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‘Metroid Dread’ struggles to communicate the series’s true, lasting appeal. Let us help.

(The Washington Post)

“Metroid Dread” is not just hard, as I wrote in my review. It can also be hard to understand.

Released earlier this month, “Dread” is the first new 2D Metroid game since 2002′s “Metroid Fusion.” Although the series is among the most influential in the medium, its slow sales numbers have led to a drought of Metroid games in the last decade. For many players, “Metroid Dread” will be their introduction to one of Nintendo’s most revered franchises.

Since its release, I’ve watched new players on live streams struggle to understand the game. Among the more prominent critics of the game’s design is former game designer and director David Scott Jaffe, the creator of the original God of War and Twisted Metal series for PlayStation. Recently, he went viral after struggling in an early room in “Dread” where he failed to find hidden tiles in the environment that need to be destroyed to proceed. The game teaches players to shoot at walls if they’re stuck, but Jaffe hadn’t yet internalized that mechanic. He has been roasted by the Metroid community for this.

The Metroid series, more than most, rewards curiosity, persistence and sharp memories. It’s a series with specific rules that have carried over from game to game. While the Metroidvania genre bears its name, “Metroid” in 1986 and its subsequent sequels have their own formula altogether. “Castlevania: Symphony of the Night,” released more than 10 years later, streamlined that formula to make it more accessible and added role-playing elements to evolve the genre. But Metroid was never about leveling up. It’s about knowing the game inside and out.

The concepts of speedrunning and completion have been baked into the game’s core formula and identity since its debut. By finishing the first “Metroid” in under three hours, players discovered that the protagonist, bounty hunter Samus Aran, was actually the first female lead in a major video game. Speedrunning was not just essential to completing the game — it was necessary to understand the game’s story.

Understanding and enjoying a video game also means understanding and enjoying what is called its “gameplay loop” — basically the actions that players repeat while navigating a video game from start to finish. For example, the gameplay loop of “Super Mario Bros.” is to understand the immediate challenge before you, and then maneuver through, running and jumping to beat it, after which you’re confronted with a new challenge. Then, the loop begins again. The gameplay loop of loot-based games like “Destiny 2” or the Diablo series is about running through dungeons, picking up more powerful equipment and then running through the dungeons again with more powerful gear.

Most video games penalize failure. Enter the time loop.

Metroid is a series with a micro and macro gameplay loop. The micro loop is that you explore the environment, run into obstacles, and then explore some more until you find the ability or power-up that helps you overcome that obstacle. But for longtime players of the series, there is a larger, more satisfying loop: It’s the entire game.

In my original review, I said the game was initially confusing. Since then, I’ve beaten the game five times, each time improving the speed of my run. My first run on hard mode — my third attempt overall — was almost under four hours; had I achieved a slightly faster time, I would’ve received every ending reward the game has to offer. It’s safe to say that since my initial review, my enjoyment of the game has improved, especially as I’ve taken on the entire game as a project to complete.

This is not something you’d glean as a newcomer to the series, or if you haven’t engaged with Metroid for a long time. I spoke with Jaffe earlier this week on his YouTube channel and explained this philosophy to him. He admitted that the last time he played a Metroid game was “Super Metroid” in 1994, a game he didn’t finish. His issue, he explained, is that the Metroidvania genre of games has muddied his understanding of the legacy of “Metroid.”

“So many Metroidvania games have solved that problem [of onboarding new players],” Jaffe said. “I just didn’t know what it was. I saw the advertisements, I saw the reviews, I thought, ‘Oh it’s another cool triple-AAA Nintendo game. Let me play this thing, it’s got great reviews.’ I don’t know how they could’ve made it clear that this was a nonintuitive game for a lot of people. … It sounds like Metroid is not Metroidvania, Metroid is Metroid.”

He also said he struggled with remembering the controls, since the game eventually asks players to use every single button on the controller and remember every move in their arsenal from the beginning of the game all the way to the final confrontation.

Jirard Khalil, the YouTube creator best known as “The Completionist,” also expressed concern over new player onboarding for what’s become a niche series, despite personally loving “Metroid Dread.” In his review, he said “Dread” was a “forceful” reminder that Metroid games have always been hard. That fact is easy to forget, considering we haven’t received a new 2D Metroid game in almost 20 years.

“ 'Dread’ forces the player to master input commands in ways no other game in the series has up until this point,” Khalil said in his review, adding that it was a few hours until he realized this latest game was not welcoming to new players. “To me, this is both the game’s greatest weakness, but also the source of the game’s longevity.”

As a longtime Metroid fan, I get what Khalil is saying. I worried about how “Metroid Dread” might feel to new players. But at the same time, the game is extremely rewarding and fulfilling to a familiar player like myself who would gladly dive back in to beat the game again, seeking out shorter and faster routes. This is the core appeal of Metroid.

The video game review process is broken. It’s bad for readers, writers and games.

Professional speedrunners and Metroid fans have already cracked open the game, finding what’s called “sequence breaks” in which players discover new ways to navigate the planet and earn power-ups to access more areas of the map at earlier points in the game. While I’m still chasing a run under four hours, players like Samura1man, a Finnish speedrunner, have beaten the game in under an hour and a half and are still finding new ways to shave off time. Just on Monday, Samura1man achieved what was then the world record, beating “Dread” in one hour and 27 minutes. That record was beaten by approximately half a minute later that same day. On YouTube, his latest run clocks in at one hour, 26 minutes and 9 seconds. Such is the speed and passion of the Metroid community.

“Metroid Dread” struggles to communicate the true, lasting appeal of its series. It’s a game that starts to click after you’ve beaten it once. The replay value comes in knowing you are helping Samus Aran live up to her reputation as the galaxy’s most confident and powerful bounty hunter, and that comes from intimate knowledge of the game’s systems, many of which aren’t explicitly outlined to players.

“What you’re describing makes me want to go back and play it now. I didn’t know this is what that was. I’ll approach it in a totally different way,” Jaffe told me. “I’m privileged to be able to talk to a games journalist who also happens to be a hardcore fan of the franchise. Don’t you think this is something people should know? Because now I’m like, ‘Oh, I’ll try it again!’ ”

I agree with Jaffe. I do think this was something that needed to be communicated to other players, especially newcomers to the series. Until that better understanding happens, it usually falls to word of mouth from folks like myself to help people understand this series. That’s exactly why I wrote this article, and it was heartening to hear that Jaffe would give “Dread” another shot. I can only hope this piece helps more people understand why this series holds a special place in the hearts of many who have understood it.