In 1980, Nintendo helped popularize the concept of portable games with the release of their first Game & Watch console. The man behind this invention was Gunpei Yokoi, the head of Nintendo’s first R&D team. Perhaps the most significant development to result from these consoles was the cross-shaped control system commonly known as a directional pad (D-pad). This proved an effective alternative to the bulky arcade joysticks most people were used to at the time. Indeed, the controller of Nintendo’s first home console to feature interchangeable cartridges, the Nintendo Entertainment System (NES) was developed by Mr. Yokoi as well, which is why it bears a D-pad similar to one that originally appeared on his Game & Watch units.
Shortly after the NES’s debut, Mr. Yokoi received a request from the management to create games for it. One of the most notable titles produced by him during this time was Metroid. Though it may seem like a simple platforming game on the surface, Metroid broke the mold by allowing players to explore what was essentially a single large level in search of power-ups and secret passageways. In an era when the goal of platforming games were rarely more complex than “go right,” many of which completely forbade players from backtracking at all, Metroid accomplished something that was largely unprecedented in the console market, earning its rightful place in history for pioneering a new subgenre.
Nearing the end of the decade, Mr. Yokoi and his team began developing a new console, hoping to improve on their Game & Watch concept by applying everything they had learned from developing console games to the handheld market. The project was completed in 1989 and went on to become a brand synonymous with portable gaming in the nineties. The name of this invention was the Game Boy. Because hobbyists were enthralled with the idea of having what amounted to a portable NES system (albeit without any colors), Mr. Yokoi found that he was behind yet another success; a shipment of one million units to the United States lasted for but a few short weeks before they completely sold out. Shortly after the Game Boy’s debut, Mr. Yokoi, along with the staff of his R&D division, decided to create a sequel to Metroid, aiming to showcase the capabilities of their newest console. This newest chapter in the Metroid saga, titled “Metroid II: Return of Samus,” was released in North America in 1991 and the following year in Japan and Europe.
Analyzing the Experience
The fearless bounty hunter, Samus Aran, successfully destroyed the space pirates’ base on Planet Zebes. In response to this, the surviving outlaws redoubled their efforts, carrying out several illegal operations and attacks on Federation facilities across the galaxy. All of these campaigns involved breeding Metroids, parasites capable of draining an organism’s life energy within seconds. Though Samus was able to vanquish them and the space pirates at every juncture, it became clear to the Galactic Federation that the galaxy was not safe as long as these creatures continued to exist. Therefore, the Federation sent a research team to Planet SR388, the Metroid homeworld, to investigate the presence of any remnants. They quickly lost contact with them, prompting the deployment of two additional teams to determine their fate: a search and rescue team followed by a Galactic Federation Special Squadron. They too were never heard from again. With no one else to turn to, the Federation sends Samus Aran, the only person known to have survived multiple encounters with these dangerous parasites, on a solo mission with the goal of exterminating the species, preventing anyone from using them for nefarious purposes ever again.
Metroid II is a 2D side-scrolling action game. This installment retains much of the gameplay found in its direct predecessor in that there is an emphasis on platforming and exploration. The protagonist, Samus Aran, has two primary means of defending herself: power beams and missiles. Missiles are more powerful and can harm enemies the power beam cannot, but you can only carry a finite number of them at a time. The power beam, though weaker, can be fired indefinitely, making it more economical to use in most situations outside of boss battles.
Scattered throughout the game are power-ups that upgrade Samus’s offensive, defensive, and mobile abilities. Although some of these can be used to access new areas, Metroid II is substantially more linear than the first Metroid. As mentioned in the backstory, the goal of the game is to eradicate the planet of Metroids. How many remain total is indicated by a number in the bottom-right corner of the screen. When the game is paused, the number changes to reflect how many are left in the immediate area. To ensure that the mission is carried out, there are pools of acid in place to block the player’s progress. Only when the area has been completely rid of Metroids will the acid subside, allowing players to access the next one.
