I don’t envy anyone tasked with making a new Metroid game in 2021. Reviving a series that’s so fiercely beloved comes with a heavy burden of expectations that often contradict: to recapture everything that we loved about those classics 20 years ago, but also to carry the series forward into a new, modern era. That’s a difficult tightrope to walk, but it’s one that Metroid Dread mostly manages to find its way across, even if it stumbles along the way.
In so many ways, Dread plays close to the Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion formula. It’s got the same blend of colourful presentation and murky, eerie atmosphere, the same approach to level design that encourages (and rewards) creative exploration, and all the familiar upgrades for Samus’ suit, among a few new ones. It goes beyond just superficial homage, to the point of having the same “feel” in things like character mobility, game progression, and flow—all tricky, esoteric things to really pin down, and things that a lot of other Metroid-likes fall down on.
But it’s not so beholden to the past that it doesn’t find ways to try new things. There are regular moments where Dread gives the usual Metroid exploratory loops a stalker-horror twist, as you try to avoid and escape from a deadly robot, unkillable through normal means and able to end you in an instant if it catches you. Metroid has always been a series designed in large part around a methodical approach that you can take at your own pace, but here you have these moments of urgency and dread that conflict with the standard rhythms of the game in intriguing ways: short, mad dashes from one safe spot to the next in a game that normally gives you as much time as you want to leave no stone unturned. And then, when you finally do manage to find a way to kill one of these things, its domain becomes yours, to chart and explore to your heart’s content.
It doesn’t always work perfectly. With seven such hide-and-seek sequences and the apparent need to keep finding ways to ramp up the intensity of them, the later ones lean more on trial-and-error than careful cat and mouse games, trading suspense for tedium. One particularly infuriating example sees you fleeing underwater from a foe that always knows your position and is always making a beeline right for it—there’s no dread there, just the nuisance of trying again and again until you figure out the optimal path from A to B. But when these stalker sequences work well, which most of them do, they’re a fascinating way of turning Metroid completely on its head.
Elsewhere, Metroid Dread’s innovations are more muted, but still welcome. New gadgets like the Phantom Cloak and Flash Shift (an air dash, essentially) create new possibilities for moving around, solving puzzles, and fighting the many threats that you face. The melee counter and 3D aiming return from the Metroid: Samus Returns remake, but without the handicap of the 3DS’ woeful slide-pad and in a game more designed with these tools in mind, they’re welcome tools. Dread stays true to the level design philosophy of earlier Metroids, but also experiments a bit with layouts that change permanently once certain triggers are crossed, giving those inevitable return visits a different flair. And for the longtime Metroid fans, there’s the novelty of seeing the way Dread reimagines some of that quintessential gadget progression—like the morph ball, typically one of the first upgrades you find, not showing up until halfway through the game.
But not all changes are for the better. I won’t suggest that Metroid’s story has ever been profound, but the early games in particular were good at keeping exposition to a minimum and letting the setting do the talking. In Metroid Dread, that’s been replaced by a particularly annoying AI companion, ADAM, through whom every little detail gets needlessly over-explained. Dread turns Metroid into a decidedly average sci-fi romp—something it arguably always has been, but that older games at least managed to hide behind a veil of mystery and atmosphere.
Metroid Dread also tries to take its boss encounters to grandiose, cinematic heights, but in ways that just make the fights needlessly tedious and frustrating. It’s one thing to have bosses with simple patterns and deadly attacks that demand practiced perfection, but Dread’s encounter design lacks the precision to make that really work. It’s rarely hard, per se—though everyone’s mileage will vary, obviously—but most late-game boss fights feel imbalanced, like they expect a level of precision that the game itself can’t accommodate. They seem designed to be annoying rather than to be meaningfully challenging—an issue with classic Metroids too, honestly, but something Dread ramps it up a few extra notches.
For all its wonderful authenticity and nostalgia, Metroid Dread is also a game that often clings too much to the past, to its detriment. Oddly-placed checkpoints that don’t actually make the run back to a boss fight more challenging, but do add some pointless extra faffing about that could easily be avoided with a simple “Retry” option, are better left in the ‘90s. So is the weird decision to not have continuing from a checkpoint recover your health and ammo to full—if you accidentally cross the threshold while running on empty, your every retry starts with finding some enemies to kill repeatedly until you’re back in top shape—again, not challenging in any way, but adding a bit of pointless extra time wasting into the mix.
Does Metroid Dread really still need health displayed in numbers next to an energy tank, instead of a more standard health bar that conveys your at a glance far more effectively? Does it really need the path forward to be constantly hidden behind a secret destructible block—something that even classic Metroids used sparingly, but that Dread seems to use as its go-to puzzle mechanic? I love Super Metroid as much as anyone, and think it’s mostly aged well, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t parts of it that even an authentic, classic-inspired new Metroid shouldn’t leave behind.
In a lot of ways, Metroid Dread is exactly the game that people who’ve been waiting 20-odd years for a new 2D Metroid could want: authentic and mostly true to its roots, but with enough new ideas thrown into the fold that it doesn’t just feel like a retread. Given the pedestal that Metroid gets put on, that’s an impressive achievement in itself. But it’s also uneven in that aim, sometimes clinging too closely to the past, and other times losing sight of what made the older games the classics that they are. Ultimately, what you get out of Metroid Dread will depend on what you expect from Metroid in the first place, but if you want an accomplished exploration platformer and can put up with a bit of frustration and narrative bloat along the way, you’re in good hands here.
Developer: Mercury Steam, Nintendo EAD
Genre: Metroidvania, platformer, action
Platforms: Nintendo Switch (reviewed)
Release date: 8 October 2021
A review copy was provided to Shindig by the publisher.