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Metroid II: Return of Samus Is The Original Game Boy At Its Best

Return of Samus was never going to replicate the original Metroid’s scope, so its core design embraces what the Game Boy can uniquely offer…

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Metroid 2 Return of Samus - image courtesy of Reddit

Metroid II is nothing short of brilliant …

Technological limitations make it all too easy to look back on older games and wonder what could have been, especially in 8-bit titles. Video games being so young and the hardware’s relative infancy at the time meant developers often had to make concessions or compromises to see their projects to completion. Modern audiences have a bad habit of dismissing the earliest entries in long-running franchises by suggesting they did not truly begin in earnest until a later (better) sequel. The Legend of Zelda began with A Link to the Past, Metal Gear began with Solid, and Metroid began with Super. Beyond discrediting well-made retro games with their own distinct design philosophies, this train of thought ignores how limitations often bolster art.

Hardware limitations and a tight schedule are difficult to work around, but they can also keep development focused. Being limited in some capacity is an opportunity to flex your creative muscles elsewhere. A sequel like Metroid II: Return of Samus is built on limitations that should hold it back in theory. The Game Boy is not as powerful as the NES, the map could not be as open-ended as a result, and the gameplay loop needed to be readjusted to accommodate shorter play sessions expected from handheld gaming. Return of Samus was never going to replicate the original Metroid’s scope, so its core design embraces what the Game Boy can uniquely offer. 

Metroid 2 Samus - image courtesy of Renan Fontes

The Game Boy has a habit of coming off immediately dated, if only for its lack of color. Those who grew up with the original Game Boy before its Pocket revision will remember the screen displaying in a pea soup-esque green scale. That said, the majority of games were designed to look as appealing as possible in monochrome, and the best titles on the handheld weaponize a limited color palette to their advantage. Metroid II specifically plays into its “coloring” by featuring far more detailed sprite work than its NES predecessor could pull off. 

The smaller screen of the Game Boy demands larger sprites for visual clarity. For Metroid II, this means a zoomed-in camera, less on-screen at any given time, and a considerable amount of effort put into backgrounds and character models — with Samus, in particular, receiving a massive aesthetic upgrade. Samus’ armor in the original Metroid was reflective of her concept art but naturally lacked finer details due to her sprite’s stature. Metroid II remedies this through clearly identifiable features. She might lack color, but you can now see the joints on Samus’ armor and how she holds her arm cannon when she aims. 

Metroid 1 Samus Color Palette - image courtesy of Metroid Database

Metroid I differentiated Samus’ suits through distinct color palettes. Samus’ default Power Suit is orange, while the Varia Suit is pink. The outline on Samus’ armor changes from green to blue whenever missiles are equipped. This is a necessity to convey Samus’ upgrades to players since she only has one sprite. Samus’ armor in Metroid II is not only more defined; it’s dynamic and changes contextually. Equipping your missiles physically opens the arm cannon’s blaster. Upgrading to the Varia Suit adds spherical pauldrons to Samus’ armor while sharpening her sprite’s edges. This change is further illustrated through clever shading. The Varia Suit’s darker shades of grey on the arms, legs, and visor contrast nicely with the mostly all-white Power Suit.

Environmental textures get a similar level of care when it comes to shading, with both the original Game Boy’s green scale and the Game Boy Pocket’s grayscale preventing backgrounds, platforms, enemies, and Samus from ever bleeding into each other. Zebes had a purely black backdrop added to its atmosphere, but SR388 features a starry sky on the surface and occasional cavernous titles in the background that makes for a richer planet. Samus lands her ship near a patch of grass and some tall flowers, setting a precedent for the flora that appears in SR388’s depths. There are rough stones in the walls that add variety; acid has a sickly, spotted texture to it; and water has an almost dirty tint that speaks to the planet’s dying ecosystem. 

