Metroid II: Return of Samus – Exploring the 8-bit Abyss

Welcome to SR388, home planet of the Metroids. My desire to learn more about these creatures has thrust me into the dark depths of Metroid II on the Game Boy. It’s an ancient screen the Chozo used to replay historic moments over and over. On SR388, Metroids thrive in a monochrome habitat and keep themselves hidden in a dot matrix maze of grayscale caves. They are aggressive creatures when threatened but enjoy their privacy. This game stars Samus in her most faithful role as a Bounty Hunter, with the goal of hunting down 39 Metroids to eradicate the entire species. Set after Metroid 1 / Zero Mission and Metroid Prime 3, the Galactic Federation just randomly held a conference and decided the only way to stop further chaos is to drive Metroids to extinction. It might be the only way, or perhaps this is a classic overreaction to a threat they don’t understand. A sensation that might be familiar to Metroid fans. Could it be a cover up, a conspiracy, a trap, or just plain stupidity? What is going on behind the scenes? A bunch of Federation Troopers mysteriously disappear while “investigating” the Metroids here. Samus is sent to terminate the Metroids because “she can handle it” based on previous experience. This must be how Next Level Games feel right now. Metroid II is a hostile environment, with convoluted passageways forming a structure that takes advantage of the Game Boy’s limitations to provide a great sense of scale. Isn’t that contradictory? I would say it’s ambitious and necessary. Metroid II shoves an entire planet under the Game Boy screen and lets the player deal with the repercussions.

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In order to find the Metroids, Samus must find herself. The first lesson on this planet is that walls and floors can not be trusted. They have gaps with no visual cues whatsoever, and this isn’t a one-time event. This entire game is a maze of walls, black backgrounds, and rooms with the same layouts and tilesets with random traps and exits in different places. No worries, as long as you have a map you’re fine, right? Haha. You don’t have one. The Federation Troopers died before they could draw a map. You think the Metroids want to be found? You’re the pioneer. This means you are feeling your way around a game world with very poor visual indicators that strike doubt into the legitimacy of every room. It starts off as an exciting adventure into the unknown, and very slowly strips away your sanity until you’re doubting the walls in your own house. You can fight the concept and say this is a stupid game, but that’s what the Metroids want you to do. They don’t want you to know about the Missile Upgrade under your bathroom sink. This is their home and if you want to destroy them you have to grab your tools and get inside.

The controls thankfully encourage exploration, it’s almost like a no-nonsense Super Metroid with how easy Samus is to move around. There isn’t much depth to the mechanics but it feels really good and holds up much better than Metroid on the NES. Samus is tall and takes up more of the screen than any other 2D Metroid, mainly due to the Game Boy resolution. However this brings up no complications, as it’s really easy to judge distance with a lot of care put into her movement and hitbox. I was shocked to see how fast you can shoot, and actually find it easier to line up pixels in Metroid II than any other 2D Metroid game. In this regard I can’t even say it’s a dumbed-down Super Metroid, it just focuses more on the core movement, instead of things like momentum, speed and tricks. You can’t aim diagonally, but you can feel damn good about your shots while jumping.

Metroids are the main enemy in this game. No shit, really? Yep it sounds crazy, but this is the only Metroid game where actively hunting them down is your goal, and this flows into the structure of the game. Killing Metroids somehow creates earthquakes on the planet, which brings down the lava levels in caves and allows you to explore deeper. I can only speculate the correlation here. Perhaps other Metroids can feel when one dies? Are they all crying at once? Could the land itself share a bond with the Metroids? Maybe a third party is involved? Interesting thoughts, but the Metroids must be killed for the Federation. BOOYAH!!

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You want to strike hard and fast when facing these feisty buggers. Missiles are the only thing that damages them, and you can take advantage of the missile’s force by knocking back the Metroid and keeping it there. There isn’t much strategy here, just good gameplay. The Metroids just charge at you and if they get inside you, it’s an awkward spot to get out of since Samus moves much slower than the Metroids. This creates an interesting intensity where the Metroids are technically easy to kill just by spamming missiles, but there’s always a real danger of losing health, and one small mistake can lead to 5 more while the Metroid has a fit. Sometimes you get lucky by manipulating a Metroid to charge into a corner or wall, letting you unload every missile on the fucker while laughing through your visor at a safe distance. Mostly though, it’s just about having a steady aim with consistent timing. You can unleash missiles faster when you’re closer, because you have to wait for the missile to make contact and disappear before another one can spawn. The Game Boy just struggles to have more than one missile on screen, or more than 3 bombs. The Metroids slowly evolve throughout the game and eventually you need to shoot them at a specific angle, using a lot more missiles. A fun challenge that requires you to take both health and missile management seriously, and I enjoyed fighting them. Hell, it’s just exciting to find anything after backtracking the wrong way for 20 minutes. Standard enemies are never really threatening, in fact I started to enjoy their company when looking for health or missile drops. They’re quite generous. The end boss is pretty fucked up, but I won’t spoil that.

