lot of what Dread does, it falls a little short of the level its cost implies. It begs questions – shouldn’t the game have made more of the EMMI, lasted longer, or offered more modes? Shouldn’t the environments have been even more impressive and atmospheric? Super Metroid had 16-bit atmosphere in spades, not least due to its ominous soundtrack. The music here is tepid by comparison. Where indeed is the dread?
In one sense, then, Dread is a lot like its hero, Samus – focused, exceptionally capable and happy to work on its own terms rather than have others show it the way forward. But perhaps the series does need to respond to the ways that others have changed the rules of the Metroidvania – simplified, diversified and experimented more successfully. Perhaps, most of all, it needs a clearer sense of identity and direction. Like Samus, Metroid needs to learn to adapt.
Metroid Dread is available now for the Nintendo Switch.