As the dust settles on an otherwise tepid E3 2021, the confirmation of Metroid Dread continues to rattle in my head. As a big fan of the series, it felt like lightning in a bottle, a continuation of a series that hasn’t had a mainline entry in 19 years releasing in a few precious months on the Nintendo Switch. But despite the palpable excitement, I am more than concerned about the developer behind the project, MercurySteam. Based on their past work, I’m worried that it might not exactly get the core of the Metroid series.
Right off the bat, I want to emphasize that MercurySteam is not a bad studio. For all of its faults, the revival of the Castlevania series with the Lords of Shadow trilogy was packed full of interesting ideas as well as solid, stylish action. Not to mention their visually appealing remake of the second game, Samus Returns on the 3DS, did play a key role in bringing Metroid back into the public consciousness.
But my concerns are less on polish or pedigree so much as it is with tone and presentation. The Metroid series is known for a lot of things across its history. It helped codify and popularize the Metroidvania platformer, emphasizing exploration. It helped give video games its very first badass action heroine and has maintained her as a quiet but independent force throughout each main installment. But one of its less appreciated accomplishments was its masterful use of isolation and environmental storytelling, making you feel like you’re genuinely trapped in a hostile world that wants to do you harm.
The biggest example of this I can give is in the original Metroid 2. On the surface, it’s just another adventure for Samus, in this case trying to exterminate the threat of the titular metroids once and for all. But due to the limitations of the Game Boy’s hardware, various series staples had to be stripped down. The adventure was mostly linear, with Samus slowly descending further into the metroid nests. Music was minimal, giving the whole game a feeling of sci-fi horror. Even the boss battles with the metroids themselves are staged more like horror movie monsters, something that could cut Samus to ribbons in seconds. But above all, the pacing continued to reinforce an alien world full of terror; long stretches of nothing happening followed by a new attack or challenge.
Every single major Metroid game understood this on different levels. Even Metroid Fusion, one of the more linear and contentious entries, had the darkest and most suspense-filled plot in the series. What if Samus was trapped on a space station completely infested with the alien creatures from John Carpenter’s The Thing? Also one of them is a perfect copy of her at maximum power that constantly stalks her, akin to Resident Evil 2‘s Mr. X.
But MercurySteam went in the exact opposite direction with Samus Returns. While the remake is updated with more exploration elements and much higher production values, the focus is mostly on action with enemy ambushes and stylish over-the-top takedowns. It made the story play more like an off-brand Devil May Cry with its mid-2000s cinematic indulgence.
Admittedly, part of this is an issue of adaptation. Despite how sparse the direct storytelling in these games are, this is the entry where Samus effectively commits genocide, with all subsequent sequels dealing with the consequences of such an act. In this light, the cold, harsh, and haunting atmosphere was an intentional feature, not a bug. By comparison in the 3DS remake, the metroids are treated as generic monsters in a video game, just another challenge at the end of a gauntlet full of snarling baddies. On its own, it’s a solid return to form for the series, but it misses the elegant spirit the original managed on far inferior hardware.
I couldn’t help but remember this as I watched the trailer for Metroid Dread as well as its gameplay showcase at Nintendo’s Treehouse presentation. Seeing Samus slide and shoot with absolute precision, ending a boss fight with a flashy finishing cinematic where she’s an unstoppable warrior before awkwardly clicking into a "horror" mode with its stealth sections, didn’t exactly help. Even taking into account that this is an original Metroid game, I’m worried that MercurySteam will spend more time on shallow spectacle and visual panache over a subtle, more persistent air of intrigue and caution. I am still interested in what this new game does, and I wish nothing but the best for it when it launches in October. But given MercurySteam’s hand in the series so far, I’m worried it’ll be another case of them recreating the body of the series but not its spirit.