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Metroid Dread and the escape sequence
Run, run, run, run, run
Metroid, as a series, loves an escape sequence. Usually baked into the latter half of the game, there comes a time when the game asks you to sprint out of hallways you had previously crept through, because those hallways are in the process of exploding. Zero Mission, Super Metroid, even Other M—they all task you, sometimes more than once, with hightailing it out of wherever it is you are. These sequences are heart-pounding, stressful, and exhilarating. They make you feel genuinely afraid. They always felt like an addendum, though, a curiosity that disrupts the flow of the game for a moment before returning you to its familiar and satisfying crawl. So when the first E.M.M.I.1 showed up in Metroid Dread, I smiled as I realized that the feeling of escape, of booking it while muttering no, no, no, was no longer an anomaly but a central mechanic.
The initial gameplay trailers Nintendo showed of Dread didn’t seem at all scary. Watching the Treehouse staff, a jovial bunch prone to exaggerated and thus marketable reactions to the games they are demoing, I didn’t fully buy that being chased by an E.M.M.I. would be the least bit stressful. They looked like robot dogs to me. Robot dogs with low polygon counts. So when I found myself facing down the first of seven, watching it slowly march toward me with something between confidence and indifference, my controller pulsing with what was either the cannon blast I was charging up or my own heartbeat, I was ever so glad to be wrong. The E.M.M.I. are a welcome addition to the Metroid formula: nearly-unkillable stalkers who bring together the best of SA-X from Fusion and the aforementioned get-the-hell-out-of-Zebes moments. They all have their own respective E.M.M.I. Zones marked on the map, allowing you to pause, as I often did, to take a quick breath before entering their domain. Weird as it is to say, I felt respect for the E.M.M.I., as capable as they were brutal. Whereas other enemies became progressively easier to defeat as you do the classic Metroid thing of collecting all the power baubles, the E.M.M.I. were always a threat, and thus always a thrill.2
The bosses, similarly, are fantastic. While not quite at Dark Souls levels of difficulty, they don’t mess around. You won’t stand a chance to beat them on your first try, or at least I never did. Blessedly, the game is kind enough to drop you back right outside the nasty alien’s door rather than throwing you back to the last save, a quality of life improvement I, a 31 year old with a week’s vacation to beat the game, wholly approve of. Even the mini-bosses kicked my ass up and down until I memorized their patterns. Without spoiling anything, the final encounter especially was a spectacular test of skill and a true challenge even if you hunt down every Missile and Energy Tank.
Metroid Dread is that classic Nintendo game that achieves what it sets out to achieve. I felt actual dread in the E.M.M.I. Zones as I was hunted down, crouching in vents with my invisibility quickly depleting while my would-be killer stood inches away. I felt thrilled whenever a boss finally fell on its face and Samus wrapped her arm around its neck in a chokehold3 to deliver a final blaster shot. I felt satisfyingly lost when the map finally opened up and let me figure out where and how I was supposed to get the final slew of power-ups I needed to face the Big Bad.4 Dread is the rare game for me that erodes my sense of the passage of time, that creeping meta-dread that permeates most of my gaming sessions as an adult, drawing me into its world so fully and enjoyably that I genuinely felt sad to complete it. I’m almost tempted to start it again, if only to relive that sense of desperation the series, and especially Dread, does so well. To feel genuinely powerless as I just barely outmaneuver my pursuer. Dread would be the stuff of nightmares if it weren’t so damn satisfying to play.
Which stands for the hilariously nonsensical “Extraplanetary Multiform Mobile Identifier.” Bless them.
Side note: whoever chose to put film grain over the E.M.M.I. Zones until you dispatch the enemy is a genius and hero.
“Aw, yeah,” I’ll admit to saying out loud.
I’ve seen some criticism online about the linearity of Dread versus other entries in the series that feels fair, if not true to my experience. For me, I enjoyed the initial segments and their constant clip of lock and key gameplay before being let loose, but then I’ve never been one to hate a linear progression. Blame books. Blame limited leisure time.