Metroid Dread (2021)

When Metroid Dread was released in October of 2021, it kicked off the newest gaming obsession of mine, and allowed me to finally start the journey of playing through the other half of the genre known to most as  “MetroidVanias”. In 2019, I played through the Castlevania series, and now I have completed the Metroid part of it. And while I am drawn more to the gothic atmosphere and Dracula storyline of the Castlevania series more, Metroid does an amazing story of keeping the story going across several decades and 5 main games.

Dread continues the storyline of the 4 games that precedes it, and has Samus once again get a call to a new planet and come in contact with a new threat. A massive bird-like warrior, known as Raven Beak confronts Samus and nearly destroys her, but she barely escapes with her life. Now at the bottom of the strange new planet, she must make her way back up to her ship and leave.

One of the most interesting things about this new game is that it features a lot of cutscenes and spoken dialogue, something that should be expected in a video game from 2021 at this point, but the Metroid series isn’t really known for that (At least the 2D games anyways). With Other M, released on the Wii back in 2010, it was overwhelmingly hated, partly because of the way Samus comes off with her spoken dialogue. So they reigned it back in with Dread, but the few words she does say, make a lasting impression.

With the other games in the series, I found myself frustrated many times because of the confusing layout and nonsensical backtracking. Wasting hours of my life going back and forth between the entire map just randomly bombing everything in site to find a hidden block that I missed. However, Dread really kept the hidden block for progression to a minimum. While it could have been that I have so many games in the series under my belt in such a short time now, allowing me to know their tricks, I found the path of progression so much easier and linear in Metroid Dread. I never once felt like I didn’t know where I needed to go, and never found myself wandering aimlessly.

The Map system is vastly improved as well, with quick scrolling, and everything showing up, letting you know what you are looking at, where you are in relation to everything else, and even if you have already traversed the area with dim and highlighted backgrounds. Along with the blinking area, letting you know if there is a secret that you have to find in that section of the room. It really helps someone who doesn’t want to spend hours backtracking, but also the map does become very cluttered with information near the end of the game. Each item remains, even if you destroyed it, but luckily it does give a “(Destroyed)” description to let you know you already took care of it. It even features a marker system allowing you to mark parts of the map to come back to later. However, it's a single symbol with a few different colors, and since I didn’t use it for a few hours at a time, it confused me more than it helped me, so I stopped using it. Allowing different symbols, or even letting you enter in text would help so much more.

Traveling between the multiple regions of the planet also introduced loading screens that were very reminiscent of the infamous Mass Effect elevators, or the new PS4 Spider-Man games, where Samus just stands while lights passing by highlight her in the shadows. It was a bit startling the first time it happened, since I haven’t seen any loading screens in a Metroid game so far, but it’s an understandable distraction.

A continuing theme with the series is Samus losing her powers, and while that was novel at the end of Zero Mission, and then again in Metroid 2, and again in Super Metroid, and once more in Metroid Fusion…. I’m done with the trope, and seeing it crop back up again here, after 16 years between the last game and this newest one, it feels really lazy. Nintendo has a really bad habit with using the same twist and then beating it into the ground. The Screw Attack is a rad move, but it basically breaks the game. I get why it's hidden away until the end of the game, but instead of reusing the same ability that was around in 1986, there needs to be a sense of moving on and coming up with something new. The same way that “Oh no, Samus got all her powers stripped away… again. It is a tired and boring plot point now and it immediately started the game off with a bit of a sour taste in my mouth.

One of the newest features of the game is that of the E.M.M.I robots. These robots are made of an indestructible metal, and have been turned into hunting and killing machines. They have taken over a large section of each part of the planet, and can not move from their predestined patrol routes. Every time Samus enters into one of these areas, the E.M.M.I becomes a constant and life-threatening encounter. Scanning their environments and tracking Samus across the part of the map, and if noticed, they hunt down and capture her. If captured, there is an opportunity to escape, but the timing of parrying the attack is such a small window, it can be extremely hard to time.

The E.M.M.I are in every major part of the map, and take up a good chunk of each section too, so it becomes a chore to traverse until you’ve taken care of them. Which can only be done after finding the Central Computer that looks like Mother Brain, and destroying it to receive a powerup to Samus’ Arm Cannon. Then Samus becomes the hunter instead of the hunted. After the E.M.M.I is destroyed, they give Samus a new powerup, which reminded me of defeating a Robot Master in the Mega Man games. It was fun and enjoyable enough, but really made me feel rushed in large sections of the game. I view the Metroid series as Map based Exploration games, and when I can’t really explore, it takes away the enjoyment of the game a bit.

Something I noticed right from the start of the game, is how incredibly fast the game felt, especially compared to the last game, Metroid Fusion. Samus moves swiftly with a great sense of speed, and is only compounded in the areas once the Speed Booster or Screw Attack is used. Near the end of the game, I found myself flying through massive parts of the level that felt like it took an eternity to pass through earlier in the game. This definitely is achieved because of the insanely easier to navigate map… for the most part. There are lots of Teleportation machines that are used in the back half of the game, and it locks you into premade routes to explore with no deviation.

Which brings me to the feeling rushed and funneled into parts of the game I was not ready for. Even though the game was designed in this way, I had several moments where I questioned if I was in an area where I wasn’t supposed to be in. When fighting a boss I didn’t know if I had the right equipment to fight it, and would have to die and backtrack to figure out if I made the wrong turn at Albuquerque.

Speaking of Bosses, it’s one of my major issues with the game, especially near the end of the game. Dread hurls way too many bosses in the path of Samus, without any respite or breathing room. There are a pair of bosses that are five minutes in between each other, along with Mini-Bosses that are littered in random sections that you already have been through as well, so there is this constant fear that you need to always have a good collection of health and missiles at your disposal at all times. I very rarely felt like I was able to explore near the end of the game, and the end crept up on me so quickly that I found myself surprised that I was at the end boss out of what felt like nowhere.

I also didn’t feel well equipped enough in the final boss fight, which I actually almost finished fairly early on, because I ran out of missiles. I then spent another 45 minutes retrying the ending boss over and over again, trying to deal damage, while conserving my ammo. Which ammo conservation was never a thought in my mind leading up to the final fight.

While I do have a few bigger issues with the game itself, and how it was designed, overall I had probably the most fun with Metroid Dread than the other games in the series. A large part of that enjoyment was definitely the lack of getting lost and always feeling like I know where I was supposed to go, even if I didn’t initially know how to get there. Exploration gets put on the backburner in favor of more boss fights and an incessant feeling of being chased and rushed through the game, which I did not care for. I’d much rather take my time exploring every single nook and cranny of the game to get 100% Item retrieval and be more prepared for the final boss. I had a blast with Metroid Dread, and just a couple of months ago, I would have never believed that I would care about the game in the slightest, let alone have it be in my Top 10 games of this year.