by Jed Pressgrove
“Why” … what does that word mean? I forgot.
– Henri Dickson, in the 1965 film Alphaville.
The moving walkway. You stand to save energy. You walk for what feels like superhuman speed. The convenience almost thrills you. Why toil when you can do next to nothing?
The original Metroid, released in 1986, was like being lost in a labyrinthian airport. It could dampen your mood for days, raise the question of why you bother playing. Uncaring, ruthless, and maddening, Metroid didn’t promise fond memories. It wasn’t cool, but cold. Samus, the protagonist, left no hints about her impressions of her purgatorial fate. No voices guided her. Caution was paramount.
During my last session with Metroid Dread, I felt the conveyor belt effect. I traveled between three settings like a wealthy American millennial in Europe without obligation. I gained three new abilities in around 15 minutes, which brought to mind the satirical comment on gaining power in Guacamelee 2. I received health and ammo bonuses almost every time I killed something — if by some unholy luck I didn’t, I could thrust Samus’ arm into one of the numerous statues that fill depleted meters like no-cost gas stations. A computer named Adam told me what to do and what to expect next. First class. Sky miles. Comfort plus. Might as well have been a private jet.
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Why play Metroid Dread on the Nintendo Switch?
Not only is Metroid not going anywhere, but I’m pretty sure 2D Metroid isn’t going anywhere either.
More than anything else, Metroid Dread feels like going back to a place of comfort after a long time away.
I can’t think of a 2D game that feels better to control.
The typically stoic Samus has a lot more swagger in her step this time around.
I’m not a speedrunner, but the open design of ZDR seems to offer plenty of potential to optimize and exploit the game.
With a magnetic sense of style and atmosphere, Dread puts the Metroid series on the right path, maintaining the ideals of the original games with modern sensibilities and technology.
It’s a game that looks at what people enjoy about this enduring formula—exploring a convoluted space with interlocking architecture and being rewarded for carefully studying and exploiting that space—and goes “OK, what would make you happier?”
Metroid Dread perfects the Metroidvania formula.
A magnificent deity told me to play Metroid Dread and spread the good news.
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What a time it was when one could enter “Justin Bailey” as a password in the original Metroid to take control of a more powerful and more scantily clad Samus.
The motivation for using this password varied:
- A lot of gamers had a fetish for cheating back in the NES days. The Justin Bailey password felt like cheating.
- Showing the trick to one’s (presumably ignorant) friends garnered cool points.
- You wanted to give yourself another opportunity to spread and buy into the myth that Justin Bailey was the name of someone important to Metroid’s development.
- The game was difficult and exacting. The password provided relief, an alternate reality to the constipated search for upgrades in a demanding maze.
- Did I mention Samus showed more skin?
What if we could enter “Justin Bailey” as a code in Metroid Dread? Why would we use it?
Samus today already feels more like a privileged superhero than a tough bounty hunter (particularly when we acknowledge the ongoing Smash Bros. series). In Metroid Dread, she can put Usain Bolt to shame before bursting into the air like Superman. She can infinitely chain together jumps that have destructive power when she collides into enemies or certain ceilings and walls. She can dash forward and backward with blinding speed. She can build up an arsenal of missiles that would make Iron Man nod. By the time she acquires all her abilities, the player should feel like a god, as if the ultimate Justin Bailey code has been initiated.
Contrast this with Metroid Prime. Even with all the upgrades, the situation remains bleak and frustrating unless the player rises to the challenge. Recall the late room in Prime where one must ascend by jumping on a series of small platforms as Metroids — sporting different colors and thus requiring Samus to manually switch to different weapons for maximum effectiveness — pester the heroine, sucking her life away or, worse, causing her to take a demoralizing fall to the floor, a forced restart to the precise hopping. It takes will and accuracy to pass such a test with only a double jump, and this is without speaking of the preceding boss or the incoming final battle, both arguably more trying than the platforming section.
Metroid Dread doesn’t understand how to make history like Metroid Prime — how to burn itself into the collective player’s heart, how to prod the collective player’s imagination. The intention of Metroid Dread, notwithstanding the tone of its title, is to please.
