I still sometimes struggle to understand why the Metroid franchise isn’t bigger?
Compelling narrative arc? Check.
Memorable musical anecdote? Double check!
Unique Sci-Fi Setting with a whole host of well designed characters? Another Check.
Engaging lead with an incredible selection of weapons and item variety? Definite Check!
I suppose when compared to the giants of the Nintendo world – Mario, Zelda, Donkey Kong, Pokémon, Animal Crossing – Metroid seems destined to be an IP stuck outside a rather stacked Top 5.
And sadly, because of that, it’s not been a priority franchise for some time, even though, this writer would argue, it has one of the biggest cult followings out there.
Fortunately, the very much long-awaited Metroid Dread, a game that, at one time, was considered nothing but rumours and concepts, is here and it might be Samus Aran’s best outing yet.
That’s some claim, admittedly, because the Prime Trilogy remains the franchise high in many people’s eyes, but for those who have been playing since the original NES and SNES days, this is the one we’ve been waiting for.
Because Dread serves as a conclusion to that arc which was started way back in 1986. It’s true, and probably only comparable to the likes of Star Wars in terms of how long fans have had to wait for answers.
So Dread is something of a conclusion and a new beginning for Metroid, then. The original formula is still very much intact as you side-scroll from room to room, shooting aliens, beating hard-as-nails bosses and, most importantly, getting new upgrades to help make progress.
But where Dread really starts to move into its own is the cinematic approach it’s adopted. Separating some rooms now are short cinematic sequences that illustrate the deeper plot at play. A flashing hint of an eye, something creeping in the shadows. A flicker of light.
What we end up with is, at times, a game that reminded me, surprisingly, of Alien Isolation.
Because what Dread does so expertly is show Samus’ vulnerabilities in all new ways. The essence of still getting upgrades to cut a way through is still there, for sure, but this time you’re being hunted as you’re doing it.
As Samus explores her environments, she’ll enter these E.M.M.I zones where, essentially, if she stands around for too long, will get pounced and jabbed by these oversized menacing machines.
Your weapons are ineffective against them and the only solution is to time your button press just right when they’re about to attack. From there, you can run away again and try your best to escape. Or you could apply your cloaking device and try to hide it out.
It’s an actual game of cat and mouse and it plays out brilliantly on a side-scrolling platformer. Adding something to the formula that hasn’t really been done quite this well before.
It also somehow makes a game that’s already tough as nails even tougher. In fact, I’d go as far as to say this is the most unforgiving game on Switch since Donkey Kong Tropical Freeze – which is technically a Wii U game.
Dread will not go easy on you. And that will probably be music to the ears of most Metroid fans who know all too well how brutal the games can be.
Between three phase boss battles, enemies that dive at you, fire multiple projectiles at you, try to incinerate you and generally just get in your way, you’ll have your hands full. Which does lead into one problem I have with Dread.
Controls aren’t the most user-friendly. Particularly the aiming of your gun which is done by holding down the left trigger and adjusting with the left stick. Between misfiring rockets, shooting inches away from where I want to fire and accidentally moving forward all the time, I was getting a bit vexed.
There’s a definite feeling of, we did this years ago with Metroid, it’s familiar, let’s keep it in, rather than a ‘does this control mapping actually still work and not feel entirely uncomfortable on a 2021 game’.
As for music, while there’s some lovely tense symphonies – particularly when confronting an E.M.M.I and real action-packed ballads, this isn’t the best score of the series, even if it’s still damn well done.
Environmental audio, on the other hand, is perfection. The use of footsteps, machine chittering, energy boosting and general traversal is beautifully done and helps create this suspenseful, tense environment that you’re trying to muddle your way through but partly never want to leave.
Ultimately, that’s the main thing. I didn’t want to put down Metroid Dread and I haven’t felt that way about a Switch game in a good long time. The entire gameplay flow is extremely entertaining. Even when you’re failing, you feel like you’re making progress and just when you’re certain you’re getting lost, you find a way forward.
Also, and I already touched upon this a few days back, but I spent 99% of my playtime in handheld mode thanks to the joys of Switch OLED. In fact, the only reason I played in docked was to see how it looks on the big screen for the purposes of this piece. And, sure, Metroid Dread definitely fits the big screen part with its unique visual aesthetic – particularly during boss battles – but this game looks, feels and plays best in the palm of your hands.
This is also unusual for me as I naturally bounce between TV and Handheld mode when playing Switch games. I just love that flexibility about this console compared to any other, but from the moment I fired it up, it was obvious where to find the most natural (and best) Metroid Dread experience.
Switch OLED’s screen really brings out the color, contrast and background detail. The audio, which is such a huge part of Dread, sounds sharper, clearer, and so much more defined that I didn’t even feel the need to grab headphones.
I am blown away by just how good Metroid Dread is. I’d been anticipating the game, for sure, but this has exceeded my expectations in just about every way possible.
For me, there’s been no better experience in any game this year. And few experiences better on the Switch to date.
It’s good to have you back, Samus!
+ A shining visual tour de force made even better with Switch OLED
+ Great balance and gameplay flow from beginning to end
+ Fun variety of weapons/abilities
+ Wonderful use of environmental audio
– Controls can be a bit fiddly
Metroid Dread is now available on Nintendo Switch
Played on Nintendo Switch OLED
Code and Console Kindly Provided by Nintendo