Robot design tends to fall into one of two camps. In the first, they look like us; in the second, they look like tools, their bodies molded toward a particular function. And like tools, this second camp of robots—the smartphones of the robot universe—have tended to look very similar and require some thought on the part of their designer to elevate their personalities above that of a can opener. Metroid Dread on the Nintendo Switch doesn’t escape this trap: It’s a fine and frightening game held back by its boring robot villains.
Metroid is one of the most venerable and acclaimed series on Nintendo’s roster. The games follow Samus Aran—best identified by her iconic, bulbous orange spacesuit—the bounty hunter who rarely seems to collect her bounties. It all began in 2D, with Metroid, released in 1986 on the Nintendo Entertainment System. This, and later sequels like Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion, created their own genre, known as Metroidvania, a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania games, which mix Mario’s platforming with Zelda’s go-anywhere exploration. (Samsus’ adventures usually take place on vast, abandoned planets). In recent years, the series Ori and Hollow Knight have shown that the genre is far from an anachronism, but the 3D versions of Metroid, which take place from behind Samus’ visor, have overshadowed their 2D counterparts. Because Metroid Prime 4 was delayed after Nintendo controversially halted a project by Bandai Namco back in 2019, Metroid Dread’s release, the first new 2D Metroid in 16 years, feels like an attempt to pacify frustrated fans.
This story follows the events of Metroid Fusion. In that game, a parasite known as the X steals Samus’ powers and reconstitutes itself as her soulless and deadly doppelgänger. Samus eventually triumphs over this double, believing she has wiped out the X parasites in the process. Unfortunately for the universe, Metroid Dread opens with a video transmission from an unknown planet showing the globular parasite floating free. Samus pulls up in her spaceship and immediately gets wrecked by a Chozo, a member of an ancient, technologically advanced civilization of birdlike creatures that have left ruins across the galaxy. When Samus awakens, she has “physical amnesia”—yes, as usual, you’ve been stripped of most of your abilities. Your mission just got a lot harder.
Metroid‘s aesthetic has walked a fine line between cartoonish—to attract Nintendo’s younger audience—and a moodier, gothic brand of sci-fi. It has been strongest when it leans toward the latter, and Dread is no different. The game is beautiful when it’s creepy: Blue glass tunnels split whirling lava plumes; abandoned alien temples nestle under purple leaves; shimmering white light pours through uselessly spinning air vents. The 2D perspective lets developer MercuryStream do some incredible work in the background, and these vistas hold up to scrutiny during the occasional jump to a 3D perspective.
Gameplay is classic Metroidvania, honed to perfection. Samus retains her blaster, firing little balls of light when you hammer Y. This blaster, along with letting her vaporize any projectile-firing wildlife that patrol, goomba-like, along the walls and ceilings of the space station, also opens doors. Because Metroidvania games are all about doors. They are dollhouses of locked rooms that only new skills can open: The Spider Magnet lets you scale glowing blue walls; an invisibility cloak lets you creep past CCTV-operated hatches. The key to these games is that they constantly require you to double back on yourself to progress—and, for the completionists among us, to get all those sweet energy tanks and missile power-ups. Great Metroidvania titles have always provided master classes in game design: The player feels that their exploration is autonomous; in reality, they are the designer’s unwitting puppets.