Looking back on my 2021 in gaming, two words come to mind: few and scattered. That’s to say I played plenty but didn’t complete many games, let alone any released in 2021. The only exception to this would be Mass Effect Legendary Edition. While its DLC was new to me, however, the excellent core experience was no different from the excellent core experiences I’d had with the trilogy in the past. In short, the Mass Effect series is a favorite, no matter the versions of the games. This leaves me with a handful, if that, of games from which to call my 2021 game of the year. Upon consideration of this very small lot, only one game fits the bill. It’s one that had been something of my own “white whale” for a while, but I can finally say that I conquered it! That game is none other than Metroid Dread.
If I could easily pin down the story of Metroid Dread, I would if only I weren’t so stressed out about everything that happens in between the game few but notable moments of storytelling. But I digress. Without spoilers, the game, which picks up after the events of Metroid Fusion, is about the uncovering of Samus’s past on a planet called ZDR. It contains a number of revelations about the X parasite (again, from Metroid Fusion), its effects on Samus, and its galaxy-wide importance. In it, players meet members of the fabled Chozo race up close (a little too close at times); receive information via Samus’s notable computer companion, ADAM; battle a few familiar faces; and strive to collect anything and everything that can be collected.
Hearkening back to the pre-Metroid Prime days, the game is gorgeously rendered in 2D with 3D landscapes burgeoning with life. There are six large levels in the game to explore — these contain most of the game’s collectibles and Samus’s suit/weapon power-ups, which still wait patiently in the hands of familiar Chozo statues – along with two smaller areas, with more stuff to uncover, that play key roles in the game’s story. Running, jumping, and shooting remain classic in Samus’s arsenal of moves. Her once “secret” shinespark move is also readily celebrated here, and also dismayed by the likes of me, what with my decaying reaction times. (I was never any good at doing it in Super Metroid, either.) As well, Samus obtains some new powers, such as the flash shift, allowing her to quickly slip from spot to spot; the spider magnet, used to cling to certain walls; and the phantom cloak, giving her invisibility briefly. Just like in Metroid games and many other classic games, every power-up become the “important new thing” to master once obtained, because they each play key roles in progression.
And how was that progression? Well, as I indicated in my first article on the game, it was personally challenging. When I left the game at that point, I had been struggling with it. I couldn’t get far enough out of my head to enjoy what I was doing, let alone take in everything the game offered. After defeating two bosses and couple of the stress-inducing E.M.M.I. robots – presented in chase sequences that required lightning-fast reflexes – the game felt unfairly difficult. After finally beating it, I can safely say that Metroid Dread is absolutely no fun at times. Escaping and then fighting the E.M.M.I. robots was no fun. Some of the bosses were ridiculously no fun. All of those items hidden behind shinespark puzzles were no fun at all. And yet, the game remains my game of the year. Why? Because, as has been well argued, a game doesn’t have to be fun to be excellent. Metroid games have always been high-effort games. Trying, dying, learning, and trying again is Metroid experience. The feeling that comes from meaningful progression in the game is second-to-none. After defeating every hurdle I faced, I was rewarded with elation, relief, and a true sense of power. This isn’t a unique experience in gaming, but Metroid Dread makes it supremely satisfying.
That’s said, in my own ranking of Metroid games, Metroid Dread falls squarely third behind Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion, and it’s not a game I would instantaneously recommend. The high degree of difficulty presented early on in the game is unappealing, and I could imagine that it would be enough to turn off some players. As well, because Samus obtains so many powers throughout the game, with each mapped to a different button or combination of them, remembering which buttons to push when became more stressful than less. The fiddly controls took me out of the game at the worst possible times so often that they became the primary obstacle to me completing the game. If anything, a strange combination of perseverance and dumb luck led to me reaching its credits – a Metroid Dread expert I am not!
And yet, Metroid Dread sits as my 2021 game of the year because of what it accomplishes. It may not be a game that I’d recommend to any and all Switch users, but it’s a worthy addition to the series. It fully wraps up Samus’s story from the events of Metroid Fusion while leaving open a vein for further adventures. It is a masterful platformer that combines intense action with thoughtful movement. Its stunning graphics immerse players directly and indirectly in the strange world that is planet ZDR. Its high-risk, high-reward scheme is intensely gratifying — it rings true to what previous Metroid games achieved while also separating it from its predecessors. I’m glad to call Metroid Dread “done,” and I look forward to spending more time with it…eventually.