I’ve been looking forward to Metroid Dread a long time–my introduction to Samus and her story was 2002’s Metroid Fusion and though I would go back to play her earlier adventures and go on to enjoy the 2D remakes and Prime trilogy, I always hoped a sequel for Fusion would come out some day. The Metroid series has always toed the line when it comes to horror, traditionally taking place in spooky settings and putting Samus into situations that induce sensations of dread. I’ve always believed that Metroid would make for an incredible horror franchise for Nintendo, and Fusion came awfully close to making that jump for the 2D series.
But if anything, Dread is a step back in that regard. That’s not to say Dread is a bad game–I love Dread, and I foresee myself playing it repeatedly just like I’ve done with most of Samus’ adventures (what do you mean there were two Metroid games between Prime 3: Corruption and Samus Returns–no there wasn’t). But Dread doesn’t really live up to its namesake. There’s very little sense of dread in the game, and not much in the way of horror either.
Writer’s Note: Metroid Dread story spoilers ahead.
This is largely because the EMMI aren’t used very well in Dread. Part of the marketing for Dread from the very beginning, the EMMI were advertised as the main draw for Dread–an evolution to Fusion’s SA-X, in that they hunt Samus in predetermined sections of the game. These spider-like robots quickly skitter towards any sound they hear and will chase after Samus if she’s spotted, killing her in a single attack if they catch her and you don’t manage to execute a difficult counter. Unlike normal enemies and bosses, the EMMI can’t be hurt by Samus’ traditional arsenal of weapons, forcing you to seek out Central Units in order to temporarily unlock the Omega Cannon, a limited-use beam that can pierce the near-indestructible shell of an EMMI.
Though ads for the game and in-game dialogue paint the EMMI as terrifying threats (Adam, the AI for Samus’ ship, loves telling you how outmatched you are when it comes to the EMMI), the seven you face in Dread aren’t all that scary. Most of them utilize abilities that could have made them scary, but the areas where you encounter an EMMI are all structured with similarly designed layouts–they aren’t made to either take advantage of a given EMMI’s unique skill or put Samus at a disadvantage against that skill. So getting away from each one requires the same general strategy of sliding and jumping and running and using Phantom Cloak. There’s nothing pushing you to evolve how you handle them or utilize a greater assortment of Samus’ abilities in increasingly unique ways, so you just get better at utilizing the same tired strategy. By the third or fourth EMMI, getting away from one is a cake walk, and if you happen to mess up, Dread implements a very generous auto-save feature–why be scared of something if dying to it only costs you 10 to 20 seconds of progress? That’s nothing. It’s more of an annoying roadblock at that point.
And that’s where Dread loses me–making the EMMI more annoying than scary. Mechanically, they are an evolution of the SA-X, but thematically they’re a devolution. It certainly doesn’t help that you learn very early into Dread that EMMI can be destroyed. They aren’t this powerful threat always looming in the background–like practically anything else in a Metroid game, the EMMI are Samus’ prey to be hunted down once she acquires the necessary abilities to do so. The SA-X remains a terrifying threat because it cannot be defeated until the final moments of Fusion. And even then, it puts up quite the fight.
But what I dislike most about the EMMI is that they lack the element of horror that the SA-X had. Horror is at its best when the speculative nature of an idea implies an eerie or repulsive truth about a story’s main character or the values of society or culture. The SA-X is brilliant in this way–in Fusion, Adam tells Samus that the SA-X is her at her best. It is a copy of who Samus was following the events of Metroid, Metroid II: Return of Samus, and Super Metroid. And what does it do? It relentlessly hunts Samus to the furthest corners of the space station she’s trapped in. In Fusion, Samus is injected with Metroid DNA, making her the last living Metroid in the galaxy. And now, in a horrifying twist, she is being hunted by herself, just as she once hunted down and exterminated all the living Metroids. That terrifying feeling you endure throughout Fusion is the same terror you once subjected to an entire species in your genocidal rampage throughout Metroid II.