Despite playing similarly to the first Metroid, several new features have been added, improving on some of the more unfortunate design decisions present in that title. Most notably, this installment introduces save points to the series, eliminating the need for passwords and allowing players to begin a new session exactly where they last saved as opposed to being sent back to the beginning of the area. One of the biggest problems with Metroid was the lack of quick methods one could use to instantly refill the protagonist’s health or missile supply. Specifically, the only one could refill health completely was collecting an energy tank, of which there is a finite amount. Meanwhile, the only way a player could replenish their missile supply in large increments was to defeat a boss, and it should be noted that, other than the main antagonist, there were only two of them. The developers of this team likely realized just how tedious it was to slowly grind health and missiles using pickups from regular enemies because for this installment, they added recharge stations that instantly refill them. Better yet, as long as you can remember where they are, you can use them as many times as you like. In addition, the game now saves how many units of energy your character had, meaning you no longer start with 30 upon booting the console up.
Metroid II is, in a lot of ways, an improvement over the original Metroid. One enhancement most players will notice within the first few minutes of playing the game is that Samus now has the ability to crouch. Because of this, enemies that reside on the ground are no longer the annoyance they once were; you can now easily dispatch them even if she is on the same level. You can even shoot down while in the air, rendering the task of destroying breakable floors trivial.
Perhaps the true value of Metroid II lies within the tiny details. To start with, this is the installment which introduced the design of Samus’s Varia Suit, a power-up that reduces the damage she takes, and it owes much of its existence to the technical limitations of the Game Boy. In Metroid, obtaining the Varia Suit merely altered the color palette of Samus’s sprite. This wasn’t possible to convey on a monochrome screen, necessitating the developers to get creative; thus, they depicted the Power Suit changing its appearance upon getting the Varia upgrade. It went on to become Samus’s iconic look, as she is almost always shown wearing this particular suit in concept art and game covers.
Moreover, the game is surprisingly atmospheric for a Game Boy title. The original Metroid made a point that you’re alone in a hostile environment; you have nothing but your wits to keep you alive. Metroid II continues this trend, and goes in an interesting, new direction with it. There isn’t much in the way of background music for a significant chunk of the game; only the distant sounds of exotic wildlife can be heard. It gives this game an uneasy mood – like something dangerous could pop out at you any time without warning. These feelings will be confirmed once you discover one of the Metroids you have to hunt down. Once you do, you are greeted with a sudden musical sting whereupon you must fight off the dangerous parasite. I find it’s an effective way to keep players alert at all times without coming across as annoying or overly dramatic.
Unfortunately, even though one could argue Metroid II is leaps and bounds above Metroid, another could make an equally strong case that it takes just as many steps backwards as it does forward. To start with, the screen is too close to the main character. Like the Varia Suit’s redesign, this was largely out of necessity, as the Game Boy’s screen was small, meaning that any character beyond a certain size needed a suitably larger environment to interact with in order to avoid issues with scale. Super Mario Land, the first Game Boy title to feature Nintendo’s mascot, got around this by making the title character’s sprite tiny, allowing the player to see the entire screen from top to bottom. I suspect the reason that Samus didn’t receive the same treatment was because it would have clashed with the series’ art style and ruined the atmosphere the developers were trying to create. I can respect this decision, but not being able to view the entire corridor on at least one plane, horizontally or vertically, makes it difficult to tell where the exits are in any given room. Combined with the continued lack of a map and the monotonous level design, it’s even easier to get lost in this game than it was in Metroid.
There may be more upgrades awaiting players in this installment than there were in Metroid, but most of them are pretty disappointing. Metroid II features a total of four Power Beam upgrades: the Ice, Wave, Spazer, and Plasma Beams. The Ice Beam freezes enemies with the first blast and inflicts damage with the second. The Wave and Spazer upgrades both increase the range of the Power Beam in different ways. The former travels in a pattern resembling a sinewave while the latter splits the beam into three lasers. Finally, the Plasma Beam is a powerful weapon capable of phasing through solid walls. The problem with these upgrades is that you can only have one at a time, and there is no way to switch between them; you’re only allowed to use the one you most recently acquired. This is especially bad because, as was the case with Metroid, one requires the Ice Beam in order to stand a chance against the titular parasites present in the endgame. To be fair, it’s not needed for many other areas in the game, and there is an opportunity to get it back just before the area in which you need it, but it still feels as though the developers treated the symptoms of the problem rather than the cause.
