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Words: Samantha Greer
This article contains spoilers for Metroid Dread (and the older games in the series, too)
Few series in gaming get many consecutive entries to tell a single coherent story, but Nintendo's Metroid quietly gave us a rich and compelling arc in its four main (non-Prime) entries: Metroid in 1986, Metroid II: Return of Samus in 1991, Super Metroid in 1994 and Metroid Fusion in 2002. With the new Metroid Dread arriving on Switch 19 years after the last instalment, was it possible to pick up that thread? Before we can answer that, I guess we have to establish what the story of Metroid actually is.
Well, it's the story of a genocidal monster. No, not the titular alien menace, but Samus Aran.
There are many games in which your protagonist indiscriminately murders hordes of foes, but few that directly engage with that like Metroid does. For anyone paying attention to the series, this isn't new information. If you want a thorough recap of the entire story then this one on Polygon, written by Maddy Myers, is a perfect summary - but the gist is the metroid are a deadly non-space faring species that various forces want to use as bio-weapons to support their own agendas. Samus Aran is a bounty hunter raised and trained by the Chozo, a now-absent alien civilisation who, it turns out, created the metroid.
While spin-offs pile on the lore and needless backstory, the main games, numbering five with Dread's release, are welcomely sparse in their storytelling. The original Metroid gave Aran a simple enough mission handed out by the Galactic Federation (that's humans) to stop the space pirates (a motley crew of scary aliens) on the planet Zebes using the metroid for their own ends; but each subsequent game has complicated that mission more and more.
Metroid II: Return of Samus is a game about genocide. It turns up the eeriness until existential horror seeps out of your little Game Boy. As Samus descends deeper and deeper below the surface of metroid homeworld SR388, there are fewer enemies and the game becomes quieter until only disquieting silence accompanies you at the bottom. In its soundscape you're unsettled by the unspoken presence of the metroids but also made to sit with the finality of Samus's actions. As Game Developer's S.R. Holiwell puts it in their fantastic piece on the game:
"Games about killing should probably make you uncomfortable. They shouldn't be carefully crafted to be pleasant. Metroid II is openly about killing. It makes me uncomfortable with wordless specificity. This is one of the game's saving graces."
Through it all Samus is unflinching. That is until she defeats the Queen Metroid and subsequently finds a solitary egg during her escape from the planet. From it hatches a baby metroid, which doesn't attack. Samus spares it. The game doesn't end with a boss battle but instead quiet cooperation as the two return to the surface together. A wholesome moment for an otherwise disturbing game that makes Metroid II perhaps the most interesting entry in the series, though perhaps not the most enjoyable. This moment has a dire implication for Samus though: the metroid aren't inherently evil. And if they're not evil, then Samus has murdered them all for no reason.
Super Metroid is essentially a do-over of the first game. Samus returns to Zebes to thwart the space pirates whose leader Mother Brain intends to use the metroid for their own ends. The one key difference is in the framing, as the last metroid in the space pirates' possession is the one she spared. So this isn't another bug hunt - this is a rescue mission. Right from the opening monologue we get a creepy but motivated theme (here's a spectacular remix). As Dia Lacina describes it when discussing the series soundtracks for Paste:
"Pounding timpani drums rumble underneath militant horn and the kind of synth choir samples that later Souls games bask in. Samus won't nuke the planet from orbit, but she's definitely thought about it."
Samus is on a mission, determined like never before. Sadly, it's a mission that ends in tragedy with this third game being the rare time you can say that Samus actually fails in her task. Her baby metroid, fully grown, sacrifices itself to protect her in the game's climactic fight with Mother Brain. There's an inherent sadness to this creature giving its life to protect the murderer of its entire species. With it gone the metroid are extinct and, one way or another, it's because of Samus. In failure, Samus is robbed of an easy redemption. It's these themes that set Metroid apart and why, for all the imitators in a genre half-named after the series, it's simply not been bettered. Maddy Myers puts it best in their piece on the failure of the 'Metroidvania' genre for Paste:
"Samus fights a cyclical, endless war on familiar battlegrounds; she goes on unglamorous, personal quests, often with little institutional support (in contrast to heroes like Master Chief or Marcus Fenix, who spend their campaigns being loudly lauded and supported). Metroid is dark, and not in a cheesy way - in a mournful, slow, deliberate way."
