Metroid Dread — Dreadful Culmination
Eleven games (and one tech demo) later, the only title left in my previously towering pile is Metroid Dread. However, in true academic form, I think a good summary and hypothesis is in order before diving into the final culmination of this project.
Out of the gate, my one universal complaint throughout all the games, one singular element kept jumping out at me as strange, even once I put them all in chronological order: why does Samus start every adventure grossly depowered? Like, Super Metroid takes place pretty much right after Metroid II, but Samus has forfeited her Varia Suit, has no Energy Tanks, no Missiles, even her Morph Ball is inactive. Even the titles like Prime and Echoes, where Samus thematically loses her powers in-game, she’s still coming in way below where she ended the last adventure at. Where do her upgrades go? Does someone take them? Does she keep donating them to the Galactic Federation for some reason? Make no mistake: I will play Metroid until I die, but as long as that keeps being an element of the experience, I will always give it the suspicious side-eye.
What did we learn, class?
First: missiles are not to be hoarded. Like Final Fantasy’s X-Potions and Elixirs, they do no good just sitting in the inventory. Especially in the early parts of the game, they are a lifesaver, and should be peppered into the faces of enemies liberally. Besides, a main element of the games is finding tanks to carry more missiles. Let them fly!
Secondly: in-game maps are to games as sliced bread is to the culinary world. That is to say, the best thing since. In games as large as the Metroid titles can be, with how easy it can be to get turned around, it is a genuine wonder to me how anyone played the games before their inception.
Thirdly: even the more exploration-heavy titles rely on an element of momentum. The momentum carries the game, but the exploration defines it. Too much exploration, and players are just nitpicking pixels and geometry. Too much momentum, and they reach the end without having savored the journey. All Metroid games have this dichotomy. Some are more defined by one side over the other, some marry the two together effectively, but they all have it.
Fourthly: “show, don’t tell” does have its place in the storytelling world, and Metroid excels at that particular style. The number of times I’ve been glued to my screen on gameplay sequences, setpieces, and sections of music alone, without a single spoken or written word around…far more frequent than I thought it would be.
Lastly: it’s not simply a matter of digging and digging to find buried treasure, but knowing where and how to dig that yields the best results. Same principle can be applied in damn near any situation in life: it’s not a matter of brute force, but of method and approach. Still, though, if you have the situational equivalent of a Power Bomb, might as well give it a shot.
What have I done with a BA in English?
Finally: everything rolled up into one collective experience, what is the Metroid series about? Not just the plot elements of “parasitic lifeform is bad, stop them and the ones controlling them,” but what is Metroid about? For me, it was, and is, many things all at once:
Just looking at Samus’s Power Suit and its history, it’s a story of the old ways and the new coexisting together. Metroid is about tradition and technology in harmony, not vying to fully replace on or the other.
It’s a story of nature and nurture, of how a creature assumed to be destructive by nature, and a creature who is made destructive by nurture, can both find each other and find a middle ground, if for no one else than each other.
It’s a story of working for the greater good without question, but constantly challenging those in power. Those in positions of power may lean towards the greater good, but no organization is universal. Despite their actions and campaigns to do good in the galaxy, Samus calls out, disagrees with, and actively works against the Galactic Federation when its actions, small or large-scale, do not align with the assured safety of civilization. She never lets the fact that they are in-power keep her from holding them accountable, or taking matters into her own hands when necessary.
It is a story of hubris and redemption…of thinking the stars are there for you to rearrange, only for them to crash down upon you. A story of subsequently creating something to ensure that others need not suffer for your mistakes and transgressions, even if you aren’t there to witness it.
The story of Metroid is a story of opposites in constant coexistence, of balance. More than anything, Metroid has been the story of being the most powerful person in the room, on the planet, maybe in the entire galaxy, and still choosing to be vulnerable. Even in the face of so much destruction, and potential for destruction, it is about choosing to believe in, and being, something better. No matter how heavy the armor is, no matter how alien the circumstances are, it is about still choosing to be human.
So, what can we possibly expect going into this new adventure? Probably more of the usual: multiple areas, expansion tanks hidden all over, and familiar (and maybe some new) upgrades to Samus’s arsenal. My guess is that there will be some kind of rival or nemesis character, with how much they’ve leaned into that with the series so far.
I expect it’ll be combat-heavy, too. Seems the titles have been leaning into that more, but I can also see them leaning hard into the atmospheric tension and sense of foreboding (you don’t choose a title like “Dread” lightly). So maybe a balance of both of those.
I also expect a challenge. It seems like the games have also gotten harder in the more recent installments, but whether that difficulty manifests in merciful checkpoints or brutal calls for survival…that’s up in the air.
Definitely more story elements, more plot, more backstory; Dread is officially back on the main series chronology, taking place after Fusion, so we’ve got some progress to make. I think we’re going to keep getting a silent Samus, too. Other M may have been the only time we’d get such an openly vocal Samus, but aside brief stints in Fusion, death screams, and grunts of pain, she’s been silent otherwise. Still, I hope she gets more time to shine narratively, whether through dialogue or otherwise.
