Here’s a fun fact about Metroid II: this is one of the earliest games I can ever remember playing! I think I first played this before ever owning a game, although given it was a very long time ago now I can’t be certain of that. What I am certain of is the memory of sitting with a Game Boy Color on my friend’s bedroom floor, both of us squinting down at the tiny screen as this unknown armoured hero stood beside their strange, wide spaceship, taking our first steps to the right into alien caverns, and then dying horribly the second we stepped into the odd, textured water. That was an experience I had over two decades ago and yet it welled up clear as day when I booted Metroid II up for the first time in over 20 years to review.
Metroid II: Return of Samus (GB)
Released Nov 1991 | Developed / Published: Nintendo
Genre: Metroidvania | HLTB: 5 hours
We didn’t know it back then of course because neither me nor my friend had played Metroid before but our protagonist is, naturally, Samus Aran. Fresh from her conquest over the space pirates in the first game, she is tasked by the Galactic Federation to go to the home planet of the Metroids, designated only as SR388, and eradicate them so they can’t be captured and used as bio-weapons against the galaxy ever again. We didn’t know any of that plot either mainly because the game doesn’t tell you bloody anything whatsoever; any backstory I know about Metroid II I learned because for this review I went off and read the manual and researched it online. The Game Boy is obviously a fairly limited piece of hardware but even so it seems a bold and short-sighted move to exclude any kind of plot or writing from this sequel; it certainly makes the game stand out against the modern Metroid games which have, since Super Metroid, been increasingly story-focused.
If you’re coming in to Metroid II and you’ve played at least the first game then no doubt you’ll recognise the titular Metroids when they first appear, but even then that’s all you might get since this game has no returning characters (well, apart from Samus, obviously) or visual links to the previous title. What I’m getting at with this is that Metroid II is obviously a game designed with a strong narrative that exists around it but not within it and when you play something that has been stripped of its internal context for whatever reason, it makes for a confusing time. Without the ability to connect to the game on an expository level you can only engage with it mechanically.
Now, the first game was pretty stripped back in terms of narrative, but as I spoke about in my review of it, even then the NES hardware still allowed the developers to give some beautiful visual cues about the planet of Zebes. Even if you didn’t know that Ridley, Kraid, and Mother Brain were space pirates, you could still see the harsh constructed structures that cut through the natural landscape and surmise that they weren’t native and were up to no good on the planet. The most we get in Metroid II are the ruins, of which there are a few. Each of these house upgrades to Samus’ gear and most of the collectible missile and energy upgrades, so you can assume that these were representative of some sort of civilization or culture before something presumably happened to them, such as the rise of the Metroids. Moments that encourage you to consider the wider universe are few and far between; most of the time you’re just going to see miles and miles of caves and tunnels that look entirely indistinct from one another, which makes finding your way around frustratingly confusing.
Despite the name, Metroid II is not a Metroidvania in totality – or if it is, it’s a fairly stripped back version of the genre. More accurately, it’s a semi-linear maze. As you progress deeper into the bowels of SR388 you can only go so far before you’ll find progress locked off by deadly pits of lava, or acid, or death water. The game isn’t clear, but it doesn’t matter; what matters is that it kills you very quickly so you’ve got no choice but to wander around in a different direction. In the bottom corner of your screen a counter tracks the remaining number of Metroids left on the planet since the goal of the game is commit genocide and eradicate every single Metroid. The only way to get rid of the pools of death water is to find and destroy all the Metroids in that area; it’s tied solely to killing all the Metroids in a given place, so once you’ve took them all out there’s no reason to backtrack except to search for upgrades or to fight enemies to refill health and missiles. The latter thing there might seem like a throwaway remark but actually it’s a lot more of the experience than you might expect. The ending is a particularly egregious example; the final batch of Metroids to find is a massive slog because they eat missiles like mad and the nearest missile refill is a long backtrack away so it becomes a frankly torturous experience.
There are at least upgrades to find, in proper Metroidvania fashion. Samus begins the game with a few pieces of her usual armory already installed, like the Morph Ball and Missiles, which is at least a nice touch. Samus’s powerful Varia suit makes a return, and for the first time it sports its now-traditional massive chunky shoulders as a way of making the suit’s difference clear on the tiny monochromatic Game Boy screen. The Morph Ball gets a couple of interesting augments, first in the form of the Spring Ball, allowing Samus to jump properly while in Ball form instead of having to get jammy with timing bombs, and then also in what might be the signature upgrade for Metroid Ii, the Spider Ball. This item allows Samus to slowly scale any surface, climbing up and over the rugged caverns bored into the subsurface of SR388. Every Metroid has some upgrade which, once you get it, completely opens up the exploration, and the Spider Ball is Metroid II’s; you find it relatively early on, but if you fail to find it you get your first clue about the linear gated progression through SR388, and using it to explore makes you realise just how big this world is that Nintendo have managed to cram into a Game Boy cartridge, with Metroids hidden in all sorts of nooks and crannies.
