Being a Metroid fan has been a difficult affair for over a decade now. It’s been thirteen years since the last 2D Metroid (Zero Mission) hit stores, and unless you were satisfied by Metroid: Other M or Federation Force (you probably weren’t), Metroid fans have had precious little to celebrate. Yes, Metroid Prime 4 was announced at E3, but with no inkling at all about a release window, we have no idea when we’ll actually play it. So when Metroid: Samus Returns was announced that same day, I was cautiously optimistic. It LOOKED good, but was MercurySteam (responsible for the divisive Castlevania: Lords of Shadow series) up to the herculean task of reviving a long-dormant, much loved Nintendo staple?

The answer is: absolutely. Samus Returns displays the very clear devotion MercurySteam brough to this project, and the result is a game that stands tall with Super Metroid as one of THE finest 2D offering in the series.

In case you weren’t aware, Metroid: Samus Returns is a reimagining of Metroid II: Return of Samus, released on the Game Boy in 1991. Storywise, Samus Returns retains the DNA of it’s predecessor: your goal is to hit planet SR388 and dispatch numerous Metroids before the Space Pirates can use them to…..do Space Pirate stuff. In classic Metroid fashion, the story, although interesting, is sparsely told without much exposition. The REAL draw of any 2D Metroid is exploration and that sense of isolation, deep within the cavernous underbelly of some alien world. And Samus Returns delivers that in SPADES. SR388 is HUGE, and represents what is one of the largest, most expansive worlds the franchise has ever seen.

As you hunt the 40 Metroids hiding throughout SR388, you’ll use their DNA to unlock gates to new areas, leading you ever onward. Metroid purists may chafe at this sort of linear pacing when held next to games like Super Metroid and Zero Mission, but acquiring new powerups allows you to backtrack whenever you want to open up new areas containing missile tanks, energy tanks, etc. For the most part however, Samus Returns is a rather linear affair, driving you down singular path toward a REALLY cool confrontation I won’t spoil here.

Visually, Samus Returns shines as probably the best-looking game ever released on the 3DS. Colors are far sharper than what we’re used to on 3DS, and textures are rendered with more detail than almost any preceding 3DS title. Little details abound, like Samus shifting her weight after firing, almost as though she’s steadying herself, and go a long way in providing that immersion the Metroid series is known for. And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the 3D functionality. Full disclosure: I almost never use 3D on my 3DS; I normally find it gimmicky and headache-inducing. Here…..it’s still gimmicky. But damn if it isn’t the most impressive use of that gimmick I’ve yet seen. The layered backdrops of SR388 really pop with the 3D slider turned up, and give off the impression of immense, yawning caverns just go on and on. It’s really a sight to see, and makes me wonder what could have been, had more developers been willing to go the extra mile MercurySteam obviously did.

Combat is similar in many ways to other 2D Metroid games; Samus has an arm cannon and she blasts things with it. She has missiles, wave/ice beams, and can roll into a little ball and drop bombs. But a HUGE new addition is her melee counter. Almost every enemy has a lunging attack, announced by a flash, that Samus can parry by smacking them with her arm cannon at the right moment. A successful parry stuns the enemy and leaves them open for an immediate counterattack which usually results in a one-or-two hit kill. In the first half of the game, before acquiring the wave beam, this is almost a requirement; most enemies hit like a truck and take a fair amount of damage before going down.

This is compounded somewhat by numerous upgrades that greatly increase your firepower, but make no mistake: Samus Returns is a difficult game and you’ll die often, especially during the final two encounters. Here, too, MercurySteam proves their worth. The difficulty is on par with classic Metroid games, although I died numerous times to several bosses, I never felt as though I’d hit a brick wall in terms of challenge. Rather, I took several tries to learn boss patterns, perfected my timing, and got through the encounter. I never felt as though the game was being cheap or unfair.

There ARE a few minor issues to be had. One, it’s not made incredibly clear that you can, in fact, tap the touchscreen to roll into your morph ball, which is far more intuitive than using the 3DS’s tiny circular pad. If it’s there, I sure as hell missed it. And speaking of the pad, there’s no way to map movement to the D-pad, which I felt was sorely missing. I’m also not a fan of locking the game’s most challenging mode, Fusion, behind an amiibo purchase. I understand business, but it seems rather anti-consumer to me, which I don’t particularly care for.

But Samus’s biggest mistake? Being on the 3DS. I’m honestly a bit baffled as to why this isn’t on Switch. Nintendo’s newest console is performing EXTREMELY well, and the 3DS is more or less at the end of its lifespan. As good as Samus Returns looks and plays on 3DS, it would have been INCREDIBLE on a much more powerful console, and I can’t help but feel disappointed by its being hamstrung by the aging 3DS hardware. I honestly do expect a port to the Switch, which I’ll happily double dip for. But really, this should have been a Switch game from the beginning, full stop.

All that aside, the Metroid franchise is my favorite Nintendo franchise, bar none. I’ve played and loved almost every single entry, except for Federation Force and Other M. I had high hopes for Samus Returns, and MercurySteam managed to exceed almost every one. Samus has indeed returned, and I look forward to seeing what other adventures are in store for her.