It's 2021 and Nintendo, plus developer MercurySteam, has dropped a Game of the Year contender with a 2D, side-scrolling offering from the legendary Metroid series.
That's stunning for a number of reasons. Most prominently, this is Samus Aran's first brand-new entry in the side-scrolling scene since Metroid Fusion in 2002. It's also the narrative sequel to that classic. Metroid as a series has offered up spinoffs, remakes and even the beloved, first-person Metroid Prime series since, but never a unique release in a genre it helped pioneer.
Until now. Dread doesn't pull any punches in this long-awaited return, leaning heavily into its classical roots—both in gameplay and immersion categories—and offers some bold, modernized twists to keep things engaging.
The result is a must-play experience that stands tall not only among the best the Nintendo Switch library has to offer, but near the top of one of gaming's most iconic properties.
Graphics and Gameplay
It has been a long, long time since players have been able to get lost in a brand-new Metroid experience.
Series veterans know what to expect. Arguably no game franchise has ever done a better job of setting a mood. The soundtrack, ambient noise and sheer loneliness Samus confronts on alien worlds has always been downright stunning, whether it was in a 2D classic on older consoles or handhelds, or even from the first-person perspective of the Prime trilogy on GameCube.
So here? It's a blessing, in many ways, that Dread got stuck in developmental purgatory for so long. The primary one is the sense of immersion players get from a Metroid game that leans fully into the sheer horsepower the Switch provides while the game gets ballooned up onto a big-screen television.
This is indeed a lonely, vulnerable jaunt for Samus. She and players travel across varied, gorgeous locales while fully rendered backgrounds provide a sense of stunning scope. Wildlife will dart around Samus and the background in some nature-esque areas, while even the more boring industrial side of the story features stunning-looking elements, such as an industrial fan slowly spinning, casting repeated shadows.
That lighting and shadow work atop all of the major attention to detail makes for a stunning feast for the eyes. Metroid has always asked the player to pay close attention to get the full story, and each setting tells more than any pickup-and-react collectibles could.
As always, one of the crowning features of an immersive Metroid experience is the world-class sound design. The music is as engrossing as it gets to match the theme of each area, and each of Samus' moves and that of her enemies is distinct, which both just sounds good and also helps players pull off important timing. Sound cues let players know when it's time to duke it out with a boss, or even when it's time to tuck tail and run or hide.
The blend of cutscenes into the experience is a feat too. Samus will literally slide below a barrier and right into a cutscene, and in the process of most scenes, players will even get a look through her eyes and helmet from the first-person perspective. These scenes that illustrate the threats so well, plus the overarching scope of the world she's stuck on, indeed make both her and the player feel very small.
Not that Samus is without ways to fight back.
When it comes to controls, in a way, the king is back. Ori and the Blind Forest, Hollow Knight, all of those modern classics feel great. But Dread is on an entirely different level when it comes to controls. The fluidity, responsiveness and sheer smoothness of every little input is truly something to behold.
Samus is once again at her most agile and lethal even without many power-ups to her suits. Players can employ dodges, counters, charge attacks, feints and jumps to great effect while reading and reacting—or getting proactive—against the variety of enemies she confronts.
Exploration is once again the key element to it all thanks to some of the best level design players will see in gaming. Dread, like any Metroid game, doesn't hold the player's hand. It's pretty clear where Samus is capable of going based on level layout and the running list of upgrades to her suit. But this is a hard game in this sense too—there aren't clues, tips or flashing icons to show players where to go.
This might turn some players off. But studying a superbly done map, thinking of what upgrades Samus has and eventually figuring out what to do (or stumbling into one of the many hidden upgrades through the game) is extremely rewarding.
Before long, players won't just be sliding, grabbing onto ledges and wall-jumping—they'll be sticking to walls, reaching movable platforms, utilizing stealth mechanics, charging weapons while spinning, jumping more than once and braving rough environments that harm her base suit, to name a few of the evolving gameplay mechanics.
This being a modern Metroid, Samus doles out punishment with her base weapon and missiles, plus a counterattack and a few other goodies to a variety of enemies that all require learning first, then precision of execution second. Free-aiming anywhere in a room and utilizing all of these abilities can be tough from a controls standpoint at first, but it becomes second nature before what feels like a tutorial ends.
Combat does go an interesting direction this time out in that properly countering an enemy's attack actually rewards more health than traditionally defeating it would. That's a big, fun incentive to stay locked in at all times instead of treating every enemy like it's a trash mob.
Players who were lucky enough to experience classics like Metroid Fusion back in the day will be thrilled (or maybe not) with the EMMI robots gameplay mechanic. It's somewhat stealth, just like running or outright hiding from enemies like a clone of Samus in past games that creates a sweaty-palmed tension immediately.
This is, though, where the game's primary frustration surfaces. If Samus gets detected and caught by one of these EMMI robots, she has one, maybe two chances to properly counter the attack before it's an instant game over, no questions or protests possible.
On one hand, that provides some serious tensions (alongside the amazing presentation) to these "EMMI zones" found throughout the world. The actual timing of the counter is nearly impossible to get right. After the first one, the game asks more and more of the player to actually kill one of these things too, making for a miniboss of sorts.
