What Does Metroid Taste Like? (October 2021)

Whoa, it’s the end of October. I started this as a New Years resolution back in January, and I guess there are only two more of these left before the end of the year! I haven’t decided yet whether I will continue this in 2022, so let me know what, if anything, you’d like to see from me. Every one of these has been longer than the last, so maybe next year’s resolution should be to have less thoughts??

When I think back on this month I remember a couple of weeks ago there was wind so strong that I was unsure whether I could manage the brief walk between my office and home. For myself and many others this October has felt like an escalation of stakes. The year exiting its second act, and the foreboding of an impending climax. Even in Los Angeles, a place where time does not move, the weather is different. Subliminally, we all know the beach is now off limits. We weren’t going to the beach anyways, but the closure of that possibility still dampens my mood.

In games, COVID related delays have meant there have been blissfully few new releases this year that have captured my immediate attention. This month provided one exception: Metroid: Dread, the first totally new Metroid game since 2010’s lambasted Metroid: Other M. The initial announcement made me skeptical, but curious. Here is a 2D game, coming out while everyone is waiting for the in-development 3D Metroid Prime 4. It is developed by MercurySteam, who could be considered the most qualified people in the world to make “Metroidvania” games; they are the only people in the world who have spent the last decade developing both Castlevania games and Metroid games. However, that pedigree is tempered by the consensus that their games so far have been uneven at best. Nevertheless, this studio was given the enviable opportunity to realize not only a canonical mainline entry in a hallowed Nintendo franchise, but it was the infamous “Dread” project! This game was originally planned for the DS system two hardware generations ago, but languished in development hell for unknown reasons. In marketing Nintendo touted it as the final entry in the “Metroid saga.” There is a great deal to be curious about!

Yet gameplay footage had me very concerned. “Free aiming” and countering features were returning, after first appearing in the studio’s remake of Metroid II: Samus Returns. These two abilities utterly sabotage the classic style of Metroid’s level design, and signaled to me and other designers a critical misunderstanding of how Metroid’s game design functions. Fortunately, it exceeded my expectations. The parts of the experience that are lost are truly lost, but the replacements are well developed. Dread is not a weak Metroid, but a new flavor of one. 

Even before playing it, the mandate for Metroid: Dread was clear. “Return to a classic style, but update it for modern sensibilities.” The question then is what needs updating, how did they tackle it, and what are the ramifications? If we are feeling ambitious we can also ask: What do these changes say about the culture of players in 2021? I’m excited to dig into it!

Criticism 1: “Metroid is clunky”

Many players quickly turned away from older Metroid games because they found the character of Samus cumbersome to maneuver. The armour she wears is heavy, and the physics of the games communicate that by giving the character slow momentum. From a standing position, it takes a couple moments before she can move at full speed (even though that full speed is very high). This offers a lot of fine control, but it makes it painful for some to frequently start and stop.

Addressing this was clearly a high priority for MercurySteam. The first thing many reviews for Dread will say is that the game feels silky smooth to move around in. More so than any new gimmick or feature, this is what gives Dread its character. Samus runs at 100 mph with the slightest tilt of the stick. Like an Assassin’s Creed character she will automatically vault over low barriers, and can pull herself up from ledges right from the start. She is a cursor, instantly sprinting towards whichever direction you want her to. This fluidity is supplemented with dozens of small character animations that flow seamlessly across movement states. The player character looks comfortable in her environment, and it makes the player feel comfortable and in control as well.

The biggest new traversal ability in Dread is the slide action. Samus can use the slide to get under narrow passageways, which previously would be locked off until the player gets a “Morph Ball” ability. Unlike the ball form, sliding is a natural movement that easily maintains the players momentum and allows them to keep running. The ball form is still required to access narrow passageways that are off the ground, which is a fantastic way to expand the subtle gating system in the level design. Sliding allows for levels to have plentify one-way passages, which can compartmentalize the map. (Whether this is a good or bad thing is up to taste, and GMTK has a great video explaining how it affects Dread’s level design.) Because of how many narrow tubes are used in Metroid, the Morph Ball is usually unlocked early on. Expanding the core movement set allows Dread to keep the ball locked until very late in the game, which makes its discovery a very tantalizing and cathartic moment. Beyond just being a meta-joke, withholding the Morph Ball gets the players very familiar with the slide action, which is crucial for Dread’s combat goals. I’ll get into that more later, but suffice to say that the slide is an efficient addition that hits several birds with one stone. 

