Metroid II: Return of Samus

Developer: Nintendo (R&D1)
U.S. Publisher: Nintendo
U.S. Release: October 1991
Genre: Action
Format: Cartridge

Based on: Evolving a classic as a means to an end of proving a point of pride. Also: James Cameron space flicks.

Games | Game Boy | Metroid II: Return of Samus

By Jeremy Parish | June 15, 2009

Evolution is a slow and difficult process, fraught with tragic dead-ends and hideous transitional chimaerae as a species makes the agonizing transition between evolutionary points A and B. Few things in nature are as unpleasant as these mutant works-in-progress: the lungfish, caught between its aquatic origins and a land-bound future. The bush baby, a terrifying hybrid of simian and rodent that has surely fueled aboriginal nightmares for centuries. And then there's Metroid II, the uncomfortable half-realized midpoint of a series making the jump from promising 8-bit adventure to world-class 16-bit masterpiece.

Metroid II is a strange creature, in some ways faithful to its predecessor, in some ways predictive of the 16-bit epic to come, and in other ways a complete aberration that completely abandons the tenets of its series for a more portable-friendly game design.

Therein lies the quandary: Metroid stands as, I believe, the only NES franchise to see a true, numbered sequel on Game Boy. While plenty of Game Boy games saw new life in console-based sequels, the reverse was exceptionally rare -- most developers were content to use the humble handheld for spin-offs and one-offs. Nintendo RD&1, however, decided that its NES hit needed a portable follow-up. It was likely a point of stubborn pride for the developer; after all, R&D1 had created both the original Metroid and the Game Boy hardware. Metroid II was their proof of concept, a proud boast that this little system was good enough to stand toe-to-toe with the world's most popular console.

As a result, Metroid II expands greatly on the original game's concepts. Heroine Samus Aran gains new abilities, she fights powerful new metroid forms, and all in all undertakes a far more focused and determined mission than before. R&D1 added valuable new features, the most significant of which were recharge stations and save points. The original Metroid was very much a product of 1986-vintage game design, offering the player no mercy, which quickly became annoying when you had to spend ten minutes farming power-ups to boost your health every time you restarted the game, which in turn required inputting an infuriatingly complex password. Metroid II represented a new mindset of clemency in game design, lowering the barriers to enjoyment and letting players jump right in and get on with the task of metroid genocide. And even that goal was neatly presented as well thanks to a handy life detector readout that let Samus know how many of the creatures were left to be taken out. In an especially clever twist, the developers used this to lull players into a false sense of security by hatching new metroids and expanding Samus's mission parameters right as the game entered what seemed to be its final stretch. Metroid II lacks the heart-pounding final escape sequence that serves as a trademark for the franchise, because it didn't need it; the game had already frazzled your nerves by suddenly bombarding you with a dozen unexpected bosses as you were gearing up for the conclusive showdown.

For all these innovations and improvements, though, Metroid II pales in comparison to both its predecessor and follow-up. Its world is extremely linear and contrived, relying on random (and, let's be honest, illogical) events to open new paths rather than using Samus' evolving skill set as the key to progress. Sure, it's always a little silly that progress in Metroid games increasingly relies on finding a single point in an ancient structure designed to let Samus and Samus alone pass, but even the silliest one-time manipulation of a Chozo statue placed just so is a lot easier to swallow than the notion that you were lucky enough to survive a world-changing earthquake a few seconds after clearing out that last gamma metroid.

To make matters worse, the limited visual palette makes the limited, restrictive environments somehow more confusing than the abstraction of the NES game. The sound is unsettling and resists being boxed into such trite conventions as "melody," and the controls and physics seem slightly off. In short, R&D1 pushed both of their prize creations a little too hard, and the results are admirably ambitious, but ultimately, not as much fun as they ought to be.

Yet without Metroid II, we never would have seen the perfection of Super Metroid. So while it may not be a particularly great game when taken on its own merits, its place in the series is like an embarrassing junior high yearbook photo. Samus's bad hair and acne and braces and slouchy posture are just the growing pains of a cute little girl becoming a stunning beauty.

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