Metroid II: Return of Samus
- North American release in November 1991
- Japanese release in January 1992
- European release in May 1992
- Published by Nintendo
- Developed by Nintendo R&D1
The Galactic Federation has ordered me to play Metroid II: Return of Samus and report on my findings. Join me, as I head down the caverns of SR-388 and help Samus Aran eradicate an entire species of space monsters for the essential benefit of the galaxy.
Day Zero: Excitement
I haven’t even touched the cartridge, and already I am bursting at the seams with things to talk about. I am obsessed with the game, and I have so much to say about it. I’ll start with how I got introduced to the game. You’ll have to humour me as I bore you to death with ye olde tales of Game Boy nerdery.
My initial contact with the game came through an older cousin. He was playing a lot of video games, and on multiple occasions he gave me video games. They were presumably sold to me with my mother paying him without telling me. My sister got a Game Boy with the quintessential Tetris and Super Mario Land from him, which allowed me to discover the portable adventures of Mario. I got Killer Instinct on SNES from him years later, but he made sure to warn me that he was keeping the music CD that came with that game. The most important moment, however, is the second time he gave me a video game. He gave me a Game Boy cartridge I had never heard of. On the cover was a dangerous-looking robot in a kneeling position. Metroid II: The Return of Samus adorned the cover. No box, no manual, it only had the plastic case. My cousin told me it was a very cool game, and I believed him. A game with a robot on the cover couldn’t be bad!
When I got back home, I popped it in my Game Boy. I was only seven years old and I was floored. I couldn’t look away from the extraordinary game in front of me. The kneeling robot had me obsessed. However, in a shockingly similar experience to my later hardships with The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, I quickly got stuck on a user-hostile puzzle very early in the game. We’ll talk about that in due time.
I guess what is important is that Metroid II was the only Metroid game in my world. I was aware there were other Metroid games, of course. There’s a two in the title; I’m not an idiot. But those other titles might as well have not existed. I didn’t know what the first game was about, let alone that there was a third game on Super Nintendo. In hindsight it was a blessing. Had I played the other two games, I would not love Return of Samus as much as I love it today. It’s obviously the weakest entry in the series. But there was only me, my beloved Game Boy and the kneeling robot, so I was forced to extract every ounce of enjoyment out of the game.
I don’t think most fans of Metroid games have had the same experience as me. I feel that most people first played Super Metroid. They might not have played it initially when it was released, but it’s a classic that everyone recommends. People emulated it, bought it on Virtual Console, people make sure to try it. It’s that important. There also seems to be an older, smaller crowd, that first played Metroid on NES. Those two types of fans, the Supers and the Originals then went on to try Metroid II. Why not? You have to play the Game Boy game, it’s supposed to be essential, right? Their view of the Game Boy title was then diminished by their previous experiences. Most of them seem to have found Return of Samus fascinating but ultimately frustrating. How can you not, when you’ve just played either Super Metroid or Metroid? You easily get lost because there is no map system, the rooms are too big for the screen’s resolution and never lead anywhere interesting.
I do not care that the game is unimpressive. From my experience, the game goes beyond its negative qualities. What is left is a perfect marriage of gameplay and narrative. Metroid II: Return of Samus is boring because it’s about the monotony of evil. You fight the same creatures, you travel through similar caverns because Samus keeps repeating the same acts of genocide, slowly descending further down into the lair or her monstrous victims. She nearly succeeds and is suddenly confronted with a baby that she doesn’t kill. A monster she orphaned herself.
Just like the caverns you get lost in, Metroid II is deep. Or at least that’s the impression I have before I start playing it again. I’m pretty sure a lot of my analysis comes from its reputation and myriad remakes more than from its own ideas. You have the introduction cutscene at the beginning of Super Metroid that contextualizes the story of the baby Metroid and skews your perception. You have AM2R, a fan remake, and Metroid: Samus Returns, a 3DS reimagining that I’ve both recently played who both inflate the original story. I’m looking forward to replaying the original and re-evaluating it.
Day One: An Emotional Journey
- 39 Metroids Left I put in the cartridge. I hear the dreadful intro music. It’s a simple tinny note pumping like a heartbeat. It’s positively creepy and sets a commanding tone for the rest of the game. It ultimately leads to a short melody after about 10 seconds, but you rarely hear it (you never spend a lot of time on the menu screen). But that weird initial high-pitched bass line hits me like a brick wall. All my memories start flooding back. I’m immediately brought back to my youth, and the countless hours lost to my obsession with this game.
I walk around Samus’ ship to admire it (as is tradition). You can’t ignore a sprite this big. You have to stop and look at it. Back when I was a kid, I would walk from the middle sections of the game all the way back to the start just so I could admire the ship again. I could have just started a new game and looked at it that way, sure, but I wanted to admire it with my save file. Ah, the dumb things you do when you’re a kid. It’s somewhat justified; Samus’ ship is damn impressive. They knew they wanted to start the game with a cool visual, that’s for sure. The music that accompanies this moment is surprisingly chipper. I remember dreadful electronic noise serving as the soundtrack and I had forgotten that the game starts with an upbeat song that makes your mission sound heroic. The dread will be heard later.