All these movement adjustments and additions seem to have accomplished their goal. Players have responded overwhelmingly with praise for how good it feels to traverse through the world of Dread. How does this change affect the experience though? If game design is the careful control of friction, then losing so much movement friction separates the player from the environment. 

Because the player moves so quickly, it is too difficult for a level designer to construct platforming challenges that require a great deal of precision from the player. The character moves wildly and abruptly with any slight input. This makes the game feel responsive, and the character powerful. It also means that the character cannot make small adjustments to move tightly. It’s a tradeoff. The older games feel “clunky,” but they allowed for the player to make micro adjustments to movement. Platforming challenges could frequently ask the player to land on a platform no wider than Samus’ own sprite. By contrast, Dread has very few platforming challenges, and the ones that do exist have wide platforms around four times Samus’ width. Isn’t it weird that you never have to jump across platforms over a lava pit? They have lava — it is not an accident that you never have to jump over it. The game is not about controlling Samus’ “placement” beyond the broadest strokes. This will have spillover consequences to every other aspect of the game.

Even in an abstract sense, the player is unable to connect with the environment. While the background art is phenomenal, there is no way for a player to slowly walk through and linger in it. Walking is impossible, there is only running. Each room is briskly passed — the suggestions and contemplations of each space passing by in blinks. More primitive graphics did not stop players from attaching to the spaces in older Metroid games; being forced to carefully consider each room imprinted those areas in players’ imaginations, even when the background art was a pitch black void.

Criticism 2: “Aiming is so complicated”

I definitely shared this criticism the first time I tried to play Super Metroid, as a child. I know what I want to do, the bad guy is right up there, why is it so hard to shoot where I want? I would stumble over the buttons constantly, mashing the controller when I wanted to fire a missile, until I would accidentally jump into a lava pit. There is fun friction, but stumbling over complicated controls is not one of them. I wanted to be able to aim wherever I wanted to.

“360 degree free-aiming” is a monkey paw wish fulfillment. By holding down the L-bumper, Samus locks in place and the movement stick is instead used to point her gun in any direction. MercurySteam first implemented it in their remake of Metroid II, but the consequences of that feature sabotage the careful level design of the original. In the original Metroid games, Samus could fire in eight directions, with a bumper being used to aim in 45 degree diagonals. These locked angles forced the player to move in precise locations, where other enemies or hazards could pressure them, and create the unique challenges of each combat setup.

To give an example: Say there is an enemy on the ceiling. You could stand beneath it and shoot up, but maybe this enemy would drop straight down and damage you. Maybe you can jump up some platforms and be high enough to hit it from the side, but this depends on those platforms being present. Most likely, the only way to hit it is by firing diagonally. Since the diagonal firing angle is locked to 45 degrees, there is only one place you could comfortably stand and shoot. The level designer knows this, and can add an additional enemy that threatens that specific location. Perhaps there is a projectile that fires at that spot in regular intervals, and you must take your shots at the ceiling before dodging the incoming fire. Perhaps there is a swarm of bees which must be cleared out first. Perhaps there is a wall, forcing you to only hit it underneath, and risk taking damage if you aren’t fast enough.

These modular possibilities are the essence of level design. Free-aiming ruptures this setup by allowing the player to stand wherever and easily circumvent any traps. This is a disastrous outcome for a remake of an older game, but Dread has the benefit of being built specifically for this new aiming scheme. It depends on it too — because of the changes in mobility, it is impossible to maneuver precisely and stand in tight locations. Even without the changes in aiming, the example above is nearly impossible with Dread’s movement. How, then, can Dread replace the game’s core combat loop?