That’s horror. Samus (and the player through Samus) learning that they’ve been the bad guy, that they’ve been the monster up to this point is a horrifying realization. And that realization leads to a mounting sensation of dread because Samus (and again, the player) knows how pathetic they are against the SA-X because they can recall what happened in Metroid II. It didn’t matter how much the Metroids fed on other creatures, evolving into stronger forms–Samus killed them all, barring the one whose DNA now lives on in her. So she’s just following orders and finishing the job by killing herself. She’s a cold, uncompassionate killer. That’s what she’s always been, despite on occasion deviating from her mission to save trapped animals or become the mother-like protector for an infant. Only in Fusion, when she’s confronted with this horrifying truth, does Samus grow as a person, choosing to disobey orders instead of just following instructions, consequences be damned.
Now you can argue that the EMMI fill a similar thematic role to the SA-X by collectively being mirrors of Samus. It’s not clear if the Federation may have initially built the EMMI to replace Samus so that they wouldn’t have to call on her anymore or to kill Samus in retaliation for her disobedience in Fusion, but it’s likely at least one of those theories is true. The EMMI are startlingly effective at hunting down someone like Samus and killing her quickly. Each EMMI also has a designation number that directly references one of Samus’ abilities, implying that the Federation studied Samus, found a way to replicate the data of her Power Suit (which isn’t a stretch considering that’s exactly what they do in Fusion), and then programmed those abilities into the EMMI. The second EMMI, for example, is numbered EMMI-02MB, and possesses the trait to contort its body to fit into small spaces–upon defeating it, Samus discovers that, yes, MB stands for Morph Ball, and Samus reclaims her ability upon absorbing the data from the destroyed EMMI.
But just because the EMMI have Samus’ abilities, it doesn’t make them mirror images of her. The EMMI don’t invoke any horrifying realization for Samus or the player. There’s a scary realization when learning that the numerical labels for each EMMI imply that Samus may have to keep her head on a swivel when it comes to the Federation, but that’s not new info. She and Adam came to that understanding at the end of Fusion. It’s also scary to see that each EMMI is hooked up to a Central Unit, which both attacks and looks a lot like Mother Brain, implying that folks out there are looking to replicate one of Samus’ oldest foes. But that’s old news too–Prime 3: Corruption reveals how the plans for a next-generation Aurora (biomechanical supercomputers) leads to the creation of a new Mother Brain that Samus faces in Super Metroid, and in Other M, Samus meets MB, an android constructed with Mother Brain’s DNA. People have continuously tried to create new Mother Brains since Samus destroyed the original in Metroid 1. There’s no horror there; Samus’ foes just have a tendency to reappear after she defeats them. If anything, the only horrifying truth of note when it comes to the EMMI and the Central Units is that EMMI-05IM is scary because it takes advantage of Samus’ weakness to cold, invoking memories of facing the SA-X. But that’s more a compliment towards Fusion for crafting a villain so chillingly horrifying that the memory of them lingers all these years later.
Without diving too much into spoilers, Dread does attempt to inject some semblance of dread with body horror, but it’s introduced late into the campaign and resolved in moments. Which is a shame–the ideas that developers MercurySteam and Nintendo EPD tentatively explore in those moments would have been fascinating if given the time to linger on Samus and the player’s mind. I’ve wanted Metroid to explore that storyline for years, and choosing to introduce it at the end of a game and quickly resolve it without really acknowledging the implications of it is disappointing. It could have allowed Dread to build upon the themes introduced in Fusion–that Samus is a monster–in an intriguing way, and possibly made Dread into the first true horror title in the Metroid series.
Again, I love Metroid Dread. I don’t think it’s a bad game, it just isn’t the horror-driven story I wanted from a sequel to Fusion. But maybe with Metroid Dread acting as the conclusion to Samus’ story that started with the original Metroid, the next 2D Metroid game can be a more radical shift for the series, and I’ll finally see Metroid become the horror experience I know it can be.