Week two of the March of Metroid means we should probably take a look at the second game in the series. An interesting decision was made for the sequel – to have it jump onto a portable console. Could a handheld of the era really pack in the sort of adventure worthy of the name Metroid? Released for the Game Boy in 1991, it’s Metroid II: Return of Samus!
Metroid II details Samus’ mission to SR388, the planet the Metroids originally came from. What’s she doing there? Well, she’s eradicating all Metroids in order to preserve galactic peace. That’s right. You’re here to make the Metroids go from “endangered” to “extinct.” And that’s pretty much the whole of it! There’s no greater enemy threat – you fight lots of Metroids, then you fight a Queen Metroid, and then you leave.
The end of the game, however (this isn’t a spoiler the game is twenty-five years old for goodness’ sake), has Samus find a freshly hatched Metroid – one that imprints on her and thinks Samus is its mom. Thus, it helps Samus escape the planet and is completely non-aggressive, compared to literally every other Metroid in the game. Nothing’s told through text, it just happens in gameplay. It suggests there may be more to the creatures than just “eat everything in sight” and it’s this kind of subtle storytelling that makes the Metroid series great. Wouldn’t it be awful if it stopped being subtle? (Oh, we’ll get there…)
The gameplay is similarly simple. Samus starts out fairly well-equipped, for once. She’s got the Morph Ball, thirty Missiles, and a little counter that tells you how many Metroids are between you and their extinction. Thus, we move forth into the catacombs of SR388, where we will no doubt find more powerups, some familiar, some new, and a variety of freaky alien genotypes to deal with.
While none of the areas have names as such like in the first game, there’s still some level of distinction (usually through music or the screen fading out and in) between zones. Also, pausing the game shows you how many Metroids are in the current zone. Destroying all the Metroids in the current zone opens up the next one, and you can see how many are in that one from anywhere in the game. Zones are blocked off by what is called a “hazardous liquid” that drains when you defeat all the Metroids in the area.
Controlling Samus is for the most part, much easier than it was in the first game. She can now crouch and shoot, as well as aim down when jumping. This makes traversal and combat much easier compared to the first game. Some of her new abilities are not so easy to control, however – the new Spider Ball, for example, can take some finagling with the D-Pad to actually get Samus moving, and the timing on the Space Jump is trickier than it might seem at first glance. They’re both invaluable for exploration, however, so getting the hang of them is critical.
Aside from those new items, there’s also a couple new Beam types – Spazer and Plasma. The Spazer might seem useful at first glance – it has a wider range of effect – but in application is pretty useless as it’s weak and difficult to use. The Plasma Beam, however, is probably the best weapon in the game – it’s extremely powerful and even though it requires better aim than the Wave Beam, it’s much more useful. Also returning is the Ice Beam, which of course, you’ll need to fight Metroids. And once again, Beams are mutually exclusive, however, there’s a nice area about two-thirds of the way into the game where all the beams are in close proximity to one-another, so you can pick your favourite to continue onwards with.
Now, I said the Ice Beam’s necessary to fight Metroids. That’s not actually the case for the first ninety percent of the game. The first thirty-eight Metroids you encounter throughout the game are actually an evolved form of the one you may be familiar with from the first game. It turns out their original form is just a larval form and they eventually grow into Alpha, Gamma, Zeta, and Omega Metroids, becoming progressively stronger and more difficult to defeat. Any time you see the discarded shell of a Metroid, that means one of your targets is nearby.
Also, they’re immune to every weapon except your Missiles, hence why you start with thirty of the things. While you’ll start fighting Alpha Metroids that just move in to tackle you, later evolutions start using projectiles and become harder to escape by scrolling along with you when you move the screen. Fortunately, early on in the game, Missile Expansions are hidden all over the place, so it’s easy to stock up on weaponry. You can eventually carry 250, which is more than enough for a couple encounters.