It’s hard to really nail down what I expect in a new installment. The games have all been so wildly different in their own ways, from tone, to mechanics, to storytelling…but aside from my sure bets, I’ll be excited to see how the other elements pan out.
Lastly, it’s not an expectation, but a hope. I hope that Dread is, subjectively speaking, good. The only games I didn’t enjoy were the very first installment (30 health is a joke), the combat-centric handheld game (good theory, lackluster execution), and the flagship Wii title (detracting waggle mechanics can shove it). Since Dread isn’t in 3D, don’t have to worry about the latter, and the series has literally been improving ever since the original title came out. I’m optimistic.
The short version: Metroid Dread is exactly what I was hoping for, and then more. Fulfilling both on a gameplay end and narrative end. Challenging, despite having played almost every other title in preparation. An excellent addition to both the Metroid series and its main chronology.
The one downside I could zero in on (which I’m starting to think is just a personal problem) was that, sometimes, it was easy to get turned around and off-track. Sometimes, I would assume that a small hazard would lead to a larger, more insurmountable hazard, and so avoided the path. Others, I would simply miss the next passageway because it was hidden, and I didn’t think to start blasting all over to find a secret route. To Dread’s credit, this was not a frequent occurrence; I can count on one hand how many times I found myself properly lost and turned around, needing to look up directions to keep my momentum going. Additionally, the levels are so well-designed that, even in the times I fell off-track, I was limited in where I could go, due to a lack of necessary upgrades. Dread was excellent at softlocking me onto the path I needed to be on, even if I couldn’t see the path right away.
But that segues into what Dread does, not just well, but phenomenally: momentum. When Dread works as it’s designed, Samus feels more agile and acrobatic than ever before, zipping across rooms and hallways. Doesn’t matter if she’s fully kitted-out at the endgame, or the start with next-to-nothing to her name, she can move. That’s just the small scale, room-to-room, encounter-to-encounter. On a larger scale, the momentum still holds: players are (gently) guided on a path to their next major battle or upgrade (or both) for, what feels like, most of the game. Gone are Fusion’s objective markers and Adam, Samus’s ship computer, telling her where to go next…rather, players are given one objective marker at the start of the game for their primary objective, but it’s far more symbolic than it is functional. Navigation Rooms serve as general story beats and updates, not waypoints and objective feeds. They serve to keep the narrative momentum going between larger story beats, while the map and level design serve to encourage long-form gameplay momentum.
And for those moments when momentum might falter for just a moment, Dread gives players the single best map Metroid has used to date. Players can highlight like-icons all across an area map; pulsing glows give an indication that there’s an expansion somewhere, but leaves the discovering up to players; players can zoom in for more detail, or out for more a more general view of an area. The map is the perfect tool for players who just got a new toy and are curious where to put it to use, or for the player who’s struggling in a boss fight and feels the need to beef up on expansions a bit. It is genuinely a culmination of everything that has worked in Metroid before, and the most effective elements of similar games’ maps.
Regarding my myriad predictions: multiple areas? Yes, abundantly so, and all littered with environmental storytelling and unique, graphical beauty.
Expansion tanks? Yes, but better than I imagined. Even though the map is as detailed as it is, it only points players in the right direction. It’s still a challenge for players to actually find the expansions and, in some cases, collect them. Snagging all the tanks will require ingenuity, skills, reflexes, or just having the right upgrades, sometimes in combination, sometimes all at once. It can be a collectathon if players choose it to be. Rarely have I found such a collectathon that I enjoyed being on, whether in a Metroid title or games in general.
Next, Samus’s arsenal, both familiar and new. Dread handles the arsenal wonderfully, both in terms of the returning elements (plus their new and varied uses) and new upgrades that neither Samus nor players have experienced before, familiar though some may seem. To say that the developers bucked tradition right out of the gate regarding upgrades would be an understatement; the ones that remain, the order in which they are discovered, was a system shock. But in this strange new world, nineteen years after the last chronological entry, it works in a way I wasn’t expecting. By bucking tradition, the developers do what no other Metroid game that I’ve played has done: throw me for a loop in the first hours of play, and engage me faster and more fully than any other title.
While Dark Samus or the SA-X don’t make a shoehorned return in Dread, developers clearly considered and thought about some kind of nemesis to include. The central (and heavily-advertised) E.M.M.I. robots are the answer to that, leaning into the best elements of anticipation, anxiety, and panic that the SA-X would illicit, plus their more frequent occurrences and conflicts as Dark Samus brought about. The perfect use of the E.M.M.I. robots is that there are multiple of them, allowing players to encounter them throughout the game’s many areas, and subsequently overcome them one-by-one. Dread took the best elements of nemeses past and distilled them into a perfect set of threats for Samus to contend with.
