A screen shot from the video game Metroid Dread
Image courtesy of Nintendo

'Metroid Dread' Is Stuck in the Past, But the Past Was Awesome

'Metroid Dread' sharply refines (but doesn't reinvent) Nintendo's 35-year-old ideas in a gorgeous and slick new package.
October 6, 2021, 1:00pm

What does it mean for Nintendo to make a new Metroid game in 2021? Nintendo culturally co-owns the term "Metroidvania," but it no longer creatively directs the genre it helped inspire. Games like Hollow Knight, Ori and the Blind Forest, Cave Story, Dead Cells, and others have stretched and pulled the formula in wildly new directions during the Metroid series' various hiatus periods.

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Dread's mere existence is a big deal. It's 35 years since Metroid, 27 years since Super Metroid, 19 years since Metroid Prime, and 11 years since Metroid: Other M. Over those 35 years, Nintendo has released 14 Metroid games—and only 10 if you remove the spin-offs and re-releases. Unlike every other beloved franchise under Nintendo's umbrella, the company is happy to wait years before a new one, which places additional pressure on a new Metroid game to surprise. What exactly took so long?

Dread, which has Samus Aran tracking the universe-threatening "X" parasites from Fusion to a new planet, is a capstone effort for developer MercurySteam, who handled 2017's lauded but sadly 3DS-only Metroid: Samus Returns, a remake of Metroid II. If Samus Returns was a test to see if the studio could recreate and modernize Metroid, Dread is that studio taking those lessons and delivering a gorgeous, supercharged take on classic 2D Metroid. This is not Metroid Prime 2.0, reinventing the past. You have played this game before—a bunch of times if you're immersed in the genre—but Dread is sporting some (very good) new wrinkles. 

But on some level, that in and of itself is disappointing? It doesn't chart a path forward, insomuch as it finds new ways to mine an already tapped resource. So much is familiar, from the narratively convenient but now annoyingly tropey amnesia that strips Samus of her powers, to the realization that much of your time will be spent waiting to find lasers that act as keys. I can't remember any of the music, a series hallmark. And Dread demonstrates once again Nintendo doesn't really know what to do with storytelling—or Samus—in the Metroid series. (One reveal is extremely anime and extremely fun. You'll know it when you see it.) But if that formula still works for you and hasn't worn out, Dread is such tremendously good execution on Metroid's nearly 40-year-old ideas that, combined with a surprising emphasis on combat that'll make you sweat boss battles, a lot of it doesn't really matter. 

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Moment-to-moment, Dread is a dream to play and a reminder of how Nintendo laid this foundation in the first place. But it's impossible to shake the feeling of deja vu from it, either.

I recently watched my (now former) colleague Austin Walker play Super Metroid, and what struck me about seeing it played for the umpteenth time, now with the benefit of 2021 hindsight, is how much has—and hasn't—changed since it first came out. Super Metroid has faults, like its wonky jump physics, but the game holds up exceptionally well, and revisiting it prepared me for the existential question for Dread: so, how do you improve on near perfection?

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Video game genres are infamously messy, frequently devoid of any meaningful information describing what the game is about. Role-playing game? Adventure? But Metroidvania, a term reportedly coined by critic Scott Sharkey for the former website 1UP in the late 2000s, is a rare creature. A mashup of Metroid and Castlevania, it specifically evokes feelings of exploration, discovery, and more specifically, exploring a big ass map with a lot of secrets. You don't get to the "vania" part of Metroidvania—a reference to 1997's Castlevania: Symphony of the Night, which layered delightful RPG mechanics, like stat progression, onto the formula—without Metroid. Even more rare than a genre being descriptive is a game being so singularly unique that it spontaneously produces its own lasting genre classification.

Dread understands most people have been here before, or played enough Metroid-like games to know the score. It's a game that looks at what people enjoy about this enduring formula—exploring a convoluted space with interlocking architecture and being rewarded for carefully studying and exploiting that space—and goes "OK, what would make you happier?" 

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This idea is expressed in ways big and small, like being able to select an icon on the map, such as door type or upgrade, and have it highlighted over everything else—perfect for late game collecting. Or a scanning upgrade that highlights every part of the environment that can be blown up in and allows that scan to travel with you for a few seconds. These features exist because people like me have complained about their absence for years.

All this is most immediately evident in how Dread attempts to address Metroid's weakest pillar: combat. Whereas games like Hollow Knight and Dead Cells have found ways to center combat and make it a thrilling part of the adventure, in many Metroid games it's an obstacle to be dodged, especially while venturing through an area for the fifth time, or a way to mine energy and missiles. Dread makes Metroid combat far more engaging by bringing over a melee counter attack from Samus Returns, wherein players tap a button when a bright counter indicator appears on screen, prompting Samus to send the enemy into a tizzy and have a chance for a one-hit kill (and way more item drops). It's extremely satisfying to pull off, and is most effectively used in a number of boss battles, where timed counters can lead to outrageous and lavish QTE-style sequences where Samus can inflict a ton of damage. 

