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Metroid II-2: Return of Samus Returns

(Nb. I don’t have any screenshots for either of these games, so I’ve, er, made my own.)

When I first got a Game Boy Pocket, I remember there was a distinct set of games that were always available from Woolworths and Dixons. There were the ones I’d heard plenty about, like Super Mario Land 2, or Link’s Awakening, but then there was this mystery game that I’d never seen anything about.

Metroid II: Return of Samus was my first encounter with this series, and it would be another decade before I got around to Super Metroid, so I had no idea what to expect. From the cover, it looked like an exciting space adventure, though the screenshots were somewhat minimalistic, and I was used to platformers with cheerful soundtracks.

But Metroid II offered quite a different experience. It starts out very upbeat (the Surface of SR388 theme is fairly iconic, as far as I’m concerned), but the longer the game goes on, the more tense it becomes.

The basic idea is that you’re on the planet SR388 to hunt down Metroids, so that they can never be used against the Galactic Federation by the Space Pirates ever again. What this means is that you’ll spend about two seconds above ground, and the rest of the game descending ever further into the caverns below. Lava blocks certain tunnels, and only drains away after you’ve cleared out all the Metroids in each major location.

As for those major locations, they usually comprise of several tunnels surrounding a ruin. You’re not supplied with a map, either in the box or the game itself, so it’s up to you to keep track of where you’ve been and where you might want to go next.

Now, the first game I owned was Turok: Battle of the Bionosaurs, the Game Boy edition of the N64 classic, so I was no stranger to exploration, but Metroid II eschewed separate levels in favour of one huge, interconnected world. If you look at it from outside the game, it doesn’t seem so complex, but while you’re in the game, it’s not always the easiest to remember what’s where.

I mentioned that I was used to chirpy music from other platformers, and that’s where Metroid II really carved out its own identity that has stuck with me all these years. Most of the main areas have alien ambience in place of discernable tunes, and they become more intense the deeper into the game you get. Look up the Caverns 3 Theme if you want to get an idea of what I mean – imagine being lost in a dark tunnel while that’s playing everywhere you go!

There’s not a line of dialogue in the game – you don’t get an opening cutscene, and when you reach your ship at the end, you go straight to the end credits, with no stops along the way. Yet there’s something about the game’s design that lured me into its narrative. Each time you clear the required number of Metroids, the caverns are rocked by an earthquake that lowers the lava, allowing you to descend ever further into the planet, and the sound of that quake, though not really frightening by itself, still feels ominous whenever I hear it.

I sometimes think of Metroid II as the first survival horror game I ever played. The Metroid encounters sometimes catch you by surprise, and while the fights aren’t the most technical of affairs, they often still manage to raise some level of panic before you’re able to get your missiles ready and bring the monsters down.  There’s also a distinct feeling of isolation, especially the further into the planet you descend. I’d sometimes pop back to my ship earlier in the game, but as you get some distance between you and the surface, it becomes less and less tempting, leaving just one direction to go.

And that’s where the Omega Metroid territory really got me. While the game entire is dark (black-and-white screen notwithstanding, practically every location has a black background), the scenery is somehow more sinister and alien than anywhere else, and the sour tune that plays is accompanied by a strange noise in the background, like something constantly moving somewhere out of sight.

There’s one neat area that lures you into looping around back to where you’d previously visited, only to run into the first Omega Metroid encounter. This intro made me even warier than before, which had a decent pay-off once I entered the final location of the game. The music track in this last area is even creepier, and becomes even more tense once you encounter the iconic regular Metroids. The corridor before the end boss gets its own ominous theme too, once you’ve cleared out all other targets.

All of this tension is released once you defeat the Metroid Queen, and find the Metroid hatchling, when the unnerving ambience and tunes are replaced by a cute theme that follows you as you make your way back to the surface with the hatchling’s help.

I find the subject interesting because everyone has their own things they take away from games. When it comes to Metroid II, my memories are focused on the following points:

-          Space adventure subverted into isolated trek into dark, suffocating tunnels

-          Quirky birdman ruins theme (if the word Chozo was present in the manual, I most assuredly didn’t remember it)

-          No map

So then we come to Metroid: Samus Returns, the 2017 remake of my beloved old game. Given my points above, did this version meet my expectations?

The answer, of course, is a resounding no.

