If Metroid has a central emotion, it’s a claustrophobic anxiety created by its desolate, foreboding atmosphere. The original game used ambient music and otherworldly imagery to choke the player as they descended into the planet Zebes and subsequent titles further explored the sense of anxiety, but it wasn’t until Metroid Fusion that the series characterized the threat, creating a strong foe that stalked Samus Aran and actively pushed the bounty hunter back on her heels. While this SA-X was a great way to mirror Samus’ abilities and turn the classic weapons back at you, its scripted appearance and limited scope left a lot of room for improvement. But with Metroid Dread, the series was finally able to make a fully reactive A.I. that nimbly navigates the environment to stalk Samus, instilling a gripping paranoia into the gameplay unlike it had seen before.
After a dozen games, the series formula had Samus’ ship land on an otherwise dead planet’s surface and the player would start their descent into the unknown, every step one further away from the comfortable. The ship is the closest thing to a home base the series has, replenishing all health and items and letting players save. Dread wisely disrupts the formula by starting the player far into the planet ZDR’s depths with the single goal of reaching their ship, leaving them alone and vulnerable to right from the beginning.
From its inception, Metroid has dealt in biological themes and while Fusion represented a turning point in its design, it isn’t recognized enough for the change in its sci-f horror film inspiration. If the first three games were primarily inspired by Ridley Scott’s Alien, then the fourth was influenced by John Carpenter’s The Thing, and each deals with biological horror and anxiety in different ways- where Alien is about implantation and a fear of threats stalking you from the shadows, The Thing’s terror comes from mimicry and assimilation that twists known, comfortable scenarios into paranoia infused nightmares. Though not a horror game, Metroid Dread combines ideas from these sources to maintain gameplay tension.
Metroid was so inspired by Alien that elements have been integrated into the game from the top-down, from the head-covering metroids to the pterodactyl boss Ridley and the isolating Geiger-esque organic environments, but it hadn’t fully managed to capture the terror of its iconic alien species until now. With the robotic EMMIs, Samus must be aware of her surroundings to sneak through terrain as the crawling predators can appear from any duct, use alternate paths to cut off her escape, and pin her down to suck the freshly integrated metroid DNA from her bones with their beak-like probes. For all intents and purposes, these are Alien’s Xenomorphs, and each of the seven feature different abilities to capture Samus the moment she enters their domain, their presence betrayed by the haunting clicking, vision cones, and sonar location. Like the SA-X, the EMMIs mirror Samus’ in many ways, their abilities leaving her no quarter to hide and their strength no option but run. They are regularly at your heels.
Map design has always been a big part of these games and the EMMIs abilities make it even more important. While the larger planet’s labyrinthine layout is crucial for the item-based progression, the smaller local maps need to offer options for the player on the go, even if it’s just offering a small platform above the player that can be climbed from the left or right. In a normal fight, this allows the player to choose the angle they want to approach an enemy, but with a foe that can pursue you, the choice becomes about which way to divert or trap them. The ability to make quick changes to your route while on the move is important for an area you already know, but it becomes crucial when an invincible robot is chasing you through unfamiliar rooms. Even when you can see an EMMI scurrying to flank you, you are rarely trapped in a corner with no way out.
The EMMI’s increased speed and stamina required upgrading Samus to stand a fighting chance, and Dread further expanded Samus Returns’ efforts to make Metroid a premier shooter franchise. In addition to refining the 360 degree aiming and counter mechanics from their Metroid II remake, MercurySteam added a new slide mechanic to keep traversal cruising along. They also provided the new phase shift ability to dash multiple times around a room, perfect for repositioning. These moves and abilities like the multi-rocket homing missiles create a more robust shooter that lets Metroid stand on equal footing to Nobuya Nakazato’s Contra games, if even a bit taller.
The foreboding atmosphere has always been aided by the strong environmental design, how it alternates between untamed natural wilderness and the abandoned cultural and technical artifacts, begging us to understand why the civilization died. Like other planets in the Metroid universe, ZDR’s molten blast furnaces power the advanced science facilities running experiments led by the governmental region, now all left in ruin. Samus systematically reawakens the environment bit by bit, clearing out the ghosts that haunt it by reactivating machinery and clearing wreckage to open closed paths and progress deeper. Of course, bringing the world back to life relieves the game’s tension until it risks being defeated completely.
At the game’s act two flip, Dread flips ZDN on its head by unleashing the X parasites throughout the map. In Metroid Fusion, these enemies mimicked others from throughout the series, and upon entering a room the gelatinous blobs float into place and transforms into a unit be it a standard movable enemy, a wall climbing turret, or flyer. This species changed up the gameplay in several ways, including that upon defeat would resume its blob form- if you quickly absorb it, you would get a health or item pickup but if it got away it could rematerialize as a fresh new enemy. These creatures replication is very reminiscent of Carpenter’s The Thing, including how they have all the behaviors and characteristics of the original.
As great as these enemies were in theory, technological limitations kept them from fully living up to their potential but the Switch’s improved performance further builds out their gameplay by making multiple versions of almost every enemy type in the game with enhanced stats and behavior. With this, a simple enemy can combine with an X to create an upgraded version that’s faster and more dangerous. In Dread, a destroyed enemy won’t just rematerialize if you aren’t quick enough to snag it but becomes an even bigger threat. It is a really wonderful, elegant design with a lot of gameplay potential that thinks about enemy design in ways no other game really does.
The mid act two flip is a pivotal place to introduce a world-upturning element like the X. As Metroid is made to make you feel anxious while simultaneously making you stronger through the acquisition of new items and abilities, all tension fades away, so the game must find a way to revitalize its central emotion and keep the anxiety up. The X transforms a world that you have come to know, have dispatched hundreds of enemies in, turning into an uncertain one that remains dangerous even after you know what awaits you.
Metroid’s buildup of tension would be meaningless without catharsis at the end, and the series formula has always offered satisfying release. After what may be the best boss battle of the series, a fast, brutal fight that requires every bit of skill you have developed, Samus’ end game blitz through the exploding ZDR awakens new powers and unloads energy beams, decimating all foes and melting walls, rending open a path to her shuttle. By adding smart design to a classic structure, Metroid Dread expertly knows how to create anxiety and how to let you cut right through it.
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.