Updated: Aug 23
Once upon a time, sequels did not carry so many expectations. At least from the developer perspective, putting a 2 or II next to the name of a game did not mean that the sequel had to carry the gameplay or style of its predecessor. The Legend of Zelda was a top-down exploratory adventure, and then Zelda 2 went off and focused heavily on combat in sidescrolling platform environment. Castlevania was a sidescrolling combat-focused platformer, and then Castlevania 2 doubled down on the exploration in its own literally inscrutible way. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was bad, and Turtles II was good. All sorts of unexpected developments.
The advent of Gunpei Yokoi's handheld innovation factory, the Game Boy, meant that the nature of sequels was about to get even murkier. Most series that jumped to Game Boy produced entries that were kind of explictly offshoot and quasi-canonical, like Super Mario Land and Castlevania: The Adventure. Developers seemed to want to match the bite-sized side-project hardware with bite-sized side-project games. Other developers put a bit more trust in the handheld model, dot matrix screen be damned, entrusting their franchises and intellectual property to the new world of gaming on the go. The results were sometimes good, sometimes bad, and always fascinating. Balloon Fight led to the still-underrated Balloon Kid. Kid Icarus refined its craft in the vastly superior Kid Icarus: Of Myths and Monsters.
You might see where this is going.
Metroid 2: Return of Samus, and Samus Returns
The wide open exploration of the NES title was groundbreaking in 1986, that much is certain. In order to make the sequel a success but maintain that core identity, the move to Game Boy was going to have to be equally revolutionary--and a whole lot more creative.
Once again, I'll let the game's manual speak for itself.
THE METROID STORY In the year 2000 of the history of the cosmos, representatives of many different planets in the galaxy established a congress called the Galactic Federation. A successful exchange of cultures and civilization resulted, and thousands of interstellar spaceships ferried back and forth between planets. When space pirates appeared to attack the spaceships, the Federation Bureau created the Galactic Federation Police. There are many unknown planets throughout the galaxy. Many of these are causes of concern to the Galactic Federation. To take care of this, they employ Space Hunters, the greatest of which is Samus Aran. Samus' greatest achievement has been the destruction of the pirates' Metroid plans on the planet Zebes. In the year 20X5 of the cosmos, an unknown life-form was discovered on planet SR388 by a Galactic Federation deep-space research ship. The research crew took a sample of the creature and placed it into a suspended animation stasis capsule and dubbed the life form "Metroid". On their way back to their home base, the research ship was attacked by pirates who stole the stasis capsule containing the life-form! The Metroid in suspended animation could easily be brought back to life, and exposeure to beta rays was all that was needed to cause it to multiply. This highly dangerous creature will cling to any other creature and suck away its victim's energy. Samus, by order of the Galactic Federal Police, successfully and singlehandedly penetrated the space pirates' natural fortress on the planet Zebes. After a series of intense battles, Samus destroyed all the Metroids she encountered. Her destruction of the reactivated Mother Brain at the center of the fortress crushed the pirates' evil plans. AFter serious consideration of how terrible and destructive the Metroid life form was, the Galactic Federation sent another research ship to SR388. This trip was to make sure there were no more Metroids left on the planet. After a short time the Federation received an emergency notice from the research base. They had lost contact, and the research ship was missing. The base had already sent a search and rescue party, but after their initial contace, the rescue ship was not heard from again. A special combat group was assembled consisting of armed soldiers from the Federation Police and was immediately dispatched to SR388. After transmitting their primary landing data, they also were never heard from! Rumors spread fast, and again, the whole galaxy was seized with the fear of Metroids. With this limited information, the Federation was positive that a Metroid must still be surviving, hiding deep in the planet underground. Even one living Metroid could easily wipe out an entire planetary civilization. So, the Galactic Federation called its members to an urgent conference to find a way to overcome this menace. They quickly came to one conclusion, which was unanimous and simple......Give Samus Aran the order to exterminate the Metroids! The underworld of the planet SR388 is a complicated structure of multi-layered domes and spaces. Some of these contain the ancient ruins of some unknown civilization. These are home to many life forms living on the planet. Samus, charged with her mission from the Galactic Federation, hurried to the planet SR388. Samus' confrontation with the Metroids has started again. You must help Samus save the Galaxy from the Metroids!
I love that the Metroid series has never shied away from its beginnings. Sometimes it seems like franchises are embarrassed of their earlier premises and stories, but Metroid has almost never retconned anything. The story from 1986 is in line with this new installment in 1991, and all of it remains canon today. Even the 2017 remake, Samus Returns, doesn't overwrite anything from the original story, but rather it adds on top of it.
For instance, the Chozo are still not identified by name in Metroid II, even in the manual. Samus Returns, however, is up front with the Chozo presence on SR388 and even includes more ruin- and temple-like environmental dressing. Compare the Metroid II manual's nonchalance with the overt religious imagery of Samus Returns.
In both original and remade form, the story is simple: the search-and-destroy mission has evolved into a search-and-genocide mission. Questionable ethics aside (though we will get to that), this story and structure is almost certainly a product of weeks and weeks of whiteboard drawings and conference room discussions about how to cram a game as vast as Metroid onto the portable Game Boy. The game can't be too open, because the hardware can only differentiate so many environments and spaces with its 4 shades of gray. Therefore, the backtracking can't be too lengthy, since moving through this map gets confusing quickly on such a small, unlit, dot matrix screen. Therefore, the power-ups couldn't be too hidden, since you will want to get them on your first time through any given area. Here's an image to show you what players were experiencing with Metroid II on its original hardware. Shoutouts to the photographer and owner of the beautifully scarred hardware here, VGF's own AI, AKA Kurt Cocaine, AKA Psytronic, AKA a couple dozen other aliases over the years.
You can understand why, then, the developers of this game needed to make the structure simple and far more linear than what Metroid first offered on the NES. Areas are gated off by acid until you destroy the proper number of metroids. Each area has a decent amount of exploration, but is far more linear than what you already experienced on the NES. But while Metroid II does implement a number of useful features such as save points (and even m