Returnal is a blend of things I’ve seen before, great ideas from a dozen different roguelites and sci-fi games. But one of Returnal’s easiest callouts is Metroid. Selene, Returnal’s main character, is a blonde woman in an ever-evolving space suit. She’s an intergalactic space pilot with her own ship. She’s on a solo mission to a dark, creepy, hostile, alien planet where she collects bio-technology from the planet’s original inhabitants in order to survive. If this rings any bells, it’s because you’ve been on an adventure with Samus Aran before.
And yet, none of that is why Returnal really reminds me of Metroid. The visual and thematic similarities are easy to see, but the first time I moved as Selene, I felt like Samus. That’s because Returnal takes one of Metroid’s most underrated gameplay lessons to heart: speed.
A familiar creep
In the opening moments of Returnal, I crash on an alien planet. And once I recover, I start exploring this new world and begin to unravel a mystery. Soon, I learn I’m stuck in a time loop. Have I always been here?
The game plays out like a third-person bullet-hell game. I run through the environments, picking up better items and weapons to make my life easier. I fight local flora and fauna and dodge through waves of colorful energy blasts. The fast-paced, large bullet-dodging harkens back to developer Housemarque’s days on Super Stardust HD and Resogun.
When I die, I retain some currency and a few key items. I leave everything else in the past. I wake up back at my shipwreck and head out on another adventure. This is where Returnal’s own version of backtracking comes into play. Unlike Metroid, Returnal’s map layout is randomized, so I need to rediscover the map each time I come back to life.
That need for rediscovery kept me ruminating on Selene’s super sonic speed.
The second I put my hands on the controller and moved Selene in Returnal, I declared “oh, this feels like Metroid,” loud enough for my cats to hear.
Selene moves fast in Returnal. When I touch the controller, she jets forward at an unnatural speed, and yet I never feel out of control. The way I float through the air with precision and burn through rooms in seconds feels more like Super Metroid than modern fast-paced games like Doom (2016).
Metroid games, especially the 2D games, are well-known for demanding a great deal of backtracking. You’ll see a door in the first 20 minutes of a 2D Metroid adventure that you won’t be able to open until your last 20 minutes. Backtracking can be a major pain, but it would be worse if Samus didn’t move extremely fast, even before she finds any dash-related upgrades.
You can cover a lot of ground very quickly as Samus, especially wide open spaces where you don’t often need to stop. It’s a series defined by movement, supplemented by gadgets that better prepare Samus for her long journey between multiple points.
Returnal has a different approach to backtracking. As Selene, I can teleport between areas I’ve already been to on my current run. I also maintain certain key items and traversal upgrades, like my grappling hook, between deaths. So once I beat the boss of the first area, I have everything I need to take the portal to the second biome. But because the map gets shuffled at the start of each new run, I need to find the portal again.
Rediscovering a map just to find a door I’ve already been through could’ve been frustrating in Returnal, but Selene’s speed helps relieve some pressure. Minutes after I die, I can be three rooms into my next run, hunting down the portal to the next area, sprinting past bullets. It creates a frantic dash at the start of each run, which helps keep Returnal exciting, even on the 20th time I run through the same forest environment.
Hunting for something I know is somewhere nearby in Returnal feels like trying to find that Super Missile door in Metroid that I first encountered six hours ago. Speed is an aspect that Metroid itself toned down in the slower-paced but still fabulous Metroid Prime trilogy, which exacerbated those game’s lengthy backtracking sections. It’s interesting to see Returnal learn so much from Metroid Prime’s more immersive environment while also digging back to the 2D era to adapt Samus’ super speed. It wasn’t the Metroid influence I expected when I first saw trailers about Selene’s adventure, but it’s the perfect way to make each run feel like a sprint toward progress.