Nineteen years later, Metroid Fusion for the Game Boy Advance finally got a much-deserved sequel! I’m ignoring Other M and Samus Returns right now as the story of Metroid Dread picks up where Fusion left off, and it’s been a very, very long time since we’ve seen Samus in action on a 2(.5?)D space, shooting and bombing her way through the planet ZDR. Spanish game development studio MercurySteam—also responsible for 2017’s Samus Returns and the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series—really did pull it off. Metroid Dread is amazing.
It’s also dreadful, but I reckon you already picked that up by reading the title. The Galaxy federation sent Samus to investigate on planet ZDR after a couple of scientific sample collector robots went haywire: the EMMIs or Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifier—the seven things with glowing eyes looming in the back of the box art. ZDR turns out to be yet another planet colonized by the Chozo, a highly intelligent bird-like race that designed Samus' suit and most of the artifacts she encounters in all games, including Super Metroid’s Mother Brain. A particular Chozo called Raven Beak, part of the Mawkin tribe, lured Samus into a trap (gasp!), involving the involuntarily extraction of her DNA to rule all galaxies.
Oh, and at the beginning of the game, Raven Beak strips you of all your gear. Of course.
The above screenshot proves that contrary to the Metroid Prime games, Dread goes back to the roots: it’s a classic metroidvania where you explore a castle—erhm, planet—and encounter locked portions you’ll have to return to after re-acquiring some of your power-ups. For an exploration-focused game, the game felt very linear to me. The map design ushers you toward a certain direction while frequently blocking your path making retracing your steps more difficult: it’s often easier to push forward. You’ll have plenty of time to revisit areas—which, again, the map design pushes you to do by introducing multiple ways to end up in certain sections. As you have to take these routes, I felt a bit robbed of my freedom. Metroid Dread is much more linear than it claims to be.
I suppose that’s good news for newcomers to the genre. You’re rarely left to your own devices, wondering where to go next. There’s not a single “mysteriously blocked path” that requires serious thought like in some tougher Castlevania: Symphony of the Night sections. Blocks you’re not able to break just yet (for example screw attack or power bomb blocks) are marked on the map with ???, but those only harbor Missile or Energy boosts.
The high pace of the game further discourages just wandering around: you’re practically flying from one power-up to the next, thereby tripping over several bosses and EMMI encounters, finding yet another piece for your suit, etc. The game can be finished in 7 to 8 hours, even with plenty of time left for item collection. At times I felt that the game was just throwing too much at me: within half an hour, I acquired three power-ups and killed 2 bosses.
Speaking of bosses: most are push-overs, some are quite a challenge, and the end boss is very hard (but rewarding). Metroid Dread is brilliant in introducing bosses: the game is very cinematic, has a lot of close-up encounters where the camera fluently zooms in or out depending on the situation, even providing a first-person view at times during cut-scenes. This makes boss encounters feel very exciting. Some even come with quick time events, where a correctly timed block nets you an opportunity to pump them full of even more missiles—which is appropriately shown off using yet another cinematic angle. At times I felt like I was watching a memorable Star Wars cut-scene instead of playing a game. Of course then I failed to press the correct button on time.
Nitpickers needn’t worry, the Nintendo Switch handles this graphical cinema with ease: the gameplay feels buttery smooth, I never encountered visible frame drops or lag, and Samus controls beautifully. Still shots do not do the game justice, you’ll have to play it to believe it. It’s simply stunning. Sure there are loading times when traveling between sectors but it’s not Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night-bad, where every screen transition costs you a second. That said, it’s over-use of bland techno-facilities instead of sprawling organic areas contributes to the feeling of linearity.
What’s less stunning is the unique twist in this Metroid game: the EMMI robots. The “Dread” part is that Samus is powerless against these ultra-powerful robots that guard huge portions of seven sectors. When entering an EMMI zone, the gameplay suddenly changes from casual but careful exploration to tense run-and-hide—something that I indeed dreaded, but not for the right reasons. I detest having to go through these obligatory stealth parts of a game, especially if it’s an all-or-nothing case like this: if the EMMI spots you and manages to grab you—and it will—it’s game over.
While I appreciate the sentiment here—Samus that has to run for a “scary threat”—the execution just feels off. After the second EMMI encounter, the system started to wear, and I indeed dreaded slogging through these sections that bring the greatness of the game to a grinding halt. Knowing that you have to traverse those sections, looking for a power source to kill them off, knowing you’ll probably have to come back because you can’t reach that just yet… I love everything about Metroid Dread, except the EMMIs—which just so happens to be the selling point of Dread.
I’m probably just not that good at stealthy sections. The amount of times I’ve seen that game over screen due to an EMMI compared to death by boss or enemies is like 20 to 1. And that’s fine, until you lose the patience to sit through these sections. I get that they were trying to replicate the tension surrounding SA-X in Fusion, but perhaps they took it too far.
Do I like this game? Yes! Do I think it’s amazing? Well… Yes? I mean, I am so stoked that Nintendo finally decided to pick up the classic 2D metroidvania-esque gameplay again, after years and years of silence or rumors. It’s the first original 2D Metroid game in 19 years! The game was met with a gigantic amount of critical acclaim: it’s the best selling Metroid game ever and won various best game awards in 2021.
It also has to be said that MercurySteam’s work culture is accused of being unethical, including reports of punishments for underperforming and long periods of crunch time. Even worse, not everyone who worked on the game was given in-game credit. Supporting work practices such as this by buying the game isn’t going to do anyone a big favor.
That, combined with the linearity, the blandness of the factory backdrops, the frustrating stealth sections, and the absence of a killer soundtrack, makes it very hard for me to give it a 5/5. I even liked Axiom Verge’s soundtrack more than the barely present ambient music here, which is a surprise, considering the many classic tunes the Metroid games have counted on before. The music wasn’t bad: it was just barely present.
Metroid Dread is very good, but as the Metroid Database fansite concludes:
There’s definitely some room for improvement. […] The game is incredibly challenging at times, has some questionable design choices, does little to improve the existing Metroid formula, can be a little graphically and aurally underwhelming at times, and for the most part, the enemies and background areas are somewhat subdued, uninteresting, and repetitive. I hope MercurySteam and Nintendo learn to step out of their comfort zone when designing the next one.