I know exactly what to do and where to go. I head down the cave and follow the path, killing and navigating around the fauna of the game. I reach the first crossroad, an inverted T with a big rock in the middle. I head left and reach the first Metroid of the game. It initially looks like a classic Metroid parked on the ground with its three eyes looking straight at the player. But then it moults and an Alpha Metroid bursts from the membrane! It looks like an insect has been grafted on top of the old bulbous look. To me, this was what a Metroid always was. A creature that moults from a skin into creepy stuff. I’m actually bummed most other games just use the Larva Metroid. It looks cool but it’s kind of boring.
Anyway, it must have been a hell of a thrill to finally have the titular creatures front and centre. In Metroid on NES, it’s anticlimactic that the titular monsters are simply the last enemies you encounter before the final boss. It’s as if we had The Legend of Wizzrobe as the name for the first Zelda game.
On Game Boy, the Metroids are the main focus. The battles with them are the centrepiece of the whole thing. Your status bar constantly reminds you how many you have left to kill. Their mere existence controls the water level of the whole planet. They’re inevitable. It’s their planet, their game, Samus is the invader in this story. To make the Metroid species the singular focus of this game was a genius idea.
I do exactly what’s needed to kill the first Metroid quickly: I shoot a bunch of missiles at its underbelly. I probably killed that exact Metroid hundreds of times. I head for the two hidden recharge stations in the room, and the earthquake starts. My Metroid counter scrambles and settles on my new Metroid count.
- 38 Metroids Left What’s the deal with that earthquake? The game completely revolves around a central pit with some sort of liquid that blocks your progress. Based on the noise it made when it hurts Samus I used to call it electric water. Anyway, to keep unlocking new segments of the game to explore you have to make the electric water recede. The only way to do that is by killing Metroids. The Metroid counter on the bottom right of your screen sits at 39 when you start the game, showing the number of Metroids to defeat on the planet. The counter also displays a different number when you pause the game. That other number is the number of Metroids left to kill to unlock the next segment of the cave. Mind you there’s no leeway. No single Metroid will end up spared in your travels deeper into SR-388. Genocide of these scary monsters is the only path forward. So when you kill all the Metroids in a segment, you get an earthquake signifying that the liquid has receded, giving you access to a new segment of the cave. That’s what I’ve done by killing the lone Metroid of the first segment, completing what the developers intended as their introductory course into the world of Metroid II: Return of Samus. I head for the first save pillar next to the crossroad and call it a day. It’s too much nostalgia for me, I need a rest.
Day 2: Breaching Through an Old Wound
I finally, after a couple of days, get over my nostalgia and pick up the game again. I push forward, going through the section of the map that was filled with electric water beforehand. To my imaginative young self, those walls were still wet and dripping. In reality, they are exactly the same as any other wall in the cavern, using the same palette. Metroid II suffers from a severe case of environment sameness. There are very few environment types, and they are often reused. That means you easily get lost and you then get bored because everything is always the same. I reach the section where the water has settled and head right, jumping on small platforms above the water, to what you could call the first proper level of the game. You enter and are greeted by one of my favourite sounds ever.
It plays every time you leave the main shaft and enter a side section, a proper level. It’s extremely foreboding as a sound. You might think that I don’t pay enough attention to the soundtracks of the games I talk about. The reality is that they’re very pedestrian; in contrast Metroid II: Return of Samus features an extraordinarily strong soundscape that elevates the rest of the game. The caverns look more cavernous, the Metroids look more dangerous, the exploration feels more fun because the music and sounds are so well suited to the content of the game.
As I play the game, I have to fight against my own reflexes. I am an incorrigible completionist, and it applies to finding every doodad and also to defeating every enemy, however inconsequential they may be. Which is completely unnecessary and time-consuming! I have to remind myself every time I reach an enemy that I don’t need to kill them. I can safely ignore them and jump over them, turn into a ball and roll under them, or whatever else. Sometimes revisiting old loves means facing the old habits you regret having.
I am now in front of one of my old demons: the first hidden passage you need to uncover. At this early point in the game, you must find this hidden passage (traversable only when crouched into a ball) within a solid wall to allow you to continue the game. It is not optional. Just like the boss key of the second dungeon in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, this obtuse secret foisted upon children tormented me for months when I was around seven or eight years old. To clear the hidden passage you must:
- Kill a weird wall-bird robot.
- Jump on the husk of the defeated wall bird.
- Turn into a ball on the enemy.
- Move to the right through what looks like a solid wall.
- Place a bomb midway down the hidden passage to destroy a solid block.