In their absence the scope of the story only expands in Metroid Fusion. Devoid of its apex predator the metroid, SR388 offers up another deadly threat: the X parasite, a gelatinous alien that can mimic any creature living or dead, which the metroid were created to combat. After being attacked by one, the only thing that saves Samus is being melded with metroid DNA. Now she shares their weaknesses as the X parasite assumes the form of Samus herself, hunting her through the halls of an already unpleasant space station where the Galactic Federation are conducting cloning experiments in an attempt to have a metroid of their own. When her duplicate nears, the sound of a quickened heartbeat is heard and we get a sense that for the first time Samus experiences fear. When encountered, she can only flee from her unstoppable doppelganger. This vulnerability will be part of Dread, too, but here it culminates in a climax where Samus's only way to succeed is to quite literally destroy herself. It's not a redemptive arc so much as an acknowledgement of her own monstrous deed.
So Metroid and Metroid II are games about genocide, Super Metroid a failed act of redemption, Fusion a tale of self destruction - where does that leave Metroid Dread?
By the time of Metroid Dread, there are no more metroids. Like an Alien story (a series Metroid certainly owes a small debt to) that didn't contain the titular alien, Dread feels like it has lost an essential part of itself. Rather than a failure to stay true to the series, it's this very absence that feels truest of all.
It opens with Samus lured to the planet ZDR by evidence of a surviving X parasite. Of her bounty we're told: "The risk clearly outweighs the reward." If Samus isn't doing it for money, is it perhaps an obligation born of guilt? We can only speculate since she remains her typical silent self. On the planet a confrontation with a mysterious Chozo goes awry and she's left trapped, hunted by machines seeking to extract her DNA.
One key choice that immediately lays out Dread's intentions? Instead of another journey into the depths of a foreboding planet, Samus starts at the bottom and must work her way up. This, at last, is her journey out of darkness. In a game that impressively resists at every turn to recycle old music, Samus's iconic theme is only heard once, at the midway point when she abandons her plan to simply escape the planet and instead vows to stop another attempt to create metroid. Crucially it's the one and only time Samus has spoken aloud in the main entries of the series.
In a way Dread has the easiest story to tell. The emotions and goals for Samus are clearer, set up to confront a clear cut villain: her "creator" Raven Beak, a Chozo who, like many before him, wants his army of metroids. Dread then drops its bombshell: the metroid DNA she received in Fusion has completely taken over her body. She is no longer human but is now, herself, a metroid. The alienation from her own humanity is a mixed conceit. While it's a fitting irony for the bounty hunter, it's also a transformation that implies so much growth and awareness in who she is and, by game's end, who she chooses to be.
If I had one complaint about Dread it's the amount of exposition from your AI companion ADAM, who provides advice and answers questions while Samus fights through ZDR. It seems at odds with Metroid, a series mainly about setting your own little goals of progression. However, this exposition gets a surprisingly interesting pay off. Of course it feels out of place, a reduction of your agency, because it's been not ADAM but Raven Beak all along (a twist keen eyed players might have picked up on, noting the switch from ADAM in the introduction being chastising to monotone and characterless once in the depths of ZDR). That the one detraction on an otherwise blissful Metroid experience is the actions of the villain is either an accidental masterstroke or a bold creative choice.
At the climax, Raven Beak (posing as ADAM) asks Samus to follow his commands so she can use her metroid power to ensure galactic peace. Without hesitation she points her iconic cannon at the computer and blasts it. Then we get a perfect shot as the hologram dissolves and Samus's creator is revealed in its place. The symbolism is blunt but effective all the same: the Galactic Federation and the Chozo who created Samus are all basically the same entity. And she is no longer their servant.
In the ensuing fight we get our only outburst of emotion in these main Metroid titles: rage. Something pent up over many harrowing missions. Her power armour transformed with metroid qualities, Samus basically becomes a furious walking nuclear bomb, allowing her to easily destroy Raven Beak and every other living thing on her way off the planet. While it's a classic power fantasy moment, in the context of the series entries preceding it, it's a kind of failure for Samus - she's been able to change her goals, but not her methods. This is something which becomes almost tragic when she's told she can't even use her shuttle to escape the planet without destroying it, a fate she's spared from only by the intervention of another former foe. An X parasite, taking on the form of friendly Chozo Quiet Robe, removes her metroid rage through self sacrifice. Here, at the end, Dread avoids having the X parasite simply slot into the villainous role left by the metroid. They too are not inherently evil, beholden only to the form they take.
That's where Dread leaves Metroid's main story. Metroid and X parasite seemingly extinct, Samus's creators defeated with space pirates and humanity no longer able to cultivate these alien species as weapons. Samus is freed from her past, but in spite of the shockingly uplifting credits music (a series staple) there's a somberness to it all. What was really achieved? Has Samus really grown or has she only come full circle in her destruction of the X parasite? That's what Metroid is. Uncomfortable themes, meditations on loneliness and violence, murky spaces to exist in.
So, what does Dread add to Metroid? Exactly that.
Featured Image Credit: Nintendo
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