Metroid Dread gives Samus new power — and new humanity
I can’t believe I’m writing about the portrayal of Samus Aran again. I didn’t think I’d ever be back here. But Metroid Dread has awoken me from my years of Metroid fan slumber.
It’s 2021, and Metroid fans finally have a new depiction of the veteran bounty hunter, a new adventure, and a new series of reveals about Samus’ history. This depiction of Samus has already become her most popular: Dread has become the fastest-selling and best-selling Metroid game to date. For some players, this is their first and only version of Samus Aran, who appears in Dread as a taciturn bad-ass with an adaptable arm cannon and unstoppable waterproof mascara. For all they know, she was always this cool.
But Samus’ journey to Dread has been uneven. Samus was one of the first prominent female video game heroines, and since her inception, she’s been the subject of decades of arguments about whether she’s too strong to be sexy, or too sexy to be strong. The original Metroid didn’t even reveal her gender except to players able to beat the game fast enough; if they rose to that challenge, they’d learn Samus was not only a woman, but a woman who’d pose and wave at them while wearing a bikini. At the time, the reveal was a gimmicky surprise — and a presentation of her body as a reward reserved only for the most talented (presumed male, presumed straight) players.
Since then, Samus Aran’s appearance and portrayal have fluctuated wildly. The Super Metroid Nintendo’s Player’s Guide described her as a 198 pound, 6’3 muscle maven, but Other M controversially illustrated Samus as a 5’1, noodle-armed waif. Once Super Smash Brothers added the option for Samus to fight in her Zero Suit (the skin-tight blue body suit she wears under her armor), the tension between Samus’ conflicting physicalities became much more visible, with Super Smash Bros. depicting Samus as a towering Amazon in her power suit and a petite gymnast in her Zero Suit.
Samus Aran’s personality kept fluctuating, too. The first three 2D Metroid games had little to no in-game text or dialogue, instead opting for visual and environmental storytelling to relay the following plot beats: After Samus destroys lots of dangerous mutated Metroids, she runs into a baby one and chooses to spare its life; that baby Metroid returns to save her life in the climax of Super Metroid. Any particular feelings Samus might have had about that were up to the player to project. It wasn’t until Metroid Fusion and Other M that Samus suddenly seemed quite emotional indeed about the baby Metroid, not to mention the other stressful situations she had endured over the course of her life. The reveal that Samus was a woman — a sexy woman, waving at you — had come as a surprise to players back in 1986. But the reveal that she was an emotional woman shook the Metroid fandom into pieces. The minimal characterization of Samus in the early Metroid games had left holes that Fusion and Other M tried to fill, but few fans liked the filling.
As a person who has read and reread the dubiously canonical Metroid manga series, I’m down for a portrayal of Samus Aran as a tender-hearted trauma survivor who’s endured a lifetime of baggage from multiple father figures, very few of whom are still alive. That’s what Other M attempted. But it didn’t quite stick the landing. The results managed to disappoint fans of every stripe, be they feminists rooting for a multifaceted portrayal of a longtime video game heroine, or sexists annoyed that the sexpot blonde who used to simply wave at them was not only talking but whining. For years after Other M’s release, the Metroid franchise shuttered its doors, seemingly unable to move forward. Along with many other Metroid fans, I moved on.
But then fortunes changed for Samus Aran in 2017, with the announcement of Metroid Prime 4 and a 3DS remake of the 1991 2D Metroid game Return of Samus, made by Spanish developer MercurySteam. Although Metroid Prime 4 has yet to materialize, Samus Returns came out shortly after its announcement, allowing anxious Metroid fans like me very little time to worry about whether it would be any good. While everyone else I knew was still mainlining Breath of the Wild, I kept my Nintendo 3DS on my nightstand every night, playing Samus Returns in amazement and relief. Metroid was good again?? Was that even possible? I hadn’t dared to dream about it.