Dread takes the disadvantages of free-aiming and builds a new “action”-centric combat loop around it. While holding the aim button, Samus is locked into place. She can shoot anything with an unobstructed sightline, but so long as she is aiming she is vulnerable to being hit. If there is an incoming attack, the player must let go of the aim button and dodge the attack. This would be trivial, except that aiming is much harder to do when there are 360 degrees of possibility. The further a target is, the more precise the aim with the joystick needs to be. (This is, in fact, so difficult that the game gives the player a “Wide Shot” power-up early on). It takes more time, focus, and dexterity to aim than with the previous movement scheme. This would be a disadvantage, except that the game turns it into the primary challenge. The new combat loop is thus: 

  1. Player locks into place
  2. Player aims at a target
  3. Player must fire before the enemy responds
  4. Player must disengage the aim and deal with incoming attacks

This new combat loop primarily challenges reaction time. We would call this more action-based, since action genres primarily challenge reflex. The older Metroid games were more platforming-based, because they challenge character placement. This adjustment is harmonious with the change in player movement abilities, which also dropped platforming challenges in favor of instantaneous responsiveness. It is also more in vogue with the generation defining Dark Souls style of combat. Yes, “____ is the Dark Souls of ____” is a meme, but that is because it genuinely recalibrated everything to its gravity. Metroid: Dread follows the Dark Souls style of combat — pellet the enemy, watch the attack pattern, then roll (well, slide) away. Placement doesn’t matter too much in Dark Souls, it is all about reaction.

The downside to this loop is that it risks making Metroid’s combat encounters very monotonous. To their credit, I think MercurySteam is aware of this and does a thorough job of introducing as much variation as possible. At the most basic, Dread introduces multiple enemies with varying attack patterns. By combining them in combat encounters, the player has to buckle down and aim at one, while watching the others. The way these attacks have to be dodged also grows increasingly complicated over the course of the game. Do you have to jump over, slide under, phase shift to the side, or hit the counter button? It is, essentially, a natural quick-time event. Aim, spam fire, then hit the right button or you will take damage.

This approach is not perfect, though. The combat only grows more complex by introducing more actions that the player can do, and it overburdens the controller with too many inputs. Boss encounters, in particular, feel like a battle with muscle memory rather than a battle with a boss. The combat actions are almost only used in combat situations, so I would die to each boss a half dozen times just because I had to relearn the controls each time. 

This is made most egregious with the counter mechanic. Samus Returns was criticized for letting the player counter almost every single enemy, which reduced the game to a far too simple loop of “run at enemy, wait for them to attack, then counter.” That has thankfully been changed in Dread, and only a slim selection of enemies can be countered. However, the bosses have each been balanced around the counter mechanic. Missiles do considerably less damage than countering a boss, encouraging the player to wait and focus on dodging attacks until there is a move that can be countered. The reason for this direction is because the counter leads into a lavish animation where the player can actively fire missiles while Samus performs some cool acrobatics. These sequences are cool, expensive, and not to be missed, which is why the fights are designed so that you must not miss them. The canned acrobatic animations are needed, because those acrobatics are much less possible with the combat loop.

Older Metroid games used platforming as the basis of combat, and that brought certain boons which Dread lacks. For one, because battles were affected by level design the same enemies would require different strategies in different layouts. For another, acquiring new mobility abilities would offer new vantage points and naturally change combat. Lastly, the player would use nearly the same mental muscle memory for combat as they would for platforming. Dread’s boss battles feel like difficult swerves because they are mode shifts.

To compensate for all this, Dread challenges player reactions, but complicating those challenges over the course of the game requires them to add more and more abilities that are only useful in combat. The result is a bloated control scheme, which backfires on the original complaint. It is more natural to aim, perhaps, but it is not less complicated. In Super Metroid, I complained about firing a missile because I had to hold down a bumper to aim diagonally, but in Dread I have to hold down that same bumper, and also press the joystick in the exact direction, and I cannot move until I release. It is in these complications, however, that Dread finds its friction to replace the effortlessness of movement. It is fun friction, in the way an action game like Dark Souls is. It does not fit the model Metroid was first built for, but it perhaps better fits the model of today’s games.

