For the first time since Fusion on Game Boy Advance, a new 2D Metroid game is on the way! Metroid Dread hits Nintendo Switch on October 8, and we couldn’t be more hyped. 20 years of waiting and the evolution of the thriving Metroidvania genre have sent our hopes sky-high. Can Dread live up to the quality of its predecessor while innovating with its own new ideas? If it draws from the best ideas in past games, I believe it can! Here are five ways MercurySteam and Sakamoto can make that happen.
A truly open game world
Above all else, Metroid is a series defined by its sprawling game worlds. Super Metroid is especially revered for the endless replayability offered by its many branching paths and alternate routes. This exploration-driven gameplay spawned an entire genre, but over the years 2D Metroid games have increasingly moved away from it. It’s my hope that Metroid Dread will deliver an open world that rivals its SNES predecessor while incorporating modern advancements.
So far, there’s cause for optimism. Dread features the most detailed map system in any game in the series. With more visual cues and markers to place, MercurySteam should feel free to design a world that gives the player freedom. The Nintendo Treehouse team also repeatedly stressed that Adam, your computer AI companion, won’t give you orders or directions. That’s a good start, but the level design itself is what truly determines whether or not the game is holding your hand. The Treehouse team took a fairly straightforward path through their demo, but I noticed many unopened doors along the way and on the map. I’m hoping some of them are valid alternate routes to major items and not just optional collectibles.
Another key element of Super Metroid’s open world is the ability to sequence break. Metroid games typically have a handful of key items that must be collected in a specific order to progress. But if you could master advanced tricks, like the Mach Ball or Infinite Wall Jump, you could collect key items out of order and drastically change your route through the game. Metroid Fusion intentionally made sequence breaking impossible in order to tell its story in a linear fashion. It’s my hope that Dread can find a better way to balance progression and story, not sacrificing one for the other.
This is an area where Nintendo can also learn from its imitators. Hollow Knight took a much more open approach to item sequence, and it was a game-changer. Players must collect the Vengeful Spirit, Mothwing Cloak, and Mantis Claw in that order, but then all bets are off. Once you can climb walls and dash across pits, over half a dozen new areas become accessible via multiple pathways. Mark Brown of Game Maker’s Toolkit brilliantly illustrated this in his breakdown of the game.
There are still more areas to uncover and more progression items to unlock them, but which one you collect next is up to you. The massive world and open approach to sequence allow you to get “lost in the world” without actually preventing you from progressing. Metroid Dread could follow suit, giving Samus multiple ways of reaching each region of planet ZDR, each requiring a different progression item.
Speed Booster and Shinespark tricks
During 2D Metroid’s long hiatus, numerous indie devs have tweaked the formula to great success. There have been plenty of innovative takes on movement-based upgrades, but for my money, nothing comes close to the combination of Speed Booster and Shinespark. Smooth traversal seems to be a priority for MercurySteam this time around, and I’m hoping that means these abilities will be on full display.
The Speed Booster allows Samus to sprint at supersonic speed, tearing through enemies and otherwise invincible obstacles. If Samus crouches while boosting, she can store that power for a few seconds as a Shine Spark, then release it to rocket through the air. Fusion and Zero Mission added the ability to chain these mechanics together, allowing for exhilarating item room challenges like the one below.
Strategically placed Speed Booster blocks can also open up opportunities for alternate routes. This is especially key for replayability and speedrunning. It’s a way to reward players who commit their surroundings to memory and master advanced techniques. Well-spaced flat stretches, ramps, and hidden passages can turn the whole world into a parkour course.
Intense and memorable boss fights
Another key area where Metroid Dread needs to shine is in its boss fights. Past 2D Metroid games are full of intense fights that stick with players long after the credits roll. Who can forget the first time they saw the world shake as the monstrous Kraid rose from the ground, standing two screens tall? Or the helpless feeling when Nightmare disrupted the gravity, rendering your missiles useless?
