Staff picks: Why Metroid Dread is our game of the year

Picking the “game of the year” is never easy. While every Digital Trends writer who helped deliberate is a gamer, their tastes differ wildly. I came out strong as an advocate for medium-defining indie darlings. Others are RPG enthusiasts who felt Tales of Arise deserved the top spot. Depending on who was in the conversation, we could have shuffled the deck a dozen different ways and come out with any number of winners. There’s an alternate universe somewhere where Forza Horizon 5 is our game of the year, I’m sure.

So when we do find common ground on a game, it’s truly special. It means that something has transcended its genre enough to win over a panel of gamers with disparate tastes. It’s always hard to predict what game in a given year will pull off that task. And even then, I was still shocked when Metroid Dread topped our voting sheet.

Varia Suit in Metroid Dread.

Long live the queen

Metroid Dread is a long-awaited sequel to Game Boy Advance classic Metroid Fusion. It brings the Metroid series back to its 2D roots while trading the sprite art for modern visuals. For longtime fans of the series (myself included), it was a cathartic release. Announced as a genuine E3 2021 surprise, it was a sequel no one really expected. The Metroid series seemed like it was dead in the water with Metroid Prime 4 currently languishing in development hell. The last thing any fan anticipated was a return to 2D.

While it was always going to be a significant game for fans, it was harder to predict how the general public would embrace it. In truth, Metroid is more of a cult hit for Nintendo, and one that hasn’t been truly great for over a decade. It doesn’t make the same kind of money as Mario or even Animal Crossing — it’s more of a “gamer’s game.” Fans of the medium revere it and the impact it’s had on the industry, but Samus Aran likely wouldn’t be a household name if it weren’t for Super Smash Bros.

Metroid Dread would become a pivotal game. It felt like the fate of the entire series was resting on it. If it failed, like Metroid Other M and Federation Force before it, that could be a nail in the coffin. Developers would continue to draw inspiration from it in the form of indie Metroidvania titles, but Samus’ reign as queen would reach an unsatisfying end.

Thank God that didn’t happen.

Using the Omega Cannon in Metroid Dread.

An instant classic

Rising to meet expectations, Metroid Dread gave the Nintendo Switch another instant classic. An increased emphasis on fast movement proved to be exactly what the series needed, buffing up both its exploration and combat encounters. Mechanical additions like the melee counter widened Samus’ moveset, making her feel more like her Super Smash Bros. counterpart. Battles are legitimately challenging, but always fair. Modernized visuals brought more detail to the 2D world, adding depth to each corridor. Oh, and the E.M.M.I. scared the ever-loving crud out of players, too. It’s the kind of genuine crowd-pleaser that Nintendo excels at.

What makes Dread stand out most, though, is its story. The secret truth about Metroid is that it’s always told one of gaming’s best stories. It’s a space epic where Samus’ history and decisions matter. When she saves the baby Metroid at the end of Metroid 2, it’s not just a stand-alone moment. It plays a major role in the events of Super Metroid, which makes it one of gaming’s most impactful moments.

Metroid Dread carries that narrative strength over by bringing decades worth of plot threads together in a dark crescendo. It’s a game where Samus’ recklessness as a bounty hunter finally catches up to her. We finally get to see the long-term consequences of her decision to eradicate an entire species for money. That plays out in a series of shocking plot twists that reward anyone who’s kept up with Metroid lore over the years. The David Cronenberg-esque conclusion still lingers in my head months later.

Samus melee attacks an enemy in Metroid Dread.

History matters

If you had to boil Metroid Dread down to one thematic takeaway, it’s “history matters.” The snap decisions we make can carry consequences that snowball in unexpected ways. In video games, we’re not usually punished for our actions. Kill 1,000 people in Uncharted and it won’t matter much by the start of Uncharted 2. Metroid Dread rejects the “video game reset” by turning decades’ worth of reckless mercenary work into a nightmare for the usually cool, collected Samus.

Metroid Dread isn’t devoid of hope. It doesn’t leave Samus to die haunted by her ghosts. Redemption is still possible, and the ending leaves the door open for that. By the final moments of Dread, Samus has transformed (in more ways than one). She’s snapped out of an apathetic trance and seems to understand that her power is corruptible. Perhaps she’ll stop accepting missions from a shady Galactic Federation that hires her to do their dirty work and become an actual force for good.

What’s exciting is that we won’t have to wonder for long, hopefully. With Metroid Dread garnering praise from critics and Switch owners alike, it feels like Saums is about to start a new chapter. She’ll continue to evolve, just as Nintendo has with the uneven series itself. History matters, but its repercussions aren’t always negative. Sometimes we learn from the unflattering parts of our past and use it to build a better future. Metroid Dread is a moment of growth and reinvention for the series, coming out of a dark decade of failure with an earned moment of redemption.

Mission accomplished.

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