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Monday, April 15, 2024

'Metroid Dread' Is Let Down by Its Boring Robot Villains

Robot design tends to fall into one of two camps. In the first, they look like us; in the second, they look like tools, their bodies molded toward a particular function. And like tools, this second camp of robots—the smartphones of the robot universe—have tended to look very similar and require some thought on the part of their designer to elevate their personalities above that of a can opener. Metroid Dread on the Nintendo Switch doesn’t escape this trap: It's a fine and frightening game held back by its boring robot villains.


Metroid is one of the most venerable and acclaimed series on Nintendo's roster. The games follow Samus Aran—best identified by her iconic, bulbous orange spacesuit—the bounty hunter who rarely seems to collect her bounties. It all began in 2D, with Metroid, released in 1986 on the Nintendo Entertainment System. This, and later sequels like Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion, created their own genre, known as Metroidvania, a portmanteau of Metroid and Castlevania games, which mix Mario's platforming with Zelda's go-anywhere exploration. (Samsus' adventures usually take place on vast, abandoned planets). In recent years, the series Ori and Hollow Knight have shown that the genre is far from an anachronism, but the 3D versions of Metroid, which take place from behind Samus' visor, have overshadowed their 2D counterparts. Because Metroid Prime 4 was delayed after Nintendo controversially halted a project by Bandai Namco back in 2019, Metroid Dread's release, the first new 2D Metroid in 16 years, feels like an attempt to pacify frustrated fans.

This story follows the events of Metroid Fusion. In that game, a parasite known as the X steals Samus’ powers and reconstitutes itself as her soulless and deadly doppelgänger. Samus eventually triumphs over this double, believing she has wiped out the X parasites in the process. Unfortunately for the universe, Metroid Dread opens with a video transmission from an unknown planet showing the globular parasite floating free. Samus pulls up in her spaceship and immediately gets wrecked by a Chozo, a member of an ancient, technologically advanced civilization of birdlike creatures that have left ruins across the galaxy. When Samus awakens, she has “physical amnesia”—yes, as usual, you've been stripped of most of your abilities. Your mission just got a lot harder.

Metroid's aesthetic has walked a fine line between cartoonish—to attract Nintendo's younger audience—and a moodier, gothic brand of sci-fi. It has been strongest when it leans toward the latter, and Dread is no different. The game is beautiful when it's creepy: Blue glass tunnels split whirling lava plumes; abandoned alien temples nestle under purple leaves; shimmering white light pours through uselessly spinning air vents. The 2D perspective lets developer MercuryStream do some incredible work in the background, and these vistas hold up to scrutiny during the occasional jump to a 3D perspective.

Gameplay is classic Metroidvania, honed to perfection. Samus retains her blaster, firing little balls of light when you hammer Y. This blaster, along with letting her vaporize any projectile-firing wildlife that patrol, goomba-like, along the walls and ceilings of the space station, also opens doors. Because Metroidvania games are all about doors. They are dollhouses of locked rooms that only new skills can open: The Spider Magnet lets you scale glowing blue walls; an invisibility cloak lets you creep past CCTV-operated hatches. The key to these games is that they constantly require you to double back on yourself to progress—and, for the completionists among us, to get all those sweet energy tanks and missile power-ups. Great Metroidvania titles have always provided master classes in game design: The player feels that their exploration is autonomous; in reality, they are the designer's unwitting puppets.

Like in Metroid Fusion, Samus is pursued by beings far more powerful than herself. Sent out ahead of her were seven EMMIs (Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifier)—DNA-extracting robots made from "the strongest stuff in the universe." The design of these rogue robots are the weakest aspect of Metroid Dread. Sharp-eyed fans have drawn a multitude of comparisons, from Auto, the malevolent ship's wheel from Pixar’s Wall-E, to Gladdos from Portal, to the more obscure Amee robot from the critical and commercial flop Red Planet. To me, they look like a reptilian Luxo Sr., its white bulb replaced by the red, Sauronic, unblinking eye of HAL 9000. They're a slinking cliché; a personality-less force—and not in the good way of Resident Evils' Mr. X. Their inclusion is particularly jarring because the Metroid series has produced so many compelling aliens—from the Xenomorph inspired jellyfish-like Metroids to the dragon Ripley and his merry band of space pirates to the log book of Metroid Prime, where players acted like a futuristic Carl Linnaeus, scanning and categorizing the planet's various lichens and beetles. Dread makes you wish for the religious prohibition Frank Herbert laid down in Dune: a universe-wide ban on robots.

It's a shame, because though pursuit by a giant sandworm would have been preferable, fleeing the EMMIs—fear-based gameplay, in the words of producer Yoshio Sakamoto—are still some of its strongest moments. EMMI-patrolled areas are bathed in a shimmering gray light and soundtracked by a high droning tone. The robots slink over the space station's surfaces while Samus slides out of their reach—being caught in their grasp leads to almost certain death. Yet next to the S-AX, one of the all-time great villains who literalized the neurotic habit of fearing what you're trying to become, it's hard not to be underwhelmed.

This story originally appeared on WIRED UK. 

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