It’s not impossible. It’s not overtly complex. But it is inexcusable that there is no hint whatsoever. There’s no instance where you are taught that hidden passages exist prior to this one. There is no visual clue on the wall to show the existence of the passage. Nobody tells you to search for a hidden passage (of course nobody talks to you, it’s a Metroid game). While Super Metroid is absolutely brilliant in how it’s giving you visual clues to show where the hidden portions of the map are, Metroid & Metroid II are guilty of keeping their mouth shut when it comes to secrets. I hate that.
Try and put yourself in my shoes back then. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. Am I doing something wrong? Am I going in the wrong direction? Do I need to dive in the pit of electric water? Keep in mind, I had a limited amount of AA batteries available to play the game and search for the solution to my problem. I had to learn to ration my efforts. So seven-year old me finally finds the secret passage after months of banging my head in vain. I can still remember the moment to this day. There is an energy tank right on the other side of the hidden passage, which made my victory against this horrible case of game design even sweeter.
Let’s compare with Super Metroid and its first secret wall puzzle. You need to find the Ice Beam, and it’s hidden behind a secret wall. But the space behind that secret wall is partially visible on the screen, and you can see enemies going up and down the area behind the wall. You eventually come to the realization that if an enemy can go there, you can too. So you start bombing the wall and you find the solution. It’s a much easier traversal puzzle than the mental gymnastics you have to perform in Metroid II.
This next segment of the game features a different set of wall tiles and has you navigate tall vertical tunnels with wall-bird robots that harass you with projectiles. You’re clearly inside an artificial construction. You pass through it and exit back in a natural cavern. You will later realize you were inside a big rectangular structure in the middle of a cavern. I push forward and reach a Metroid husk, just like the one the first Metroid I killed left behind. But in the smaller cave beyond the husk, no Metroid is to be found. Only a shaft, and at the bottom of it is the Spider Ball upgrade. More than anything, what makes Metroid II unique amongst the Metroid games is the Spider Ball. It allows Samus in ball form to stick to any surface and roll around on walls and ceilings like a ball with suction cups on it. If you get hit by an enemy or a spike, Samus loses her suction power and falls back to the ground.
With the Spider Ball, I simply went up above the wall near the Metroid husk. There’s a second opening just over the husk and within it hides the Metroid you are supposed to kill. This made apparent that Metroids leave husks near their hiding location. A wonderful gameplay idea that allows the game to signpost the player towards a certain location.
- 37 Metroids Left Now that using the Spider Ball to ascend led to success, why stop there? You go up a bit and see an enemy circling in the air. The developers didn’t put an enemy there just for fun. It’s another signpost. I continued forward, finding more enemies until I reach a life recharge station, just there on the middle of the level’s ceiling. Slightly further there’s even a missile recharge station on the same ceiling. At this point I was completely enraptured as a kid. If this ceiling hid such wonderful secrets, what else were the other ceilings of this game hiding? Now what I did was to use the Spider Ball on every single wall of every new room I entered in the game. AA batteries be damned, I explored every nook and cranny. I might as well have played a puzzle exploration game featuring the Spider Ball with some light travelling using the armoured form of Samus.
After my little ceiling adventure, I go to the save point to reflect on how obsessive I was as a young kid.
Day 3: Where’s the Map?
I’m back inside the structure to gather the extra missile containers within and then find the last three Metroids in this section. I’ve forgotten where they are exactly; let me just look at the map screen real quick . . . no can do, there is no map. It’s irritating that all future Metroid games have such wonderful map systems and here you get absolutely nothing. Super Metroid was such a masterpiece in part because it had an exquisite map system that made its exploration so much more palatable. I look up online to remember where the Metroids are and get underway. I used to get lost for hours within the same corridors of the game, trying to find an elusive Metroid. There was no GameFAQs to save me back then. You kids have it easy these days.
- 34 Metroids Left As I murder the last of the three Metroids, I start getting low on life energy, which means I’m confronted with how stingy the game dispends life pellets when enemies die. You really have to be careful and be constantly on the lookout for easy targets that will maybe drop life pellets. The game was difficult for that reason when I was a kid. It was really tough for me to kill enemies without losing more life from them than they were giving back.
I finish the last Metroid in the section, the earthquake starts and I head back to the main shaft. As I reach the entrance to the second level, I get my first jump scare of the game; there was an Alpha Metroid in a room I wasn’t expecting. I had forgotten about the Metroid husk at the entrance to the section that was supposed to warn me. Isn’t that delightful? That such an old game can scare someone with so little.
- 33 Metroids Left I’m in a new section and I feel like I’m discovering the world of the game for the first time. I don’t think I used to understand what the game was trying to convey through its environments. Each section is supposed to be a Chozo structure built inside a large cavern. I don’t think I understood that when I was playing as a kid. Why am I seeing things now that I didn’t see before? It might be because of Milton Guasti and his AM2R that turned the couple of straight pipes I’m navigating around right now into a full-blown pumping station. It might also be because I’m playing the game on a Game Boy Advance SP, which is literally enlightening. Last time I seriously played the game, I didn’t have an SP with a backlit modern screen. But now that I have the best possible display to enjoy Game Boy games, I can see all the little details the developers put in to build their environments.
