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Samus Returns: Celebrating 30 Years of ‘Metroid’

The franchise has a new release Friday—and is still, all told, the best Space Video Game series of all time

Samus in ‘Metroid’ Nintendo/Ringer illustration

Outer space is everywhere: Not only are we physically surrounded by it, but we’re inundated with images of it, both real and fictional. NASA’s long-lived Cassini mission is ending this week, just after its even longer-lived Voyager mission marked its 40th anniversary. SpaceX is about to launch the most powerful operational rocket in the world. Star Trek is returning to TV, The Martian author Andy Weir is returning to bookshelves, and Destiny 2 and a new Metroid release are bringing gamers back to the stars. Please join us at The Ringer as we celebrate and explore the cultural resonance and science of space all week long.

What I have always admired about Samus Aran, intergalactic bounty-hunter heroine of Nintendo’s beloved and neglected Metroid franchise, is the casually menacing way she rides an elevator. In the original Metroid, released for the eight-bit American NES in 1987, she stands there motionless, staring down the person controlling her, a pose she reprises in 1994’s Super Nintendo jam, Super Metroid. (God bless the YouTuber who added elevator music.)

The overarching premise of Metroid—Samus sets out, preferably solo, to eradicate a treacherous race of energy-sucking aliens called Metroids in a gargantuan space maze full of secret passages and rad weapons and so forth—is fairly durable. But as the series ballooned to more than a dozen sequels and spinoffs across various upgraded consoles and handhelds, minor variations emerged, elevator-wise. For example, both Samus and the camera fidget a little bit in the three-part Metroid Prime series, which straddled the GameCube and the Wii from 2002 to 2007. (Here is a blurry but soothing 10-hour elevator loop from the original Prime.) Graphical innovations aside, the point is that Samus remains totally nonchalant, not bothered in the slightest by how long the ride is, how deep she’s descending into whatever nefarious planet or treacherous starship she’s on, how utterly alone she usually remains.

Metroid is the best Space Video Game franchise of all time. Surely we can agree on this. Which specific version you prefer—the trailblazing original, the dramatic SNES upgrade, the jarring first-person innovations of Metroid Prime—is a matter of personal taste. But this is an empire on par with fellow NES blockbusters Super Mario Bros. and The Legend of Zelda. And what makes the elegantly button-mashing adventures of Samus Aran so extraordinary is an expert combination of Big Things and Little Things. You can curl up into a Morph Ball and roll through ornate, claustrophobic labyrinths, bombing your way through walls and clinging to the ceiling: That’s a big thing. But a Cool Elevator Animation, while seemingly a minor element overall, is just as crucial.

Friday brings the release of Metroid: Samus Returns for the handheld Nintendo 3DS, the franchise’s first major, classic release in seven years. It’s hopefully the first step in a long-delayed resurgence for Samus, with Metroid Prime 4 set to appear on the Nintendo Switch in the next few years. There’s a lot to live up to: die-hard fans to appease, casual nostalgia jockeys to reinvigorate. But Samus Returns should delight or at least mollify all factions; it’s a rad game in large part because it’s also an extremely familiar game. It pushes things ever-so-slightly forward, but also gets the classic details right. Here’s what you look like riding an elevator.

Another small thing about the original side-scrolling NES Metroid that turned out to be huge: When the game starts, the first thing you have to do is go to the left, not the right. That’s where the morph ball is. For an army of budding Nintendo obsessives raised on the similarly earth-shattering Super Mario Bros., this go-left business was revolutionary. Total freedom. No guidance. The only way to find anything—the energy tanks, the missile tanks, the Ice Beam, the Screw Attack, the minibosses, the Metroids themselves—was to meticulously explore what felt in 1987 like an infinite universe. (Specifically, you are fighting on the fictional planet Zebes, where Samus was raised by the peaceful, birdlike species known as the Chozo after space pirates blew up her home on the Earth colony K-2L.) Completists needed either a huge amount of time on their hands or a subscription to Nintendo Power, the most important magazine launched in the 1980s. (Yes, bigger than Spy.)

