With long waits come high expectations, and both of those phrases could be used to describe Nintendo's sci-fi franchises in the 2010s. Star Fox Zero received some mixed opinions when it released on the Wii U last year. The F-Zero series is still awaiting its long-overdue sequel. That leaves Metroid, the fan demand for which has at least been partly satiated with the announcement of Metroid Prime 4 on Nintendo Switch and the release of Metroid: Samus Returns for the Nintendo 3DS. Thankfully, the latter is an amazing game and perhaps one of the best on Nintendo's current handheld-exclusive system. As far as returns to form play out, they do not get much better than this.
For those uninitiated, Metroid: Samus Returns is a reimagining of the original sequel to Metroid, which was a Game Boy title called Metroid II: Return of Samus released in 1991. Samus's goal then is the same one now: eradicate the rest of the Metroids (which is apparently only 40) in existence on their homeworld of SR388 in order to ensure galactic security. However, what was most likely once a chore—exploring a vast, puzzling set of caverns on the original Game Boy with no map (I admittedly never got around to playing Metroid II myself)—has now transformed into a completely new and robust experience thanks to developer MercurySteam.
Samus Returns accomplishes many things no sidescrolling Metroid ever has. While it still maintains a focus on puzzle-solving, upgrading abilities, and gunning down alien creatures, this game makes these staples of the series feel more exciting and satisfying than ever before. Samus fittingly feels more fluid and faster than usual in this title; her default running speed is intense, and matched with the 360-degree aim of her arm cannon, players experience more movement options than ever.
Another added mechanic that feels like a must-have ability is the chance to perform melee counters against various alien foes. A simple press of the X button lets you counter attacking enemies with a swing of your gun arm, but it is more than just a fail-safe for when blaster bolts are not enough to take down an enemy. Smaller creatures can be knocked back into a stunned state easily enough, but Metroids and other bosses do less to telegraph their counterable attacks, making pulling off the melee maneuver a much more rewarding experience when you finally learn to nail it.
Hunting down Metroids is the main objective in the game. As such, each area plainly states at its respective Chozo Gates how many Metroids are present in a given vicinity. This causes a linear progression from area to area to be filled with the nonlinear exploration and trial and error the series is known for within each area. For example, before making the necessary transition from Area 3 to Area 4 (there is no sequence-breaking to fight the number system after all), Samus will have to exterminate all ten of the Metroids in Area 3 first. Some Metroids can understandably not be reached before finding certain upgrades like the Grapple Beam or Varia Suit, but players are still free to explore different caverns in any order they choose in order to discover their preferred path. This type of exploration takes notes from Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion in parts, which results in a fast-paced, addictive sense of progression unique to this game.
Samus's new Aeion Abilities are another addicting element featured in this Metroid. These usually optional abilities enhance Samus's moveset defensively with Lightning Armor and offensively with the Beam Burst, which lets Samus fire a barrage of fire against tougher enemies. The other Aeion Abilities—Scan Pulse and Phase Drift—allow Samus to reveal hints in her environment and slow down time to get past certain obstacles respectively. Aeion drains and must be replenished, and these abilities rarely reduce challenge and rather provide a greater sense of variety to a game already filled with more than a dozen abilities, some of the best of which include an early appearance of the Spider Ball and an easily toggled set of beams and missiles on the touch screen.
This arsenal makes dueling with four different evolutionary strains of Metroid (more, if you count the endgame) interesting and hardly repetitive. Sure, some of the early Metroid varieties might be featured as mini-bosses several times, but each battle features either a different attack pattern or a hazardous map condition that changes what the desired strategy to take on any given Metroid is. Samus Returns also features a couple of the most memorable, grueling bosses in the series. I will not spoil them here, but I will say they provide some amazing highlights for this game.
Samus Returns is a joy to look at and listen to throughout as well. Musical themes from Metroid II and Super Metroid are retooled expertly by series composer Kenji Yamamoto. When a certain song makes a reappearance, it is easy to become fully engrossed. Usually when a game uses remixes for the majority of its soundtrack, I am the first to criticize; but considering how this is a remake itself and Samus has taken so long to return, I can completely forgive this instance of nostalgia-fueled musical action.
Stereoscopic 3D is a seemingly old element of the 3DS that players might actually want to revisit. The depth really shines in the 2.5D-rendered environments, although it may be best to turn it off every once in a while if you are like me and played non-stop for several hours.
Crisply illustrated artwork is used to complement the main art style of the game as well. These images make up the title's prologue and unlockable memories that help to add an extended lore to the story of Metroid II. While Samus Returns only needed to be a solid return to gameplay form for the heroine, it also goes the extra mile to add further emphasis on the Chozo, some titular characters and creatures, and the encounter with the baby Metroid—an encounter which I consider to be the most pivotal moment of storytelling in the franchise.
Stumbling upon that unexpectedly kind baby Metroid is a perfect symbol for what it is like for long-time fans of the Metroid series to finally play this game. Even if you enjoyed games like Metroid: Other M or Metroid Prime: Federation Force, I think we can all agree we have gone too long without being able to see Samus Aran in a new game again. Thankfully, it was worth the wait, and playing Samus Returns is also a great way to be introduced to the series for incoming fans of Nintendo's sci-fi marvel.
MercurySteam's adoration of 2D Metroid shines throughout this entire game, and they obviously wanted to give other fans new and old alike an experience worth the long thirteen-year wait for another official sidescrolling installment. They have succeeded, to the point where I feel Samus Returns may very well be the best 2D Metroid game; if not that, then it definitely rivals Super Metroid for that top spot. It may even have taken the title for my favorite game on the Nintendo 3DS, for numerous reasons. If you have to dust off your 3DS to see Samus reawaken in nearly perfect form, now is your chance. No objections, right?