By Sammy Bovitz
The question of video games as art is an oddly common one. Are interactive experiences about computer guys firing fake guns at each other really in the same category as avant-garde operatic productions with thunderous orchestras? Well, in Metroid Dread we have an answer, as it’s a game that I can undoubtedly describe as artful, but not in the way you’d typically define it.
Now, folks in the “video games are art” camp (such as myself) usually point to a game’s strong story or beautifully animated locations as justification. While Metroid Dread’s scenery is incredible and its story is a whirlwind tour of fascinating sci-fi locales, that’s not the reason the game is artful. No, the game’s ability to keep players hooked at every turn is what makes it a work of art and my favorite interactive experience of 2021.
Metroid Dread is a 2D action game with an extensive explorable map, but certain sections of it are locked off until the player collects an ability required to progress past certain obstacles. The game’s designers place these obstacles very carefully. For example, a fiery plant blocking your path can only be removed with the ice missile ability, which in turn opens up a path to a different upgrade. It’s very easy for a game like this to make the player either extremely confused as to where they’re supposed to go or to make them so overpowered that the game becomes a breeze. But the designers of Dread did a brilliant job guiding newer players like myself along while still allowing experts to explore and even break the game.
While the map is always growing alongside your toolset, the designers use optional upgrades and interesting scenery to intrigue the player while subtly guiding them to the next part of the game. For example, after getting the Metroid series’ signature morph ball ability, I could now access a health upgrade unavailable to me before. Since there was an area above the pickup, I decided to explore it for the first time, all without realizing that was the exact path I needed to get the game’s next item, the heatproof Varia suit. This technique is called “breadcrumbing,” and when done perfectly, it offers a very distinct feeling of accomplishment. I didn’t actually outsmart the game — the designers simply knew I would want to explore and get stronger, and placed the exact health and ammunition upgrades I wanted so I could stumble into the next area I needed to go to. I beat the game for the first time after 11 hard-fought hours, but some incredibly skilled people are beating it in just over one. What’s incredible is that either way the player is validated by the game and its designers.
When I said hard-fought, I meant it, because the game is quite difficult, especially for a horrible player like myself. While part of the challenge is merely exploring the world, as you could probably guess by the game’s title, this isn’t exactly a peaceful walk in the park.
Players control galactic bounty hunter Samus Aran. While there’s lots of lore in between, the premise of the game, when you get down to it, is relatively simple: she was sent to investigate a distress signal deep beneath the surface of the Planet ZDR. Nearly all of her abilites and weapons were taken by a mysterious bird/robot hybrid, and she needs to get them back while getting back to her ship on the surface of the planet and learning who exactly attacked her and why. No pressure.
Samus starts with a simple laser shot akin to Star Wars, some missiles, a jump, a slide, and a parry, which is Dread’s way of spicing up the game’s combat. The game’s basic enemies will have different attack patterns with different timings, and it’s your job — with the help of generous audio and visual cues — to figure out the right time to hit the parry button, which stuns the enemy and opens them up for maximum damage if done correctly. Over time, you acquire new abilities from exploring the world and fighting extra-tough “boss” enemies, and these skills help in both exploration and combat.
Let’s go back to those boss enemies. Remember when I said those 11 hours were hard-fought? I wasn’t lying. You are going to die dozens of times in this game should you play it, and you might be tempted to throw your controller once or twice. But there’s a balance between being tricky and downright unfair, and Dread balances this almost perfectly. I almost never got frustrated by these bosses and always kept at it. You see, every attack a difficult boss enemy makes is “telegraphed”— meaning there’s a visual cue of what they’re going to do and how you can dodge them before the attack happens. One or two attacks weren’t telegraphed as cleanly as the rest— see the “Experiment” fight towards the end of the game — but for the most part, the game is fair in its punches without having to pull any.
The game makes it very clear that every attack a boss makes can be dodged. At its best, the game encourages you to move around and make aggressive moves, dodging rapidly to give yourself to fire attacks at the enemy’s weak spot. These bosses last a long time, but mastering them by learning their patterns and perfecting your movement feels fantastic without ever feeling impossible. Plus, as you get more upgrades, you can feel your power tangibly growing as you take down these increasingly monstrous foes, on top of dispatching previously annoying basic enemies with ease. Thus, your victories almost always feel weighty and exciting.