Metroid Dread has also been a dream for almost two decades, originally conceived as a direct sequel to Metroid Fusion (2002). Yoshio Sakamoto, who has produced and directed several games in the series since the original Metroid, had the idea for the EMMI robots that stalk Samus in Dread early on, but video game technology wasn’t there. Sakamoto’s partnership with MercurySteam for the Samus Returns remake, as well as the capabilities of the Nintendo Switch, made it possible for a long-held dream to finally become a reality.
But I’ve been burned before. After all, Yoshio Sakamoto had written the story for Fusion and Other M, the two games that depicted a version of Samus whose lack of confidence didn’t match up with the capabilities she’d demonstrated — or, at least, capabilities I had demonstrated — in Metroid, Metroid 2, and Super Metroid. I was more than willing to believe that Samus had PTSD, and even that its symptoms would be inconsistent, but Other M and Fusion were not exactly giving me a nuanced portrayal of a traumatized warrior. Instead, they depicted Samus as insecure and simpering, looking to her male superiors for advice that she’d never seemed to need or want before.
At the very least, based on MercurySteam’s remake of Metroid 2, I felt assured that the exploration and platforming would feel good in Metroid Dread. If the story was full of cringe-worthy, paternalistic dialogue between Samus and the AI recreation of her former commanding officer (and one of many father figures) Adam Malkovich, so be it. I would be the one playing the game; I would be the far cooler version of Samus behind the visor. I always had been in the past, even when the game didn’t match my imagination. I had no expectations that the Samus in the actual game would be cool at all. After all, she barely ever had the chance to be.
In Metroid Dread, against all odds and expectations, Samus Aran is finally a badass. The game acknowledges Samus’ long list of father figures who’ve told her what to do, but rather than follow the path of other games that explore daughters’ tension between respect and rebellion against their paternal influences, Metroid Dread is a tribute to the solitary slog of Samus’ career.
Review: Metroid Dread reaches new heights by offering no mercy
At the end of the day, Samus has to do her job alone. AI Adam may give her advice and admonishments along the way, but she’s the one who’s actually scrambling through smog-infested corridors, leaping over fiery lava pits, collecting ancient artifacts and plugging them into her shambling cyborg body. She’s the one exploring and uncovering the world around her and, as usual, it’s hostile as hell. Sometimes she faces adversaries that make her eyes widen in terror; in other moments, she meets longtime foes and shrugs in boredom, the jaded warrior who’s seen it all (and seen it again in her nightmares, and hopefully, gone to therapy since then). She’s afraid of the new threats, but she’s inured to the familiar ones. She’s not a cold-hearted cypher who never feels fear. She’s a human; she shrugs, she cocks her head, she struts, and she struggles.
Of course, there’s the Metroid of it all as well — the morph ball, the super missiles, and so on. There are boss fights that require so much pattern memorization that I felt like a damn genius by the time I got past each one of them, even as Samus seemed as unfazed and hyper-competent as ever. Unlocking every single corner of the map to get all of the missile and energy upgrades feels like a different game entirely, requiring both critical thinking skills and lightning-quick reflexes. All of that, on its own, would have been enough for me, as indeed it was in MercurySteam’s Samus Returns.
Image: MercurySteam, Nintendo EPD/Nintendo via Polygon
But Dread is not just that. It’s also a surprising redemption for Sakamoto’s ability to tell Samus’ story, after Fusion and Other M felt like missed opportunities to expand on the heroine’s mysterious past. Dread doesn’t include much story, and its few narrative reveals are the height of melodrama — but it’s juicy rather than cloying. Best of all, the portrayal of Samus is minimalist without being withholding; illustrative without overdoing it.
The best Metroid games never had much story, anyway. There’s still mystery left in Dread about who exactly Samus is and what she thinks about all of this. But thanks to her body language and a few choice words (in the ancient Chozo tongue), I now feel more certain than ever that I finally got to see a truly multifaceted version of Samus. She’s just mysterious enough to leave me wanting more, and finally, I feel some hope I might get it. She’s traumatized and brave, reeling at new information while also being confident and competent enough to take it on board and move forward, always forward. As the credits rolled, I wondered: Is this the woman she was always supposed to be?
After all these years, I’m glad I finally got the chance to meet her.
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