Day Four: The Twin Tubes
I explore a bit and find a Metroid underneath the save room. I then use the Spider Ball to go up one of the tubes I just talked about. That’s different! I had forgotten about it, but up that shaft is a Chozo statue with the ball normally in its hands missing. Another thing we haven’t seen before. I immediately remember what to do. Behind the statue, in a room accessed through a Morph Ball opening, is a stack of Chozo balls. You blow them up with the bombs, with the very last one at the bottom needing a missile, not a bomb. Another unique thing that many players online say they were not able to figure out. I did when I was a kid, and found the greatest contribution of Metroid II to the series’ mythos; the Varia Suit! A different look for Samus’ armour, it features more detailing with its signature feature being large round pauldrons. It transformed Samus Aran from frumpy robot to video game icon, and it debuted in lowly Metroid II. It was created since colours could not be used to show which armour you had, like they did in the first game. I remember being shocked when I first found it. I think I was so surprised I showed my mom.
Showing my mom the new armour I got in a Game Boy game. I was such a square as a kid.
I head back to find a shaft, on the left side of the map, which brings me to another area. There are many Metroids here, and the floor hazards keep on coming. It’s a kind of root system that hits for a lot of consecutive damage. It’s honestly more dangerous than the Metroids here. I then find a set of rooms filled with freestanding sand with naive gravity that you have to shoot to make a path. And then something interesting, at least for me, happens. There’s a Gamma Metroid and I’m too low on life to safely take care of him. I haven’t saved in a while so I turn around and leave. Then it hits me like a pack of bricks; this is how normal people play hard video games! I usually just hit my head again and again, game over screens be damned, at the same problem until I can power through without ever backtracking. As an introduction to the Gammas, the second type of Metroid in the game, it’s great.
The Gammas are the second Metroid stage you see in the game. They’re bigger and look very different, but they fight in the same general manner as the Alphas. They do have two extra tricks up their sleeves: they have a smaller weak point and use some sort of electric tongue to attack you. Since they have the weird tongue, they’ll stay at a distance from you, instead of strictly rushing. This has the unfortunate consequence of making them trivial to beat. You can easily get a hit in when they stop moving, just before they fire their electric tongue at you. Nevertheless, they always looked the coolest; they look more like a rad spaceship than a creature. Every interpretation that I’ve seen, from the manual to Samus Returns, focuses on their multiple legs and their electric attack instead of their mandible and triangular shape. Those two elements are really what makes them stand out.
I have to farm for health, so I head back up the shafts and end up doing a loop above the main Chozo structure. The game also has a hidden Metroid up there in a side room, above the rest of the map, reinforcing the idea that you have to go up every wall with the Spider Ball to find stuff.
- 28 Metroids Left I’m stumped by trees who shoot round spores, not knowing how to kill them, so I just jump above them. I go down the shaft above the Chozo structure and find the second upgrade in the area, the Jump Ball. To get it, however, you have to fight the game’s only mid boss, Arachnus. It was hiding as the Item Sphere, and reveals itself when you shoot it. That’s twice in a row they’ve toyed with your expectations when getting items. It’s a round creature that jumps around and can be hurt with bombs when it opens its carapace to reveal its head. It’s actually very easy and anticlimactic, so I get the Jump Ball and get back up to finish my loop back to the save station. I’m at 18 points of health, so my farming for health was a resounding failure. I got Metroids and items, though. I save, and rest.
Day 5: Anything Becomes Normal After a While
I restart my attempt to farm for life, and I am reminded of my hate for the flying crabs in this area. I hated them, not because they were difficult to beat, but because they only dropped missiles. They never dropped health recharges.
As I run around, finally managing to get my health back up, I feel it is a good time to talk about the particularities of the jump mechanics. Samus has two ways of jumping: spinning or crouched. When you jump directly up, she’ll jump crouched. Her sprite is bigger but she can shoot. When you jump at an angle, she’s spinning, and her sprite is smaller. If you shoot when spinning, she will revert to crouched. Because her sprite is bigger when she is crouched, it’s harder to clear obstacles or projectiles. So you want to jump at an angle as much as possible. But because so many of the platforms in the game are very small with limited space to start an angled jump, you’ll be stuck in a crouched position more than you want. Finding the High-Jump Boots in this area clearly amplifies these jump mechanics, since you can now jump more than two screens high. You then end up jumping straight into hazards, ceilings or enemies because you’re not spinning.
In this area you have the Wave Beam, the High-Jump Boots, the Jump Ball and the Varia Suit. These upgrades are hidden behind fake walls in Chozo sections and are all optional. It’s a very ancient way to hide secrets, since you barely have any environmental clue to tell you where to look. You’re supposed to bang your head against every ceiling, to bomb every surface trying to find something, anything.
I finish finding all the upgrades, get myself a second Health Tank, go beat the Gamma Metroid hiding in sand that had eluded me before, thus finishing the section and allowing me to head to Area 3.
