This isn’t a Metroid Dread review. MercuryStream’s side-scrolling revival is a great game and a good Metroid, and we’ll have an “official” review of it up some day soon, but there’s one little thing about it that needs to be discussed in isolation and at length. That’s the game’s pacing, which can be so weirdly, annoyingly off that it threatens to undermine the essential Metroid-ness of the whole thing.
The heart of a good Metroid has always been open-ended exploration marked by heavy backtracking. Its design encourages you to explore, rewards you with a steady drip of new power-ups and abilities, and then requires you to retrace your steps to visit areas that are now accessible with those new abilities. It’s also always been defined by space—not its sci-fi, outer space setting, but the sprawling levels you have to pore over during your adventure, the time spent doing so again and again, and the unhurried, almost leisurely pace that never quite forces you in any one direction. Metroid games keep their distance; like the planets they take place on, they typically feel indifferent to your presence, rarely rushing you along or loading you down with obligations. That contributes greatly to two other hallmarks of the series, its overriding sense of paranoia and claustrophobia.
At times, though, Dread gets too busy. It loads you down with too much you have to do in too short a time. There’s one stretch where you’ll have a long bossfight, immediately get a new ability, then run into a miniboss a few rooms away, kicking off another lengthy battle, only to then find a second new item—just bang bang bang like that. Those boss battles can be long and challenging, with multiple stages each, so you could easily spend a solid chunk of time just trying to succeed at that, only to find yourself in a similar situation within minutes.
Those fights can stop your progress dead. You might not have to fight them right then and there, and could easily still explore whatever areas are open to you at the time, but inevitably you will have to take those monsters down. You won’t be able to move any further in the game’s story until you do. And since the timing and placement of the boss battles aren’t always predictable—you will find yourself literally falling into at least two major encounters—you won’t always know when or how to space them out.
That can seriously hamper the game’s flow. The excitement you feel when you first explore an area in Metroid hinges on the freedom you have to take your time; the confidence and determination with which you charge through that same area later on, when you know exactly where you have to go and what you have to do to move on to the next part of the game, isn’t as empowering when the game throws up a series of stop signs. Originally boss fights were sparse in Metroid games—there are exactly three such battles in the NES original, and although Super Metroid added a handful of minibosses, it only threw one extra boss into the mix. That helped create Metroid’s specific rhythm, and it’s jarring when a Metroid game switches up that rhythm. That scarcity also makes each boss battle feel more important and thus more stressful, which both add to the singular satisfaction you feel playing a Metroid game.
Similarly, finding new abilities in quick succession also diffuses the sense of accomplishment and relief you should experience whenever you power up. Metroid has always doled its abilities out, making each discovery seem genuinely significant. When you find a Chozo statue clutching on to one of those orbs, you know it’s a reward, and you know you’ve earned it. There’s at least one occasion in Dread where you find two major abilities very close together, within minutes of each other, and instead of the thrill you typically expect it feels like you’re just checking items off a list.
Again, this is not a review. Dread is a success, perhaps the best Metroid game since Metroid Prime, and one of the better games for the Switch. And fortunately this poor pacing only impacts a small part of the game’s runtime, which should take between seven and 10 hours, or so. It happens just enough to stand out, though; it’s the most un-Metroid-like part of the game’s design, and doesn’t come off as an attempt to expand on what a Metroid game can be, like the similarly unique E.M.M.I. encounters that are found throughout Dread. (Those are fantastic, by the way.) It honestly just seems poorly thought out—like the designers hit a point where they just wanted to rush through a few goalposts in order to get to the finish line sooner. If you’re a longtime fan of these games you’ll probably notice how off these moments feel. Metroid’s always been a slower, more deliberate action game, and it’s a little disruptive when Dread has you do too much in too short a time.
Senior editor Garrett Martin writes about videogames, comedy, travel, theme parks, wrestling, and anything else that gets in his way. He’s also on Twitter @grmartin.