Is that a bad thing? No, not really. I suspect that Metroid II will have aged poorly for anyone who didn’t play it back then, though not necessarily. When I grabbed Samus Returns off the 3DS store, I got Metroid II bundled with it, and I replayed the entire thing before finishing the new one, since the new one didn’t quite take my fancy in the same way. Certainly, nostalgia will have carried me quite a bit further, but it felt like it had aged well.

Anyway, the point is that the remake probably wouldn’t have done so well if it had adhered to the original formula too closely. There’s no denying that the original is a short game, even if getting lost does double its playtime, and the scenery variation is quite limited. My dream for the remake would be fairly dire by modern standards, I dare say – if I had my way, the locations would all have been just as dark and forbidding.

The new game has some bright and colourful backdrops, and the ambience never quite seems to reach the unnerving levels that the original basic tunes managed. That’s not entirely fair, though – the updated Metroid Nest tune, for example, is superb, and yet I never really felt that isolation or fear when I played the new game.

Convenience must surely play some part in that. Samus Returns comes with teleports, so you can pop around the caverns all over the place. Similarly, your map makes it easy to identify where you are. There was something quite chilling about wondering if you’d ever find your way back out of the original Omega Metroid territory, even if the route was ultimately fairly direct.

I’m all about the contrasts, and Metroid II’s opening cheerful theme (Surface of SR388) was so stark against the final tunes that this clash firmly imprinted the idea of descending into somewhere awful. The remake’s version is arguably better, yet it just didn’t work for me. I don’t like the instruments they picked for the main tune – it’s a lot less warm, and the second part doesn’t feel strong enough. 

The remix for AM2R (a fan-made version of Metroid II) is similar in that sense. Both the updated tunes are slow to build up, but the original tune shoots into action, and maintains that energetic pace for the duration. There’s no wasted time with contemplative pauses or build; that’s left to the main atmospheric themes when you leave the main tunnel to explore the Metroids’ hunting territories.

I’d also argue that the “fancy” counter mechanic was a large barrier to enjoying Samus Returns. It’s one of those novelties that feels cool the first couple of times, and looks great for gameplay trailers, but when it gets trotted out on virtually every monster in a game that has you backtracking through respawned rooms quite a lot, it becomes enormously tedious. Rather than blasting the basic monsters out of the way, I ended up getting bogged down waiting for the inevitable move that required a counter-attack every few paces.

And while I’m complaining, let’s talk about the overall game structure. I’m not particularly bothered by the weird contraptions that require you to kill X number of Metroids before you can proceed. They make practically no sense (I’m sure there’s some explanation about it being an old Chozo facility lockdown or something somewhere), but neither did the convenient earthquakes that accompanied each complete Metroid clear-out. And I’m fairly certain that I only understood those because of the game’s manual, so it’s probably just as well that there’s a clear in-game explanation for that mechanic this time around.

However, it’s fan service of the absolute worst kind to make Ridley the final boss of a game he never even featured in originally. Not only did he have nothing to do with Metroid II, but he has absolutely no involvement in the new game either. He simply swoops in right at the end with zero foreshadowing to swipe the Final Boss spot, and dies with just as little fanfare.

What do you mean, Ridley’s iconic and I’m talking nonsense? Look, to me, he’s just a forgettable dinosaur boss with nothing interesting about him in the slightest. In fact, the best Ridley moment I think I’ve encountered was in that Awkward Zombie comic.

In summary, then, I didn’t feel that the new game captured the same unnerving atmosphere of the first, so it didn’t tickle me in quite the same way. However, and I cannot stress this enough, that doesn’t mean I think it’s a bad game.

From a basic gameplay perspective, it’s a lot better. The areas are beautiful, the controls are (mostly) fluid, and the boss fights against the various Metroids are great (if a tad long at times, for fights you have to repeat multiple times). The original game’s battles, after all, were mostly just a case of spamming missiles while jumping occasionally, while these ones involve a fair bit more in the way of strategy, reactions, and movement. In particular, I remember the fight against Diggernaut taking me on an interesting and ultimately satisfying journey from hopelessness to “oh, I get how this works”.

(Yes, I know that Diggernaut wasn’t in Metroid II either, but he at least didn’t interrupt the flow of the original ending.)

The soundtrack doesn’t quite capture the mood I was after, but it’s still top-notch. Many of the original tracks have been absorbed into the updated tunes, which is charming, and there are some new melodies that do a great job of bringing the game’s energy to the fore.

As such, I give this game my full recommendation, but I’m still gonna go back to my corner with my copies of Metroid II and sulk.

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