I haven’t gotten lost in a Metroid game since 1994.
I mean truly lost, wandering the corridors wondering where to go next. Every Metroid game released since Super Metroid has provided help, whether through waypoints or simply offering a more linear experience. But having free rein of multiple enormous areas without so much as a nod in the direction of the next stage of the journey? Hasn’t happened since the days of Ace of Base.
But there I was, many hours into Metroid Dread, completely stumped as to where I should go.
And I was loving every minute of it.
Metroid Dread is a direct sequel to Metroid Fusion, a game that’s almost two decades old. In that time, Nintendo has explored the events that took place just after the original Metroid — with the Metroid Prime series — or it has remade older games with updated mechanics, as with Zero Mission and Samus Returns. But to see a continuation of the story after Metroid Fusion? We’ve had to wait an astounding 19 years.
Fresh off of wiping out the nefarious X Parasite with a massive explosion — she does that a lot — Samus Aran is dispatched to the planet ZDR, where some new nastiness awaits her. The mission quickly goes awry, and she’s knocked unconscious deep within the planet’s core, with all of her hard-earned upgrades lost.
This is actually a fun departure from traditional Metroid structure, which usually begins at the surface and digs down. In Dread, you’ll start in subterranean areas that are science’d to heck, with laboratories and metal walls, but as you get closer to the surface, the built environment gives way to ZDR’s natural environments. Deep oceans and lush swamps soon become the norm.
Playing with the traditional Metroid formula is very much at the heart of Metroid Dread. Dread was made by MercurySteam, the same team behind Samus Returns (the remake of Metroid 2: Return of Samus). While it maintained the original’s 2D perspective, that game introduced wild departures from the source material, adding a melee counter and the ability for Samus to aim in 360 degrees, opening up new combat and puzzle possibilities.
Both of these additions return in Metroid Dread, and thanks to the game running at a mostly stable 60 frames per second, these actions are smooth and accurate. But it’s not just the combat that’s enhanced by the Nintendo Switch. Merely moving around this world as Samus feels incredible. I can’t think of a 2D game that feels better to control.
Early in Dread, Samus lacks her patented Morph Ball technique. Instead, she’s able to do a slide, accessing small crevices when she approaches them at speed, like Indiana Jones slipping just underneath a trap door. The fluidity of these slides, alongside the grace with which she spins her way through the air before grabbing a nearby ledge, make even simple explorative jaunts way more satisfying. Nintendo has had a long history of making movement through its game worlds feel incredible, and for the Metroid series, Dread is the pinnacle.
Outside of just feeling good, moving through this world quickly becomes a necessary survival mechanic. There are seven “EMMI” robots that populate the various areas of ZDR, and in contrast to most of Samus’s foes, they vastly outmatch her. Getting within melee range of one means almost certain death, even later in the game, when Samus is fully powered up.
This may concern those who enjoy the contemplative nature of Metroid games, which have traditionally allowed for exploration without the stress of a murderous robot popping out of a vent. But these sequences are interesting asides in Dread, rather than the core of the game. For one: These robots are enclosed in specific areas called EMMI Zones, which make up a small percentage of the overall map, so you don’t have to stress about looking over your shoulder most of the time. What’s more, you’ll eventually be able to kill these robots, freeing these zones up for exploration at your leisure.
The EMMI sequences are thrilling; they feel less like sneaky stealth missions and more like frantic games of tag, as you’re grabbing on ceilings or dashing under walls to break line of sight from these metallic killers. It’s another risky change to the Metroid format, but one that pays off in variety and pacing, contrasting the feeling that Samus is this unkillable superhuman.
Let me restate that: Samus is definitely not an unkillable superhuman. Even veteran Metroid players will die more times in Metroid Dread than in any other installment of the franchise. This is a hard game. It’s easily one of the hardest first-party Nintendo games ever made.
Metroid Dread has around a half dozen major boss fights and twice as many minibosses. The latter are tough but manageable, frequently featuring returning enemies with slightly modified mechanics. But the major boss fights? Holy cow, they don’t mess around. These multiphase battles require near perfection, with a mistimed jump or rocket leading to an instant restart. In one of the midgame fights, I counted no fewer than seven different attack patterns, one of which could best be described as Flappy Bird meets Metroid. Shit gets wild.