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“I wonder if I can parry it,” I said to my 43-year-old friend’s 27-year-old roommate as I, a proud 37-year-old, fought an optional boss in Elden Ring, which should be called Dark Souls 6.
Did anyone see the gaming world’s obsession with parrying on the horizon? If only these parry worshipers had been around during the 1990s, when artful but unpopular fighting games like Weaponlord and Street Fighter III strayed from convention and demanded that the audience learn a tricky defensive mechanic.
Why play Metroid Dread on the Nintendo Bitch? To parry, to go Will Smith on something, of course!
Here’s how innovation works for undying franchises: include an idea that isn’t new to video games but can be marketed as a fresh feature for the series. Many gamers eat up this bastardized, dishonest sort of creativity. In this case, Metroid Dread steals well-worn concepts from the survival horror genre with its inclusion of EMMIs, gangling killer robots that slink about like ravenous animals. EMMIs are indestructible (at first) and can murder Samus in one hit, demanding the heroine to avoid being detected or, if detected, to run away until the machine loses track of her or, if caught, to execute a perfect parry during a quick-time event to stun the robot.
Although Metroid Dread adopts survival horror conventions, it fails to produce tension, much less dread, with its counterfeit suspense. The EMMI encounters suffer from predictability: EMMIs are relegated to demarcated zones and even show up on the in-game map. Bye bye to the notion of getting caught off-guard. The pointlessness of Samus’ cloaking ability further confirms Metroid Dread’s forced trendiness. I rarely, if ever, had to cloak the heroine to advance in an EMMI zone. And fear not if an EMMI executes Samus. The game will respawn the bounty hunter right outside of the EMMI zone, where you can dust yourself off for another exciting time with a rote trial-and-error sequence.
The EMMIs mostly provide an excuse for Metroid Dread to indulge in 2.5D shenanigans. EMMIs can be annihilated by a special cannon that Samus can only access and use when confronting EMMIs — how’s that for a contrivance? (One must destroy a Central Unit, a sitting duck of an adversary, to activate the cannon.) When Samus utilizes the cannon, the game switches to a tortured 3D perspective, demanding the player to line up a laser light on the target’s head. After you obliterate the EMMI’s helmet, a fully charged shot to the head ends the robot’s existence. The climactic scenario is always the same: run away from the EMMI until you can stand about a screen’s length from the robot — which, thanks to a pandering design choice, moves slower and behaves more idiotically when Samus has the cannon — and then blast away within the goofy camera angle.
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you really shouldn’t can’t you be more objective people have been waiting on this sequel for decades the EMMIs provide a nice change of pace the game is quite challenging some of the best boss battles of all time you really shouldn’t the parry is well incorporated Samus has never felt better finally we get some voice acting that doesn’t suck and that carries dramatic weight the bosses are boss you really shouldn’t developers work extremely hard you are just judging us for enjoying something this game wasn’t made for you watch your tone Samus moves with grace at last you really shouldn’t the polish reminds me of the hard work behind games what’s wrong with the mechanics you are a contrarian the bosses will make you think twice about your skills you really shouldn’t the story is actually intriguing and if you pay attention to the lore you must not like Metroid the game isn’t broken so what’s the problem you are miserable you really shouldn’t did you even get past the halfway point the bosses remind me of how hard developers work day in and day out you probably are getting paid by an opponent of Nintendo you really shouldn’t
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About seven hours into Metroid Dread, I finally experienced anxiety during a battle with the stupidly named boss Experiment No. Z-57. This creature takes up the center of the background, recalling the classic third-stage boss from Contra III: The Alien Wars, and unleashes sweeping claw and beam attacks, the latter of which demands some nifty jumping for Samus to avoid getting burned by the lethal pink goo on the ground left behind by the foe’s projectile vomit. The most ingenious part of the fight occurs after the player launches an all-out assault on the monster’s appendages: from the extreme right end of the screen, fans unleash artificial winds that will push Samus into a boobytrapped wall if she doesn’t sprint. While Samus runs in place, waves of bullets glide toward her, leaving only tight windows for her to fit through to avoid damage. The player must utilize the heroine’s ability to string together spinning jumps to pass through these narrow passages unscathed. As some have remarked, this section of the boss fight evokes Flappy Bird’s emphasis on undulating evasion.