Furthermore, Metroid II brought forth what could be the absolute worst mechanic to ever present itself in any of the series’ 2D installments: the Spider Ball. It’s an upgrade to Samus’s Morph Ball mode, which is usually used to access narrow passages. By pressing down in this mode, Samus will adhere to walls and ceilings, allowing her to explore every nook and cranny of the planet no matter how out-of-reach they seem. There are many problems with this upgrade. For starters, it takes a lot of time to get used to how it controls. You have to guide Samus to the wall you wish to climb and by holding the appropriate direction, she will continue on that path until an obstacle presents itself. If you let go of the control pad for whatever reason, you now have to press the direction you want to go in to get her to move again. For example, if you hold right to go up a wall only to stop midway, you now have to hold up to continue. This may not seem so bad, but there are a lot of uneven surfaces in this game, so whenever she was on a corner, I often found myself pressing the wrong direction a few times before I could get her to move in the correct direction.
The other annoying aspect about the Spider Ball is how taking damage from an enemy disengages the feature and sends you plummeting to the ground. This usually means that you should clear the room of enemies before using it, which is often easier said than done – especially if you don’t possess an upgrade to reach them in your normal form. What’s worse is that the bombs you can set while in Morph Ball mode also disable the Spider Ball. This is especially bad when trying to destroy breakable blocks on the ceiling of a room because the radius of the bomb’s blast is a bit larger than one would initially assume, and if it ever moves off the screen, it vanishes completely. In the developers’ defense, it is possible to engage the Spider Ball in midair, meaning that you can potentially catch yourself before you hit the ground. By pressing down at the right time, you can even stick to the ceiling after getting hit. However, this only helps if you’re expecting it; if you get caught off-guard, chances are you’re falling all the way down. Considering how much slower Samus moves when using the Spider Ball compared to the default form, this only succeeds in wasting the player’s time. You know a mechanic is bad when a large part of the experience is spent wrestling with it.
Drawing a Conclusion
When it came time to create a sequel, it was common practice in the eighties for development teams to take their series in an entirely different direction. In extreme cases, such as Zelda II: The Adventure of Link, these games ended up being forays into entirely different genres. The reason it’s so unusual from a modern standpoint is because most games that feature radically different gameplay than their predecessors are typically declared spinoffs rather than new entries in the primary series. With that in mind, Metroid II is interesting because it feels like a black-sheep chapter despite retaining, and even polishing, much of the gameplay present in Metroid. This is because Metroid II comes across more as a slightly non-linear gun-and-run platformer than a true example of the subgenre its predecessor established.
Despite its many improvements to the series’ formula and including an ending sequence which helps establish Samus as a three-dimensional character without the use of dialogue, Metroid II doesn’t escape the prototypical feel that plagued the original. The level design is even more forgettable than that of Metroid, which at least had the courtesy to change the background colors every now and again. I do think with the developers focusing on creating an atmospheric soundscape, Metroid II served as a rough precursor to many 3D games from the twenty-first century. The downside to this, however, is anyone who has played any of those games would find it difficult to immerse themselves in an atmosphere when they can’t even see more than twenty feet in front of their character. Compounded with the existence of numerous titles which offer superior experiences, the lack of music only magnifies just how boring Metroid II is. Therefore, I can’t say this is a game I highly recommend; it’s certainly not bad by any means, but anyone completely unfamiliar with the series should start with Super Metroid instead. As with Metroid, there’s just no getting around that playing this game felt more like a homework assignment than a fun way to pass the time.
Final Score: 4/10