What does Samus Aran do on her days off? Would we even want to know? Whenever she isn’t on a job, we find her cocooned in the gloom of her ship, combing the intergalactic prairies for threats—and for money. So it is at the beginning of Metroid Dread, as her onboard A.I., ADAM, says, “The bounty for this mission does not seem appropriate,” adding, “The risk clearly outweighs the reward.” Nevertheless, she zooms toward ZDR, a plum-coloured planet, caressed by a frosty nebula, as though her life depended on it. Is she merely an unalloyed do-gooder, without a single thought to the heft of her pay packet, or does she worry that, slowing down, she may reveal herself as a void? Maybe that is why the outfit of body-hugging blue that she wears beneath her famous armour is called the Zero Suit, as if space were no match for the vacuum within.
Fear not: the dread in Metroid Dread is not of the existential variety. It has more to do with the Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifiers, or the E.M.M.I., a pack of robots who prowl the corridors like cats, hooked on Samus’s electronic scent. Their claws, as upstanding as those of a velociraptor, allow them to clamp and scuttle their way up walls. Venture into an E.M.M.I. zone, and the screen grows dim and drained, as though the game’s blood had run cold; before long, you will hear the metallic thud of approaching footsteps. There are seven of these creatures in total, each with a brightly hued shell which is, we are told, “made of the strongest stuff in the universe.” The upshot of a line like that is that it sets us in a defiant stance, eager to prove that such a description belongs solely to Samus.
Sure enough, over the course of our trials, we will fire at each E.M.M.I.’s faceplate until it glows like lava and peels away. We will cross paths with a number of imposing bosses, including Samus’s old friend Kraid, a crocodile with a bloated belly, who subsists on a diet of crunchy missiles. And, naturally, we will plunder the depths of ZDR for our missing gear, plugging the upgrades back into place one by one. It will come as a surprise to no one that this lonely rock turns out—as they all do—to be a reliquary of the Chozo: a race of beaky aliens so advanced, and so downright funky, that their presence is signposted in hieroglyphs. (If you are a hyper-advanced flock of enlightened sapients, I suppose, why not walk like an Egyptian through the cosmos?) In short, we do all of the things we damn well should.
Veterans will swoon at the sight of Samus curling, like a woodlouse, into a ball and rumbling through tunnels deep; and they will relish a kick of the unfamiliar in the Phantom Cloak, which fogs her into a white shadow, the better to haunt a corner of the ceiling—away from the scowl of an E.M.M.I. What’s more, the controls are tight and tuned. A click of the left trigger has Samus slide, like a baserunner reaching home plate, and the Melee Counter, from Metroid: Samus Returns, has returned. Beyond this strewing of old and new, however, is there something else at stake, as this fresh adventure pulls in to land?
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Metroid Dread is the sequel to Metroid Fusion, which came out on the Game Boy Advance eighteen years ago. For Samus, as for the fans, that’s too many days off to contemplate. There have been other games in the series since, of course, including a masterwork, in Metroid Prime, from Retro Studios; and the fascinating misfire of Metroid: Other M, from Team Ninja, which devoted an unwise proportion of its attention to the story, and had its heroine speak for the first time. It did little for her legend. The developer of the new game is MercurySteam, whose greatest coup is to coax out all that is E.M.M.I.-like in Samus. She has always been multiform and mobile, and she is nothing if not extraplanetary; if she has lacked a solid identifier, beyond an indefatigable drive to hunt down her target, that has only served in her favour.
Hence the camera in Metroid Dread, which plunges and curves around Samus as if buffing the bronze of her mystique. Its natural mode is a side-scrolling wide shot, but, as Samus hops into a transport lift—a few effortless bounds—we peer into the background after her. And note how it tilts into a sidelong view, as we take powered-up aim at a slow-creeping E.M.M.I.; these are nerve-wracking moments, but you wouldn’t know it to look at Samus, who remains as flustered as liquid nitrogen. Watch her take on the Corpious, a beast as bonny as it sounds: the poor thing struggles to stand, and she struts around it like an impatient gladiator, waiting for the droop of an imperial thumb; then, somersaulting through the lashing loop of its tail, she delivers the felling blow. Is there anything she can’t handle? Even as we cut to an E.M.M.I.’s-eye view, and Samus is held in the blood-red readout of its gaze, we are in little doubt as to who, in the end, will fall prey to whom. She speaks just once, in fluent Chozo, translated by helpful subtitles. Her first words? “Don’t worry.”
That would be a lot more reassuring if there were much, on the world of ZDR, to worry about. MercurySteam serves up the usual array: steel-grated gangways, patches of jungle, a cargo bay above a storm-tossed sea, and research stations, rimed in filth and fallen into disarray. It’s all very well and good, and the details glint on the Switch’s wide screen, but what is missing is the mixture of loneliness and foreboding that defines this series when it’s at its best. The place has nothing on the planet Zebes—the setting of the original and of its SNES sequel, Super Metroid—whose surface looked like a swirl of burnt mustard and whose caverns, stretching into the infernal dark, seemed to feed on our resolve. Even taking the E.M.M.I. into account, there isn’t actually any dread here; but the title Metroid: Pockets of Moderate Panic doesn’t quite have the same ring.
Part of the problem is that Samus has too much company. ADAM keeps popping up to deliver exposition, via a string of terminals where he resembles the Wikipedia logo, if it had a heart and its tiles pulsed to and fro. Then there is Quiet Robe, a wise and smiling Chozo, who offers guidance and support. But they don’t really seem to reach her. And neither can any of her foes—not even another Chozo, named Raven Beak, whose quest entails her destruction. After all these years, the one who came closest, tellingly, was the SA-X, a clone of Samus who stalked the basements of Metroid Fusion like a Terminator, with eyes as glaring as dipped headlamps. There is nothing here that can match the freakiness of that spectacle. Still, MercurySteam has carved out a new entry in one of the medium’s most celebrated series, and, even if it doesn’t fully measure up, that’s quite a bounty; the rewards clearly outweigh the risk. Where the studio succeeds—and where Metroid Dread elevates from noble and flawed effort to inspired riff—is in its embrace of the unreachable. Time and again, we look for Samus, but she is gone.
Available on: Nintendo Switch
Release Date: October 8, 2021
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