Also handy is that hidden all over are Energy Stations and Missile Stations that, when touched, refill all of the requisite item. Your ship has one of each, and if you’re willing to dig around you can find a number of them in early areas of the game easily enough (they do tend to become scarcer the further down you go). And of course, you can find Energy Tanks to boost your health – though this time around, you can only carry up to five.
The game is much more linear than other Metroid titles – you don’t really backtrack a lot. You go to an area, clear it out of Metroids, and then “backtrack” to where the entrance to the next area is, which usually isn’t far from the entrance to the area you’re already in. You might backtrack to your ship every once or twice to restore health and ammo, but otherwise, it’s down, down, down you go into the depths of SR388. That’s not to say there isn’t room for exploration – there is, and there’s a lot of hidden goodies – but it’s much simpler than in the first game. I couldn’t hope to beat the first game without a guide or map, whereas this game, I was able to clear it relatively fast with a good portion of the items on my first try many years ago.
What difficulty there is comes from the later Metroid fights (where they do fairly absurd amounts of damage and are hard to dodge, in no small part thanks to the massive amount of space Samus takes up on screen) and the final battle with the Queen which is pretty much a battle of attrition more than an actual fair fight. There’s even a way to escape if it’s going poorly for you, complete with nearby Health and Missile Stations, though the cost of this is that she recovers all of her health afterwards. Beyond that, item pickups are rare, and certain enemies only drop certain kinds. Missile Stations are also much rarer than Energy Stations and in more inconvenient locations, so refilling your Missiles to go after Metroids can turn into a grind if you’re in a bad spot.
What helps a lot, though, is the save system. The game has Save Points scattered throughout (and as per usual, they get scarcer and scarcer the deeper you go), and saving’s as easy as jumping on top and hitting Start. It saves your health (no starting over from 30 every time!) and Missile count, so using them after finding the Stations is always a good idea. There’s even one near the Queen Metroid, which is nice.
Another problem the game has is a lack of conveyance. There’s a boss fight against a creature called Arachnus at one point in order to get the Spring Ball. It’s not made clear that you’re supposed to use Bombs in order to defeat it. I only figured that out by accident. Also, at the very end of the game you actually do need to fight Larval Metroids using the same technique as in the first game – this isn’t made clear until you actually encounter one, though fortunately there’s an Ice Beam hidden nearby. There’s also a fast method for beating the Metroid Queen where you stun her by shooting her open mouth with a Missile, and then turning into a Morph Ball, jumping inside her gut, and dropping several Bombs – how you’re supposed to know to do that, I have no idea.
Visually, the game’s actually kind of nice. It’s simple, yeah, and the distinction between areas is not as good as in the first Metroid (though places tend to get weirder-looking the deeper you get), but overall, it’s quite nice, and Samus is extremely well-animated. This game is even the origin for her giant-shouldered Varia Suit due to the limitations of the Game Boy. Unfortunately, as well animated as her sprites are, they’re also quite large, and she takes up a lot of the screen. Areas in this game feel very cramped and claustrophobic. One could say this adds to the atmosphere, but it interferes with the gameplay since you’re such a big target, and it’s not very nice.
What about audio? Well, this time around, the game focuses a lot on ambient soundtracks. There’s a couple tunes in the game that are pretty catchy, but for the most part you’re going to be hearing a lot of subdued noise. It’s pretty effective, adding to the feeling of being alone on an alien world, and the ambience generally gets darker and more threatening as, yep, the deeper you delve.
Overall, the game’s pretty short (it can be hundred-percented in under three hours, though that’s just based on my own run, there’s no doubt faster ones), kind of on the easy side for the most part, and not quite as adventurous as the first game. It’s a technical feat on the Game Boy, though – it’s got a surprisingly large and detailed world, a lot of stuff to find, and the ambience is excellent. Is it worth a play? Well, that depends on how much you really like Metroid games. Me though? I had fun giving it a second chance.
The first time I completed this game, I actually quite hated it. It was frustrating, it was difficult for me at the time, and it just wasn’t as good as the other Metroid games I’d played. But playing it again now, I think I appreciate it a lot more than I used to.
And that’s worth something.