- 26 Metroids Left There are two subsections in Area 3: another Chozo installation in the middle of a large cavern, and a curious section of long shafts with tiny platforms. If you go in there without the Space Jump that you find in the Chozo installation, it’s miserable. But the game is not telling you its intentions. So you can totally start by the wrong section and only get the Space Jump after you’ve explored all the shafts. Future Metroid games would discreetly gate most areas, to force you to find the upgrade they want you to have. No such luxury to be found here!
I manage to get the Space Jump and the Spazer Beam in no time. Considering I barely just got the High-Jump and the Wave Beam, that’s not a lot of time to get used to your abilities. I beat another Beta Metroid, this time in a very large room with small platforms. Since he’s right next to where you find the Space Jump, it’s clear this fight is supposed to showcase this new ability. Unfortunately, Metroids do not move if they are outside your screen. They stay exactly where you last saw them. This defeats the purpose of fighting the Metroids in large areas, since they can’t pursue you.
- 25 Metroids Left Knowing this game well, I know that I need to finish the first section before exploring the second. Which I do, and after finding the Spazer Beam I nearly immediately find the Plasma Beam. What’s up with that? That’s dumb. You get no time to enjoy Spazer before you find Plasma. There are literally six screens between both weapons. I fight an Alpha, and find two Energy Tanks in short order. As I zig-zag around the map, I encounter the mechanical enemies hovering on ceilings shooting lava towards you. They’re called Autom, and they’re unique to this section. I finish the first subsection, killing all the Metroids there, and I head for the long shafts.
Day 6: Jumping All Around the Nursery
- 22 Metroids Left As I head down the long shafts section, now is a great time to talk about the Space Jump. It’s a brand new ability, unseen in the first game and, with the Spider Ball, it defines the gameplay and environments of Metroid II.
I’ve previously explained jumping in this game, but having played it a bit more I came up with a fun name for this game’s jumping mechanics: Old World jumping. I define that as a jump system that has any form of locking. The best example to me is the original Super Mario Bros. If you jump right in that game, pressing left will not allow you to move in that direction. You can change your angle and release A to shorten your jump, but you’re unable to go left. So even though you have some control over your jumping, there is some form of locking, so I define it as Old World. Ghost & Goblins is the most severe form of jump locking: once you have jumped, you cannot modify your jump at all. In contrast, New World jumping will never refuse to steer you in any direction whatsoever. It might give you very little movement, but it will give some visual response to any input. Super Mario Bros. 3 features New World jumping, since you can move in any direction when you’re in the air.
Metroid II prevents you from moving in the opposite direction of your jump, and it also restricts the Space Jump to a spinning jump. If you jump straight up, it’s impossible to chain another Space Jump. You’re stuck tumbling all the way back down. Since Samus will be in the Space Jump animation regardless of your angle for jumps after the first one, you need to get a good feel of the game’s jumping mechanics to make sure you never jump straight up. This means you end up rocking the D-pad left and right between jumps to make sure you perform a diagonal jump regardless of your timing. There’s also a time limit to chain another jump, so you can’t wait too long between your jumps. To add to the complexity, you are prevented from chaining slightly before you turn back into the crouched sprite and tumble back down. It’s complicated, and not intuitive. When you compare with recent 2D Metroid games, it’s downright ancient. In Metroid: Zero Mission, you can Space Jump, shoot an enemy, tumble-down for a bit in a crouched position, and go back to Space Jumping, all while staying airborne.
To get back to talking about the mission at hand, there’s an Alpha in a room with honeycomb tiles that you can safely traverse but that you can’t shoot without having to destroy. The Alpha at this point is too easy to make this quirk meaningful. But in the next screen there’s a Beta hiding in the same tiles, and because it’s harder you have to take it into account. Classic Nintendo R&D1 design. They teach you a mechanic, then they give you a real challenge using it.
I realized there’s one benefit of lacking a map; being a completionist, I tend to go to the corner of every room to reveal all the tiles on the map screen. Since there’s no map, I don’t need to do that.
- 16 Metroids Left As I explore the shafts with the finicky Space Jump, I encounter some one-way gates. I had forgotten that there were some in the game. So they could have made the shafts accessible only from the other side of the Chozo structure. They just didn’t.
I finish the section and start the earthquake just as I take the one-way exit that leads me all the way back to the entrance of the section. Of course I never did it that way when I was a kid. I had to go back and forth between sections to replenish my life and missiles because it was too hard for me. I expect the Zeta Metroids I’ll fight soon to give the adult me a more substantial challenge. What comes next are a couple of very small sections. I head to my first fight with a Zeta Metroid, and go thorough two rooms full of easy enemies who give large energy pellets. They really want you to be at full life to fight that Zeta. I reach the room and realize I made a mistake. There’s no Zeta like I thought. It’s just another Gamma. Man, when am I going to fight one? They really stick to the easier fights for way too long. I finish both small sections and head to the tower, the last Chozo structure of the game. I beat the Beta at the entrance of Section 6 and head for the nearest save pillar.