The best compliment I can give Dread's counter is that I was still finding time to do them with enemies while doing endgame sweeps for secret items, when I was long past the point of actually needing to spend time engaging with them. Hitting the counter remained a blast.

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What puts things over the top, though, is Dread making boss fights more than spectacle, but centerpiece moments where you're thinking—and overthinking—every jump, dodge, and dash. They're hard, and all the time you've spent gathering missiles and energy tanks, which frequently in these games is about discovery rather than usefulness, takes on real importance, because bosses increasingly eat through health. Especially towards the end, fights came down to nearly zero health, with me zipping around on a hope and a prayer that my next missile would land and end things. I've felt that way playing Dead Cells and Hollow Knight—or to be very cliche for Waypoint, Dark Souls— but Metroid's usually more chill. 

I am glad it is not, though, because it gives Dread a necessary edge in a game that's structurally familiar in design and aesthetic. Dread's planet is named ZDR, and is technically a place that Samus has not been to before, but outside of a sequence or two, you'd be hard pressed to find anything distinctive about it. There is no equivalent of the Ghost Ship from Super Metroid, or the Phendrana Drifts in Metroid Prime. It does not feel like a place where actual people or creatures live but a puzzle to solve. It's another planet with a questionably large underground facility and a checklist of video game areas: lava, snow, jungle, factory, etc. But in keeping with Dread's MO, they are exceptionally pretty video game areas, the best they've ever looked in a Metroid game—and a terrific showcase for the new Switch's OLED screen. (I played Dread on that new Switch, and felt compelled to play entirely in handheld; I was constantly awed at how the colors and effects danced off the screen.)

Part of the way Dread simultaneously dazzles and smokescreens is how players can now move through these familiar spaces, too. In Super Metroid, Samus was slow and clunky—a tank that could jump. In Dread, she's finally agile and swift in the way our minds imagine it, a change best exemplified by the new "flash shift" move, which lets Samus dash up to three times in any direction, before requiring a brief recharge. It's as cool-looking as it is useful, a requirement to survive in Dread's more demanding fights and a move that effectively acts as a multiplier for Samus' speed, letting her (and the player) zip through old areas like butter.

“This is not Metroid Prime 2.0, reinventing the past. You have played this game before—a bunch of times if you're immersed in the genre—but Dread is sporting some (very good) new wrinkles.”

But the problem is you're still, essentially, walking in old footsteps. Acquire new power, access new area. The aspect of Dread that was supposed to bring some real tonal and mechanical novelty, its highly touted "horror" element embodied by the Nemesis-like EMMI robots that stalk Samus around certain areas of the game, quickly wears off its welcome. They're more annoying than scary, sadly, and so naturally, there's seven of them.

While some new abilities, like flash shift, become essential parts of your movement rolodex that scream to become permanent parts of the Metroid canon, too many others—especially anything involving the morph ball, or the new stealth mechanic—are just fancy keys. 

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But there are times where Dread looks at those fancy keys and manages to create a pretty cool lock. These moments crop up while tracking down rare upgrades inessential to beating the game but part of the charm of filling out the map and watching the percentage meter tick up. These tucked away sections in Dread essentially function as puzzles, asking players to string together a series of moves with a precision bordering on frustration (in a good way), and demanding nuanced observation and understanding of how to trick the environment in your favor. Some of them left me completely stumped, while others left me fully stunned:

I don’t know how impressive that looks to you, but I promise it took a long time to figure out and pull off, and it completely ruled when I did.

It's true that I spent the last week playing Dread because it was my job, but it's also true that I was incredibly happy every moment I had an excuse to flip the Switch on again. I found myself sneaking in time with the game in 15-minute spurts, when I'd usually scroll through my phone. The night before writing this review, when I should have been studying the final boss, I was combing through every area of the game in search of new secrets, delaying the inevitable. (I ended up with 77% item collection, which felt pretty good for a review session, and I’ll probably grab the rest soon.) 

Which is all to say that while Dread does not do much to move the metaphorical morphball forward, it's intoxicating and powerful in the moment, a testament to hard-earned nostalgia. Nintendo and MercurySteam have honed what Metroid director Satoru Okada started in 1986 and Super Metroid director Yoshio Sakamoto refined in 1994 to such a sharp degree that it feels like Nintendo is trying to slam its own door shut and force itself to figure out a new direction for side-scrolling Metroid. This take on the series is officially done. Now, what's next?


Follow Patrick on Twitter. His email is patrick.klepek@vice.com, and available privately on Signal (224-707-1561).