The recipe for a Metroid game is clear and concise: there’s a labyrinthine system of rooms and corridors, an oppressive science-fiction environment, an escalating series of power-ups. A good-feeling gun. A great-feeling jump. A limited map you unlock gradually and rewardingly. Metroid Dread is proficient at all of this: it feels good to play, for a while. But I found that it got tiresome. There is little to hold the player in the world beyond the feeling of a perfectly executed attack or dodge. In the 20 years since we last saw bounty hunter Samus Aran run around in one of these 2D space stations, there have been several indie games modelled on the Metroid format – such as Iconoclasts, and Hollow Knight – that offer far more atmosphere, depth and life than Dread’s slickly predictable tunnels.
Metroid Dread is a game about trying not to die alone in a cave system full of hostile fauna and predatory machines that are invested in hunting you down. This is pretty much all the storytelling you’re handed, outside of some panels of text and short and awkwardly placed cut-scenes at the start of the game that establish us in Samus Aran’s timeline. She will encounter old enemies, and some new ones; this planet has no allies for the player. She begins her quest all but totally disempowered, her suit deconstructed, and we lead her towards the surface, regaining her abilities along the way. This game does not offer much of a guiding hand, and the challenge is tough.
The game should feel more inhospitable, given that Samus is alone and hunted, but instead, it doesn’t feel like much at all. The graphical shine works against the already feeble world building: it’s not spooky, it’s not claustrophobic. I rarely experienced much dread. Even being stalked by rogue war robots, at first a terrifying experience, becomes frustrating instead: nothing about them conjures menace. They get slightly more difficult to avoid, the power-ups that you receive from them get more interesting, but there was no excitement had along the way. This game is not short, and the repetition becomes apparent, and grating, very quickly.
Dread will be rewarding and satisfying to many long-time players of Metroid, who have fond memories of Samus’ older adventures: objectively, it feels good to play. For newcomers who may arrive here with different expectations, it may be a challenge to stay invested. If you are coming to Metroid after playing the many indie games that have been inspired by it, know that while the recipe here is the same, there is a different, simpler, bolder flavour. There are few details that give a sense of a lived or troubled world, or that give Samus some depth as a voyager, immune to the creatures she is sent to investigate, a lone emissary on a malign planet.
Perhaps I am asking too much. We don’t pry for depth from Mario as he rescues his princess, or ask what motivates Tom Nook in his real estate empire. Like pretty much all Nintendo’s games, with their long legacies and perfect jumps, this feel good to play, and that should be enough: but I don’t come to a Nintendo title for enough. I left Dread feeling that perhaps the real legacy of 2D Metroid will be the games it inspires, rather than the games themselves.