Looking back, it's funny to think how limited Samus was back in the original Metroid II.
Sure, she had access to a variety of beams and missiles, and the Screw Attack made her all but invincible. But c'mon, she couldn't even shoot diagonally. Against Metroids that loved to swoop in from above, that was kind of a problem.
Still, at least it was an improvement over the original Metroid, where you needed an upgrade just to shoot across the screen. Baby steps and all that.
Metroid: Samus Returns, the Metroid II remake due on the Nintendo 3DS in a couple weeks, is light years beyond all that. Not only can Samus shoot diagonally, she can aim anywhere you want on the screen. If you happen to be turned around, she'll even twist back to point her cannon at your target—a move that's essential for solving certain puzzles.
I won't lie, it's taken some getting used to. I went in expecting a remake that hewed a bit a closer to the source material—maybe not a straight update, but at least something close to it. Instead, outside of the basic structure, Metroid: Samus Returns feels like a completely different game. A lot of that is owed to Samus' updated abilities.
Many of the tweaks are subtle but essential. The Ice Beam, for example, can only freeze and not kill (unless you're fighting a Metroid), and the effect lasts barely more than a second. Happily, once an enemy is frozen, you can hit the shoulder button to activate your missile launcher and take them out. Conversely, your regular Charge Beam is easily accessible from the main menu, and it's just as capable of blowing enemies out of the sky.
One effect of these changes is that the combat moves at a much faster clip. Enemies are much more aggressive in Metroid: Samus Returns, and simply pouring shots into them is rarely the most effective way to take them out.
Take one of the flying enemies that you encounter relatively early on. In the original game, they would sort of buzz around in the air, presenting an annoying aerial hazard but not much else. In Samus Returns, they are extremely aggressive, zipping in and doing large amounts of damage with their stinger. Simply shooting them isn't sufficient: you have to use Samus' new upward melee attack to time out its charge and stun it. Later you can freeze and kill it with missiles, but you have to be quick, as they can strike before you know it.
In making the creatures of SR388 so aggressive, MercurySteam has correctly realized that the core of Metroid II is its combat. Yes, you fight in other Metroid games as well, but the very essence of Metroid II is hunting down and killing Metroids. And so they've subtly doubled down on the combat, forcing you to engage with each creature in an interesting and tactical fashion.
It definitely pushes that aspect further than other games in the series; and as I said, it takes a bit of getting used to. But there's no denying that feeling that you are Samus: the badass bounty hunter of intergalactic folklore. I'd go as far as to say that it feels a little like she's powered a few moves from her various stints in Super Smash Bros.
And I kind of like it.
The Matter of the Metroids
Then there are the Metroids themselves.
I mentioned that SR388's creatures are far more aggressive, and Metroids are certainly not excluded from this. Even the humble Alpha Metroid—little more than cannon fodder in Metroid II—can give you a pretty good fight if you're not prepared.
The Metroid battles are where you will find your greatest challenge, as well as indications of your growing power. My first encounter with an Alpha Metroid caught me offguard because I was expecting to just pump five missiles into it and move on. I wasn't expecting a full-blown battle.
Instead it hovered out of my reach, occasionally swooping in for massive damage. It also... uh... poops on you. And let me tell you, Metroid droppings do a lot of damage.
If you've been paying any attention, you'll know that you need to stun it with a swipe of your melee attack, giving you an opportunity to pump a half-dozen missiles into its vulnerable underbelly. If you're the patient sort, you can also just stand and shoot at it from the ground, but that's not recommended in light of the Metroid fecal matter raining from above.
Where it gets kind of awesome is when you obtain the Ice Beam. Anyone who's ever played a Metroid game will know that Metroids simply hate being frozen, and Samus Return's Metroids are no different. If you hit its underside with a charged up shot from Ice Beam, a massive ice crystal forms and it starts drifting around sluggishly. With a little patience, you can then blast it into oblivion.
I came upon all of this fairly organically, and it was a cool moment when I did. It was much more satisfying than the old method of simply finding a Metroid's weak spot and firing missiles until it was dead. I have a lot of love for the original Metroid II, and some of its Metroid encounters can be pretty intense, but I like the depth afforded by the battles in Metroid: Samus Returns.
Actually—and I consider this high praise—it reminds me of the final battle in Metroid Fusion, where you go toe-to-toe with an Omega Metroid. I always loved that fight, not just because it actually acknowledged that Metroid II's unique forms existed, but because it took what was essentially a static sprite and made it awesome. It was the full realization of everything I had imagined when I first read about how terrifying the Omega Metroid was meant to be.
So if battles with an Alpha Metroid are this interesting, I can only imagine what it must be like to tangle with an Omega Metroid.
I'm still relatively early in my review process, so I'll have some updated thoughts down the line. I'm still a little up and down on the graphical presentation—if you listen to The USG Podcast you'll know that I'm not a fan of the 2.5D look—but right now I'm more up than down. There's no denying that it's very different, but so far it's different in a good way. And it all begins with the combat.
Metroid: Samus Returns will be out September 15 on the Nintendo 3DS.