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Metroid Dread revives the series prevalent sense of foreboding

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Samus Aran, the first lady of video games, is running for her life. A lithe, practically invincible cyborg is chasing her through dark corridors as a cold, haunting synth-techno melody tinkles like muffled breathing.

The gameplay and atmosphere of "Metroid Dread" sets its mood in the same way the first game's title dropped in 1986 with its foreboding title screen music. Samus Aran may be gaming's first heroine, but the heroics give away to chilling unease. "Metroid" has always been about a lone woman, lost in the dark expanse of space and its unknown horrors. The series has always been a story about dread.

There's a lot riding on the game, scheduled for release this October. It needs to serve a longtime, starving fan base who hasn't seen a new original story in the series in 14 years. It needs to introduce the "Metroid" world to the generation or two who grew up without it. And another challenge: The series was so influential it helped spawn several excellent games that have modernized the "Metroid" formula and raised the bar, titles like "Hollow Knight" and "Ori and the Blind Forest."

But longtime "Metroid" director and "Dread" producer Yoshio Sakamoto told The Washington Post he's confident people will be bowled over right from the introduction.

"Once you see the opening, you'll have everything you need to know about the game," Sakamoto said through a interpreter. "It is really better than I imagined those 15 years ago when I had the idea for this and see it realized, it's made me really, really satisfied."

"Metroid" in 1986 created an entire genre of games copying its template: Large maps navigated by the tools you find during intense exploration, submerged in atmospheric, environmental storytelling. It was a game so big at the time, you needed to write down passwords to reload your progress, since the game predated "save state" technology. You could easily trace "Dark Souls" back to "Metroid," with its carefully placed items, locked areas and deliberate backtracking.

It's notable that Sakamoto retains his producer role for "Dread," as he did with the 2017 3DS remake, "Metroid 2: Samus Returns" by Spain-based studio MercurySteam. MercurySteam is also developing "Dread." Sakamoto is a lifer at Nintendo, having written the "Famicom Detective Club" series in Japan before moving on to help with "Metroid" in 1986. Sakamoto would later go on to direct "Super Metroid," the Super Nintendo game held up not only as the genre standard, but one of the few video games that can be described as absolutely perfect.

"Metroid 2: Samus Returns" was released for the Nintendo 3DS in 2017, several months after the launch of the Nintendo Switch sucked up all the attention from the community. That game was also developed by MercurySteam, and while it was celebrated, a remake wasn't going to be enough for "Metroid" fans hungry for another full game.

Moreover, MercurySteam's first "Metroid" outing also rebranded the original game's atmosphere to bombastic splendor. The original Game Boy release, in contrast, was a brooding descent to a planet's core that only became more bleak as the game wore on. The 3DS remake, meanwhile, ended with an exploding base and soaring orchestral music. "Dread" also seems like a course correction, with much of the gameplay featured this week being far more understated and true to the series roots.

Sakamoto said he has been involved in "day-to-day" talks with MercurySteam. The studio previously worked on modernizing the "Castlevania" series with Konami before the Japanese publisher famously pivoted hard toward gambling machines over video games.

"We made use of cutscenes and 2D scenes that transitioned very seamlessly," Sakamoto said of the "Samus Returns" remake. "With 'Metroid Dread,' we use those to maintain a sense of tension and also expressiveness. The story is very important in this game."

Sakamoto is no stranger to horror. He was a big fan of horror stories when he wrote the "Famicom Detective Club" series, and it's clear some of that influence remained in creating the later "Metroid" games. But he's not keen on calling "Dread" a horror game.

"This isn't part of the horror genre, although it may have seemed that way," Sakamoto said. "It's really about Samus encountering fear, but she stands against that fear, fights it and beats it."

Sakamoto restated his commitment to Samus Aran - who earned the "first lady of video games" title because she was the first woman protagonist in a major title - and the series as a whole, despite more than a decade away.

"What this game represents is a bit of a pause, or a start to something else," Sakamoto said. "Nobody wants the 'Metroid' series to end. And we know ourselves that we don't want that either."

Published : June 17, 2021

By : The Washington Post · Gene Park