The influence of Metroid in the games industry cannot be overstated, to the point where the title is almost synonymous with “metroidvania” genre - games which seek to emulate the highs of the classic 16 bit era, focusing on exploration across a 2D plane. With all pioneers of this industry, these games are sometimes surpassed in both technical and conceptual quality by their successors, though I will attest that Super Metroid is the best “metroidvania” ever made. Games like Ori and the Blind Forest, Hollow Knight and Axiom Verge have come along in recent years to revive these types of games to critical acclaim. No matter how popular these series have gotten, they simply do not have the expectations like a new release in the Metroid series, for both old fans and newcomers alike. Unlike games wishing to emulate classics like Super Metroid, a new release in the Metroid series should aspire not only to emulate the classic formula which has been perfected since 1994, but to innovate on this in a meaningful way that fundamentally alters the formula we have come to expect. Metroid Dread is a great game, and solid “Metroidvania”, but it doesn’t really change much on what has already been established as Metroid’s bread and butter for years.
Players control Samus, an intergalactic bounty hunter, who is exploring a new planet, introducing more alien dangers that she must overcome. In her newest adventure, she is introduced to the EMMIs, robots that will actively pursue Samus in specific zones with intent to destroy. These chases are intense, and getting caught by one of these EMMIs almost certainly means death; though players have a chance to counter these enemies, it’s incredibly difficult to pull off. Even considering these stakes, Dread strikes a nice balance between being difficult enough to keep the stakes high, but also not being too hard where it becomes overly frustrating.
I enjoyed these sections, but given that they were a significant marketing push and the reason for the game’s namesake, these sections seem a bit too brief. Part of this is surely because having a dangerous robot in active pursuit significantly hampers one’s ability to explore every nook and corner of the map - a must for the Metroid series. So while I understand the need for these sections to be almost completely separate from the majority of the map and exploration, they feel almost tangential to the main experience. The EMMIs could have also done with a bit more variety from a visual standpoint. While each has a different ability to make Samus’ life harder, such as tracking lasers or an electric stun, every EMMI looks identical to one another beyond their color palette, which feels like a missed opportunity.
The EMMI chases are tense and fun, and are very intimidating early on
The major bosses do not suffer from this problem. There are four major fights that bring a significant spectacle even with the 2D presentation. Not to spoil anything, but Dread ups the ante with several monstrous foes that push one’s mastery of Samus’ tools to the limit. Despite this, I never felt like the difficulty verged into unfairness. Outside of the significant fights, there is an over reliance on a certain type of miniboss that is repeated ad nauseum. By the fourth instance of this encounter, I groaned in exasperation. These fights were a low point in the first instance, and sour the experience when you have to experience them over and over.
While these fights can be frustrating, the controls in Metroid Dread are as crisp as we have ever seen in this series. Samus moves incredibly swiftly, and the slide is a welcome addition for players to move around the map with even more precision. It takes some getting used to having to stand in place to take aim with the arm cannon, but it's a fine compromise between the control scheme from the old games and modern sensibilities. I am glad that from a design perspective that they did not turn Dread into a twin stick shooter. Technically and visually, Dread is the Metroid series at its peak, and longtime fans will be very happy to see and control Samus at this level of refinement.
Nintendo does a good job in making Samus an expressive character - despite being a silent protagonist
The sense of progression in Metroid Dread could use some improvement. Players will go hours without finding a new upgrade, and then find multiple in the span of minutes. Towards the end of the game, I was bombarded with so many new upgrades that I couldn’t help but feel disappointed that I hadn’t received these earlier, when I could actually take advantage of them while exploring the majority of the map. It feels like the game is pulling its punches in the first half, and getting upgrades like the morph ball halfway through the game is not as exciting at this point in the series. Nintendo missed an opportunity to expand Samus’ upgrades beyond what we are used to at this point. While these classics are definitely fun to use, I would have liked some more invention when it came to the toolset given.
Overall, Metroid Dread is a polished, but predictable experience. It does what the series has excelled at for years very well. If you like Metroid games or metroidvania experiences, you will be perfectly happy with this iteration of the franchise. Unfortunately, it does little to push the franchise beyond its comfort zone. While not every game can be a genre defining experience like Super Metroid, I hope that the next installment in this series can wow us in the same way that Super Metroid did when it pushed the franchise to completely new territory compared to the original game. While Dread does not accomplish this, I still think fans of this series and genre will find a lot to love about Samus’ newest adventure, as this is perhaps the most refined game in the series to date.