Complaint #3: “Pixel art is cheap looking”

While I sympathize with the previous complaint of old Metroid games, I definitely do not feel any kinship with this one. The pixel art of the old games is masterfully evocative and eerie. It takes a great deal of skill to accomplish, but because it can be produced cheaper, many people in the broader consumer base do not believe a pixel art game can be worth the price of a AAA title today. Alas. So while Metroid: Dread has 2D gameplay, MercurySteam constructed lavish bespoke 3D models for each environment. Each room has unique assets, carefully lit and arranged by a hundred artists. For some people it seems like even that is not enough, I saw people online saying a side-scrolling game could never be worth a full price tag. Alas.

The art is gorgeous though. I particularly like the decision to flip the negative space from typical Metroid games. The original Metroid had a stark black background, with illustrated foreground sprites. Dread has lush backgrounds, while its platforms are silhouetted in black shadow. This gives Samus a nice backlight, allowing her neon glowy details to really shine. Consequently it also makes Samus feel more divorced from the world, since she is literally on a separate plane from most of the visible environment. This is not a particularly good thing, but it is at least harmonious with how the mobility changes in Dread changed the relationship between player and space.

(The only thing that doesn’t look great are the E.M.M.I. chase sequences. The game heaps multiple shaders at once, and blows out the lighting contrast in a way that makes the textures look muddy. It smells to me like a quick attempt to make these sequences scarier, and it might be pushing past the technical art assumptions that had been set, and which everything had previously been built on. That’s just a guess on my part though, I don’t know much about technical art, it just looks notably inconsistent to me and I wonder if there is a story there.)

I’m bringing up the art because it does have an interesting design consequence. Since the collidable terrain is mostly in shadow and made up of large assets, they can’t really hide secrets in the same way the pixel ones did. Metroid games were infamous for hiding secret routes behind innocuous looking tiles, but Dread’s art direction does not afford that same approach. The level is still mapped to a tile grid, but the large assets do not have obvious seams. A player could not shoot at every tile, because the bounds of each tile are invisible. Now, a player would not need to shoot at every tile in a pixel game, because the Metroid series subtly teaches a consistent shape language that clues players in to where secrets might be hidden. This technique has been so effective that it established the same language across a genre, and while watching Austin Walker stream Super Metroid I was amazed at how he could instantly intuit where every hidden object was despite never playing a game in the series before, just because he knew the grammar from other games. It is an unfortunate impossibility in Dread. If the collision is all in silhouette, then any object which is not obviously stands out. MercurySteam leans into this, and makes every critical “shoot this tile” a pulsing, glowing brain.

Metroid is all about finding hidden objects, though, and they cannot discard that critical feature, so how do they disguise the secrets? Rather than be hidden, many of the bonus items are locked behind “shinespark” challenges which require a bit of cleverness and a lot of dexterity. This is, again, harmonious with the pattern of other gameplay changes. Dread replaces obfuscation with action. It is not always immediately clear what you need to do, but it is clear that there is something that can be done. Figuring it out lets you feel smart, but it is only half of the battle. Reaching these hidden objects requires using a complex series of moves which challenge timing — not exploration. There is no more shooting at every tile in case something is hiding beneath, and this is as much a good thing as a bad thing. For my part, I never bothered to double back and collect any of the secrets I missed. I fought the final boss with half the number of missiles as my friends, because it seemed like the more fun way to go about this particular game.

Conclusions

Metroid: Dread has silky movement, tough action, and lavish backgrounds. It is not a bad flavor, but it is a new one for Metroid. I have been very critical of the consequences of these directions because I miss the old taste, but I respect the dedication to developing each of these changes to complement each other. In isolation, any of these changes would have broken the game design completely. Together, they are a harmonious vision for what 2D Metroid needs to be for today’s audience. Dread declares, with its design, that to be modern, laborious platforming is out, and instant action is in.

These modernizations, though, are not a linear advancement of progress — they are born from a living culture that responds to taste-making hits. Would Dread be this way if Dark Souls hadn’t come out? Was Dark Souls popular because there was a craving for tight action, or is there a craving for tight action because of Dark Souls? Is there Dark Souls without Castlevania, and is there Castlevania without Metroid? The mainstream success of Dread shows that Metroid is not destined to be a dinosaur, but it is not, this time, the taste maker. Looking at this game, I wonder how tastes will continue to change, and how Metroid could continue to adapt in the future.

