Don’t call it a comeback. Samus was never really gone, and this outstandingly well crafted reimagining of the 1991 Game Boy title Metroid II: Return of Samus can be considered a brand new game despite the similarities.
We have had exclusive hands-on time with the game, and it lives up to the hype created around its announcement at E3. It’s a game that makes your heart beat fast when a Metroid is flying at you and feels amazingly immersive considering the relatively diminutive screen of the 3DS.
Nintendo has characteristically made sure there is care sprinkled all over the gameplay right from Samus’ first sprint into the darkness by introducing new techniques, helpful abilities and a luscious soundtrack to go with the obviously improved graphics.
From left to right: A Chozo cell, the morph ball ability and the new melee counterattack
When is the game coming out?
Having played through the first area, we are confident that fans will be utterly in love – and there’s plenty for first-time Metroid players to get stuck into as well.
Playing the first two hours of Metroid: Samus Returns
If you’re not familiar, Samus Returns is a remake of the second ever Metroid game, Metroid II: Return of Samus. In the larger canon of Metroid games it doesn’t fall second though, and is in fact closer to the tail end of the chronology.
Yet the strength of the titles has always been the juxtaposition of their instant playability and the fact that you don’t need the backstory. It opens with Samus travelling to the home of the Metroids, SR388, to basically kill ‘em all. The opening cut scenes are gorgeous, with vivid colour and artwork.
The score here too is brilliant – a far cry from the 8-bit bleeps of the Game Boy, this is a game you should play with headphones. The transitions in mood depend heavily on the audio in tandem with the visuals that plunge you into an increasingly hellish world of subterranean alien encounters.
The combination serves well to ramp up your adrenaline as you get used to the melee counterattack, a new move necessary to knock back foes before blasting them. Knocking back an enemy triggers auto-aim, allowing you to instinctively fire off a few rounds.
From left to right: Firing off rounds in a counterattack, using the ice beam, using the charge beam
The move takes some getting used to, and is difficult to get right at first. The classic Metroid frustrations are here; the learning curve levels out after a couple of hours, but it starts very high.
Considering that Metroid 2 on Game Boy made do with just the D-pad, A and B, the full array of 3DS buttons was always going to bring more complex controls. Thankfully this also means better gameplay.
A tricky skill to master is the new free aim mode. Holding L lights up the tracer from your gun, and the control pad aims it. It’s accurate, and necessary to complete some specific tasks once you’ve picked up new skills like the ice beam to freeze enemies and use them as platforms, for instance.
Gameplay footage of Samus unlocking more parts of a Chozo Seal
It is hard to remember but the original Game Boy version also didn’t have Metroid staples like ledge hanging (first seen on the Game Boy Advance’s Metroid: Fusion), which here serve to propel you deeper into the Metroids’ world.
The beauty of the game, much like its predecessors, is in the relative restraint you often have to show in order to succeed. An all guns blazing approach rarely works in a Metroid battle as you fall foul of quicker, more powerful attacks.
In the preview, we took on four Metroids, all of whom you can only melee counter when certain signs appear. You cannot repel an electric attack, so evasive action is needed.
Your suit upgrades along the route and the famous morph ball ability that you pick up allows you to tackle enemies with growing confidence, but early death here is to be expected (and something we encountered).
Save points are mercifully well placed, though sometimes retracing your steps after death on SR388 can be frustrating. The 3DS’ second screen is brilliant for quick glances at the map, and the simple additions of tap-to-morph-ball are blissfully uncomplicated.
You can also change beam type by tapping as you gain hidden strengths, but Samus Returns is not afraid to actively encourage backtracking. We liked the way retracing steps within the game redefines linearity; the map isn’t that open-world, yet the side-scrolling nature makes you feel like you’re moving over vast areas. Backtracking in this game is not only unavoidable but also integral to success.
Gameplay footage as Samus battles a Metroid
With headphones on, the beautiful score carries you a long, undulating expertly to alter your mood. It’s amazing, and you’ll quickly forget you’re on a handheld as you get lost in Samus’ new adventure. We even felt the game is easier with headphones off, such is the emotional power the score can have on players, causing panic and stiff hands when needing to pull off more complex attacks.
Within two hours of gameplay we activated the two Chozo Seals, relics of the extinct avian race the Chozo – structures within the game that gain power and unlock more of the map depending on how many Chozo cells you collect from fossilised aliens reminiscent of the Engineers from the Alien series.
We also quickly picked up familiar Metroid powers such as the morph ball and bomb and later spider ball ability for clinging to walls and the charge beam necessary to break through to other areas.