Now, every game in the Metroid series features this unique blend of exploration and combat. While this game refines these elements to an immaculate degree, and takes advantage of modern hardware capabilities and features to make Samus incredibly smooth to control, where this game distinguishes itself from the other games in the series is its stealth.
It turns out, Samus wasn’t the first person sent to investigate the distress signal. Seven spider-like shape-shifting research robots known as EMMI were sent to neutralize the potential threat. Instead, they were corrupted and reprogrammed to serve the mysterious bird robot. Unlike every other enemy in the game, EMMIs cannot be killed by Samus and will take her down in one hit. These sections make the player hyperaware of their every move, and weaponize the game’s titular dread for some nailbitng sequences that I won’t soon forget.
Carefully avoiding, hiding, and sprinting away from these robots is the final ingredient in developer MercurySteam’s delicious stew of game design. Eventually, acquiring more abilities, solving puzzles, and mastering these stealth segments will grant Samus a temporary power-up that will take down these foes once and for all, and upon each one’s defeat, a brand-new ability is always waiting. Not only that, these abilities are what make each EMMI unique. A speedy one holds the speed booster, and one with the ability to shoot ice at Samus grants the ice missiles once taken down.
All told, these three elements combine with the intriguing sci-fi story to make a game truly worth exploring. It’s rare to make a planet-size game engaging at every turn and in nearly every aspect, and Dread accomplishes this to near perfection. Nearly every room in the game is purposeful and worth multiple visits, and once you’ve acquired all 23 central abilities, you’ll be tempted to travel the world for an hour or two to explore and collect tons of upgrades before the final boss, which sums up everything you’ve done and all the abilities you’ve acquired in a nail-biting sequence, making you feel incredible upon beating it.
While this game is artful in its world design, that doesn’t mean Metroid Dread is free of critique. The exploration is mostly rock-solid, but there are moments where what appears to be dead ends are actually navigable if you shoot in the right spots. Often, an enemy or visual cue will indicate you can explore, but there were a few moments where this was a bit more unclear than I’d like. I got stuck three times, and I ran around in circles for about 30 minutes of my total game time.
Plus, while the story is engaging and has some interesting twists, the fact it relies on lore from previous series entries– even some from over 20 years ago– means a series newcomer like myself had to look things up a bit more than I wanted to. Finally, though the game looks incredible and nearly perfects the style it’s going for, part of me wanted just a bit more from a game released in 2021. The Nintendo Switch is notoriously underpowered, and the hardware itself is probably the culprit as opposed to developer MercurySteam’s efforts.
Speaking of MercurySteam, it’s worth mentioning that select developers who worked on Dread for as many as 11 months weren’t credited in the game. This is due to MercurySteam’s policy that in order to be credited, an employee must work for “at least 25%” of the game’s total development time, which in this case was a little over 4 years. It’s far from the worst practice in the video game industry right now, but it’s certainly a shameless exclusion of people who worked hard to make this game a reality, whether they worked for 11 months or 2 years on it.
Regardless of these flaws, Metroid Dread is an expertly crafted game that I’d recommend to everyone with access to a Nintendo Switch. Its balance of brain-teasing exploration, mind-melting combat, and terrifying stealth combines for a refined experience that rivals any game put out this year. I played some fantastic games this year, but Dread was the only one that made me raise my arms in triumph once I beat it. I conquered an entire planet and became the most powerful warrior in the galaxy all by myself, MOM!
This game is not exactly revolutionary in its concepts– the idea of the open-ended 2D action game has been around for some time– but it brings the best elements of the game together in a way that’s truly incredible. If 1996’s Super Metroid is Motown, Dread is Silk Sonic– calling back to an iconic era of games while modernizing their ideas brilliantly for the modern age. It’s the next step in an evolution of an entire genre of games, and I cannot wait to see what ideas come out of the brightest young designers playing this one. Dread is another link in the chain, another professor in “Constructing An Engaging World 101”.
Metroid Dread is so viscerally and beautifully designed that it made me feel accomplished like I’d never felt in a game before, and put me in a world so fascinating that it took a lot to pull me out of it. Not to mention, I felt like I was one with the character I controlled when the credits rolled. Simply put, once I was done with Dread, Sammy was no more. I was merely part of a greater being– SamUS.