Do you love nothing more than to backtrack through a part of a video game you’ve already been through? I surely do—I love to confidently revisit an area I struggled through once I’ve powered up and am now able to take it on with ease. Backtracking can be divisive (my very own editor can’t stand it), but if you, too, find it satisfying, you need to get yourself Metroid Dread—the first original Metroid story in nearly two decades, now on Nintendo Switch. It’s a game that finds innovative ways to deliver the surprising pleasures of returning to an area again and again, reaffirming my love for this conceit that others may still scoff at.
What exactly are those pleasures, for those who can’t fathom traveling to the same place multiple times? I’m glad you asked—because I’m not at all alone in loving this practice. In fact, the art of backtracking is nearly as old as gaming itself.
In the early days of video game development, backtracking was one of the tricks developers used to get the most out of limited hardware. Back then, games meant to tell longer stories over larger areas couldn’t fit on the standard cartridge, so tricks were used to stretch out the playtime as much as possible. Requiring Mario to re-nter the same levels multiple times to complete different goals in Super Mario 64 is one example of this; another is the 2D action-adventure game formula of sending you to one side of the map, then giving you a power up there that you must use on the opposite side in order to finally open a new area, and having you repeat this process over and over. This particular version of backtracking has spun into its own gaming subgenre, known as Metroidvania; the portmanteau comes from what’s considered to be the conceit’s originators: Metroid and Castlevania, a Konami series that also began in the 1980s.
The Metroidvania formula’s approach only really works when each level is large, varied, and thoughtfully planned out , with a secret to find or a miniature puzzle to solve in every nook and cranny. It’s also vital that every power up be meaningful in its own right—while it’s OK to force players to use a different gun that opens a different type of door sometimes, the game needs to vary things up with some power ups that drastically change the way you fight and others that change the way you move through space. The way to make this type of gameplay successful is by requiring players not just to solve how to move forward, but by encouraging them to look with new eyes at enemy encounters and travel the map in a new and different fashion whenever possible.
While Metroidvanias remain beloved and acclaimed by many players, they fell out of favor for years as processing power outgrew the need for artificial game-lengthening gimmicks. But in recent years, players have rediscovered the genre’s unique appeal. Turns out that it’s still fun as heck to blast and spin jump your way back through an early game area after your health, weapons, and movement abilities have been drastically upgraded, despite many contemporary games encouraging us to never go back. Indie studios have made a great many new entries in the genre in recent years, but today’s gold standard—Metroid and Castlevania’s heir apparent—is almost certainly Hollow Knight, a massive and massively satisfying exploration of a forgotten insect kingdom created by Team Cherry. The 2017 game’s widespread popularity and critical acclaim is arguably what led to the current renaissance (or even glut) of new, original Metroidvania games of varying quality. It’s in this environment of indievania saturation that Metroid Dread, a sequel to Super Metroid, enters.
Veteran Metroid producer Yoshio Sakamoto returned to helm this game, and he doesn’t disappoint—that is, of course, if you are cool with backtracking.* (I am very, very cool with it.) Gloriously, Dread first doubles, then triples down on ways to have the player do the thing that makes the genre what it is. The Switch game honors the tried-and-true gameplay loop the franchise originated: There’s a closed off path, one that won’t open without a power up. After our hero, the bounty hunter Samus Aran, has advanced and acquired the power up necessary to push through, the game sends the player back to where they came from to either open a new way forward or obtain a health and weapons upgrade.
But that’s not all: The game starts out with many areas that are patrolled by invulnerable robot enemies (the cause for the titular dread), adding an extra complication to the proceedings. Initially, movement through these areas is heavily constrained by the need to evade capture. That all changes, however, when you find a way to shut the robots down, allowing for easy, unimpeded movement through a previously frightening and restricted area. And, last but not least, there’s a third mechanic that appears late in the game that also relies on routing you back through an earlier area. The first area changes profoundly after a certain story event, such that when you go back through it much later, you find some pathways have been closed and others newly opened. This feels influenced by modern iterations on Metroid’s gameplay, especially Hollow Knight. And these three iterations on backtracking are each more satisfying than the last—that is, of course, if you like this sort of thing.
Some gamers want something never-before-seen at every turn; they crave linear progress. I don’t understand those people, and I’m certainly not one of them. But I respect them enough to tell them that Metroid Dread is almost definitely not for them. For those of us who savor our games and exploring every corner of them no matter how many times, however—those of us who appreciate the chance to look with new eyes on environments we passed through previously, explore their corners and find their hidden secrets—Metroid Dread has all the attention to detail and meticulous design that makes backtracking satisfying. In Dread, as in any of the best Metroid games, the real reward is exploration. The energy tanks and increased missiles are just a pretext to encourage you to poke into all its cleverly constructed corners.
Correction, Oct. 20, 2021: This article originally misspelled Yoshio Sakamoto’s last name.