The Problems with Metroid: Samus Returns

Boy, people sure do love some Metroid, huh?

Samus Returns was one of E3’s biggest surprises, though I certainly had trepidation when I learned that MercurySteam was the developer. They’re a bunch of passionate guys, obviously, but I’ve found their previous games (the best-known of which are the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow sub-series) to be… lacking, to put it simply. I tried to keep a little bit optimistic, saying “They must have made a hell of a pitch for Nintendo to give them the keys to a Metroid game.”

And then Samus Returns released. And it was… good, actually! Pretty darn solid. It’s got some cool map design, the atmosphere is great, and there’s some neat puzzle design. If I gave it a numerical score, it’d be a nice seven-out-of-ten. That means it’s quite good!

… but it’s still not the rave-fueled 9s and 10s I’ve seen handed out to the game. Honestly, I find those a bit of a head-scratcher, because while Samus Returns is good, it has problems. Some really big problems, even. And I didn’t see anyone really touching on them, either. I can understand the elation of finally getting a 2D Metroid again after so long, but Samus Returns isn’t perfect by a long shot.

Thankfully, on this wonderful web site o’ mine, I can eschew the standard review format and dive straight into everything that grinds my gears about Samus Returns. To be fair, some of these problems were also present in the original Metroid II: Return of Samus — but shouldn’t a remake try its best to fix some of that? I also haven’t played AM2R, so there won’t be any comparisons on that front. It’s just me, you readers, and a whole lot of nitpicking from someone who’s not a Metroid die-hard but loves this sort of game. So let’s jump right in…

(I wanted to get screencaps to better illustrate some of my points here, but the whole Miiverse work-around to get 3DS screens is a ginormous pain in the butt, so I eventually had to abandon the idea. So, this article’s going to be all-text. My apologies!)

THE COUNTER PUNCH IS A BAD ADDITION THAT SUCKS A WHOLE LOT

When has Metroid ever been about close-range melee combat? Don’t get me wrong, I love punching things in the face a whole lot, but combat in 2D Metroid has always been focused on shooting, distance, and evasion. Adding a punch to Samus’s arsenal is like… huh?

I guess I would get it more if it was something you could use proactively. See a shelled enemy? You could punch it and then fire a bunch of missiles into its vulnerable spot. That could be cool… if it actually worked like that. See, a trendy game mechanic right now is “timing-based counters,” seen in a whole mess of action games (most notably Platinum Games stuff). If you dodge or guard or counterattack at just the right time, you get cool stuff, like slo-mo mode, no damage, or a disarmed enemy!

Well, since all these other games are doing it, clearly Metroid needs it too, right? Right? So we wind up with a punch that only does anything when used during an enemy attack during a very small window of time. Some enemies can only effectively be defeated by using it, in fact!

Having this in the game also meant the designers felt like they had a license to make some terrible design choices. There are multiple areas where you enter a room (or leave a passage) and are immediately beset by enemies trying to wreck your shit that you’d better be prepared to counter-punch the moment you step into the area. Not even a moment to take in your surroundings! There are also numerous bosses where the only window of opportunity to do serious damage involves waiting for them to attack, countering, and then going into a scripted cutscene sequence.

Basically: the counter punch is only in the game because timing counters are the game mechanic du jour right now, and everything about it feels out of place in a game like Metroid. Designers, please don’t do this. Don’t put mechanics in games just because they’re popular at the moment.

And while we’re on the subject of control….

DO NOT EVER EVER EVER MAKE ME PLAY A 2D SIDESCROLLER WITH THE 3DS CIRCLE PAD

I don’t care if it allows for “more precise aiming.” It’s fine for 3D games, but it’s a springy, slippery piece of crap when swift 2D movement is necessary. Look, I’ve got a New 3DS, could you have given me an option to map Aeions to those weird extra buttons instead of using the D-pad? That would have been fantastic. It would have helped a lot with

THAT AWFUL, AWFUL AUTOSCROLLING SECTION

Who the hell thought an autoscroller in Metroid — which is less about speed and more about precision in movement overall — was a good idea? Especially autoscrolling sections involving a lot of double- and quick-taps to shift in and out of Morph Ball form on the aforementioned slippery 3DS Circle Pad? The concept of a Metroid autoscroller is bad enough, but combined with the control scheme, it was downright miserable.

STOP PLACING THE GRAPPLE BLOCKS OFFSCREEN

No, seriously, stop doing this. When I’m seemingly stuck, the solution should not be “oh, there’s a block you can grab, it’s just offscreen.” That’s bad design, folks.

THERE IS A LONG STRETCH AROUND THE EARLY-MIDDLE OF THE GAME WHERE IT FEELS LIKE A BIG BOSS RUSH WITHOUT MANY REWARDS

Specifically, Area 3. It’s a big, big place that requires ten Metroid kills before you can move on. You’re not only fighting a bunch of repetitive bosses (we’ll get to that later), you’re collecting a bunch of new abilities that are… well, they just feel kind of underwhelming. Getting new movement abilities or shot powers is fun, but the last goodie in this section is the Wave Beam: before that, you get the Varia Suit (useful, but not really “fun”), the Spring Ball (which would be okay if the Spider Ball didn’t exist and wasn’t magnitudes cooler), and an Aeion (Lightning Armor) that lets you tank damage at the cost of draining your Aeion power really, really fast — so it’s not a “power” item so much as a “defense” item that might be useful beyond a few damage-wall areas if you want to drain another one of your resources. This whole area is among the low points of the game, and having to do so much before you can start getting the really cool stuff again feels like a drag.