This may be my personal adolescent projection, but another thing I’ve always loved about Metroid games is the overwhelming sense of loneliness, or at least aloneness. The NES original has exactly one paragraph of plot setup, no fellow bounty hunters, and no dialogue; as for Samus, you don’t even find out that she’s a she unless you beat the game fast enough. This is long before the Video Games Are Art era, with its overblown backstories and endless quasi-cinematic pretensions. And nobody, unfortunately, is immune. The 2010 Wii U title Metroid: Other M, the franchise’s last big installment, loaded itself up with cutscenes and character motivations and lame flashbacks. Samus mostly used elevator rides as an excuse to talk to herself. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the first time.

Samus Returns does away with all that. Plotwise, your mission—destroy all the Metroids, basically—is splendidly blunt, and there’s nobody else around with whom to discuss it. Diehards will recognize this as a remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus, the franchise’s first sequel, released for the handheld Game Boy more than 25 years ago. Some ’80s technology, while modest, has held up just fine a quarter-century later: The Game Boy, with its tiny, dingy, black-and-white screen, has not. This side-by-side gameplay comparison is hilarious.

The other notable thing about Metroid II is that it was legitimately hard, or at the least the total freedom/no guidance aspect was far more daunting. You definitely needed a Nintendo Power subscription to hack it in the pre-internet age, unless you had time to bomb every tiny block in every tiny room looking for secret passages. (Here is the full map, if you wish to be overwhelmed by the vastness of the universe.) For the speedrunners and 100-percent-completion junkies, of course, this was a feature, not a bug: what a badge of honor to beat a game so enormous with so little outside or inside help.

The new Samus Returns shrewdly has it both ways. Now you are fighting on the Metroids’ home planet of SR388; early on, you get an ability called Scan Pulse, which fills out a sizable portion of the map surrounding you and points out any breakable spots in walls, ceilings, floors, etc. It tells you where all the secrets are, basically. This is sacrilege to a hardcore player and a godsend to a more casual and inexpert one, a lovely time-saver that lets you find all the cool shit but also keeps things moving.

Otherwise, fancy 3-D graphics aside, the gameplay only lightly updates the 1987 NES original: You jump, you roll, you climb, you fall, you blast the bejesus out of everything in sight. The major innovation actionwise is a melee-counter system, which means that instead of just running around firing indiscriminately as usual, you ideally wait until they attack you, parry with perfect timing, and fire back, your firepower improving as your rhythm does.

But otherwise, Samus Returns traffics in a familiar and soothing sort of hand-cramping delight. Its boss battles—Metroids, mostly, in various phases of gnarly mutation—are just lengthy and intense enough to be stressful without being maddening. And getting into all those secret passages—which entails quite a few intricate missile/freeze beam/morph ball/bomb situations—takes repetition and dedication, but not unreasonable amounts of either. There is a science to making things just hard enough, just frustrating enough.

Another big Metroid innovation was the notion of backtracking: returning to places you’d already been with the cool new weaponry that let you grab all the cool stuff you couldn’t reach the first time around, even though it was sitting right there. Naturally, Samus Returns encourages this behavior, but doesn’t insist on it: You can double back and grab every last thing once you’ve gotten the Wave Beam or the Spider Ball or whatever, but the stuff you’ll get (more missiles, mostly) is gratifying but inconsequential. You can beat this game without it beating you to a pulp.

As with the bulletproof, constantly mutating Super Mario Bros. franchise, the true genius of Metroid—the thing that elevates these games to the status of Legitimate Art—is the level design, the painstakingly crafted and gargantuan map itself. Lots of elevator rides. (You can teleport now, too, and Samus looks serene doing that, also.) Lots of interlocking rooms that feel random and chaotic but reveal themselves to be part of an elegant, almost beautiful pattern, once you’ve been everywhere and done everything. The dopamine rushes you get when you find a new thing, use that new thing to get to a new area, and blow up the Metroid posted up there are evenly distributed and expertly interlocking, like a Swiss watch crafted by space assassins with plasma cannons for hands.

The tagline to the third-best space movie ever made still puts it best: “In space, no one can hear you scream.” At their best, Metroid games ensure that those aren’t screams of frustration, but still channel that same sense of lethal solitude. The game’s universe is overwhelming but just short of despair-inducing, its challenge formidable but just short of enraging. Samus Returns is a remake, unlikely to surprise veterans but just as unlikely to turn off neophytes. It’s a blast from the past that portends a bright future; it’s backtracking of the purest, and best, sort.