This is also the game that introduces the Space Jump, the other upgrade which blows open the exploration of Metroid II. The latter game ruins and caverns are often mind-bogglingly expansive, and understanding when to use the potentially infinitely chained jumps of the Space Jump and the more accurate and painstaking movement of the Spider Ball is absolutely crucial to seeking out all of the hidden Metroids Samus hunts. The Space Jump itself is cool in concept but personally I find it laborious and annoying in practice; getting the timing right to chain jumps together is an exercise in annoyance, and there were many, many times I battled with angrily shutting the game off as yet another jump chain failed for seemingly no reason and Samus fell tumbling down to the bottom of yet another monumental cavern.
Many 2nd games of NES franchises turned out to be the experimental entries in their respective franchises. We discussed this last week with Zelda II, and Metroid II continues the pattern, but in this game’s case, the most unorthodox change to the series comes to the lore with the introduction of the Metroid life cycle. Turns out the classic toothy blob that latches onto your noggin and drains your life away was only the larval phase of a creature with multiple different stages throughout its life, kind of like the world’s ugliest Pokemon. We’re introduced to this almost immediately; it’s not long after arriving on SR388 that we come across our first Metroid which subsequently bursts from its original form into a floating horned insectoid thing. Your progression through the game is marked by ever more dangerous evolutions of the Metroids, culminating in some truly massive and dangerous challenges.
This is kind of a double-edged sword though, and I’m not sure how I feel about it. I understand the reason why it exists on a gameplay level – we’ve fought the original Metroids before, and the way they’re beaten remains pretty consistent across titles, so just having to slog through 40 odd of them would certainly be a bit of a drag; the life cycle then gives us a bit more variety. However in practice there’s little in the way of evolving strategy to the way you actually have to employ regardless of the changing state of the Metroids; every single one of them is defeated purely by pummeling them with ever greater numbers of missiles until they finally explode. Given that’s the case, I’m not sure there was much value in introducing the life cycle.
I also just don’t like it from a lore perspective either. Call me a purist, or call me a grumbling git who can’t stand change, but I feel like changing away from the old Metroid design is such a crappy move. The original Metroids are, without hyperbole, utterly inch-perfect in design. They’re dead simple, largely out of necessity so they could be parsed on old CRT TVs and rendered by NES hardware, but everything about them is crafted with terror-inducing precision. They’re just so primeval and alien, from the bulbous glob of green that turns away any attacks until frozen by the Ice Beam, to the triple-blobbed brain stem, everything about the Metroid design is done with simplicity and effectiveness balanced expertly. In contrast, none of the evolutions introduced in Metroid II match up to this established standard of design; every single new stage is an ugly, incomprehensible mess of pixels. The first two stages you come across are kind of coherent, with a kind of plated insectoid design, but the later evolutions are an absolute travesty as the Metroids reach some sort of bipedal xenomorph-like point. I think it’s telling that this life cycle doesn’t seem to have shown up beyond a passing reference in Fusion on the GBA; thankfully it seems that the franchise is in the hands of people who understand the power and presence of the iconic original Metroid design over these hideous mistakes.
As I came to the end of Metroid II, I was filled with relief. The finale is blessedly high-stakes and exciting as Samus completes her quest, and there’s a lot of emotional resonance that comes with the discovery of the Baby Metroid which leads us directly into the story of Super Metroid, but it doesn’t do enough to save the game. It’s just a bit too much of a grind to be enjoyable, frankly. It’s a shame though; Metroid II is a startlingly ambitious title for a Game Boy release, and I do want to love it. Alas, it wasn’t happening for me. If you don’t buy into the evolution of the Metroids as a species then all that’s left is the mechanics, and I found Metroid II didn’t hold enough together in that arena to be worth the time spent playing.
3/7 – MEDIOCRE.
A game that makes you go, “Well, it’s alright…” but it’s a kind of drawn-out, unsure, and reluctant decision? These are those games. Might just be worth playing if you can get it on the cheap.