The first completely new 2D Metroid in 19 years releases this fall. But is Samus still looking sharp behind the shining armour?
Among all the announcements at the Nintendo Direct, Metroid Dread seemed the most interesting. The original Metroid from 1986 is one of the most influential games ever, having laid the foundation for the Metroidvania genre, and now that a new game is being announced, more than 19 years after Metroid Fusion was released for the Game Boy Advance, it is a welcome surprise. The developer wants to modernise the series with updated gameplay and the addition of some new horror elements. But 19 years is nearly an eternity in this fast-moving industry, and after having seen more of the game at a roundtable discussion with the game's producer Yoshio Sakomoto , I have my doubts whether Samus is holding up beneath the shining armour.
Metroid Dread is developed by Nintendo EPD, under the direction of producer Sakamoto Yoshio, and in cooperation with MercurySteam. The Spanish developer was widely praised for Metroid: Samus Returns, which released on the Nintendo 3DS back in 2017, and the game's success convinced Sakamoto Yoshio that now was the time to realise his visions for Metroid Dread - a project he has been developing on and off the last 15 years. "Once we confirmed the excellent collaboration with MercurySteam, I felt we finally found the ideal partner to make my longstanding project come true," he explained at the roundtable.
There is little doubt that MercurySteam did a good job with their recent release, but in my opinion, they failed in one area. Metroid: Samus Return was a ground-up remake of the Game Bay title Metroid II, but the developer didn't manage to recapture this game's gloomy and oppressive atmosphere on the 3DS. That might be the reason that Nintendo has chosen to steer the series in a gloomier direction with Metroid Dread that, as the name implies, is a more frightening experience.
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If you have seen the trailer, you know that the added tension primarily is due to the robots called E.M.M.I. When you are picked up by one of their sensors there is only one viable strategy - Run! Samus ' normally quite capable guns doesn't even make a dent in the armour of these mechanical beasts. To escape the E.M.M.I. you can hide in a corner and try to calm your beating heart until the danger has passed. If you are discovered, you still have a way out though, as the new ability Phantom Cloak grants you a few seconds of much need invisibility.
But as mentioned the best strategy is often to run. E.M.M.I. only patrols a limited section, and if you step out of its programmed boundary, you are safe. Relatively speaking of course, as there are still many more dangers lurking - but these you can beat with your various weapons.
It seems a smart decision to limit the E.M.M.I. to certain areas. Metroid is first and foremost about exploration and discovery, and these elements would be somewhat diminished if you were constantly stalked by a mechanical nightmare. Hopefully, this constant shift between all out flight and methodical exploration can create the right cocktail of fear and excitement. But I have my doubts.
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There is a reason the most effective horror games are often in first person. The truly frightening parts are often what you cannot see; the monster that maybe - or maybe not - is lurking just around the corner. Still, games like Inside, Little Nightmares and even the original Metroid II have demonstrated, that it is possible to create a dreadful atmosphere, even when the player is able to view the whole screen; it just requires a vulnerable character and some shadows to play tricks with your imagination. Yet Metroid Dread mostly takes place in well light areas, and Samus is more athletic than a soviet gymnast. Because of this I was very curious to hear Yoshio Sakomoto's thoughts about how they have created a feeling of dread under these circumstances, and luckily enough he (sort of) answered my question.
"Regarding the overall gameplay it is particularly important for the Metroid game experience to be smooth, the veteran producer told me. "With regards to the various functionalities enabling that, it is important that we don't spoil Samus' movement. So first we conceived of the various factors enabling a smooth game experience including the fast motions of Samus. From there we worked hard on coming up with the right balance to put the users on edge and to offer this sense of smooth tension."
Yoshio Sakomoto was also asked whether Metroid Dread could be labelled the most horror-like game in the series, and he answered that he preferred the terms dread or fear - the exact Japanese term gave the translator some difficulties, and this probably illustrates that it is a very definition of 'dread' that the developers are aiming for. Metroid Dread should not be measured as a horror game then. But is it up to snuff on other parameters?
We were presented with some new footage of Samus running away from the E.M.M.I, and these chases seem like a mixed bag. There were some light puzzle elements as when Samus tried to fill in a basin with water to trap the E.M.M.I behind a floodgate. But it still seemed a bit too chaotic to be really suspenseful. There can be little doubt though that it will be quite thrilling, when you are jumping off walls and slide trough small cracks with Samus' new sliding ability to avoid the fast robot at the last second.
Graphically, Metroid Dread looks quite beautiful, but it doesn't exactly take your breath away. The backgrounds have many nice details, and the disgusting monsters, which often look like living organs, wouldn't be out of place in a David Cronenberg movie. But, me, pretending to be a high-brow film critic, doesn't change the fact that the visuals seem to lack the last layer of polish. Luckily, there seems to be a lot of variation with beautifully lit caverns, dirty corridors, frightening industrial machines and much more. "In the latest instalment I believe we have the greatest variation in the environment, which I hope you will enjoy," Yoshio Sakomoto told us when asked about the environments.
As Yoshio Sakomoto tells us, Samus' movement has been a huge focus. The platform and shooting elements of Metroid Dread look both intense and precise; yes, they might even live up to his ambitions of "smooth tension." When Samus jumps of a wall, shoots an enemy with a laser sharp projectile from her blaster, and then, in the next second - even before the screen has refreshed 60 times - slides trough a small gap, normally reserved for snakes, cats and other animals closer to the ground, the game looks simply stunning.
Yoshio Sakomoto told us multiple times that this is the game he has wanted to make for the last 15 years, but only now does the technology match his ambitions. This may sound like an exaggeration but is does make some sense. This is after all the first time Nintendo makes a 2D Metroid on a console with dual analogue sticks, 60 fps and HD graphics. All in all, this should be the ultimate Metroid (not counting Prime) and a worthy end to Samus' long journey.
But will it also be the ultimate Metroidvania? As already mentioned, 19 years is a heck of a lot of time in the industry, and since the release of Metroid Fusion, the genre that Metroid helped create has exploded with a rain of brilliant indie titles like SteamWorld Dig 2, Ori and the Blind Forrest and Hollow Knight. Metroid Dread must be nearly flawless unless the students should surpass the master.
Metroid Dread certainly looks promising but is also in a difficult spot. On one hand the game must cater to fans of the original series and provide a new experience that matches the old one. On the other hand, it will have to incorporate modern design choices to appeal to new players spoiled with the many great titles that have released in the meantime. The developer has also chosen to include some horror elements or "smooth tension" that doesn't really seem to match with the game's overall presentation. Samus has often proved that she can manage to escape from even the most impossible situation, and with her new movements and the sharp presentation it might well be, that my doubts will be put to shame when Metroid Dread releases exclusively for the Nintendo Switch on October 8.