Metroid Dread is an excellent game… But I don’t know if I like it.

Metroid Dread is an excellent game… But I don’t know if I like it.

Hi! I am Benjamin Wagner, this is my blog and today… I become a man. The deed is done. After 26 years, finally, my cherry has been popped. My masculine needs have been fed and my arousal has been quelled. That’s right, after a long life, I have finally played a Metroid game.

Metroid, much like a rare meteor shower is something that fanatics long for yet much of the general populous seems to ignore. I was part of the general outsider group for a long time. I remember reading Official Nintendo Magazine, back when I was a pubescent 15-year-old and seeing the game Metroid Other M advertised. They liked it. A lot. I know now that this game is now often derided by those hardcore fans of this beloved franchise, yet this was my very first encounter with the franchise. I didn’t play the game, of course. I was a fair-weather fan of Nintendo and most of my gaming life was either Mario, Spyro or countless iterations of Fifa football and Formula One racing. So, of course, I read the article, enjoyed what I saw and thought very little about it after. It wasn’t until the latter days of the Nintendo 3DS and the early days of the Nintendo Switch in which I discovered video game Youtube and became enamoured with the nicher properties they would discuss. Advance Wars. Chibi-Robo. Kid Icarus. And arguably the biggest was Metroid. Be it the 3D Metroid Prime series or the classic 2D games, time and again I would stumble upon videos where another guy would be gushing about Super Metroid or Metroid Prime or criticising Federation Force or Prime Hunters. But I never picked a game up. Even when the remake of Metroid 2 was released on the 3DS, I still stayed clear of this series in favour of indulging in my brand-new Switch. Until now of course. I can’t tell you why I felt the need to pick Metroid Dread up on launch, but my excessively large collection of Nintendo Switch games certainly has something to do about it. I do find myself buying games I’m not overly interested in, just because the Switch is such an easy console to play games on.

So it’s fair to say that going into this game, I wasn’t overly hyped. I could see that review scores were positive and that the discourse on the web was also pretty good. But that doesn’t matter because I matter more. So the only way to find out was to play the game. It’s very, very good. But why is it good? Well, buckle up, sit down, and relax as I tell you my experiences with Metroid Dread, illuminate its beautiful, shiny good points and its parasitic, intrusive bad points. This is my take on Metroid Dread.

Metroid Dread takes place on the clinically barren and foreboding planet ZDR. And yes, it’s pronounced Z. Because I am English, and we are always correct. Within the first ten minutes, the story is set, the main villain, a large intimidating creature in a bird mask called Raven Beak flexes his strength, destroying the bridge we were fighting on and leaves the playable Samus clinging to life in the very inner caverns of the planet. There is more to the plot than this that involves the four previous 2D entries in the core series but, as someone who hasn’t played them, I can’t say I am overly invested in the lore of Metroid, the Chozo and the past of Samus Aran. But, after hearing about this series before, I came in expecting very little in terms of story and was surprised by the depth of the storytelling and the amount of story packed into this game. Even more surprising was that the story content was actually really, really good. I’m not going to spoil the twists but damn, even as a non-fan, this feels really epic, and it was more than I ever expected. A pleasant surprise. A 5-star gacha pull. A double yolked poached egg. A tax rebate. Metroid Dread’s story is a tax rebate. And that’s very, very good.