Another unique thing about this game was probably unintentional, but impossible not to notice. When you take damage, it resets your jump and you can jump again in mid-air. This means if there’s spikes going up a wall you can literally jump into them over and over, to keep gaining height and sail up to a new area. The game doesn’t even care, because now what are you gonna do? You’re up on this high cliff with no clue what you’re doing, there’s still Metroids to find in the area, and you might have missed a power-up. If you try to get too clever you can lose the visual structure of the game’s layout in your head. Having no map is a serious danger in such a bland looking game. The “freedom” of this game’s movement and design is how it manages to be fun to play and scary at the same time.

It’s a stretch to say this game even has a soundtrack. There’s one good song, a lot of silence, random bleeps, and another awful “song” that sounds like the Game Boy is melting. It appropriately plays in sections with pipes and weeds, with this painfully garbled tune representing a sewer full of shit. To put into perspective how bad it sounds, silence is my second favourite song in the game. The rooms with no music give you a lot of time to think about where things went wrong in your life, and ponder all the events that led to you playing Metroid II in 2015. The answer is not here, despite the Metroids best attempts to communicate to you with digital screams. Speaking of awful sounds, don’t ever save the game when you’re low on health. You do not get it back when you die, it just resumes the save, and that beeping sound is very unsettling. It starts when you get below 50 health, and for every point you drop below 50 the timing of the beeping changes and “resets” with a note being dragged down to hell on a slide. If I played this game in 1991 I would have thought a portal to SR388 was opening up in my bedroom.

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I don’t recommend this game unless you really want more Metroid. I do recommend wanting more Metroid. So that leaves us in this unfortunate spot where we share our Metroid II experiences on a blog and try to make something of it. I’m personally glad I played through it but not everyone abuses their free time like me. I’d previously played the game for a few hours, but this is the first time I’ve beaten it. If anything I can now offer sympathy and understanding to other Metroid II players. Despite all the contrasting subtext making this game seem “out of place”, I don’t think any of this makes it a bad game. I figured out everything just by experimenting, and that’s how videogames should be. It’s brilliantly designed and very innovative, introducing significant things to the Metroid series like the Spider Ball, Space Jump, Spring Ball, Plasma Beam and the design of Samus’s shoulders. They couldn’t figure out how to make the Varia suit look different on a black and white screen, so they made her shoulders bigger to illustrate the suit upgrade. Not as iconic as Mario’s hat, but I couldn’t imagine Samus any other way.

I had a lot of fun revisiting Metroid II: Return of Samus, and while it’s not perfect I wouldn’t want it to be anything else. I feel like this game has become more valuable with how much gaming has changed over time. If you added a map, the game could probably be beaten in an hour, and it would lose its biggest draw. If it was displayed in HD 1080p the layout would have to be redesigned. I honestly can’t think of anything I’d change about it. It’s outdated, but still clever enough to convince you it’s 2079. The Year of Metroids.

One thought on “Metroid II: Return of Samus – Exploring the 8-bit Abyss”

  1. Ah, the “black sheep” of the Metroid franchise. I played it back when I was a kid, and when you are too young to understand the concept of “finite free time”, the poorly designed “exploration” elements really aren’t so bad. Like you said, it makes actually finding something more exciting than it should be. The spider ball was a powerup too cool to ever truly return (imagine the sequence breaking it could have opened up in the Primes). Although there was only the one exploration song and the ending, both were awesome, and I’m still waiting for a remix to show up in a new Metroid. The exploration song in particular is notable for actually making those dull caverns feel exciting.

    I don’t think Metroid II was very good even when it was new, and it has aged even worse. Still, it’s a big step up from the original Metroid, and at least it isn’t straight up offensive like Other M. It’s a concept worth revisiting in the future. Maybe we can get a little alone time with Samus after we’re done dealing with the Frderation’s co-op propaganda.

    Like

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