It’s been 20 years since the last original 2D entry in Nintendo’s classic science-fiction franchise, but “Metroid Dread” is exciting proof that one of gaming’s most well-known IPs still has plenty of life left in it. “Metroid Dread” is an expertly paced and satisfyingly challenging side-scrolling adventure bound to overjoy anyone who has ever liked moving a video game character to the left or right — even if the “Metroid” formula isn’t quite as fresh as it was several decades ago.
A lack of innovation, especially compared to recent side-scrollers such as “Hollow Knight” and “Ori and the Will of the Wisps,” is the only real negative that can be levied at “Metroid Dread,” and though it’s a valid criticism, it’s more than made up for by the game’s high level of polish and overall consistency. If you’ve previously played a 2D “Metroid” title or any of the myriad of video games that have been inspired by the franchise, you’ll know exactly what to expect here, but “Dread” is a reminder that “Metroid” has long set the industry standard for side-scrolling action for good reason.
“Metroid Dread” also offers a convincing argument for Spanish developer MercurySteam being one of the gaming genre’s up-and-comers. The studio, which also developed 2017’s well-received “Metroid: Samus Returns,” has a keen understanding of what makes the franchise resonate so strongly with fans as well as an impeccable ability to craft action and exploration sequences that make excellent use of the tools at players’ disposal. From start to finish, blasting aliens as Samus Aran is as much of a simple pleasure as it was when the original “Metroid” launched on the NES over three decades ago. Controlling the most iconic bounty hunter in gaming has never felt better: Samus’ movements while exploring the world are as fluid as they’ve always been, but the control in “Dread” truly excels in its combat sections, including the many boss fights, which make for some of the most fast-paced and intense enemy encounters in the series’ history.
The boss battles are easily the highlight of “Dread.” There’s a lot of them, and they all strike the perfect balance between requiring precise movement, recognizing enemy attack patterns, and finding the right moment to get a few hits in on the big bad. New to the series is Samus’ ability to quickly dash left or right and slide on the ground, while the melee counterattack and ability to aim Samus’ arm cannon in any direction from MercurySteam’s “Samus Returns” are also back. Individually, each tool is simple, but the need to combine and master each of them in the heat of combat makes the big battles consistently challenging and rewarding to conquer. Though the inability to customize controls and the handful of recycled boss fights are a bit of a disappointment, players typically only encounter old bosses in new areas or after acquiring more powerful tools, which helps to offset the repetition issue.
Speaking of repetition, the “Metroid” games are known for requiring players to trek back to old areas after acquiring new tools that can be used to navigate new areas in each game’s sprawling world(s). Backtracking is also part of “Dread,” but this is one of the series’ more linear entries, which has ups and downs. On one hand, the game’s linearity can make the world of “Dread” feel deceptively small. There are a handful of optional areas featuring ammo and health upgrades, but exploring outside the main route is rarely as rewarding as it is in some of the leading side-scrollers of the past few years — this critic completed the game in about nine hours, roughly 90 minutes of which were spent attempting to adventure off the beaten path to no avail. That said, it’s usually simple to determine where you need to go next in “Dread,” and the game does an admirable job of funneling players into the next boss fight, upgrade, or set piece, which leads to less downtime and aimless wandering compared to past “Metroid” titles.
As for the upgrades, “Dread” constantly showers the player with new tools that make it easier to navigate the world and take on enemies: double jumps, infinite jumps, the iconic Morph Ball, a handful of weapons, and much more. Almost all of the power-ups hail from older “Metroid” games and though not all of them are equally exciting, the steady pace at which players unlock new tools makes for a consistently rewarding experience — though if the “Metroid” formula is notably dated anywhere, it’s probably here. Some unlockables are only used to complete a few specific puzzles or allow entry into new areas, and it’s a shame that some of Samus’ oldest power-ups, such as the grapple beam and the speed booster, haven’t been updated to be usable outside a handful of niche scenarios.
The upside to sticking to convention is that “Dread,” like almost all “Metroid” titles, does a phenomenal job of creating an engrossing atmosphere despite the minimal dialogue. ZDR, the planet that Samus explores in “Dread,” is teeming with gorgeous biomes and a diverse array of enemies, while the sound design is as stellar as it always is in “Metroid” games. There’s a sound plot, and longtime “Metroid” fans will be rewarded for their knowledge of the franchise’s lore, but you don’t need to know about X Parasites or the Chozo to become engaged with Samus’ adventure; “Metroid” hails from an era before in-depth video game storytelling became so impressive, and though Samus isn’t one for monologues, her actions and movements in the game’s many cutscenes (which never drag on too long) speak volumes. There’s a reason that Samus is one of video gaming’s most famous characters, and “Dread” plays to her strengths impeccably.
The major change from past “Metroid” games is the introduction of E.M.M.I. robots: nigh-indestructible enemies that Samus is forced to avoid via several stealth sections. (For series fans, they’re essentially fleshed-out versions of the SA-X encounters from “Metroid Fusion.”) The E.M.M.I. sections are tension-fueled fun, but other than that, “Dread” played like a highly polished refinement to a decades-old formula. For many consumers, that’s probably enough — and it’s a testament to the phenomenal moment-to-moment gameplay that the lack of innovation in “Dread” isn’t a bigger issue.
“Dread” might not be the next big leap forward for the “Metroid” franchise or side-scrolling gaming as a whole, but at the same time, it’s hard to imagine that existing fans (or just about anyone else who likes the game genre that “Metroid” helped pioneer) won’t get a huge kick out of the series’ long-overdue return. The last few years have led to a minor renaissance for side-scrolling action games and though “Metroid” might not be the uncontested gold standard for the genre anymore, “Dread” confirms that the aging franchise is still among the best in the business.
“Metroid Dread” is available for the Nintendo Switch.