With the release of Metroid: Samus Returns, Nintendo reinvigorated the long-dormant sci-fi franchise. It wasn’t just a new Metroid: it was an old-school, side-scrolling Metroid, which we haven’t seen in nearly a decade. But while many were excited about the prospect of finally being able to explore the planet SR388 once again, others were disappointed that the game was coming to the aging 3DS instead of the much newer Switch. Sure, there’s Metroid Prime 4 in the works for the Switch, but it’s not clear when exactly that game will release, or how much it will feel like a typical Metroid.
Thankfully, as is so often the case, indie developers have risen up to fill in that big Samus Aran-shaped hole. Over the past few weeks, two excellent games have come to the Switch, and both exude the same solitary sense of exploration that has made the Metroid series so iconic. If you don’t want to wait for Nintendo, you should check these out instead.
SteamWorld Dig 2
At a glance, SteamWorld Dig 2 doesn’t look like it has much in common with Metroid. It’s a game where you play as a cute blue robot named Dorothy, exploring a Western-style planet by digging, digging, and then doing some more digging. Ostensibly, the game is about mining. You dig through the ground beneath you, carving a path and seeking out treasure. As you explore, you’ll gain access to tubes that let you zip back up to the quaint frontier town on the surface. The idea is to dig down as far as you can, grab some jewels, and then zip back up before you’re killed and lose your hard-earned cash.
This structure is a perfect fit for a portable platform like the Switch, as you can play in short bursts and still make some progress. You’re literally chipping away at making progress with your trusty pickax. In fact, the game encourages this kind of play. You have a lamp to light your way during each dive, but its flame slowly dies down as you progress. In order to re-light it, you’ll need to head back to the surface.
What makes the game really compelling, though, is its Metroidvania-like structure, where you’ll regularly come across obstacles you can’t overcome until later in the game. With the cash you earn, you’re able to outfit Dorothy with new gadgets, and improve the ones she has. There are jackhammers to smash through especially strong blocks, and bombs that let you blow open new areas from a distance. Your pickax will get stronger and your loot bag will get more spacious. Slowly but steadily you’ll be able to reach previously inaccessible spaces. The vast underground labyrinth feels daunting at first, but by the end you can go pretty much anywhere.
It’s an addictive structure that makes it hard to put SteamWorld Dig 2 down. There’s always something else just around the corner — you just have to dig a little further. The game is augmented by a series of puzzle-like caverns littered throughout the underground, similar to the shrines in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Each one is a self-contained puzzle, and solving them will earn you useful new goodies. Some of the game’s best moments are in these slickly designed puzzle boxes, though they’re also mostly optional. If you get stuck, you can either skip it or come back later.
SteamWorld Dig 2 is the kind of game that burrows its way into your mind. The rhythmic digging and multitude of secrets make it an experience I keep thinking about even when I’m not playing — which is a good fit on a device like the Switch that I carry around with me.
Axiom Verge isn’t a new game. It debuted in the PlayStation 4 back in 2015, and was later ported to the PC, PS Vita, Wii U, and Xbox One. And unlike SteamWorld Dig 2, it’s an experience that exudes Metroid-ness. Your character awakens all alone on a dark, mysterious world, surrounded by arcane machinery and Alien-inspired horrors. It’s a dark, quiet, and dangerous place. You’re pretty much helpless — except for one big gun.
Compared to Metroid, Axiom Verge is a bit more action-heavy. While there’s plenty of exploration and mystery, it can also feel like a toned-down version of run-and-gun games like Contra at times. This is especially true when it comes to the gigantic bosses. But the omnipresent gun you wield also serves as a tool that does a lot more than shoot bad guys. Sure, you’ll need to shoot everything from massive, pulsating boss creatures to simple, slithering snails. But the gun also serves as a key and a tool for manipulating the world around you. You’ll be able to upgrade it to open up previously blocked pathways; early on you’ll unlock a beam that creates unpredictable glitches around you. And just like in Metroid, the alien world you’ll explore is sprawling, and it encourages you to reexplore areas. When you get a new upgrade for your gun, you can bet it’ll open up a new path.
This was all true of the game when it was released two years ago, and not much has changed with the Switch version, which launches today. It’s still wonderfully atmospheric, with a sense of dread you just can’t shake. There are moments of awe where you’ll walk into a room and come across some towering structure from a long-lost civilization. But this also might be the definitive version of the game, as Axiom Verge feels right at home on Nintendo’s tablet. As Koji Igarashi’s impressive run on Castlevania showed, these kinds of exploration-heavy action games are ideal for portable platforms. You can explore in bits and pieces, whittling away at the game when you have some downtime. You get this on the Switch, plus the added benefit of being able to see the game on your big-screen TV. The game’s big, chunky pixels look wonderful in HD.
Given the recent history of the franchise, it’s a good bet that there will never be a traditional, 2D Metroid on the Switch. That’s a shame, because games like SteamWorld Dig 2 and Axiom Verge show that Nintendo’s newest hardware is the ideal place for these kinds of games, where you can really immerse yourself in exploration, no matter where you are. These are the kinds of experiences that worm their way into your brain, as you plot out new paths through their labyrinthine worlds. So even though Samus hasn’t graced the Switch yet, luckily there are still a few ways to get that feeling back.