Genre: Search-em-up | Developer: Nintendo / MercurySteam | Year: 2021

Playing this game feels like quite a stroke of luck. This series is a lot more responsible for spawning a genre than Symphony of the Night ever was, and yet how long it languished. After spending such a long time in development, you have to wonder if (not-Prime) Metroid will be put back in the toy box for another decade even after this game’s great reception.

But at the same time, the students have surpassed the master in a few ways. Hollow Knight offered truly beautiful environments that etched theirself into your head after barely looking at them once – Dread’s little 3D diorama environments are simply not as memorable. While not particularly ugly, there aren’t a whole lot of landmarks that help the player easily navigate, so a lot of time is spent in the map screen. Hollow Knight, on the other hand, had such well-earned confidence in the memorability and navigability of its environments that it tokenized the map functionality.

Dread is also a lot more linear than it may seem at first glance. There are plenty of sawtooths and scenario design mechanics that try to keep the player on the critical path – when the game shows you one of the teleporters that takes you all the way across the entire map in just one (albeit long) loading screen, it’s usually the only way to actually go forward – but since this is mostly hidden hand stuff, it doesn’t feel nearly as stifling as Metroid Fusion was. There are still plenty of reasons to revisit old areas or to take a little time to interrogate the secrets out of a suspicious-looking wall. Linearity need not be a hex.

As for what Dread really gets right, the EMMIs take top place – initially invincible pursuer-type enemies that force the player to combine all their fancy movement with a sprinkling of stealth. Get caught, and it’s mostly an instant death – a QTE-style counter kick can potentially save you, but in a very good move of design it’s a simply inconsistent one to pull off. This inconsistency, oddly enough, keeps the pursuit in a good and unknowable place between “it doesn’t matter if it catches me, I can QTE out”, and “it doesn’t matter if it catches me, I’ll simply restart from the checkpoint”. These guys are a shot in the arm that punctuate the generally-sedate exploration gameplay with brief moments of genuine cat-and-mouse tension – more of this if we see another 2D Metroid, please!

I really wouldn’t have expected the boss fights to be the star of a Metroid game. Even in the peak performance GBA games, Metroid boss fights have always been a bit of a gear-checky slugfest. Less about avoiding damage and more about standing proud and fulfilling the promise that a 255 missile capacity carries. Not here – this is the most fluid a Metroid game has ever controlled, and you’re expected to put that to good use around both the EMMIs and bosses. Bosses punish pretty hard even on the normal difficulty, which gives the player plenty of impetus to go off the critical path when they can and go looking for energy tanks.

Game did a mean troll on me at the end by unceremoniously showing me a piece of Zero Mission splash art – whoa, did they put that game on the cartridge as an unlockable? No, of course not, don’t be stupid. This is simply the part of the game where you are told to remember that Zero Mission exists. Did you know: The first time I played Zero Mission, on a pristine silver tribal edition GBA SP, I got so stubborn about bombing my way up into a little nook that I accidentally sequence broke my way past the Varia Suit?