Day 7: I’m Nearly Done With My Genocide
- 13 Metroids Left I start exploring The Tower and its surrounding cavern. I try to Space Jump to reach the top of this tower and fail to connect my Space Jump right in the middle of its first segment. With no ledge to land on, I go all the way back down to the bottom of the cavern, since you cannot restart a Space Jump combo if you mess it up. It’s maddening. The rooms you go in are so big and empty, and you have to get real good, real fast with that Space Jump. No other Metroid game will ever have environments like this. Keep in mind, unique does not mean good. Just like the first game on NES was unique with its interminable shafts, here the areas are too high and wide to be fun. They made spaces just as big as on NES and they took out all the platforms because you have the Space Jump to get around instead. So it’s even more boring.
I find a blinking Gamma in an empty room, which means it’s finally time for a Zeta Metroid. As I get close enough, it moults and the Zeta comes out of the old husk of the Gamma Metroid. It’s a fun little detail. It attacks by staying on top of you, shooting projectiles at a tough angle to dodge. You have to jump and shoot missiles in its face or back. You can’t attack them from below. They feel aggressive, but they’re not so bad. You just have to be careful to get out of the way when they charge you. I lose two Energy Tanks beating it.
Speaking of Energy Tanks, The fifth Energy Tank is cruel. It’s hidden on the other side of a pitch black room that you have to explore blind. I remember getting very confused down there when I first played. I also gather a sixth one, discovering that the game does not allow you to use more than five. The sixth Energy Tank you find does absolutely nothing. This one is hidden all the way on the ceiling of the cavern and you have to bomb six or seven separate squares to reach its tunnel. It’s a cruel puzzle; if you stand too close to your bomb’s explosion, you lose suction and tumble all the way down to the base of the tower.
At the top of the tower is the Screw Attack, which you reach by bombing an entrance on the side of the tower using your Spider Ball. Getting the Screw Attack does not change your Space Jump, it simply makes you invincible as you spin, thus turning your jump into an attack. I assumed as a kid that Samus gained blades that attacked enemies when she spun. It’s satisfying to use, with its explosive nature and crunchy sound. With that upgrade, I am now fully kitted out. I fight a mixture of Gammas and Zetas here, finally giving me a harder challenge. Still, since I have five Energy Tanks it’s nothing too complicated.
On the left side of the tower there’s an entrance to a room with all the beam weapons of the game. It’s another step in the slow march towards selectable weapons in Super Metroid. Here it gives me an opportunity to get the Spazer beam back. I find it much better than the Phazer.
The last Zeta I fight is in a room filled with sand. It forces you to fight it at close quarters, but I still only lose the same two energy tanks fighting it. If you play conservatively and go back to restore your life when you need to, it’s fine. Nothing too hard. Ecological genocide is easy. Since I have now finished The Tower, I reflect on how anticlimactic it is. It’s an inverted horseshoe with rooms attached to it, nothing more. There isn’t anything particularly interesting about it. Just too much Space Jumping.
- 6 Metroids Left I’ve got 250 missiles and five Energy Tanks. I’m ready for the final gauntlet before the final boss. This gauntlet is a section containing four Omega Metroids with no easy way to restore your health. Before I do that, there’s a small segment where you have to beat one Alpha, the last one in the game. I summarily execute it but the electric water has risen! What? The first Omega Metroid has trapped me! I have to go back to where I fought the puny Alpha to face the first Omega Metroid of the gauntlet. It’s actually easier to beat than the Zeta since they use the same attack patterns but they’re slower and bigger, thus having a larger weak point. I love a good challenge, so I’m miffed. Setting aside the anticlimactic difficulty curve, the story here is super fun. So far, Metroids have hidden in hazardous rooms while here we have the penultimate form of the species setting a trap. The game is telling you: those fuckers are getting wise to your act.
After that short bit, you enter an area with a new wall tileset. The walls are black, made of evil-looking bubbles. Very few enemies can be found here. It feels like you’re an intruder entering their feeding ground. You walk around and fight the Omegas lurking within. As I fight the second to last one, I remember the trick to beating them easily; whenever they lunge at you simply Screw Attack. They won’t take damage from the Screw Attack but the thing is you won’t either. Their lunge will amount to nothing. You then carefully jump and hit their faces or back with missiles when they’re parked above you. Using this trick, I beat the last Omega with 68 life points left. Total, with no Energy Tanks in the bank. It’s a tough section, and the fact that you beat four in a row with no respite probably explains why they made them easier to beat than the Zetas. When I was a kid, I had to limp all the way back to The Tower to replenish my life after each Omega that I beat. The final earthquake of the game opens up the path to the Metroid’s true lair.
