Do you remember when you got bored of Metroidvanias? Somewhere on the timeline between Shadow Complex, through Hollow Knight, towards Axiom Verge, and name-your-favourite well constructed well received alternative, the modern interpretation of the format became a little mushy and oversubscribed.
Part of the appeal of the genre, as renewed in the age of the digital download, is that it was both underappreciated and under-cooked in its own time, even the term Metroidvania only achieved unanimity during the genre’s middle age. A great opportunity then for developers both indie and mainstream to take the simple but compelling appeal of non linear exploration, gear gating, and character upgrades, and apply their own visual and thematic treatments to them. And so we were gifted the skin tearing flagellation of Blasphemous’ aesthetic, and the Lilo & Stitch bounciness of Ori and the Blind Forest’s central characters; all while ironing out some of the kinks, idiosyncrasies and ruthlessness that prevented the first wave of games achieving wider recognition in the 1980’s.
Perhaps one of the reasons that modern Metroidvanias have spiralled off in so many wild creative directions is that figuratively speaking Mum & Dad were out for a curry, leaving the rest of us to break into the drinks cabinet. Konami, owners of the Castlevania IP, seem less interested in their former success as a games publisher with each passing day, (late halloween shout out to Silent Hill pachinko) and until recently Nintendo had sat quietly at the back hoping we’d all forget that it announced Metroid Prime 4 in 2017.
This changed overnight when, having not been previously leaked or trailed, Nintendo announced Metroid Dread for Switch during June’s Nintendo Direct presentation. Dread as a title and concept has been alluded to in Nintendo’s development history since 2005, seemingly starting life as a title for the Nintendo DS, and here it was, announced only five months prior to release: Mum’s car was pulling into the driveway, keys rattling in the front door, time to put the midori away.
Dread then has a captive, hungry audience. Developed in partnership with Spanish studio Mercury Steam, it’s Nintendo’s first side-scrolling Metroid title in twenty years. Taking into account the stylistic shifts and experimentation the format was subject to in their absence, what does Nintendo change up with the title, how do they justify their return? Their response is actually quite conservative. Though the game is not entirely without new fun mechanical additions, what primarily makes Dread a pleasure to play is the ever elusive Nintendo combination of artistic cohesion, high polish, and nebulous game-feel. That last point is important; consider the fair allowances we make for games that demand precision control and fast reflexes: the combat is solid but the jumping feels floaty, or the aiming feels imprecise, or the hitboxes are weird, you can’t nail it all. But here’s the thing, Metroid Dread does. Every interaction between the player, Samus, her enemies, and the environment, feels satisfying and consequential; every wall climb, lock on, and double jump comes with a torrent of visual, audio and haptic feedback that makes your brain go ‘good’, ‘yum’.
Think back to a favourite childhood toy; actions here carry the clunking satisfaction of Buzz Lightyear’s ejected wings, or a Ghostbuster’s ejected eyeballs. From within the medium, think of the reload of Doom’s Super Shotgun, clun-KLIK: in Metroid Dread every action comes with a clun-klik of its own, even something as simple as shooting a door open (nothing so prosaic as keys in space) feels fun.
Dread’s two main additions to the genre mix are welcome, and successful to differing degrees. The first is an evolution of Samus’ counter, allowing her to deflect certain telegraphed incoming attacks, creating space to deliver a follow up blow that in most cases kills an opponent instantly. Largely the game does a good job of mixing up the timings and tells of enemy bluffs and attacks in a fun way, and getting it right never gets old. This feature is closing in on Bloodborne’s parrying mechanic in pure gratification terms, and it only really trips up when deployed as a fail-able quick time event during boss fights, which can feel like a reaction test too far after five minutes spent negotiating a bosses vanilla attack patterns and chiseling their health away.
The second addition is the presence of roaming enemies named E.M.M.I, who persistently stalk Samus through locked down areas of the map, and to whom she is defenseless before certain conditions are met – think the Tyrant from Resident Evil 2, or the antagonists of any number of horror hide em ups. For the first half of the game, encounters with E.M.M.I robots are dynamic and frightening, leaning overtly into horror in a series that has historically deployed fear more tonally. The player is forced to read the map and concoct escape routes on the fly whilst ensuring they land their intended jumps and slides to get away, it’s a thrilling new context in which to deploy Samus’ moveset. In the second half of the game however, E.M.M.I runs start to feel like assault courses, escape options narrow and most missteps immediately result in death, leading to frequent repetitions which both frustrate, and reduce the impact of encounters through over exposure.
Both additions sit very comfortably in the Metroid template, and in the game’s map, which is huge. Except for one or two instances where progress is held to ransom by the need to locate small, destructible cubes of scenery, (presumably included as a throwback to earlier games, just as annoying in 2021) your route is almost invisibly guided by various world events and sub objectives. It’s a helpful way to ensure the game is readable in the micro, and side steps the genre trap of having five potential directions including dead ends to explore at any given time. The world itself is the game’s greatest luxury: nearly every room, corridor and tunnel is a unique tableau of background drama and incidental detail. Sometimes what’s lurking off-plane foreshadows a future encounter, other times we’re shown self-contained stories involving the planet’s flora and fauna. It’s always worth clearing a room of enemies and spending a quiet moment in it to see what you can find.
Unpopular experimentation aside, the series is characterised by its light touch towards narrative, and Dread continues this, while still managing to throw in a twist or two that will please those invested in the series’ timeline. The game shows us that regardless of how far, and in which directions the template for this genre is stretched, these games live or die on two considerations: a compelling scenario to explore, and player actions that reward every button press. With Metroid Dread, Nintendo has addressed these considerations so enthusiastically, while adding a small number of mechanical innovations, that other creators in this space will be encouraged to think beyond obscure aesthetics when considering which corner of the map to explore next.
Metroid Dread created by Nintendo and Mercury Steam is available now on Switch
Words: Luke Jackson