by Jed Pressgrove
Like the 1991 Game Boy game it’s based on, Metroid: Samus Returns emphasizes the bounty-hunter aspect of its protagonist. As in other Metroid games, you have to gain powers to overcome recurring obstacles, but the focus is tracking down Metroids and eliminating them in order to move to a new location on the planet SR388. This modern interpretation of Samus’ hunt is a pretty good action game, packed with power-ups and backgrounds that bring considerable atmosphere to the side-scrolling experience. The catch is you rarely feel lost or threatened on SR388 due to the wealth of powers, a forgiving checkpoint system, fast-travel points, and repetitive Metroid fights.
At first, Metroid: Samus Returns seems emotionally antiseptic. The first level doesn’t have the intriguing backgrounds of later areas, and Samus’ new parry technique boringly recalls numerous recent hack-and-slashers. Soon, however, the game gets rolling, especially when the Metroid indicator on the bottom screen of the 3DS starts beeping and blinking, taunting you to find the nearby alien and take care of business.
You’ll also get acquainted with an irritating slew of enemies, several of which can’t be killed quickly until you get very souped up. Suitably, the most fascinating of the bunch are the Metroids themselves. For a decent part of the game, these creatures reward your searching, with subtle changes to their abilities that can catch you off guard. The most enlivening version of the titular foe is the kind that, after taking a particular amount of damage, burrows into another hall, forcing you to find it again. Not only does this form of the enemy effectively delay gratification, it reinforces the feeling that Samus’ calling is to hunt destroyers.
After observing certain patterns again and again, though, the annihilation of the Metroids becomes a reliable outcome, particularly in a dull sequence where you can dispatch nine in a row, one by one, by freezing and shooting one super missile at each. Sure, this scene leads into a more substantial threat, but it’s a far cry from the tension of the final stretch in Metroid Prime, where the Metroids served as a mighty frustration as you attempted to jump to higher and higher platforms.
Really, the game hits its high point at the end of the sixth level, when your wits and reflexes are put to the ultimate test against the ever-changing tactics and weak points of the Diggernaut. That battle should go down as an all-time classic. Afterward, the game never quite recovers, as evidenced by the last segment when the script, following the 1991 original’s lead, gets preposterously sentimental with a baby Metroid joining Samus and helping her defeat the final boss. That last adversary is tedious not because of difficulty but because of shoehorned cutscenes and the low accuracy required to emerge the winner. And with that victory, Samus flies away with her adopted Metroid, a corny picture of motherhood that doesn’t feel earned.