- 1 Metroid Left When you get inside the last area of the game, you quickly end up at a bunch of long water pools. If you jump in the water, you simply fall through and end up all the way back at the start. There are three floors of them, and you have to Space Jump over them since they’re so long. There are no enemies at all here. What is this area supposed to do? Gameplay-wise it’s a boring Space Jump challenge, but what about the environmental story? If there was just one pool, I would think nothing of it and just move on, but they clearly wanted us to think about the damn things, there’s just too many of them. My theory is that they want us to understand that the Metroids have cleared their lair of creatures because they’ve eaten them. You’re supposed to feel dread, since for the first time in the game it’s an area with no enemies. It’s a jumping challenge you would do with a room full of enemies, if not for the appetite of the game’s namesake. In Super Metroid you have a similar segment in Tourian with the crumbling husks of all the creatures the baby Metroid has sucked dry. I want to caution you though, dear reader, about making too many inferences about Metroid II based on what is in Super Metroid. Very few people who worked on the Game Boy game then worked on the Super Nintendo masterpiece. Basically, we have the progenitor of the series, Makoto Kano, and nobody else. It is absolutely possible that I’m inferring Kano’s influence, but it’s wishful thinking on my part. Fun fact, Makoto Kano still works at Nintendo to this day, but his last major credit is with Super Metroid. I think Kano was sent to Nintendo’s manager heaven.
I’ve cleared the empty rooms full of long pools and reached the last save pillar of the game.
Day 8: The Final Battle With the Metroid Queen
I go above the save pillar to another big empty room I think it is the biggest, emptiest room in all of video games. It’s that big. You have to ascend to the top, where the last Chozo area awaits. You basically have two options to climb here; you Space Jump to the top, or you Spider Ball along the side walls. With a single timing mistake causing me to fall all the way back down on my first attempt, I fall back on the slower but safer Spider Ball. There are three rooms accessible from the roof of the big empty room: the rightmost one is a life and missile restore room, which is very handy. I head, using the Spider Ball, to the next room over, which holds a destroyed Chozo statue with an Ice Beam upgrade on the floor. The common reading of the room is that the Metroids destroyed the statue, knowing how dangerous the Ice Beam was to their larval stage.
The third and last hole in the roof leads to an area with walls made of test tubes. Are the Metroids a Chozo experiment gone wrong? Future games will say yes, but back in 1991 it was all implied, not stated as fact. I go up the room and reach a passage for your ball form. If you played the game in 1991, you might not have been able to visually gauge what the object in the room above you was, but it’s an egg. It looks a lot like an egg from Alien actually. I pass by the egg, and the Metroid count goes up.
- 9 Metroids Left! You’ve been glued to that counter for the whole game, keeping good track of how it goes down, getting it down to one. And then suddenly, the last Metroid must have done something. It must have hatched more Metroids. Could it be? Of course it’s possible. Metroid II is such a blatant rip-off of Aliens, that, of course, the final Metroid is a queen, and she can lay eggs. You’re just underneath an egg right now! It’s clear: the Metroid Queen, in a last-ditch effort to stop me, just hatched eight more Metroids!
You now have to fight the original larval Metroids, for the first time in the whole game. That’s actually how you discover that the Metroid’s classic form is their youngest stage of development. They just hatched, so they must be very young. The rest of their life cycle then clicks into place. At some point they grow big enough, cocoon inside a chrysalis and then come out and become a weaker Alpha Metroid. Egg, larva, chrysalis, Alpha, Gamma, Zeta, Omega, then maybe they become a Queen or whatever. It makes sense. I have to mention how this is a blatant copy of the Xenomorph life cycle from the Alien series. Even that last blurry part between the Omega and the Queen is copied from Aliens. We didn’t know what turned a Xenomorph into a Queen until they offhandedly mentioned that Ripley hosted a Queen Facehugger in Alien³.
All this to say that just like with the first game, they’ve kept the classic Metroid for the last part of your adventure. And these fuckers are fast. I’m a bit careless and I lose a full energy tank fighting one in no time. You beat them the same way you did in the previous game; you freeze them with the Ice beam and hit them with five missiles. The reason you saw the Ice Beam earlier becomes clear; they’re not going to have you go all the way back to The Tower for the Ice Beam you need to beat the larval Metroids.
I fight my way through the young Metroids in the area, armed with the Ice Beam and the best tool against those enemies; patience. As I finish off the last one, I quickly come to the entrance of the Queen’s chamber. It’s weird. It’s past a bunch of spikes, and there isn’t really a hole that you can telegraph. It’s obviously there to create a one-way path, and has the side effect of making it feel like you’re not supposed to go there.
- 1 Metroid Left, Again The Queen is in front of me, screaming, while the music is the most dreadful it’s ever been so far. Her sprite is huge and gorgeously scary. She looks like her children. She has their eyes, their teeth, but every Metroid design element is more menacing. I guess I should say her children look like small versions of their mother.
There’s one thing I’ve never done while fighting her. Going into her belly in Morph Ball mode. I’ll try to do that this time. I have to say that I’m underwhelmed by this special move at first; I can only manage to drop a bomb in her jaw when she’s stuck in place, and it doesn’t hurt for much. But you can indeed go into her stomach, you just have to stop pressing left when in her mouth and then press left afterwards. It’s really hard to pull off. Your life keeps draining and you want to do things quickly when you’re in her mouth. Your reward is that each Morph Ball bomb in her stomach counts for 30 missiles. If not for the remake that forces you to go inside the stomach to finish her, I would have never known of this hidden special attack. It sometimes makes me wonder; how many things do I not know about video games?
