Even my henchmen think I'm crazy.
Usually, any new Metroid game is something that causes an uproar, since the series can take generation-long breaks here and there. When Samus returns, she is usually followed by bedlam within the fandom for whatever the reason of the day is - 2D to 3D gameplay, perspective shifts, different development teams taking charge, very different styles of games, etc.
But when Samus Returns was announced, it was not with a bang, nor a whimper, but in a shadow. Prime 4 and its title placard got the love at E3, while the latest 2D offering was a post-Direct activity, one quite a few people seemed to sour on once they found out the game was being made by Mercury Steam. So here we are. Everyone wanted a new 2D Metroid, but no one seems to care, due to its supposed lack of development pedigree and because it is launching on a console that is past its prime years.
I just sunk 16 hours into Samus Returns. Was it worth it?
I. A fusion of old and new
The big ticket gameplay items are the melee counter and 360 aiming. Might as well get this out of the way: yes, it effects pacing. You absolutely can play this game quickly (the window for the counter is fairly wide, and you can do it in mid-air), but you are rewarded for being a bit more methodical. Once you unlock the wave beam, you're always going to have the temptation to shoot enemies fluttering at the corner of your screen (more on that later). This roots you to a spot on the ground, meaning turret aiming is back, and you'll be doing it more than ever. Eventually, once you get a feel for the mechanics, it turns into a bit more of a dance. Precise aim, then counter another enemy, then jump over the little spiky ball bastard rolling your way. All done with the circle pad, too, which got me a little sore in the early hours. D-pad movement in a 2D game is a thing of beauty to me. However, I think they made the right call here - again, because you are rewarded for that 360 aiming.
Still, by the time I got to about the 5th area of SR388? I was pretty much playing this like an older Metroid. A wider, more powerful beam and the space jump conspire to nudge the pacing to a twitchier, arcade-y feel. It's still not as fast as Super, but it does feel like the next logical step in the GBA-style of 'Troid. Which pretty much goes for the whole game.
The other big new addition are four Aeion abilities. If you've been on a blackout, I won't spoil them for you, but I will say that I wish they were used here a lot more. You can show off with them whenever you want, but there is so much more that could have been done with them. The entire game could have been built around them in the way that the rune abilities were integrated into Breath of the Wild. Perhaps that's for the next Metroid. One hopes.
"Ewww, it's Mercury Steam!" That seemed to be the main takeaway most people got from Samus Returns' reveal. The staff credits list about 60 people tied to direct development, tech support, manual editing, and special thanks (apart from localization, QA, and administration). Of them, 20 have Japanese names. So basically a third of the team was Nintendo, and they were concentrated at the decision-making level. If you were worried, you shouldn't have been.
[Oh, and the game was directed by Takehiko Hosokawa; the assistant director was Fumi Hayashi. Those are probably names to watch going forward.]
Of course, had people paid attention at E3, their fears may have been allayed.
"One thing I think it's really important to focus on, and I'd like to strongly reinforce that idea, we are one team during the course of this game. It's us working together." - Yoshio Sakamoto
And yes, the game feels that way. Samus Returns has the spit-polished, unflappable mechanical wizardry you expect from a Nintendo game. But you see some of Mercury Steam's verve here and there, between the flashy animations and wonderful art. Oh, and about that art? This is the most Prime-looking game that Sakamoto has ever made. The Chozo areas look like Retro did them. There's one room that seems like a call-out to the Chozo observatory. But it still retains some of the spirit of the older 2D 'Troids, too. It's a clever balancing act. And this is the only game that ever made me wish that I had a 3DS instead of a 2DS.
One last thing on the mind-meld between the developers? From that E3 interview, you can see that the interviewer noticed the similarity between the melee counter and the sense dodge. But the melee counter is of Mercury Steam's invention; it just happens to fit the 2D template as a stand-in for the sense dodge. You can see why Sakamoto and these guys got along and made this game together.
III. Look, Ma! No HUD.
Of all the surprises this game has, this was the one I wasn't expecting. Before Samus Returns, I didn't realize how much better Metroid would be with an uncluttered screen. It isn't that 2D Metroid had a horrendously cluttered screen before:
But seriously, it's so much easier to get lost in the game when all of that information is relegated to the second screen of the 3DS. Since I had already played AM2R, I was not expecting to marathon Samus Returns. But lo and behold, I saw 2 a.m. on the clock three times while playing this.
It also helps with the combat. You can paint in the corners with the Wave beam, and you'll want to, because you're probably gonna die a lot, otherwise. This game is not easy early on, and wasting enemies from afar helps. Even when you collect a good chunk of energy tanks, there are still two bosses near the end that will test you. There is one other boss that might make you throw your 3DS. It's all pattern recognition, as are the encounters with metroids (which can get a bit tedious after awhile). You're gonna get hit, and some of those hits will drain a lot of energy.
Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, the progression structure. This is not a Super or Prime sort of map layout. You can backtrack to prior areas (there are warp points scattered throughout as a courtesy so you can do just that), but there really isn't much use in doing so. I finished the game with only 50% of my items, and it felt like more than enough. I'll still go back and get the rest, but they aren't needed. When you get lost, it'll be within the area you are exploring, because you forgot to spider ball up somewhere or didn't have what you needed to open a door yet. Samus Returns isn't mission based like Fusion, but the in-sector wandering feels a lot like it.
IV. The Force Awakens of Metroid
It's easy to read anything above and think this game feels drastically different than previous Metroid games. But it doesn't. Truly, this is a pretty "safe" version of the series. The combat abilities add some wrinkles, but you're still fundamentally running and shooting, morphball tunneling and bombing, getting lost and finding your way again. It's Metroid. It's what people have been asking for since 2004. There are no alienating risks here, which makes this feel very much like The Force Awakens.
@CitizenOfVerona called it "vanilla Metroid." I think that's probably the best way to put it. Some may take that as an insult, but it's not. Even when other games come along that try to use the Metroid formula, they never quite get whatever magic it is that Nintendo gets from Samus (looking at you, Axiom Verge). Vanilla Metroid tastes better than just about any other gameplay template out there.
Alright, forum. Your turn. Talk it up.