Platforms become less naturalistic the deeper you explore into SR388. The lower levels are otherworldly as recognizable rock patterns are replaced with unnatural spikes and bubble-like platforms that eerily resemble Metroid eggs. It gets hard to tell what anything is, but that only adds to the planet’s alienness. SR388’s visuals are repetitive to a degree, but not as much as Zebes and nowhere enough to make exploration frustrating. That said, the zoomed perspective does mean you need to react more reflexively when enemies do pop up. Return of Samus is actually easier than the first Metroid in the long run, but the claustrophobic camera injects tension into the level design. 

Audio is one of the Game Boy’s inherent limitations, and the handheld’s sound chip is of a naturally lower quality than that of the NES or Famicom. To get around this, Ryoji Yoshitomi’s score for the game is composed of mostly ambient tracks. The title theme features nearly a full minute of unnerving sound effects before any semblance of leitmotif kicks in. Chirping and dissonant beeping are a staple of the soundtrack, and the music pounds into a rhythmic drum whenever Samus is near death. 

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The further you get into the game, the more chaotic the score becomes. The heroic tune that christened Samus’ landing on SR388 is all but muted by the final area. The last few tracks embody a sense of musical anxiety, droning on with beeps and chirps that are almost too much to bear at times. The music does err on annoying, but it actually adds to the overall ambiance by making you want to get out. Metroid II’s score builds dread on an almost visceral level, but everything about the game works to create a deeply alien atmosphere that borders on unsettling. 

Samus Running - image courtesy of Metroid Database

Despite featuring no text whatsoever in-game, Return of Samus sports a surprisingly cohesive narrative that stands out as an excellent example of environmental storytelling. Per the manual, the Galactic Federation makes an active effort in wiping out the Metroid species following the events of the first game. After a research team, search & rescue party, and special combat unit all vanish on SR388, Samus Aran is tasked with a solo mission: kill every living Metroid. At its core, Metroid II is a story about a genocide that plays into humanity’s tendency to kill what we fear. 

Even though Metroids were depicted as genuine threats in Metroid I, there is no glamor to Samus’ hunt. She is invading a species’ homeworld and systematically wiping them out one by one. The Metroids mutate the further you get into SR388’s depths — putting their full threat into scope — but then you have to stop and remember that these Metroids are simply defending themselves on their home turf. They are dangerous, but you are instigating. Even their hostility can be attributed to the three teams of intruders the Galactic Federation sent before Samus, already tampering with the ecosystem. 

Metroids mutate through four distinct phases: Alpha, Gamma, Zeta, and Omega. Each one is more monstrous than the last, and higher tier mutations appear with greater frequency the closer you get to the Queen’s Hive. The Queen Metroid herself is one of a kind and the mother of all Metroids, birthing them all around SR388. The fights against the Metroids are all an endurance match. Rarely are they ever difficult, but each one is frantic and will drain your resources if you fight carelessly. Omega Metroids can rip through Samus’ health if you let them while tanking missiles up close. 

Combat as a whole feels more intimate than in the original Metroid, with the Metroid fights playing to the game’s strength. A small screen size and zoomed-in perspective demand what are essentially glorified slugfests. Samus’ controls are tighter and more responsive than they were on the NES, with a surprising amount of mechanical depth under the surface. Samus actually feels reasonably powerful, so gameplay moves at a consistently smooth pace. Her mobility has been tweaked to allow her to crouch and shoot directly down while mid-air. Crouching, in general, is incredibly useful as it lets you reposition Samus in front of ground-level enemies, allowing you to kill them with your arm cannon instead of Morph Bomb. 

Upgrades, on the whole, are more creative in Metroid II and prioritize changing how you interact with the level design. The Spring Ball is inspired if a bit simple, a power-up that allows Samus to jump while in her Morph Ball. This is far more convenient than Bomb Jumping and lets you easily fit into cramped spaces without needing to strategically place bombs. Morph Bombs still have their place, but the Spring Ball makes navigation smoother. The Spider Ball lets you cling onto any walls, while the Space Jump lets Samus repeatedly jump through the air so long as you can keep a rhythm. Both of these upgrades radically change how you interact with SR388, helping you find hidden pathways in the ceilings and explore otherwise unreachable areas. 

