The name conjures a lot of intense adjectives: powerful, fearless, resolute. And little has changed about Samus since her debut on the Famicom Disk System back in 1986. She strides across inhospitable alien worlds, arm cannon at the ready, and does the impossible. Simply put, Samus rules. That said, playing Metroid Dread made me wonder if she might rule just a little more if Nintendo saw fit to expand her personality past “stoic, silent, one-woman army.”
Metroid Dread is a week old at this point, giving everyone ample opportunity to check out a game that was rumoured to be in production for over a decade, though never officially acknowledged by Nintendo until earlier this year. It’s an excellent game, providing the same visceral 2D action as its predecessors while also pushing the overall Metroid mythos forward in compelling ways.
As with most previous games, the Samus Aran of Metroid Dread is still the same Samus Aran we’ve known and loved for 35 years. But for the first time in the series’ history, it’s starting to feel like an actual detriment to the story.
First, let’s make sure we’re all on the same page regarding Samus’ history.
As a child, Samus Aran was the only survivor of a Space Pirate raid on the Earth colony planet K-2L (the Galactic Federation is terrible at naming things). It’s here that she first came face-to-face with Ridley, a terrifying space dragon (for lack of a better term) who led the attack on her world.
Intercepting a distress signal, a race of bird-like spacefarers known as the Chozo landed on K-2L and rescued Samus, eventually adopting her into their tribe. She was infused with DNA donated by a Chozo named Grey Voice — the first of many alterations to her genetics throughout the series — to help her survive on their home planet, Zebes. This also imbued Samus with enhanced physical abilities, further bolstered by her iconic Chozo-designed power suit.
Samus would go on to leave her adopted family behind, making a name for herself as a mercenary for hire.
When we first meet Samus in 1986’s Metroid, the Chozo themselves are but a fading memory in the universe despite the countless ruins and monuments they left behind. Every power-up you collect in a Metroid game is a piece of this history: small, sad reminders of the kind bird folk who raised Samus to be the woman she is. And while the crumbling remnants of this forgotten civilisation became a constant in the franchise, we wouldn’t see a real-life Chozo in the flesh until Metroid Dread.
Funny enough, Metroid Dread opens with Samus getting her arse kicked by a huge Chozo we later learn is named Raven Beak. This is how we learn that the Chozo weren’t just one homogeneous civilisation but spread across several tribes. Samus’ childhood saviors were known as the Thoha, a peaceful sect who would eventually (and ignorantly) create the eponymous Metroids, while Raven Beak belongs to the more aggressive, war-like Mawkin tribe.
Turns out, the two groups have very different opinions on using Metroids to conquer the universe, a disagreement that has played out in the background of Samus’ adventures.
It’s during Metroid Dread that Samus meets a member of the Thoha tribe named Quiet Robe. Unlike Raven Beak, this peaceful Chozo assists Samus, shutting down the murderous E.M.M.I. robots that serve as the game’s most dangerous foes. Just as Samus is about to leave Quiet Robe’s chambers, however, the Chozo is gunned down by a robotic assassin under Raven Beak’s control, killing off the one connection Samus has to her past. It’s a poignant scene considering all she’s been through. At least, it should be.
Her reaction? Staring blankly at Quiet Robe’s corpse and moving on with her mission. It’s surreal. And frankly, the rest of the meeting between Samus and Quiet Robe was just as disappointing.
Here’s the only Chozo she’s seen since adolescence, and Samus acts like she’d rather be anywhere else. I would expect someone in that position to let her guard down a bit and ask a few questions, maybe even crack a smile. But no, Samus Aran is Samus Aran: cold, emotionless, unfazed. I’ll admit, it was pretty cool to hear Samus speak to Quiet Robe in the Chozo language — another Metroid franchise first — but her lack of warmth for someone who is essentially extended family was completely baffling.
Further into the adventure, Metroid Dread rewrites a crucial piece of Samus’ history with the reveal that the Chozo DNA she was imbued with as a child came not only from Grey Voice, a member of the Thoha tribe, but a Mawkin as well. That’s right: Raven Beak is basically her bird dad.
Again, this elicits zero reaction from Samus. This is partly because the info is shared with the player during one of Metroid Dread’s many exposition dumps rather than a full-on cutscene, sure, but as with Quiet Robe’s death, it’s a moment in which you’d expect someone to react, to angrily deny the truth, something. And yet Samus doesn’t even flinch. She’s a cipher to a fault.
Samus is such a stereotypical badass in Metroid Dread that she doesn’t even drop the act during loading screens. While transitioning from area to area, the game treats you to these moody little scenes of Samus riding an elevator or standing in a train car or floating through space as she teleports. They’re really cool the first few times, but watching Samus stand motionless for several minutes, not even fidgeting or checking her weapons, just ends up being awkwardly funny.
This is the part of the story where I get dangerously close to complimenting Metroid: Other M, so steel yourself.
Metroid: Other M, for all its faults, did something no previous instalment dared by giving Samus an actual personality. While the rest of the game was pretty misogynistic in its portrayal of this newfound personality — don’t even get me started on the Varia suit heat protection scene — Samus’ reaction to seeing Ridley’s clone was one aspect of the plot, despite similar criticisms, that always rang true to me. Her brief moment of panic upon seeing the horrific monster who killed her family seemingly revived made sense, even with the context of their many other battles.
More importantly, this encounter made Samus feel like a real person rather than a robotic, alien-killing machine. Bravery doesn’t exist in a vacuum; fearing something and doing it anyway is the definition of courage. That Samus was obviously suffering intense, debilitating trauma from her past and still managed to fight Ridley bathed every previous encounter between the longtime foes in a new light and made her all the more heroic in my eyes. It certainly couldn’t save the rest of Metroid: Other M, but this small scene will always stand out as one of the few good things that game did for Samus’ character.
Metroid Dread is a fantastic game that, for better or worse, feels like a direct response to the backlash against Metroid: Other M and how its handling of Samus’ personality. While I loved watching her face down a roaring Kraid in Dread without so much as flinching and then unloading in the creature’s scaly face, I was less impressed with how she was characterised in the game’s quiet moments. Even just including a few animations of her tinkering with her equipment or examining her surroundings during the brief loading screens would have gone a long way toward making her feel more human.
Handled better, Samus’ meeting with Quiet Robe (and, to a lesser extent, the reveal of her true Chozo heritage) could have been one of Metroid Dread’s defining moments, rife with emotional weight as she reconnects with an influential aspect of her past. As it stands, however, it’s simply a confusing example of the bland persona that’s been crafted for one of gaming’s most iconic female characters.
I love seeing Samus take names, Nintendo, but let’s start adding more layers to that badass personality. She deserves it.