In theory, I love Metroid inspired video games, and the Metroid series itself. I love the idea of being dropped into a desolated, complicated environment and being told “You have very few tools at your disposal, fight very tough enemies, find things that can help you unlock new routes, slowly explore more and more of this complicated environment and discover how much bigger it is than what you thought”. I love that as a concept for video games.
The problem is, as a disabled gamer, I mechanically struggle to ge through these kinds of games. I have a condition that I’ve talked about on this channel before called Aphantasia. It basically means that I really struggle with visual imagination and visual memory. I find it really hard to imagine visual information, or to remember visual information and hold it in my head, which as you can imagine makes it really difficult to navigate deliberately maze-like environments, particularly ones like this particular series, where you’re going to have to backtrack and remember where you saw something possibly hours ago. That’s very difficult to do when you can’t hold visual information in your head properly.
While usually this is a bit of a barrier to playing through this genre of game, I’ve been really enjoying Metroid: Dread over the last few days. The game is overall lacking a lot of accessibility features it really should have, but it does have one neat little accessibility feature that has made it a lot easier for me to enjoy a genre of game that I conceptually love, but sometimes don’t get on so well with in practice.
So today, on Access-Ability, we’re going to be talking about Metroid: Dread. We’re going to talk about some of the ways that the game supports players with conditions like aphantasia who struggle with visual imagination to play through the game more effectively, we’re going to talk about how that compares to other games in the genre and some of the places that this succeeds where they sometimes cause me to struggle, and we’re going to talk about some of the failings this game has and the places where it does fall short of other accessibility standards that it probably should have been looking at.
Let’s start off by talking a little bit about other Metroid inspired titles, as well as past 2D Metroid games. Generally, 2D metroid games, as well as games inspired by them, are heavily focused on non linear progression. You’ll come across a lot of places that you’re simply unable to progress past, and will need to try and remember them, as well as where they are placed, for later on. Once you have new abilities, you need to retrace your steps, find the place you remember from earlier, and head back there to progress.
Some games in this genre will contain maps, but those maps will usually not label any of the places that blocked your progress in any way. You may be able to look at your map and see a bunch of different places that you couldn’t progress, a bunch of dead ends that you can see there’s things past, but unless you can remember which of them was which, you’re going to have a slow journey finding the locations that a new powerup will let you progress past.
Some games in the genre, such as Carrion, do away with the map altogether, fully relying on a mental memory of where you have been, and where you’re going, and the locations of areas that can be opened by new skills. I loved Carrion in theory. I loved the concept, I loved the execution, I loved the tone and the combat. But in practice it was very difficult for me to actually progress through the game unaided.
So, what does Metroid Dread do to address this? Well, as a default, the game contains a map which is unlocked through exploration. However, any time you discover an area that you don’t have the tools to progress through, that location will be automatically marked on your map. The location will feature a unique visual symbol, so that you can recognise the difference at a glance between the different types of progression blocks that are found around you.
While this marker will initially be labelled with question marks, when you find a new item or weapon to help you progress, any doorways or paths now opened will be labelled with the power up that will allow you to progress. This means that every time you get a new weapon or ability, you can look at the map, and quickly work out which locations are now open to you, and how to reach them.
This setting is not a toggle, you cannot turn it off, which will annoy some gamers who do not want that help in navigating the world, but for me as a disabled gamer it was a really appreciated addition.
On top of that, Metroid Dread also contains a minimap, to help with following the map while you’re moving around in the moment, and a marker system to allow you to highlight locations so that your minimap will help point you towards the places you’re trying to get to.
As a gamer who really struggles with memorising visual information, the presence of a minimap, as well as a pause screen map that details what paths are now open to me based on my unlocked items, has made Metroid Dread so much more playable for me than most other 2D metroid games, and those games inspired by the series.
That said, I want to be clear that in many ways Metroid Dread is not a super accessible game. The game is very difficult, with no options to alter that difficulty in any way. Combat encounters with robottic enemies in the game are one hit kill affairs, with the timing window to survive an attack described by the game as “virtually impossible”. If, like me, you have coordination disabilities or trouble with fine motor control and timing, the robot attack countering mechanic might as well not exist. Those enemies are one hit kill, and very difficult to avoid.
Additionally, the game has basically zero actual accessibility settings in its menu. You can change the brightness of the game, you can have a look at what the controls are, or you can exit to the main menu. There’s not so much as subtitle customisation options available. What you see in trailers is what you get, with basically no customisation for disabled users.
I know that for some of you watching getting lost in a Metroidvania is part of the charm, and part of the appeal, and I think what’s important for you to remember if you fall into that camp is that getting lost as part of exploration is not the same experience for everyone.
If you have a good visual memory, there is a good chance that even if you’re not exactly where you need to be, or you have to do a little trial and error, you’re probably going to work your way through that discovery pretty quickly. As someone who has basically no visual memory, and cannot recall visual information on cue, that process of getting lost, and fumbling around, and trying to work out where I need to go, is a lot more difficult. I will often forget while exploring exits “ah, which ones have I already been and checked?”, and I’ll end up double checking things I’ve already done. I won’t remember to go to places that I just haven’t been at all because they don’t stick in my mind properly. What could be maybe 15 or 20 minutes of exploration for you might be a couple of hours of being lost for me, and that tends to compound over the course of a game.
I have a lot more fun with a game like this if I can just know where I’m supposed to go. I know that that’s not going to be the case for everyone, but it really makes these games more accessible to me, and maybe Metroid: Dread’s approach of having this be something that can’t be turned off isn’t the right way to go, maybe it should be a toggle, I’d be more than happy to turn that setting on and have it just be there for me, but it’s made Metroid: Dread a wonderful game I’ve had a great time playing.
While the game is lacking some basic accessibility features that I would have liked to see, Metroid Dread is the first Metroid style in a very long time that I’ve been able to play through and not get constantly stressed by my inability to picture where I’m supposed to be going, and that was really nice. It made me enjoy a genre a lot more than I usually do, and I really hope we see this become more of a standard going forward.