THE WASHINGTON POST – Arguably, after Mario and Zelda, the most revered franchise in Nintendo’s stable is Metroid, the sci-fi series that follows the exploits of Samus Aran, a spacefaring bounty hunter who has the distinction of being the first major female avatar in gaming this side of Ms Pac-Man. The early Metroid games (like the Zelda titles) introduced players to the pleasure of exploring labyrinthine maps which gradually disclose their secrets as Samus acquires new abilities, granting her access to previously sealed off areas.
Metroid Dread is structured around the idea of Samus being hounded through environments by a threat for whom her normal abilities are no match. It picks up the narrative thread from Metroid Fusion (2002) and, according to the game’s producer Yoshio Sakamoto, who helped design the original Metroid in the mid-1980s, the inspiration for the game emerged over fifteen years ago but technical limitations prevented it from coming to fruition at the time. Happily, the wait has been worth it.
A short prologue at the beginning of the game summarises Samus’s adventures thus far: while exploring an alien planet, SR388, she was infected with an X-parasite, an entity that can “absorb the DNA of its host, living or dead, and replicate its form.” The only known natural predators of the X-Parasite are the Metroids, biologically-engineered creatures that were created by an alien race, the Chozo, to counter them.
Fortunately for Samus, an experimental vaccine composed of Metroid DNA stemmed her infection, and left her immune to future X-parasite contagion. After her recovery, Samus set a space station on a collision course with SR388 to eradicate the menace. Alas, a video from an unknown sender sent to Samus’s client, The Galactic Federation, shows an X-Parasite floating in the wild on the planet ZDR. Judging the parasite a clear and present danger to the entire universe, the Federation sends seven powerful robots, E.M.M.I. (Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifier), to ZDR to research and collect D.N.A. samples. When the robots fail to report back, Samus is sent to the planet to assess the situation.
Soon after landing, she takes an elevator to an underground facility where she is confronted by a towering Chozo warrior named Raven Beak who easily bests her in combat. Raven Beak’s attack leaves her stricken with a sort of “physical amnesia” that deprives her of her abilities. (If ever there was ever a cliche that needs to be put to rest in video games, it’s the amnesia thing.) Soon after Samus begins to explore the area, she finds out that the E.M.M.I. have been hacked to target her.
The narrative in Metroid Dread plays second fiddle to its gameplay and atmosphere. Plot beats provide a frame for the action, not a psychological character study. Rather, what lingers in the mind are the tight controls, the inspired boss fights and the fantastic layout of the environments.
Metroid Dread deftly alternates between making the player feel powerful and powerless. Well before Samus acquires anything like her super missiles or plasma beam, she is equipped to trounce the regular enemies that come her way. However, when she steps into one of the monochromatically-colored zones patrolled by a lone E.M.M.I., she has no choice but to slink through the area as stealthy as possible until she finds a power source capable of temporarily boosting her weapon so that she can take on one of the otherwise-invincible robots.
The E.M.M.I. encounters endow Metroid Dread with suspense while the boss fights, of which there are several, add another welcome layer of tension.
Although it helps to have quick reflexes when fighting, say, a Chozo soldier who can quickly alternate between melee and projectile attacks, more often than not your observational skills will carry you to victory. As one of the in-game tutorials says: “no attack is unavoidable.” Moreover, some attacks can be used to your advantage since a number of bosses drop health and ammo if you hit them at certain moments or parry their blows.
In design terms, what most impressed me about Metroid Dread was how the developers guide you through the game’s sprawling areas. Although there is ample incentive to backtrack after Samus acquires a new powerup, the game never wasted my time. At no point was I needlessly sent crisscrossing over environments to determine where to go next. Usually, when Samus acquires a new powerup, there is a place nearby where she can use it to open a previously-unexplored suite of rooms. The game does not lack internal momentum.
Metroid Dread is a notable achievement that puts the old action-exploration formula to good use.