Outside of this twisted battle and the final villain, the bosses are pedestrian in Metroid Dread. The major bosses bleed out plenty of health and ammo, limiting the possibility of a “How can I ever get past this?” type of mental block. The developers should be ashamed of the mid-bosses, which don’t put up much of a struggle and return for flaccid and monotonous follow-up bouts after their unsuccessful first appearances. Throughout these encounters, I never ran out of missiles, as one can greatly increase Samus’ missile capacity with minimal exploration.
I question publications like Polygon that describe the bosses as “brutal” in a world where From Software titles enjoy massive popularity. The statement that every boss “presents unique challenges” smacks of disingenuous hype given the obscene number of Chozo Soldier skirmishes. None of the bosses rival the multi-level insanity and ever-shifting weak points of the Diggernaut from Metroid: Samus Returns, released just five years ago. Metroid fans appear to be as forgetful as my 92-year-old grandmother.
The most unappealing part of the bosses is the junctures where one must tap buttons during telegraphed moments of shoehorned cutscenes to deal damage or a final blow to an opponent. I never expected the Metroid series to blandly copy Resident Evil 4, to champion lazy, isomorphic action over mood and atmosphere.
I played Metroid Dread because I want to believe in Metroid. Despite not being as popular as The Legend of Zelda or Super Mario Bros., the Metroid saga has illustrated the potential of pop video games as much as any series. The 1986 original is the loneliest of platformers. Metroid II: Return of Samus, with its emphasis on hunting, demonstrates how a sequel can put players deeper into the shoes of a character. Super Metroid symbolizes bigger and better. And Metroid Prime redefines the very notion of perspective in multiple ways.
It’s thus unfortunate Metroid Dread takes after the 2017 remake Metroid: Samus Returns, which trumpets the lie that modern technology and design trends automatically translate to superior experiences. Moreover, Metroid Dread’s story — which builds up to a risible and trite “You’re my daughter” revelation before the concluding fight with Raven Beak — resembles a half-assed salute to the wannabe cinematic aspirations of the video game medium.
These are not the most troubling points. That people have unironically referred to Metroid Dread as a Metroidvania underscores the ultimate problem: Metroid has devolved into an imitation of an imitation of itself.
Dissecting the origin of the term Metroidvania highlights the scam some people are promoting with their praise of Metroid Dread. The clumsy phrase gained popularity after the release of Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which many suggest was the first Castlevania that combined the non-linear exploration of Metroid with RPG features. This false history lesson receives its most appalling exposure in Wikipedia’s Metroidvania entry: “However, Symphony of the Night distinguished itself from prior non-linear platformers via the incorporation of console role-playing elements with the means for the player to improve their character’s attributes through an experience system.”
The first issue is obvious: Symphony of the Night, released in 1997, wasn’t the first game that married Metroid’s non-linear progression with experience points. It wasn’t even the first Castlevania to do this; see 1987’s Castlevania II: Simon’s Quest.
The second issue relates to the tendency of gamers and critics to overemphasize mechanics and lose sight of the emotional meaning of pop games. Metroidvania conveys nothing about what the original Metroid achieved emotionally. Symphony of the Night’s legacy is excessive content — the fake ending, the upside-down second castle, the staggering array of items (many of them pointless) — whereas Metroid’s place in history has as much to do with how people feel (confused, hopeless, isolated) while they play the game as it does with anything else.
As a production associated with the deception behind the Metroidvania movement, Metroid Dread can’t live up to its title. Its feeble understanding of dread boils down to its restrained survival horror homages and Empire Strikes Back esque plot twist. Its world — a nonlinear realm that nonetheless pushes the player in logical directions for the streamlined completion of a primary campaign — continually reveals its developers’ fingerprints so that the main sense we have throughout the game is that the whole thing was worked on. And its heroine is little more than a slick avatar, a superstar skin.
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I am not faced with overwhelming power. I am not helpless. I am not backtracking. I am not disturbed. I am not concerned. I am not searching. I am not stuck. I am not lost. I am not pondering. I am not alone.
I am enslaved to the ring of a seven-letter word.
DEDICATED TO JEAN-LUC GODARD