Metroid’s Genealogy: What Samus Returns Reveals About a Series’ Evolving Design

Just as genes create an infinite number of organisms with only a few components, game series continually adjust their mechanics and structure to keep their designs fresh. Since its first release, the Alien-inspired Metroid series has dealt in biological themes including consumption, growth, and fusion, even when transitioning from 2D sprites to 3D polygons. But evolution is tricky as it risks sabotaging the design’s strengths, and after almost a dozen entries Metroid was in danger of bursting apart. Samus Returns is a remake that attempts to return to the series’ design on a cellular level by synthesizing its side-scrolling gameplay with polygons, reclaiming the genetic heritage that built the series and its heroine.

The Game Boy’s Metroid II: Return of Samus represented the fledgling series in its larval form. Where the NES original gave you a lot of freedom to explore the planet Zebes’ labyrinth, its sequel divided the Metroid homeworld SR388 into sections where players hunted metroids to open the next area. Super Metroid would rework the structure into a guided lock and key progression all subsequent titles would tweak, with Zero Mission perfecting the design in 2D and Metroid Prime brilliantly interpreting it into 3D. Sadly, this legendary gameplay was engineered into a monstrous chimera of automated systems and immersion breaking narrative choices for the disastrous Other M. Nintendo and series lead Yoshio Sakamoto needed to stall Metroid’s uncontrolled growth.

Return of Samus’ has a fascinating place in the series, especially its structure, which allowed the game to feature the metroids far earlier than the end that they had been relegated to in the first game. By dividing SR388 into sections where you can freely hunt metroids, the series was trying to reign in the original’s undirected exploration without sacrificing its freedom, even if the progression between areas seemed arbitrary. Once the path to the next opened, you’d get new biomes and metroids that had merged with the local wildlife, each foreshadowed by a cracked, empty eggshell. As Zero Mission was before, Samus Returns was a chance to add context to the story and so framed the locked progression as the Chozo’s desperate attempt to seal the planet in order to keep the metroids they introduced from growing out of control. The backstory unravels through unlockable flashbacks, effectively revealing the planet’s collected memories. It’s an interesting but not particularly organic way of adding new story without changing the underlying game.

While the Metroid structure had evolved over the franchise’s life, little about the core gameplay had until Other M. The series has always been a shooter at its core, but Other M egregiously automated the combat which gave the computer too much control over Samus. Samus Returns puts the power back in the player’s hands by adding a precision 360 degree aiming mode with the shoulder button. MercurySteam takes advantage of the more precise aiming, especially when fighting the metroids, as nailing their vulnerable underbellies requires accuracy in ways unseen in previous entries. This effectively makes Samus Returns the most robust shooter the series has seen.

While the added control is commendable, Samus’ small initial shot size and the enemy’s small hitbox require quite a bit of precision and a lot of practice. The fact that the aiming mode necessarily plants Samus’ feet means that while the player is lining up their shot, they’re vulnerable to attack. Partially to counter this, Other M’s melee elements were repurposed and assigned to the Y button. While it can be used to knock enemies away, it is primarily for the new counter system; when enemies flash and execute a counterable attack, Samus can stun them for a follow up. While it initially seems out of place, the counter adds a lot of depth to the gameplay and characterizes Samus as a more versatile fighter whose power is fully at the player’s command.

Samus Returns’ gameplay creates a more personal relationship with the gameworld, as it requires players to learn more about every enemy so they can identify the necessary tells and charge times for each of their attacks. Between the melee attacks and precision shooting, the player is connected to Samus and the enemies on a greater level than the previous side-scrolling games had managed.

This is important because Metroid has famously found ways to harmonize the player and world, with Super and Prime best exemplifying it despite breaking it to varying degrees. Samus Returns‘ cinematic interruptions are light compared to Other M, leaving them mostly for small cutscenes. It’s probably best utilized in the special counter sequences against the Metroids and mini-bosses, where successful execution brings the camera in to Samus’ level to fire a volley of missiles at your target’s soft underbelly. These moments are the most impactful beats of the game, increasing the sound effects and ramping up the intensity as you unleash hell on a boss.

Metroid’s famous ability-based progression represents the biological theme that has existed in the series since the beginning, putting Samus through a hyper condensed form of evolution. With every new planet she explores, she aggressively absorbs power from its environment, enemies, and artifacts until she becomes its apex predator, can invincibly blitz through the entire planet as its immune system to purge it of the lifeforce-draining metroids. And deep in the heart of SR388 lies the massive metroid queen, a beast that puts Samus’ abilities to the test.

When the queen falls, Samus finds the last metroid egg whose hatching forever changed the Metroid lore and began Samus’ metamorphosis from orphaned daughter to unlikely mother. With the baby, the original Metroid II: Return of Samus ended promising new life for the series, and after half a dozen titles its reintroduction in Samus Returns may very well be a chance for the 2D series to be reborn in a stable form.

DEVELOPER: MercurySteam
PLATFORM: Nintendo 3DS

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