These boss fights are expertly tuned and never feel unfair. With patience, they are beatable. But they are also much, much harder than the rest of Metroid Dread, in the same way that Dark Souls bosses can serve as enormous spikes in difficulty compared to the rest of the games. Unlike some recent Nintendo titles, Metroid Dread will not offer you a helping hand. There’s no Funky Kong mode or Super Guide that’s going to get you through these boss encounters.
Even outside of the boss fights, Metroid Dread doesn’t offer up a lot of help. While much of the game is a reimagining of sorts, the exploration bits are incredibly true to the series’ roots. Aside from some (usually worthless) guidance from your AI companion, you’re left on your own to figure out where to go next.
I’m sure some people will find the lack of guidance in Metroid Dread frustrating. But I found it enormously rewarding to be running through corridors and chasms, eventually discovering the precise spot to use the last upgrade I got, granting me access to a never-before-seen path. It feels far more earned than just following a waypoint.
And yet, even though it doesn’t make things explicit, Dread’s map gives you more than enough tools to find your way through this world on your own. The map’s specificity lets you scrub through and see which rooms you’ve explored (or half explored), and seek them out. If you just got the Charge Beam, for example, you can highlight every Charge Beam door that you’ve already spotted — almost like you were taking diligent notes this whole time! It’s a genius way to parse the places you can now explore, without resorting to blunt waypoints. And it’s yet another way that Metroid Dread reimagines classic Metroid tenets for the modern era.
Alongside modern design mechanics, Metroid Dread strives for modern visuals — a tough order for the aging Switch hardware. It’s a 2D game, but the world is fully rendered in 3D, and it looks great when played in handheld mode. On the just-released OLED model of the Switch, it shines especially bright, thanks to its high-contrast shadows and colorful environments. On an original Switch or a Switch Lite, it lacks some of that wow factor, but it’s still one of the best-looking 2.5D games ever made.
As I mentioned earlier, the game usually runs at 60 fps. However, there are some clear dips in performance in some areas with heightened effects. These frame drops rarely impact gameplay, but they can be disappointing to see in an otherwise fluid game.
Also unfortunate: The game’s visuals degrade pretty noticeably when it’s played in docked mode. Specifically, it looks like Metroid Dread continues to run natively at around 720p in docked mode. Try blowing up a 720p image on a 1080p or 4K display, and you’ll begin to see why that’s a problem. When played on a TV, the game looks blurrier and washed out, a far cry from the crisp 720p visuals in handheld mode.
Is it a deal-breaker? No. Metroid Dread is still very playable in docked mode. It’s just disappointing that you can’t fully appreciate the game’s visuals on an enormous TV screen.
To see these performance issues in a first-party Nintendo game is rare, perhaps indicating that Dread was designed to run on more powerful hardware that, based on reports, was originally planned to arrive this year. If we ever do see a 4K-capable Switch, it would not surprise me to see Metroid Dread patched to support it. But that’s purely speculative. For now, it seems that the Switch’s hardware can handle Dread just fine in handheld mode, but docked mode is slightly out of its reach.
Those issues aside, I find myself enraptured by Metroid Dread in ways I haven’t felt since 1994’s Super Metroid. I’m reminded of what it feels like to be left on my own, with no help to guide me, as I scour an unforgiving planet looking for some edge over those hunting me down. It’s terrifying and overwhelming, until it finally clicks and I find that Chozo statue with the next missing puzzle piece gripped in its claws.
Dread reimagines the Metroid format with confidence and care, and it trusts the player to make leaps along the way. While following its interwoven path of epic boss fights, satisfying upgrades, and otherworldly environments, all I could think was that this is the Metroid game I’ve been waiting for. It easily stands astride the best entries in the series, and I eagerly await a follow-up in the year 2040.
Metroid Dread will be released on Oct. 8 on Nintendo Switch. The game was reviewed using a pre-release download code provided by Nintendo. Vox Media has affiliate partnerships. These do not influence editorial content, though Vox Media may earn commissions for products purchased via affiliate links. You can find additional information about Polygon’s ethics policy here.