Samus Returns is a confident throwback to Metroid’s roots

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After years of neglect, Metroid is back: yesterday Nintendo revealed two new entries in the iconic sci-fi exploration series. One, Metroid Prime 4 on Switch, isn’t due for some time. But the Nintendo 3DS title Samus Returns is launching on September 15th, and it’s not just the first proper Metroid game since 2010 — it’s also a return to the series’s roots. Samus Returns is a remake of Metroid II on the original Game Boy, and it’s the first traditional 2D Metroid release in over a decade. The announcement may have come as a surprise to many, but it’s far from a new idea for series co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto. “I’ve been wanting to create a 2D Metroid for a while,” he says.

I had a chance to play through a 20-minute demo that represented the opening sequence of the game. Just like in the original Metroid II, Samus Returns opens with the titular bounty landing on the desolate planet SR388, and then exploring hostile caves home to angry aliens, including energy-sucking metroids. As in most Metroid games, you start pretty powerless; you need to seek out abilities like the morph ball and charge shot, which in turn help you open up new areas to explore. Samus Returns is a 2D game that features three-dimensional graphics, but the more detailed visuals don’t slow down the pace at all. In fact, Samus Returns is a much tighter action experience compared to the now-ancient Metroid II. Samus can now aim in any direction, and chain together attacks; if you time it right you can bat away an enemy and then immediately blast it with a critical laser shot. It feels fast and fluid, with a sense of immediacy that fits well with the series.

Outside of its tighter action and more detailed visuals, Samus Returns also includes a number of enhancements based around the 3DS hardware. For one thing, it’s the rare game that actually makes great use of the handheld’s glasses-free 3D effect, lending a sense of depth to the world. I found myself stopping to catch details in the background, like the corpses of unlucky cave explorers, and — unlike almost every other 3DS game I’ve played — I didn’t want to turn the 3D effect off. Meanwhile, the second screen is also put to use by displaying the in-game map at all times, making exploration a little easier. You can even place pins on the map, just like in Breath of the Wild, to remember areas you might want to explore later. (Sakamoto says he “wasn’t actually aware” of that feature being in the latest Legend of Zelda game.)

Sakamoto served as the designer on the original Metroid, and he directed its successor, Super Metroid. But he didn’t actually work on Metroid II. That said, he believes the portable game has an important place within the series — which is one of the main reasons he wanted to remake it. “In terms of Metroid II, that was a Game Boy game. It was quite a while back, and it hadn’t been revisited,” he explains. “Metroid II I feel has a really important place in the Metroid franchise’s history. It introduces us to baby metroid for the first time, and there are a lot of important elements in that title.” While Sakamoto is helming the production, the game is actually being developed as a collaboration between Nintendo and Spanish studio Mercury Steam, whose best-known work is arguably the Castlevania reboot Lords of Shadow in 2010. “It’s this really nice meld of each company’s experience and ideas, and the flavors that we bring to the series,” Sakamoto says of the collaborative process between the two developers.

Of course, as with any reimagining, there’s always the potential that any new features in Samus Returns could dilute the essence of the original experience. Metroid is known for its challenging gameplay and moody atmosphere, and with better aiming, faster action, and a more useful map, it’s possible that some of that feeling will be lost in Samus Returns. It’s a question the development team struggled with when they started working on the game two years ago. “What do we do to preserve some of that originality yet add to it?” asks Sakamoto. “I think the key is that you’re only adding things that improve upon that core concept. You’re not changing things just to change things. It’s really not that different from creating a game from scratch — you’re just looking to build something fun and enjoyable.”

Metroid: Samus Returns is a game that fans have been asking for for quite some time. And for Sakamoto, announcing the title yesterday provided a profound sense of relief — it’s both a game fans were clamoring for and a game he yearned to make. “I’ve had this sense of anticipation,” he says of the E3 reveal. “I wanted to talk about it, I wanted to tell people that we’re doing this.”

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