(And although it’s in Area 2, it’s really worth pointing out how much the Ice Beam sucks. You use it in a couple rooms and then forget about it.)

THE FIRST AEION POWER IS SO GOOD THAT IT KIND OF RUINS THE OTHERS

I love love love the Scan Pulse power. What a brilliant addition to Metroid! It removes so much of the tedium of hunting for breakable blocks while also giving you a good view of what lies outside your immediate area. If you’re not exploring new places and constantly pushing A to scan around you, you’re making things far more difficult for yourself. But since this power uses your Aeion gauge, I always wanted to have a good stock of it… which means that the aforementioned Lightning Armor and later Beam Burst didn’t get a lot of use. The big problem is that the latter two abilities drain meter like crazy, and unless you feel like really tedious power-up farming (or backtracking for an Aeion refill), the gauge can be pretty rough to restock in places. It sucks, because Lightning Armor could be a lot more useful than it is, and Beam Burst is absurdly fun to use — but, because they suck up so much power, I never really wanted to: Scan Pulse was far more important. I actually started to hate areas that made me use those powers to progress.

(There’s a fourth Aeion power, too — Phase Drift — but it comes into play quite late in the game and is mostly limited in use to getting through certain areas and scoring a few items.)

THE BOSS FIGHTS ARE JUST BAD

This is my biggest problem besides the stupid counter punch. The concept of Samus needing to eradicate Metroids is carried over here from the original Metroid II, so it’s reasonable to expect a few recycled bosses. But when you combine the recycling with really dull attack patterns, shoehorning in the stupid counter-punch mechanic, annoying gmmicks, and giving poor indications as to what you want the player to actually do, you end up with a bevy of boss encounters that are just not fun.

You’ve got to kill forty Metroids, and most of them will be variations of the creatures in some stage of growth. Alpha and Gamma metroids are the bulk of these fights, and they quickly become tedious to battle, following similar patterns and being pretty tough to damage unless you wait for them to dash at you so you can counter-punch and pump them full of missiles. Waiting for them to do this sometimes takes so long, however, that you’ll give up and try to whittle away their energy by shooting at them from below. (It’s also cool that the “tell” for a dash-strike you can counter looks similar to other attacks they have.) Little is done to try and spruce up these drawn-out fights over the course of the game, save for altering the terrain at times (an idea straight out of countless bad “hard mode” ROMhacks) or making them escape after taking damage, meaning you get the fun of backtracking and wasting more time to finish a boring fight.

Later bosses are better in terms of interesting attacks (and having some shot-counterable patterns that will drop energy and weapons is a plus), but are much worse at indicating what you need to do to fight them. The Omega Metroid is particularly bad in this regard: I kept trying to Ice Beam its mouth, since I remembered it was weak to that in Fusion, but it turns out that the chest membrane the battle’s intro showed being covered by armor (which seemed to indicate “nope, this area is protected, you can’t shoot here”) was actually the target. I felt severely annoyed over how much time I’d wasted trying other things once I learned that.

EDIT TO AMEND: several folks on Twitter have pointed out that you can make these boss fights easier by using the “useless” Ice Beam. Well, great! … I wish there was some way the game could have indicated that it was possible to do that. There’s no indication of this fact beyond “Metroids are traditionally weak to ice in other games”: you don’t have the Ice Beam in the first few Metroid encounters, which made me think those fights were strictly missiles-and-counters, it wasn’t a factor in the original Metroid II, and it sucks so much in normal combat that I never even considered for a moment it could be good for anything besides the Omega Metroid. Also: it feels like such a huge risk to take your fingers off the buttons and eyes off the top screen to tap the touchscreen for even a second.

I feel like the worst boss — yes, worse than the “surprise” new endboss (HEY SAMMY! RAAAAAGH) — is the stupid robot, which could have been separated into two, maybe three separate bosses. It made me angry for so many reasons: the long, long patterns and missile-sponging required to put it into “vulnerability mode,” the bad hinting of what you needed to do in that mode, attacks that did far too much damage (like the “vacuum” that you need to drop bombs in front of at just the right time — screw that up and well, that’s over half your energy reserves gone), and the fact that if you did fail it was a ten-minute struggle to get back to where you were. That’s not “hard,” that’s just not good.

… but it’s still pretty good overall

For all the bitching and nitpicking I’ve done here, though, I feel like Samus Returns is still pretty darn good. I enjoyed most of what I played, and the Scan Pulse power made the exploration sequences (which are truly the heart and soul of 2D Metroid) feel really fresh. MercurySteam did a commendable job on this — while it’s far from perfect, if they addressed some of these criticisms, I’d be eager to see them do another Metroid in the future.

Also, good on them for keeping Samus wordless. She’s a female character who’s more powerful and interesting when she doesn’t speak, as Other M so clumsily proved.

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