The way in which Samus grows throughout the story is not just told through the story but is also felt through gameplay. Again, as a first time Metroid player but someone who has seen an incredibly large amount of media regarding the games was familiar with the way the gameplay relies on finding upgrades and becoming strong enough to overcome obstacles that once stood in your way. I can’t say enough how rare it is for a game to make you feel as if you are growing and becoming more powerful as you play. In this game, you feel like you are growing each time Samus kicks a boss’s ass. And damn, does it feel good. Your original move set is great and feels fluid to control but by the end, you are essentially a demi-god with no beast powerful enough to stand in your way. At first, however, you are weak. Very in fact and that fits into the titular premise of the game. Dread. Metroid Dread wants you to fear it. To put you on edge. To make you feel… anxious. And it does that, most prominently, with robots known as EMMI’s. In each of the explorable biomes, one of these roaming mechanical warbots, originally sent to the planet by the Galactic Federation before Samus to hunt the X parasite, a species of parasite that was important to the story of the previous game, Metroid Fusion. These warbots were defeated and possessed by the X parasite to do its bidding and they hunt Samus down as soon as you stray into their territory. And importantly, you can’t hurt them. Your sentient AI guide Adam, the only real voice you will hear on your journey, warns you that even at your best, Samus couldn’t hope to take the robots on and, in her weakened state she was very much at risk of being completely annihilated each time she encountered one. However, and this does feel a little convenient, but you of course needed some way to kill the creatures, by defeating an odd sentient eyeball known as a Central Unit that grants you a power-up. An Omega blaster. This gun would melt the very skin off of your bones and is the only means you have of piercing the armour of these creatures. And when you kill a creature that has killed you 20 times, it feels triumphant. You have overcome your past mistakes and come out on top. You have left your teenage rejection behind and become the woman you have always wanted to be.

Take that Jasmine, look at the beast I have become!

This feeling is one of the multiple highs you feel when exploring the world of Metroid Dread. Heck, it was so influential that this style of gameplay has inspired a genre all of its own in Metroidvania’s. Starting weak and finding powerups hidden around Planet ZDR is an incredibly intuitive way of powering up your character and it still works in 2021. I was going to go through each power-up and explain which ones were best, but this seemed like too much work so I’m just going to home in on 3. Imagine a really cool announcer voice with this bit:

Innnnn Third:
The Morph Ball. This powerup is truly synonymous with Samus and the Metroid series. So much so even a first-time player knows about it. And I tell you what, I can see why. It allows the level designers to hide secrets down small pipes and create intricate puzzles in which Samus navigates through a pokey system of pipes to find something fresh new on the other side.
Innnnnn Second:
Storm Missiles. Damn, the ability to fire a flurry of missiles all at once makes you feel powerful and take out enemies that previously gave you trouble in an instant. This power trip is all the sweeter given the journey you had taken to get to this point. Furthermore, as with all of the powerups, they are also used to interact with the environment and clear ways to backtrack through the area. This is the sort of design that makes playing games fun and manages to combine combat and exploration almost seamlessly. This is great. Number 1 is even better.

Innnnn First:

The Space Jump. The occasional hiccup in using this powerup is trumped by its overwhelming utility and it makes your already silky move set feel even better. This powerup is essentially an infinite jump providing you can time it perfectly. I did find that the timing took some getting used to but the ability to bypass entire objects combined with the utility in boss fights was even more fun. Seriously, Samus’s move set is incredible and makes the well-designed game even more fun to play.

Whilst enjoying the movement of Samus and exploring this world, you might be taken by the graphical design of the planet itself. And, I must say, for a Switch game, it looks very, very nice. However, I… I think it looks aesthetically boring a lot of the time. Most of the EMMI areas look the same. Cold, clinical laboratories with a fuzzy grey filter changing the feel. Biomes do feel different from one another and while they undoubtedly all look very, very polished, the game does feel like it lacks a little visual identity. Obviously, this is in the place of the more realistic look that this particular Nintendo series earns for but, well… I just can’t really appreciate it. Maybe due to the amount of PS5 games I have been playing recently, I struggled to really gush over the graphics here. One area I can gush like an overfull hose is the sound design. The very first note I wrote about this game was that the intro music was ‘banging’. It was atmospheric. It was epic. It was memorable. It is also an antithesis to the rest of the soundtrack. Most of the game involves very different, very creepy ambient sounds that make you feel alone, feel at risk and this is absolutely perfect. In my review of Returnal, I mentioned that I think that that game has the best sound design in any game I have ever played and that still stands here. But this game comes close. Real close. Funnily enough, that isn’t the only parallel I can draw between these two games. So much so that I think I could quite confidently call Returnal a 3D interpretation of the 2D Metroid formula.

