Metroid Game By Game Reviews: Metroid II: Return of Samus

Metroid Game By Game Reviews: Metroid II: Return of Samus

The constraints of portable design helped Nintendo develop smarter expressions of the Metroid concept.

The news that Nintendo had recruited Castlevania: Lords of Shadow developer Mercurysteam to put together a 3DS remake of Metroid II: Return of Samus came as a huge surprise at this year's E3. Some of the surprise was by design; Nintendo deliberately kept any hint of the remake's existence under wraps in order to announce it as a Steve Jobs-style "one more thing" during their E3 livestreams. That the game will appear on 3DS rather than Switch caught many off-guard as well - a fair few Nintendo faithful are more than ready to retire their old systems in favor of an all-Switch future, but clearly Nintendo hasn't decided to move on just yet.

For me, the unexpected part came from the fact that Nintendo has suddenly decided to pay attention to poor, benighted Metroid II again, and for a long-overdue remake at that. After the excellent Metroid: Zero Mission arrived way back in 2004 to refine the rough elements of the original NES game, most people agreed that we really needed a Zero Mission take on Metroid II, the most awkward and atypical entry in the series. That never happened, leaving fans to put together their own remake of the game. That project, Another Metroid II Remake (AM2R for short), took nearly a decade to come together, during which time Nintendo's sole acknowledgement of Metroid II's existence appeared in the form of its 3DS Virtual Console reissue.

Metroid II's fall from grace might seem strange to those who remember how heavily the company pushed it back in the day. It was one of the big releases for Game Boy, probably the single biggest Nintendo launch for the platform between 1989's Tetris and 1993's The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening. When Nintendo launched the Super Game Boy peripheral in 1994, the American box art for the device featured Metroid II front-and-center. There was even talk for a while that Metroid II would be reissued for Game Boy Color in a DX edition featuring expanded color options and new content, similar to Link's Awakening DX. And then... nothing. Until Samus Returns arrives next month, that is.

We can probably pin Metroid II's vanishing act on its sequel, Super Metroid. That Super NES classic, which arrived a matter of weeks before Metroid II's last big showcase at the Super Game Boy launch, casts a long shadow over the entire Metroid franchise. It's a shadow that a quirky, experimental, and decidedly uneven work like Metroid II has little hope of escaping.

Like many of Nintendo's other 8-bit sequels (see also: Zelda II, America's version of Super Mario Bros. 2), Metroid II has the feeling of an outlier. It diverges in many ways from the design and structure of its predecessor, only to be followed up by a third chapter that returns to the concepts of the original game and perfects them. In the case of Metroid II, we have an adventure for Samus filled with uncharacteristically wide-open spaces and gated less by tools and discovery and more according to the heroine's kill count.

Metroid II sees Samus venturing to the planet from which the deadly metroid parasites originally hailed. Zebes, the underground fortress that served as the first game's setting, wasn't their natural habitat; the creatures had been brought there as part of a weaponized breeding program by Mother Brain's space pirates. With Mother Brain dead, the next task was to wipe them all out at the source. Metroid II therefore metes out progress and advancement based on genocide: When you kill enough metroids, somehow that affects the environment and causes walls to collapse or the water table to subside, freeing Samus to advance further into the planet.

Metroid II flows differently than other Metroid games. Typically, the games expect you to "center" your exploration based on the entrance to your current zone of the planet's interior. Metroid II's setting, planet SR388, lacks concrete divisions between its interior spaces. The first game divided up its world due to the 8-bit hardware's memory limitations, with elevators serving as loading screens for its diskette-based data (much as Mass Effect's elevators would do two decades later). As the first Metroid adventure designed specifically for cartridge, Metroid II didn't need to break its world into such discrete stand-alone spaces, and the quest flows freely into each new regions.

Lacking those divisions, save points become the hubs of each new foray into the SR388 underground. Metroid II abandoned the clunky passwords and die-to-save recording system its predecessor had used on NES, switching over to a battery system that allows players to save at specific stations. Those stations tend to appear near battery and missile recharge depots, and frequently show up in isolated rooms that enemies can't enter, turning them into a sort of refuge for weary space travelers.

