Metroid Dread
Nintendo

'Metroid Dread' is a dark rebirth for Samus Aran

While fans wait for "Metroid Prime 4," Nintendo's all-powerful heroine is about to go through hell.

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This article contains spoilers for some Metroid lore, specifically from ‘Metroid Fusion,’ along with some wild theorizing about what’s going on in ‘Metroid Dread.’

Metroid Dread can be terrifying. At times, Samus Aran, Nintendo’s all-powerful heroine, is reduced to cowering in a corner, praying that the robot who’s hunting her moves on. It’s a strange tone for the fifth mainline game from one of Nintendo’s oldest series, which arrives on the Switch this October. But it’s a concept that Yoshio Sakamoto, who has guided the Metroid series since the early days and is producing Dread, has wanted to realize for over 15 years.

Sakamoto came up with the idea for Dread in the mid 2000s, following the release of Metroid Fusion, the last “proper” Metroid game. Various leaks (and even an in-game reference) brought the game to the public eye, but it never came to fruition. At a press event after Tuesday’s Nintendo Direct presentation, Sakamoto said this was due to what were then console-related limitations: “The hardware wasn't there, the technological concepts weren't working with our vision. So we had to put it on hold. And then sometime later, we started again, but then we stopped again, for pretty much the same reasons,” Sakamoto explained through a translator.

In fact, when Sakamoto first met with MercurySteam, the Spanish studio that’s developing the new Switch title, he went in with the hope “that they’d be able to realize the concepts I had for Metroid Dread.” Instead, MercurySteam went on to develop 2017’s Metroid: Samus Returns, an expanded remake of Metroid II, with Sakamoto acting as producer. After seeing what the team achieved with Samus Returns, Sakamoto decided he could work together with MercurySteam “towards a singular concept and realize this goal that I had in mind for Metroid Dread.”

The demo at Nintendo’s event was a 20-minute live playthrough of one of the game’s earlier segments. It showcased a number of elements first introduced in Samus Returns. Melee counter-attacks are back, as are free aiming and Aeion abilities that rely on a power gauge. New for Dread is a slide move that’s in Samus’ arsenal from the get-go, and an unlockable “Spider Magnet'' ability for holding onto certain walls.

Metroid Dread
Nintendo

We’ll get into the story later, but Dread takes place after the events of Fusion and has Samus — surprise! — investigating a labyrinthine underground complex, with her ship up on the planet’s surface. Despite the tweaks each Metroid title has brought to the formula, the majority of gameplay is going to be what you expect: exploring, blasting, finding hidden areas, noting places you’ll need to return to once you have the requisite power-up and bumping up against a lot of dead ends.

While gameplay takes place on a flat plane, everything is rendered in 3D. I do miss the old pixel art, but the “2.5D” presentation lends a level of depth, fluidity and detail that just wouldn’t be practical without the modern rendering style. It’s the same basic presentation that debuted with Samus Returns, albeit with a much higher level, increased scene complexity and a smoother framerate. (One thing that unfortunately can’t be improved upon is Samus Returns’ excellent use of the 3DS’ unique stereoscopic display.)

For the next few minutes of Nintendo’s playthrough, Samus fought monsters and solved some basic environmental puzzles by redirecting fuel around the complex in order to create a path forward. Then came a pixelated doorway, and the “dread” began. As soon as Samus walks into one of these areas, she’s stalked by an “Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifier” (EMMI, for short) until leaving. These robots, which so far we’ve seen use noise and sight to hunt, are the main antagonists of Dread, and they’re hellbent on capturing Samus.

Nintendo
Image Credit: Nintendo

The EMMI sequences are striking. The visual and audio design of the game takes a darker tone. Samus’ suit even feels more washed out, as though the color has been drained out of her. The clicks and chirps of the EMMI’s echo location add to the tension, and the robot’s organo-mechanical movement is straight-up unnerving. In one moment, after an EMMI locked onto her, Samus was running away while the machine squeezed its way through a vent beneath her, contorting its body in the process. If the EMMI catches up to Samus, it’s a one-hit-kills situation, although there is a very short window to counter-attack and escape.

Samus, for perhaps the first time, feels powerless. But, of course, she is not. Power-ups have always been a big part of Metroid, and the one ability showcased so far is perfect for evading EMMI. The “Phantom Cloak” makes Samus invisible while slowing her movement to a strut. With it activated, the EMMI cannot detect your presence unless it bumps into you by accident. The catch is that you can’t just cloak up and be safe; activating it depletes your Aeion, and then after that runs out it eats into your health. The only real solution we’ve seen for dealing with EMMI is to run, handle your business and leave the area it resides in as fast as you can.

Metroid Dread
Nintendo

Perhaps because of the heightened threat, Nintendo has emphasized that you’ll be able to quickly return to the action via a liberally distributed checkpoint system. We got a brief look at one of these checkpoints, which had Samus communicating with her ship’s AI, Adam. Nintendo sped through the text as to not spoil things, but the gist seems to be that Adam will offer some light gameplay hints to help you progress, along with some exposition.

Metroid as a series is famously light on dialogue, but Sakamoto says story is an important aspect of Dread. As mentioned, the new game is set after the events of Fusion, which were wild and involve (bear with me) Samus being cured from an X-Parasite infestation with a Metroid DNA “vaccine” before being stalked by SA-X, an X-Parasite clone of herself, who she ends up having to fight. With that in mind, while Dread feels unusually dark, the basic setup of an unrelenting foe is familiar.

Metroid Dread
Nintendo

At the end of Fusion, the universe is apparently rid of both the X-Parasites and Metroids. According to Nintendo’s marketing, though, at some point after that game’s story concludes, signs of X-Parasites are discovered on the planet ZDR, where Dread is set. EMMI robots designed to capture and extract DNA from unknown creatures are then dispatched, but go missing. Then Samus is sent in. Given all this, and especially given the EMMI’s stated purpose, it feels as though the plot must be linked to Samus’ body essentially harboring the only Metroid DNA in the universe. (Quick note: The Metroid Prime series, which it's fair to say is what fans were expecting to hear about this week, is set before Super Metroid and everything that's followed since.)

Even if you’re not interested in the lore surrounding the games, the fresh tone and emphasis on new foes should be encouraging to anyone hoping for more classic Metroid games in the future. “The Metroid story, until this point, has dealt with Samus’ strange fate that’s been intertwined around this being called the Metroid,” Sakamoto explained. “What this game represents is a bit of a pause, or kind of a new start to something else. Nobody wants the Metroid series to end and we don't want that either. But we just want people to know that there is some kind of new episode that is waiting in the works. And we want you to look forward to what we do with that next.”

Metroid Dread will arrive October 8th as a Nintendo Switch exclusive.

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