Next, the balance of combat and tension. Dread nails it, with the aforementioned E.M.M.I. encounters providing an evasive tension, and the scaling enemy encounters & bosses providing the combat tension. The Melee Counter feature from Samus Returns makes a comeback, and with it the attack-parry-attack cycle that was gaining steam from the last installment, now with more cinematic angles! Depending on where in the map players travel, they will have to shift between a sneakier, subtle approach to a reflexive, full-auto approach, and they will always know when the shift is coming, thanks to unique thresholds they pass through. It truly wasn’t until the endgame that the tension largely waned. It picked up again at the end, but especially for a Metroid game, that’s pretty powerful to keep its hold that long.
The game earns its tension: even after playing through so many different Metroid titles from across the generations, Dread was difficult. The enemies felt like they hit harder, Samus could endure less, and the chance to successfully counter kept getting shorter and shorter. Bosses were gauntlets of pattern recognition, game-based skill, and pure reflex. Having enough Energy to outlast something won’t be enough, players are constantly on the move, no matter what size enemy they’re contending with. It felt like the game was scaling enemies with both player skill and an assumed amount of expansions, constantly riding a knife’s edge of resources acquired and challenge presented. For the first time in my run-throughs, I felt inclined and excited to stock up during the endgame open-up (when all the world becomes accessible), just because of how hard things had proven to be. It is, assuredly, a different kind of difficulty than Metroid has attempted in the past, but it works beautifully and makes every victory that much sweeter.
Narratively, Dread is a bit of a wild card, combining a number of elements from across the series. The more direct element of Adam conveying updates and beats is there, like in Fusion. Some information is conveyed through cutscenes, a la Other M (but done with infinitely less dialogue and exposition). But more than either of its inspirations, Dread tells a unique story in a unique genre for the series: a mystery. Players are hit with an enigma right out of the gate, and on the journey to complete the primary objective, whittle away piece by piece at the larger mystery on their way through a mysterious new world. It isn’t a fully in-game, wordless story like Super Metroid; it isn’t a descent into the underworld that either iteration of Metroid II is; it isn’t an origin story like Metroid; and it isn’t the (comparably) introspective journey that Fusion is. Dread pulls inspiration from each title, but in the end, tells its own story in its own way. And let’s just leave it at the traditional Silent Samus making a triumphant return from her time in Super Metroid; no Fusion-esque introspections, nor Other M-esque emotional deep-dives. This is the traditional silent protagonist we grew to know and love.
Lastly, to its full credit, Metroid Dread explains Samus’s depowered state out of the gate. Is it a bit hand-wavey? Maybe. Is it an explanation regardless? It certainly is. Color me satisfied.
Predictions aside, Metroid Dread takes great pride in bucking tradition literally out of the gate. Players have spent however long playing Metroid games, getting into a rhythm no matter how different the games might be. Then Dread spits in your face and tells you to sit down, they’re in charge now. And it’s wonderful. I didn’t realize how effective trying something different would be until it happened, until I realized how I took so many different elements of the Metroid equation for granted. From general progress being thrown for a loop, to the new emphasis on evasion, to how the story itself is told, to the story itself, Dread sets itself far aside from its predecessors in the best way possible. There are still all the elements to make it a Metroid game, but Dread was not content to ride on the laurels of the series. It has remade itself, and potentially remade the series going forward.
That slides into the last point I have, looking at my time with Dread: the themes. Where Dread hits the best is the balance between old and new. Gameplay-wise, there are the aforementioned elements of Metroid: upgrades, expansions, exploration, environmental storytelling…the old. Then there’s new upgrades, the order players find them, the combat-emphasis, the more direct storytelling…the new. Narratively, there is the stagesetting done by previous games in the series, familiar elements making a return…the old. Then there are previously-held expectations being turned on their head, venturing into the entirely unknown…the new. Old upgrades and new upgrades. Old story beats and new ripples. Old lore and new information. Old formulas and new ways of tackling them. Old series. New chapter.
That’s the best way to look at Metroid as a series: as old and new coexisting perfectly with one another. Every installment builds on the last, reinvigorating the formula as the world changes around it, as games change. Every Metroid leans on the tried-and-true formula that the original Metroid started, but experiments, tries new ways to play out the formula. Some of them build on the original foundation, giving players the opportunity to crouch, expanding a secondary arsenal, changing how the story is told, or including an in-game map. Some try to change up the expectations entirely: changing the perspective to first-person, giving a voiceless character hundreds of spoken lines, emphasizing combat and parries, improving the map.
From my favorite titles, to the ones I don’t overtly enjoy, but appreciate all the same, that’s what I love about Metroid: you might have an idea of what to expect from old impressions, but you can bet there’s going to be something experimental and new to give new life to the series over and over again.
See You Next Mission. Can’t wait to see how they revolutionize Metroid 6 in 2040.