If there's a silver lining, it's that the game is pretty fair with its behind-the-scenes checkpoint system. And once Samus overcomes the EMMI bot in a given zone, that's it and players are free to explore the area.
And it wouldn't be Metroid without big bosses, too. These are multistage fights that ask the player to learn each step, and indeed, it can be frustrating to start back over at the beginning of a fight upon death. But they're otherwise fun, memorable and oh-so-Metroid.
In that sense, Metroid is probably one of the most difficult games on the Switch from Nintendo's heavy hitters. But the immersion, precision and sense of actual achievement when advancing further is nearly unparalleled.
Story and More
Narratively speaking, Dread is a direct sequel to Fusion. Samus discovers an uncharted planet dubbed ZDR has some remnants of X Parasite that she needs to wipe out and—bad news—the androids that went there first are nonresponsive.
Immediately, Dread dips right back into the tried-and-true well—Samus isn't a badass anymore from the minute her boots hit the ground. Instead, her mission is to simply survive and escape while being terribly overmatched. In a flip on the usual, though, she's deep down in the muck and trying desperately to dig her way back out to topside to reach her ship, not the other way around like in past games.
No spoilers, but this is a very rare Metroid mainline entry game (the Prime trilogy was even a spinoff, for example). And let's just say there's one moment in here that will go down as iconic for the series and, more importantly, Samus.
If there's a complaint about the narrative, it's that it comes from all over the place. Metroid has been around since the mid-'80s, and over that span, manga, games and tons of spinoffs have muddied things. It's almost a little disappointing robots feature so prominently as an enemy, and the big bad will feel random if players haven't kept up with (or deeply refreshed on) every little piece of lore.
Still, the narrative meshes with the game pacing incredibly well, as usual for the series. There's actually an escalation of both the plot and number of unlocks in the game's second half that will take even series veterans by surprise—in a good way.
Actual exploration and trying to 100 percent this game is going to be as challenging and rewarding as any Metroid in the past. The secrets tucked into each level and the stunning unfurling of hiding things behind backtracking once Samus has unlocked a new ability is exquisite.
In a testament to just how good the level design and hidden collectives are, veteran players can even use some techs like bomb jumping to reach collectibles they wouldn't normally be able to reach given the game's intended progression path—and it's nothing if not incredibly rewarding for fans of the series.
This sort of exploration and combing over everything closely to 100 percent the game (or just get that one missile pack that will give Samus enough firepower to overcome a boss) harkens back to the glory days of plopping down with a physical strategy guide and trying to do the same, whether it was on the NES or all the way up to the GameCube days.
Assisting the immersion and rewarding feeling of exploration and secrets is a very well-done map in the pause menu. It's highly informative, everything has a distinct label, the legend is a breeze to use and zooming close enough might just help players really figure out where to go next.
From a technical standpoint, Dread's getting delayed until the Switch existed is just another positive. The action here is lightning-fast and requires precision, yet the game appears to hardly ever drop any frames in docked or handheld mode. The game runs at 60 frames per second, which is what manages to help this entry feel so much better than any before it.
Metroid has enjoyed a robust speedrunning scene since the mid-'80s for good reason.
The games aren't built strictly for speedrunning, but they bring out the best that hobby has to offer. It's a sheer showcase of skill to memorize even 2D layouts like this before blitzing through it skillfully while collecting minimal missile and health expansions.
To this day, the original Metroid Prime (2002) has world-record runs posted one month ago as of this writing. Fusion isn't that far behind either. It speaks to just how wild these runs can get that both world records stunningly hover around the one-hour mark.
Granted, some of that comes from big skips, glitches and the like. There are already some of those floating around for Dread. But many of the usual speedrunning staples persist, too. Things like skipping dialogue and cutscenes, memorizing the necessary path of progression and boss fights and even understanding what enemies to actually engage play a big role in good final times.
With Dread, even early on, skipping as many fights as possible is the easiest way to get through quickly. Sounds simple and is—no resource expenditure in the first place means no additional fights in an effort to pick up extra health missiles. Future runs will probably get fast enough that runners will skip things like health and save stations.
In many ways, the skills and approach necessary to speedrun Dread doesn't change compared to prior releases. The fact it's even here, though, will revive and/or prolong one of the healthiest, most enjoyable speedrunning scenes out there.
Metroid Dread is a feat not often seen in gaming. It takes a beloved franchise, deeply understands what makes it tick and resonate so deeply with players, replicates and improves on it in numerous ways on hardware the series has yet to grace—while matching the hype of a narrative thread not tugged for nearly two decades.
It speaks to the legendary Metroid formula that new players experiencing the series for the first time will likely get engrossed with what Dread presents and have a blast. Likely, they'll turn around and look for other similar 2D entries from the past that still hold up incredibly well. That formula, plus a brilliant job by MercurySteam, assures Dread undoubtedly has the same legs to it that Fusion still does.
Dread won't stop players dying to get their hands on a modern Prime first-person entry (or even remakes of the original three) from yearning so. But it's one hell of a way to hold them over and a guaranteed major sigh of relief that the Metroid series has finally received the love and care it deserves.
It sure doesn't hurt that the Switch hardware, as any Metroid fan could have predicted, is the perfect home for such a title. Whether on the go or blown up on a big screen, Dread is a modern classic of an experience and deserves every shred of praise it will undoubtedly earn in the months and years to come.