Samus

You can still only equip one Beam at a time, but Metroid II handles this better overall. Samus will be introduced to new Beams whenever they become relevant to the level design, rotating back in when necessary. The Ice Beam shows up in areas where you need to create platforms, the Wave Beam when you need to break through platforms, and the Spazer & Plasma Beams once the difficulty curve takes an uptick. The fact there are multiple Beam upgrades across SR388 downplays backtracking while keeping each one a viable option. You will need the Ice Beam for the finale, but the fact you can get one in the last area means you can comfortably use the Wave, Spazer, or Plasma for the rest of the game. 

SR388 itself is relatively linear compared to Zebes. While there is a central hub, you need to visit each area in a set order. The planet’s caverns are flooded with acid, which only drains whenever all the Metroids in an area are killed, bringing you one level deeper into the planet’s core. Samus has a radar in her suit that keeps track of all the living Metroids on the planet while letting you check how many are in your current area by pausing. While the main story is linear, individual areas are not, and you can generally kill Metroids in whichever order you please. 

The lack of interconnectivity between major areas means less backtracking overall (though not none). The first half of the planet is loaded with secrets, and there is a lot to explore despite the linear structure. Upgrades are frequent in the first few areas, and you are actively rewarded for your exploration. The second half becomes far more focused in contrast, with level design occasionally leading you right to Metroids with no upgrades to grab. There are still secrets to track down in the back half, but they tend to be better hidden and nowhere as abundant. In a sense, this is Metroid II’s way of encouraging backtracking. If Samus is low on resources by the end of the game, you have no choice but to turn back to earlier areas. 

Zebes conveyed its alienness through hostility, while SR388 is more surreal. Return of Samus’ monochrome palette makes the adventure feel like a dream that gradually spills into a nightmare. This is echoed in the story’s twist when 8 classic Metroid suddenly hatch as you enter the Queen’s Nest. In the original Metroid, the safest way through Tourian is by freezing individual Metroids and moving on. Metroid II makes you kill each one. Fighting them is nowhere as hard as in the NES game, but these Metroids drain health fast and are an imposing sight for anyone who played the original. 

Metroids are believed to be dangerous because they cling onto any living thing they see and drain them dead. This is why Space Pirates ambush the Galactic Federation in the first Metroid’s backstory, to begin with, stealing their Metroid samples to use against them. As you enter the Queen’s Nest, you’ll see an unhatched egg you cannot reach until after you defeat the final boss. The last egg the queen left behind hatches… into a passive Metroid who does not attack Samus. Metroids are dangerous, but they are animalistic by nature and are not born with malice. A baby Metroid’s instinct is not to hurt Samus but to imprint on her. Perhaps not all Metroids are like this, but the fact one is begging the question as to whether this genocide was actually warranted. 

Return of Samus’ finale is a direct inversion of Metroid’s. Instead of escaping a detonating base, you silently walk away from a planet whose main species you nearly wiped to extinction. The baby Metroid imprinted onto Samus helps you escape by eating away at substances resistant to your Beams and missiles. There is no dialogue or ending narration — just a march to your ship with the last Metroid in captivity. There is no triumph to killing an entire species, a point Metroid II’s gameplay hammer homes. 

It is easy to lament that Return of Samus is “stuck” on the Game Boy — especially in a world where Samus Returns, and AM2R (Another Metroid 2 remake) exist — but the handheld’s limitations are what define Metroid II’s strengths as a video game. The limited color palette and hardware drawbacks of the Game Boy undeniably impacted Return of Samus’ development, but not for the worse. The haunting atmosphere, subtle yet poignant story and detailed aesthetic are all a direct result of the Game Boy. Great artists use their limitations to their advantage to create even greater art. Metroid II is nothing short of brilliant and one of the Game Boy’s killer apps. 

An avid-lover of all things Metal Gear Solid, Devil May Cry, and The Legend of Zelda, Renan spends most of his time passionately raving about Dragon Ball and thinking about how to apply Marxist theory to whatever video game he's currently playing.

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