Bonus!

I can’t write about Metroid: Dread without also talking about the outcry from former developers at MercurySteam over their exclusion from the credits. MercurySteam says their policy is to only credit people who have worked on the project for at least 25% of the development time, ostensibly to encourage retention, but there are many holes with that motive. For one, it is not transparently communicated to the people who work there, but also MercurySteam are the ones who choose how long a contractor is employed, and Spanish media has reported that they cycle through contractors just barely within the bounds of Spanish labor law. Developers who weren’t credited also say that some people they worked alongside for the same period of time did get credits, so I wouldn’t be surprised if the policy is baloney and the crediting situation is a mix of negligence and pettiness.

The crediting stuff is just the tip of the iceberg though, compared to what the Spanish press has reported. MercurySteam’s management allegedly kept everyone working in-person through the entire pandemic, while only implementing superficial precautions. (This would explain why it is the only major Nintendo release this season — they might have been the only ones trying to operate at full capacity during the pandemic). The scope of the game sounds like it could have also been out of control, with one person claiming there were supposed to be twice as many boss fights — which the final game shows some evidence of but certainly would not be improved with. The people who speak about the game say they are proud for contributing to the most prestigious game Spain has ever released, but the road to its release sounds messy. Management bullied people around, and even forbade the use of any microwaves for some reason or another. 

All the stories tell me is that the pressure of delivering a good game led to some intense paranoia from the management. They put people in danger by working through a deadly time, they pinched pennies by cycling through a load of contractors without benefits, and they acted out on the staff when the output wasn’t up to snuff. A team that is confident in their abilities doesn’t have to cycle through a hundred artists to stitch together something. People who are only brought in to do work on the spot produce spotty work, it ain’t their fault. I have no doubt that excellent results could have been achieved with less strenuous circumstances if the production was better. I can only hope that MercurySteam uses the success of Dread to invest in stabilizing itself rather than taking the opportunity to expand and reach for the next thing, which might be out of its grasp.

Double Bonus!

So Smash Bros. Ultimate is DONE now, huh? Everyone is so exhausted that I don’t think we’re able to fully appreciate what this journey means, now that it is over. I believe there will never be another Smash Bros. game like it. Sakurai repeatedly said that the opportunity to do “Everyone is Here” will never happen again, and I don’t doubt that. Licensing only becomes more complicated as time goes on, and there are more than 80 characters to juggle. A future entry will have to redefine what Smash Bros. is, so that the scope can reset.

Why does any of that matter? Because this massive game is a rosetta stone for so much design vocabulary. Each character tries to adapt different genres, and in doing so demonstrate a diverse set of systems which can interact in surprising new ways. Wii Fit Trainer’s special moves are about slow timing, to convey patience. Inkling feels slippery because the dodge is quick and wide, and you have to run away to recharge. Minecraft Steve has to forage for resources. All of these characters have inventive special moves, which are easy to use as reference in a variety of contexts. “This punch should feel like Captain Falcon’s.” “What if we have a jump that feels like a metal Jigglypuff?” “Touching this should lock you in place like being hit with Ness’s side-b.” The quality of the game is so high that every part can be studied and replicated as a base. Steal the frame timing of an attack! Copy VFX! Mimic how characters pull weapons out of nowhere! Need some examples of responsive jumping? How about walk cycles? You got 80 characters to look at in this game, each at their very best!

None of that goes away now that the game is done, obviously, but I will miss the community. We would all come together and say, “Do you think there will be a reveal at this event? Who do you think it should be?” Then we could talk about literally any and all videogames, talk about how we would condense their unique essence into a familiar Smash form. Those water cooler chats made everyone game designers. There will be other Smash games, but they will never be Ultimate. “Everyone is Here” meant that all the old, known quantities were spoken for. Each new character reveal meant something new, expansive, and full of potential. I’m going to miss it.

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