The Queen takes 150 missiles to beat, and will test your reflexes. She throws projectiles that bounce on the walls in unforgiving arcs, and she lunges at you for massive damage. Strangely, the game allows you to leave the battle, allowing you to go back to the map and reset the fight. Thinking about why they allowed you to leave from the final battle of the game, I come up with a plausible explanation: they wanted you to figure out you didn’t have enough missiles. Since the Queen needs more than half the missiles in the game shot down her throat to give up the fight, a player might not have collected enough missiles for the battle. Super Metroid would sidestep the issue by substituting a charged shot for a missile, but here it’s 150 missiles or bust.
She is defeated, and here ends the challenge of Metroid II: Return of Samus. However, at this point begins a fondly remembered moment. It’s a strange situation; this game is more remembered for its ending than anything else. The Queen disintegrates, allowing you to walk left, in the room beyond where she stood. You find the egg, as you are now above the passage you were previously in. The egg cracks and out comes a minuscule Larva Metroid. Instead of fighting it, it simply starts following you around, floating around you. Your shots just pass in front of it.
This small event that unfolds after beating the Queen will be the jumping off point for the story of Super Metroid. The baby Metroid’s DNA will also be revealed as what saves Samus in Metroid Fusion. Finally, a foolhardy attempt to double down on the supposed motherly instincts Samus Aran displays here will be the downfall of Metroid: Other M. I say supposedly because I see no motherly attitude in Samus here. She just singlehandedly committed a holocaust against the Metroid species. The very last specimen is alive in front of her. She brings it with her to her ship. Metroid II ends there, but Super Metroid shows exactly what she did with that Metroid. Did she raise it like her child? No, she brought it to scientists, who put in a cramped jar and experimented on the creature. Samus, in the introductory narration, is happy that they are making scientific progress. That’s not motherly nature, that’s a mercenary happy her dangerous work might mean something.
One fascinating element of the ending is how it geographically unfolds. The baby Metroid can eat diamond-shaped tiles that block the path you need to go through after you’ve rescued it. That means it’s helping you achieve your objective. What objective? That’s another fun thing. At first you have no clue where you’re going. You’re just going up a cave tunnel, there are no enemies and the baby Metroid is eating the blocks in your way. Then you finally exit to a large area, scale a cliff, go down the other side of the cliff and suddenly you see your gunship. You’re back at the starting area of the game! The whole game is one gigantic loop, from your ship to the Queen and back. I go in the ship, and the game ends.
The credits show the time it took to complete the game, with a new picture of Samus if you beat the game under five hours or three hours. But the game doesn’t tell you that. You have to discover it on your own. And I did! All on my own, without anybody else telling me I had to do it, I started playing the game again, and again, and again, to lower my time. I remember my greatest accomplishment being that I could finish the game at 100% items collected under 2 hours 50 minutes. It’s nothing special, but god it felt fast when I did it when I was a teenager.
Your reward for beating the game under three hours, by the way? Just like in the original Metroid, Samus takes off her armour and reveals she’s . . . a . . . girl! I don’t want to be pretentiously progressive, but I think I was more surprised that a human was in the armour than a woman. The kneeling robot was a person after all!
Metroid was already a great expression of R&D1’s way to make video games. It showed the core tenet of R&D1; giving the players tools to accomplish the task at hand. It very wonderfully used this mantra to great effect. It took the same initial idea as The Legend of Zelda, making an action game out of the general concepts seen in Dragon Quest. It arrived at a different result because Yokoi’s team focused on tools, not sandboxes.
Here with Metroid II: Return of Samus, we have the same internal studio (albeit with a mostly different credited staff) refining their ideas for an exploration game on the system the people at R&D1 designed themselves. They added some more tools to her arsenal, namely the Space Jump and Spider Ball, and more importantly expanded the importance of the boss battles. Instead of only opening the door to the final area by beating two bosses, the sequel made beating the 39 + 8 bosses of the game the whole point, gameplay-wise and story-wise. Defeating Metroids opened the next area for exploration. It gated the game, making it somewhat easier to explore on a smaller screen, and more importantly turned beating the bosses into the vital tools of your missions.
I love Metroid II, quirks and all. Its structural flaws are alleviated by our modern affordances. It doesn’t have a map; great maps are a simple online search away. The graphics are hard to see on the original Game Boy; a backlit GBA or a Virtual Console version will solve that. I definitely found enjoyment out of my complete play through. It has some interesting puzzles, and its environmental storytelling is interesting. It’s not ahead of its time, but it is rare for the Game Boy to have environments that try and tell you a story.
So in spite of the existence of an official remake on 3DS and a fan-made PC reimagining with a cease and desist order from Nintendo, go play the original game. It’s essential.