Based on this though, a more important question arises. Why did I finish Metroid Dread but not Returnal? Both games are great and are similar in terms of movement, gunplay, difficulty, atmosphere, and exploration so what sets them apart from one another? Well partly Metroid is much shorter than Returnal, with me, a newcomer being able to see the credits in just under 10 hours. The other, much more important aspect is the way that Metroid makes you feel. The game is hard, and you will die, much, much more often than you might expect. However, Dread never feels unbeatable. If you die to a boss, you feel like it is your fault, so you go back in, learn the patterns, and beat the boss. You can’t do this in Returnal due to the way the game is set up. If you are stuck on a certain boss, you can’t just rechallenge it. You have to chargeback through the randomly generated rooms, hoping you get some good luck and maybe, just maybe, after another half an hour of gameplay, you might get to face that boss again. This usually resulted in me being defeated within a minute, crying into my bottle, and feeling physically drained after yet another failure. Metroid never felt like that. I could jump straight back into it due to the generous checkpointing and exquisitely designed bosses never feeling out of reach. That means, despite the difficulty that the game does bring to the table, it is accessible and provides the player with a feeling of progression and strength.

So, that’s it, right? Metroid Dread is a better game than Returnal, right? Well, much like many of my conversations with women, things can be difficult to understand and often end with me in tears. It’s with this I present my one gripe with the game. I don’t even feel comfortable calling it a gripe, but the English language does not have a more suitable phrase for this feeling I have.

I don’t know how to put this into words. Critically, I think this game is a masterpiece. But this is more about feeling. This fluctuation might just be my lack of nostalgic love for this series, but I don’t feel like this ever clicked with me as much as I thought it would. And I think I know what the main sticking point is. And this will upset Metroid fans. And that’s okay. (Deep breath). Okay. Having to shoot random walls and floors to create paths isn’t fun and it brings me out of the experience. Areas in which there are visual cues, such as pink organisms protruding out of them like the special toy sticking out of your mother’s closet are fine; you can see where to go. But just wan-ton gunfire in order to ascertain where to move to next just… just doesn’t work for me. It feels very video-gamey. And I love video games. I know that this has been a thing in Metroid since its inception but, especially on the NES, wasn’t this just because the NES wasn’t powerful enough to show the subtleties that would be needed to indicate secret hallways and paths. The Switch, whilst underpowered, is more than capable of doing this so not showing cracks on the wall or some sort of indication just doesn’t click with me. It seems unnecessarily obtuse, and it just doesn’t work for me. This doesn’t make this a bad game, far from it, this is an excellent game, but this one area affects me so much that it does impact on the fun I have with the game itself.

Here we are. After that negative snag, we have reached the crux of the matter.
Metroid Dread is fun, yet I feel disconnected from it personally. I had a great time playing this game and this should be used as a template for boss designs for future action games for decades to come. The movement was fluid. Exploration was rewarding and always felt worthwhile. The story was a constantly pleasant surprise and has me interested in playing the other games in the series. The game is graphically impressive despite not being to my personal tastes and the sound design is superb. Yet, as a newcomer to the series, I just didn’t feel connected to Samus and Metroid as much as I had expected. I had gone in thinking I would either hate the game, not finish it and quietly move on or I would love it and join the screaming fandom. But… I can’t do either. This game is technically a masterpiece and I loved many, many individual aspects of the experience. I will almost certainly play it again in the future. Yet, there’s this part of me that almost feels… disappointed. Not in the game, but in myself. There is just something stuck between this game and me.

And you know what. I think I know what that is too. I think, and this comes down to me as a player and not a critic, I think I simply prefer 3D games. I have played many, many 2D games over the years and have a good time with them yet I never put them at the top of the pile. They never become the cream or embed themselves as classics in my mind. They are simply fun games that I play and forget about; many being technically better than the more flawed 3D experiences I hold dear.

So, where do I stand? Well, you need wonder no longer. If I was trying to be objective and pretend to be a critic, this game would probably go right at the top of the list of beautifully sculpted masterpieces. But I just can’t do that. Despite not finishing Returnal due to the merciless difficulty, the highs I experience there simply made me feel better than I did during the highs of Metroid. If this upsets you, that’s a shame but you know what. I’m human. And I like different things to you. And that’s okay.

 Thank you for reading. I have been Benjamin Wagner and I endorse this message.

8.7/10- A masterfully constructed game that takes its formula as far as it can go… It just didn’t click with me as much as it could have.

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