Looking back on the strange year that has been 2021, I don’t know what we possibly did to deserve a surprise new 2D Metroid. Announced in June after rumors of the title originally started way back in 2005 and released just 4 months later, we were not even given adequate time to develop proper hype for intergalactic bounty hunter and all-around BAMF Samus Aran’s first new side-scrolling adventure in 19 years. Just having 10 or so hours of classic Metroid goodness would have been enough to satiate the poor starving Metroid fandom for another decade or so, but somehow we ended up getting one of the top games of the year and quite possibly the best entry in the vaunted series yet thanks to unbelievable amounts of polish on the tried-and-true formula leading to some of the most completely captivating exploration of any game in the ever-growing Metroidvania genre.
At the core of any good Metroid lies the heart of exploration. Despite having countless planet-exploding adventures under her over-powered belt, each new Metroid game puts you right back at the beginning in a weakened state where you have lost all your magnificent Chozo-given abilities that put the Power in Power Suit. You would think fans would tire of unlocking the same skills over and over again, but there is something absolutely thrilling about finally discovering one of your favorite skills or weapons from your past that never gets old here. In fact, Metroid Dread does perhaps the best job of doling out these goodies by subverting expectations of when you should acquire each one. For instance, almost every Metroid game starts by giving you the morph ball first (save Metroid Fusion where it arrives second…), but I was probably a good 4+ hours into my adventure when the contortionist’s dream finally presented itself. As this blessing from the gods appeared, I found myself having the same reaction described by so many others who were also navigating Samus through the planet ZDR – I shot up in my chair and audibly cheered. After visiting quite a large portion of the game’s map already, it was like an entirely new world had been opened up to me and one of the abilities I had most often overlooked because it was so commonplace brought with it a world of new opportunities.
Aside from the Chozo-bestowed power-ups straying from their normal course, the game itself deviates from the standard Metroid formula of starting at the surface of a planet and making your way down toward its core. Instead, you begin in the deep underground and progress toward a wildly advanced Chozo society with the lava-filled caves slowly transitioning into highly intricate palaces that make you feel like you’re not just getting closer to escape but uncovering a long lost society in the process.
In an attempt to get maximum enjoyment out of this game and all there is to discover on ZDR (I mean when is the next time we can confidently say we’re going to get a new 2D Metroid?), I did something I almost never do in a game – I forsook using a guide. Now, let’s be clear, if you want to use a guide, you should use one. I unreservedly love guides, and back when I was a kid any big new game release also meant purchasing the BradyGames or Official Prima Strategy Guide. To this day, I probably at least consult a walkthrough on about half of the games I finish because I play a lot of games and have kids – two things that are not typically conducive to one another, so I don’t have time to get stuck. I just want to get going to the next thing in my ever-expanding backlog. Still, I decided to try this one on my own, and I think my experience was all the better for it. It really instilled a sense of wonder and growth as I explored. I felt stranded on this world and had to resort to all of my smarts (and one of the finest maps ever made) to figure my way back to my ship and off the X-parasite infected planet. I did not always know where to go next because I did not have some seasoned vet telling me. I oftentimes found myself scouring every inch of the map looking for even the tiniest quadrant that looked ever so slightly off. Then I would prepare my blaster and head off to the unknown, and I loved every second of it.
The danger found in that unknown is part of what makes Metroid Dread so memorable. The addition of the robotic hunters known as E.M.M.I.s provides a tension and bit of suspense missing from older games in the series. While they could have been a Resident Evil 2 Mr. X-like gimmick that hounds you non-stop and can appear at any time, the E.M.M.I. succeed so well because of the restraint with which they’re used. By confining them to set zones, they probably only occupy 1/4 of your time in the game or less, but it makes their menacing appearances all the more effective as you have to blindly traverse their deadly zones multiple times before you finally unlock the secrets to destroying each one. Until then, you have to rely on your reflexes and sheer luck that you don’t get cornered in a dead end. You’re not just running past the same enemies your arm-mounted blaster cannon has obliterated 50 times already, you’re running for your life.
Fortunately, for those death-defying robot hunts and the rest of the game there’s an additional layer that makes all of this exploration feel so incredible and awe-inspiring and that’s just how good it feels to control Samus. There is an almost pinball-like ferocity that exists to guiding our power suited hero that exhibits a previously unimaginable amount of speed and fluidity to movement. This is exemplified by glorious little acrobatic timing puzzles that protect some of the game’s best unlockables that would have been impossible in earlier, slower iterations of Samus. As you effortlessly transition from speed boosts to slides, to wall jumps and morph ball transitions, you realize just how far Samus and Metroid have come. I know the Switch isn’t the most powerful piece of hardware out there, but this really feels like a next-gen take on the Metroid we all know and love.
A little over 10 hours and 91% of collectibles obtained later, I finished what will surely be my first of many playthroughs of Metroid Dread. Even with such a high percentage of goodies uncovered, I know there’s still even more to explore, and if that final 9% is anything like the first 91%, it is going to be insanely incredible to discover. Is it the best Metroid ever? I still can’t quite say for sure. I feel like it was probably the most polished and refined version of the game yet with an absolute banger of an ending, but it does lack the nostalgia and 16-bit charm of the gold standard of the series, Super Metroid. The fact that I even have to think about how this compares to one of the greatest games of all-time just blows my mind, though. Again, I have no idea what we did to deserve Metroid Dread, but I’m sure as hell glad its genius is in our lives.