Well, I guess I lied. I said I’d be shrugging off the shackles of 8-bit oppression with this entry, but here we are looking at a game on an 8-bit system with 2-bit color. I was going to dig into The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past in honor of A Link Between Worlds’ launch today, but that didn’t pan out. Unfortunately, my intended venture hit a bit of a delay as my copy appears to have vanished. Anyone looking to offload a copy of A Link to the Past on the cheap…?
But I guess that’s OK. I was going to get to Metroid II sooner or later… and the sooner I get to that, the sooner I can move on to Super Metroid, which will be tremendously entertaining.
I’ll admit, it feels a little weird to be exploring Metroid II. I wrote a fairly scathing (and not entirely fair) retrospective on the game a decade ago, which now comprises like half the content on the game’s Wikipedia entry. (Feel free to edit that out; I’m not allowed.) I went back and revisited the game last year to give it a second chance for GameSpite Journal 11, and I suppose I really ought to post that article and the rest of the back half of that book one of these days. If only I could remember where I put the original files for that issue.
Well, anyway, this will be a fair shakedown cruise for the game. I have complaints about it, absolutely, but I’m not afraid to give it praise where praise is due.
Metroid II: Return of Samus
As a sequel to Metroid, Return of Samus doesn’t stray too far from the original game’s fundamental premise. You are a woman alone in an underground labyrinth full of space monsters, with no one and nothing to rely on save your extraordinary armored suit and its remarkable capacity for absorbing power-ups people left littered about the planet interior. In this case, however, you’re not out to thwart the metroid-breeding plans of space pirates but rather to exterminate the metroids themselves. In their natural environment, metroids turn out to be rather more diverse than the events of the first game would let on — but we’ll get to that.
From a fundamental mechanical perspective, Metroid II differs from its predecessor in terms of the hardware that hosts it. The Game Boy lacks some of the limitations that affected older NES games such as Metroid, so now the game world can scroll freely in all directions — no more alternating horizontal and vertical chambers. This also means fewer insanely lengthy shafts to ascend. However, the ability to scroll freely is also something of a necessity, as the Game Boy’s pixel dimensions are considerably smaller than those of the NES — 160×144 versus 256×224. A single screen of the NES game represents more than a screen and a half for the Game Boy.
To make matters worse, Samus is actually slightly taller on Game Boy than on NES — 36 pixels versus 30 — in order to let her sprite “read” more easily in a world without color. The added height allowed the designers to make her slightly more detailed (including the introduction of a trademark feature of her power suit, the addition of large shoulders to denote the Varia power-up), but it also means she occupies that much more of the screen.
This is not an insignificant consideration, as you can see here with this side-by-side comparison of Samus’ height versus the screen dimensions in each game. She’s gone from occupying about 1/8 of the screen to 1/3 of the active screen (the permanent status bar at the bottom being functionally useless in terms of revealing the game world). By increasing the protagonist’s size while dropping a massive amount of environmental information, Metroid II by nature plays differently than the original game. The action becomes slower to prevent you from rushing ahead too quickly and falling athwart hazards, and to keep enemies from taking cheap shots from off-screen. It reduces Samus’ range of attack. It complicates jumping once you’ve boosted Samus’ powers. Combined with the monochromatic color scheme, it makes differentiating environments more difficult, making for a more linear game to minimize confusion. Nintendo R&D1 (and specifically its two very talented directors who went on to create the Wario Land and New Super Mario Bros. series) aspired to bring an NES-quality experience to Game Boy, and compromises were in order to make it possible. But dammit, they tried.
One thing I appreciate about Metroid II: It pays more than narrative lip service to the fact that it’s a sequel. Samus doesn’t start in the same diminished state as at the beginning of the first Metroid. She’s hardly powered up to the maximum here, but she does at least enter the adventure with missiles (30 max to start with) and the Long Beam. Very few sequels resist the urge to hit reset on their protagonists — including subsequent Metroid games, it should be said — so it’s actually pretty unusual to see the heroine start off with a handful of power-ups in hand. This is a conscious choice by the designers to empower the player at the expense of reducing some of the early challenge of the game; no doubt the fact that this removes missile-access doors from the mix entirely (thus taking a barrier to progress out of the adventure) is why no other Metroid adventure gives Samus missiles from the outset. Sometimes narrative consistency proves to be less important than mechanical variety… though in an ideal game, the two exist in harmony.
However, Metroid II is much less a game about exploration and discovery than any other entry in the series, so the absence of missile doors as a barrier to progression makes no real difference. Again, this is a far more linear and directed quest than its predecessor, and that fact becomes clear at the very outset. Where the first Metroid required you to backtrack left from the starting point before you could progress to the more traditional right, what you’ll find to the left of the starting point here is… a wall. It’s right-scrolling only for now, sister.
The early creatures you’ll face somewhat resemble those of Zebes. These guys look like corn on the cob, but they drift left and right somewhat like Rippers from the first game. However, you don’t need a missile to blow them up. There are also frog-like monsters that jump at you. Everything here is slow and poses little threat… and in any case, this game starts Samus with 99 health from the outset instead of forcing her to build up from 30 via enemy drops. A small but welcome touch of grace. Metroid II also presents you with occasional refill stations to max out your health and missiles automatically, greatly reducing the rigorous grind of the original game.
You can only progress right at the beginning of the game. Right, and then down. Where the original Metroid presented you with that maddeningly endless shaft to climb right at the start, here you instead have a much easier trip downward. There’s no other path forward, which means you can only drop into this hole. If you’ve never played Metroid, this is where the game confronts your misgivings about pits equalling instant death. There’s no such thing in this universe, and by forcing your hand a couple of screens in, Metroid II nudges you past your platform gamer’s instinctive terror of gaping openings with no obvious bottom in sight. “Jump in,” it says. And when you pause in fear, it waits patiently while you cast about fruitlessly for an alternative and finally give in and jump already.
You’ll survive the fall, which isn’t deep at all, only to be confronted with barriers. These blocks are designed with the universal cartoon shorthand for “fragile rock,” and it should be clear both from the cracked texture and the blocks’ lack of the surrounding walls’ organic smoothness that you can blast through them. This part is clearly intended as a revelation specifically for Metroid veterans; where someone groomed on the likes of Contra will assume it ain’t no thing to shoot downward, Samus could only fire forward, backward, and up in her debut performance. To destroy things at ground level, she had to duck into a ball and drop a bomb. But you don’t have the ability to lay bombs yet. So what to do?
If you duck here to roll into a ball, you’ll make the surprising discovery that Samus now ducks before rolling. (You have to press down twice to enter the ball state now, hence her evidently baffling inability to crawl.) This means she can shoot things at ground level — something that would have come in quite handy in the original game. But ducking still doesn’t let you shoot downward. In order to do that, you need to jump and aim down while in the air. Easy enough, but it’s also the first of Samus’ new abilities, and the game does well to make its mastery a requisite to advance from beyond the introductory area.
If you continue pressing forward (that is, rightward and downward), you’ll eventually come to this little pylon, which is one of Metroid II‘s other new features: A save point. By pressing Start here, you’ll save your progress. No more messy passwords to deal with. This is a simple function of technology — Metroid slightly predated the spread of battery saves from the premium Legend of Zelda into games without fancy gold carts — but a very welcome one.
Eventually, though, the path to the right dead-ends with a lake of acidic liquid that will kill Samus pretty quickly if you attempt to take her for a swim. This is as far as you can go the right, and at last you’re forced to reprise the original Metroid and see where heading left will take you.