'Metroid: Samus Returns' is harder than you remember

Nintendo's ‘Metroid II’ remake is fun, but frustrating

The last few years have been good to Nintendo fans. There have been plenty of games starring the company's italian mascot, new adventures in the land of hyrule as well as re-releases of some of the most popular Legend of Zelda games in the last twenty years. Even Donkey Kong Country made a comeback. Metroid, on the other hand, seemed almost forgotten. Now, for the first time since 2010's Other M the franchise is finally getting proper outing. A 3DS remake of the Game Boy's Metroid II -- appropriately titled Metroid: Samus Returns.

Reimagining a classic game is always a little tricky, but Metroid II isn't the first game in the franchise to get an overhaul. In 2004, Nintendo recreated the series' first game as Metroid: Zero Mission for the Game Boy Advance -- but it wasn't a straight remake so much as a new game based on the original idea. That's how Samus Returns feels too: the plot, location and goals are the same, the map layouts, enemy behavior and even some of the power-ups are all different. The 3DS remake may be telling the same story as the Game Boy original, but mastering Metroid II won't help you beat Samus Returns.

For the most part, that's a good thing. Despite sharing notes with its inspiration's soundtrack and borrowing Metroid II's story beats, Samus Returns feels very much like an original Metroid experience -- complete with vast caverns to explore, satisfying puzzles and new mechanics to learn. Better still, a lot of those new mechanics are designed specifically to address the pain points of classic Metroid games. Don't like backtracking to another area of the game to search for power-ups or find a door you missed? Now you can use teleport stations to fast-travel across the game, instead. Can't find that one square that Samus can bomb to proceed to the next area? Use the new "Scan Pulse" Aeion Ability to get a hint.

These additions give Samus Returns a good foundation, which it wraps in a detailed stereoscopic side-scrolling landscape that offers a peek at the planet behind Samus Aran's adventures. The game is still played on a 2D plane, but turning on the handhelds' namesake 3D effect lets you peer deep into caverns behind the side-scrolling stage. This gives Returns more background detail than any other Metroid, letting players see landscapes, valleys and wildlife of the planet beyond the game's playable area.

Even so, Samus Returns isn't without its flaws. Exploring the game's seemingly endless caverns is as fun as ever, but some the mechanics can make the experience a little frustrating. In addition to Samus' regular arsenal of lasers, missiles and bombs -- for instance -- the player now has access to a new counter attack move. Basically, enemies in the game have a "tell" before they rush in to attack Samus, and pressing the counter button at just the right moment will knock them back and stun them -- lining up a satisfying and powerful attack to take them out. Unfortunately this new mechanic applies to almost every enemy in the game, which means you're constantly being barraged with fast, hard to dodge assaults.

This would be fine if the player's hand cannon was enough to take out an enemy before that rush attack hit, but I wasn't powerful enough to negate the counter-move mechanic until almost the end of the game. In practice, this means you either master the counter move (and do it very frequently) or try to keep your distance to avoid using it -- something the geometry of the game's levels doesn't always allow. In practice, it's a cool mechanic that feels a bit overused. Sometimes, though, a rushing enemy just added unnecessary frustration to the Metroid formula.

On the other hand, the counter move offers a compelling gamble in boss fights. Enemies like Zeta, Gamma and Alpha Metroids have feint attacks that make it harder to know when a counter might work -- missing it deals massive damage to the player, but getting it right can speed up the boss encounter dramatically.

Despite the new risk and reward element the counter move brings to boss fights, they run the risk of being repetitive. The entire conceit of the game is that Samus must travel to SR388 to exterminate the deadly Metroid creatures. There are over 35 of them, and each one is basically a small boss battle. They start out simple and get progressively more difficult as the player encounters different types of Metroid -- but each one plays out about the same.

Some of them feel unnecessarily drawn out, though. In the last third of the game, some of these bosses will flee mid-fight to move to another room, breaking up the battle in as many as three chunks. It feels like a tweak made to keep things from feeling repetitive, but in effect it just makes each of these battles feel longer.

The game also has a couple of sudden and severe difficulty spikes. The hardest fight of the game isn't the final boss, but a giant mining robot. True to classic Metroid form, defeating the boss is a feat of learning its pattern -- but it's a huge point of frustration. The first couple of stages of the battle are obvious, but solving the final puzzle took repeated, painful and frustrating losses. This kind of difficulty curve harkens back to the early days of classic Nintendo games, but it's questionable how fun it actually is. Fighting a boss 10 to 20 times in a row to learn its complicated, unforgiving pattern doesn't make me feel like I've accomplished anything. It makes me feel like I merely memorized the answers to a pop quiz.

Putting these difficulty spikes and mildly annoying dodge mechanics aside, Metroid: Samus Returns is very much the classic Metroid game fans have been looking for. The new stereoscopic side-scrolling presentation is beautiful, and ads ton of atmosphere -- but with the exception of a few new mechanics, it still very much plays like an evolution on Super Metroid. Even the special edition 3DS Nintendo made to commemorate the game feels just right, with subtle Samus artwork on the front and a gorgeous backplate filling out the colors of the bounty hunter's famous costume. It also drags the franchise's last classic game into a more modern style. Finally, fans can play the entire Metroid saga in 16-bit or higher graphic presentation. And it's a pretty good experience the entire way through.