Although it may be unofficial, fan game AM2R recently reminded me of another thing that made many past 2D Metroid bosses great. Bosses like Torizo, The Tester, and the Queen Metroid kept me perched on the edge of my seat. Each fight had multiple stages, constantly ramping up the complexity and challenge. But each boss also shot projectiles that Samus could blast to regain health and ammunition. This balance created blood-pumping endurance battles where I constantly had to choose between offense and defense, and I often found myself seconds from death as I fired the winning shot. AM2R certainly didn’t invent the idea, but its exhilarating boss fights may be the mark to beat. MercurySteam took a similar approach in Samus Returns, but health and items were instead gifted to the player after dishing out specific amounts of damage.
Traditional bosses aside, Metroid Dread really needs to deliver with its new E.M.M.I. bots. MercurySteam needs to keep each encounter unique and challenging in order to preserve that sense of dread. E.M.M.I. rooms take up massive chunks of the map, and it seems each bot possesses a different ability. With some clever level design, these relentless predators could redefine the boss experience as we know it.
The second volume of the Metroid Dread Report revealed that you’ll be able to kill E.M.M.I.s with the Omega Canon. So far we’ve seen that it has two functions: the one-shot Omega Blaster and the Gatling-style Omega Stream. I’m hoping we’ll see more variation in the way we confront E.M.M.I.s as the game progresses. If it really hopes to live up to the Dread title, they need to take away the safety of the E.M.M.I. zones at some point. I want to see a powerful E.M.M.I. out of its containment, capable of appearing anywhere and giving chase.
A soundtrack worthy of 2D Metroid’s legacy
Metroid soundtracks are some of my favorite music in all of gaming. Hell, I’m listening to remixed Metroid music as I write this. There’s intense, fast-paced boss music that has me gripping my controller with all my might. Eerie, alien ambiance that makes me hesitate to take my first step into a darkened room. Booming, triumphant tones celebrating another victory. This series has always excelled at setting the mood with its music, and MercurySteam should be adding to that legacy. With a name like Dread, the music needs to fill the air with tension and uncertainty.
One aspect of the soundtrack that I’m eager to experience is music related to the Chozo. Planet ZDR is absolutely littered with statues from the ancient, powerful alien race, and there even seems to be a living Chozo in the trailer. Dread has the potential to dive deeper into their lore than ever before, and the soundtrack needs to reflect the sense of awe and wonder they’ve cultivated for players over the years.
It’s been nearly two decades since the first all-new 2D Metroid soundtrack, and video game music has come a long way since then. Even Samus Returns, a 2017 remake, was limited by its hardware and its roots. With Dread, MercurySteam can set a new standard.
A satisfying conclusion to the Metroid story arc
Series producer Yoshio Sakamoto has repeatedly stressed that Metroid Dread will conclude the story of the Metroids and their strange relationship with Samus. Wrapping up 25 years of lore is a tall task, and Sakamoto has also hinted that Dread will kick off a new story arc. There are plenty of interesting plot threads they could pull, including corruption within the Galactic Federation, the emergence of evil Chozo, and the strange nature of Samus’s DNA.
We also need to address the fact that to some Metroid fans an elaborate story is an unwanted intrusion. The story shouldn’t be so rigid that it restricts your free exploration. Additionally, a sense of isolation is vital to many players, and having Samus stop to talk to friends and foes can disrupt that atmosphere. This is another place where Dread can learn from a game that Metroid helped inspire. Axiom Verge includes a “speedrun mode” that removes cutscenes and dialogue, scaling it back to the core gameplay experience. This would be a welcome inclusion for Dread, especially on repeat playthroughs.
Finally, Metroid Dread needs to excel at conveying information without cutscenes and text boxes. With the 2.5D style, MercurySteam can craft rich environments with depth and detail, and they need to make the most of it with environmental storytelling. I want the world around me to reveal just as much as any exposition dump from Adam. We’ve seen hints of this already, as you can catch glimpses of the camouflaged boss Corpious in the backgrounds of rooms leading up to the fight.