What really sets Metroid II apart from its kin, however, is its overall mission design. The task set before Samus requires her to take down every last metroid on SR388, creating a game that's part exploration, part boss rush. You need to find the metroids before you can destroy them, and you have to destroy all the metroids in a given area before you can venture further into the planet. This feels like the core of Metroid II, rather than the usual search-and-discovery that propels the adventure. Because the save points act as exploratory hubs, and because most of Samus's critical gear appears early on in the game, Metroid II places its emphasis squarely on combat with the metroids themselves.

Thankfully, these alien monsters keep things interesting. The metroids in the original game provided its most heart-stopping moments, thanks to their aggressive behavior and dangerous resistance to most of Samus's weapons. They only appeared in the final zone leading up to Mother Brain, but they appeared in large numbers, and a single misstep (or misfire) could given them a chance to zoom in and latch onto Samus, draining her life away in a flash.

Those metroids, it turns out here, were merely larval forms. In their native environment, the parasites turn out to have a rather involved life cycle that makes liberal use of massive mutations. They begin as the familiar larval jellyfish-things, but the first creature you fight metamorphoses before your eyes. The creature inverts itself, its hemispheric bulge becoming a sort of underbelly, while its simple claws begin to merge together and grow into a carapace. This first metroid variant - the alpha metroid - doesn't pose much of a threat.

But as you venture further and further into SR388, however, the creatures mutate into increasingly powerful forms. Their carapaces expand; their primitive limbs shift into bipedal limbs; their inner cores become pockets of eyes. By the time you reach the end of the standard life cycle - the omega metroid - the creatures tower over Samus and can soak up dozens of missiles strikes, turning each and every encounter into a harrowing fight for survival. The further you manage to tick down your metroid-sensing radar counter, the deadlier the battles become. And once you wind the counter down to zero, the quest hasn't ended. Unsurprisingly, given the influence of the Alien films on the game franchise, you can't claim victory until you've bested the queen metroid herself: A room-filling monstrosity whose prehensile neck just happens to be the right size for a bounty hunter to roll down in morph ball form...

Creatively, Metroid II turned out to be something of a dead end for the series. Super Metroid would return to the structure of the original game (literally: It dropped players into an expanded version of the NES game's labyrinth), and every sequel from this point would build on the idea that Samus had hunted the metroids to extinction. It's an interesting take on the Metroid concept, though, although the limitations of its original format make it a tough sell in this day and age.

Honestly, the Game Boy didn't really suit the idea of exploration. Samus herself takes up a huge chunk of the screen, a creative choice drive by the lack of color graphics on Game Boy: The developers wanted to provide a visual clue to her ability upgrades, which had involved a palette swap on NES. That was impossible in limited monochrome, so instead they gave her a larger, more detailed sprite that changes to feature huge shoulder pauldrons once she acquires the Varia defensive power. It's a nice tough, but it makes the action feel cramped, and the free-roaming caverns of SR388 can be disorienting thanks to the lack of environmental context.

While some of Metroid II's creative choices may not work out as well as intended in this outing, they would become trademarks of the series from here on out. Samus's beefier armor would appear in all subsequent games, as would her rather vain starship, along with a number of new abilities introduced here such as the Spring Ball (which allows players to jump while tucked into Morph Ball form) and the Spazer Beam. And of course, there's the baby, the tiny metroid that imprints on Samus once all is said and done. If not for our heroine's unwillingness to complete her genocidal task, there'd never have been any sequels!

Still, Metroid II's upcoming remake should be a welcome addition to the Metroid family. The unusual ideas at play in the game deserve a chance to shine, unshackled from the technical shortcomings of the Game Boy. I do wonder how much like the original game Samus Returns will play. Metroid II was the one mainline Metroid entry not directed by Yoshio Sakamoto, but he's overseeing the new version. Will he keep it true to the original feel of the game's designers, or will he push Mercurysteam to overhaul it? We'll find out in a few weeks, I suppose. In the meantime, it might be worth revisiting Metroid II for context... and to explore the road not taken any further once Super Metroid defined the series.

A somewhat clumsy and uncharacteristically limited take on the series, Metroid II makes up for its shortcomings by introducing many new ideas into the mix. A wider array of weapons and powers for Samus, save points for the player, a multi-stage lifecycle for the metroids, and many other innovations would become key elements of subsequent Metroid chapters. Like the original NES game, its value has more to do with its raw materials than its refinements... but the upcoming remake should remedy that, as Zero Mission did for its predecessor.


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