Dreadline: A 2D Metroid Retrospective, Chapter 2

Updated: Aug 23, 2021

Chapter 1

(Chapter 2 Excursus)

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

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.

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.

Not counting this as a retcon because Chozo can still be "artifactors," whatever that is.
Did the Chozo worship the metroids? Kinda feels like it.

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.

I can't express to you how truly beautiful I find this image.

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 multiple save slots!), it still does not yet have a map. There's not even a rough sketched map in the manual this time, either, beyond a quick glance at the first area. To make matters worse, even if you make your own hand-drawn map, it overlaps and doesn't even line up properly!

The manual map is decidedly less useful than what NES Metroid offered.
There are lots of examples of the map not lining up, but this is probably the most egregious.

But with all that said, one of my favorite cliches holds true: limitation breeds creativity--and Metroid II is exceedingly creative in how it presents itself to fit Samus's new handheld home. Instead of climactic boss battles against Kraid, Ridley, and Mother Brain, you experience a series of 39 smaller encounters with metroids. This ever-decreasing number is plastered right on the screen for the entire game, further driving home the genocidal theme. Mechanically, it's a great compromise to fit Metroid on the Game Boy. Instead of throwing new enemies at you and expecting you to learn movement patterns and attacks on the tiny Game Boy screen, they give you sets of roughly 10 of the same encounter to overcome on different terrain. Narrative, mechanics, and hardware all work in concert to make Metroid II a unified work that far exceeds what you would ever expect. It is honestly remarkable what they were able to accomplish on the Game Boy.

The game's narrative climax has massive impact on the Metroid canon, leading directly into Super Metroid and eventually elevated to meme status in Other M. The end of Metroid II is when you rescue The Baby, the last metroid, the hatchling that imprints on you as its mother. This beautiful subversion of expectations is possibly the single most important moment in the Metroid series...and it was originally relegated to a handheld entry that many may have skipped! This game demands to be taken seriously, and I just love how ambitious it is.

The 39 metroids define the pace and structure of the game, but they're also the coolest, most intriguing part of it all. On the NES, you don't actually encounter the game's namesake until the final area immediately before Mother Brain. Good thing, too, because those suckers are quite the ordeal when you only have NES Samus's dinky, underpowered move pool. But hey, you know those soul-sucking, extremely difficult enemies at the end of the previous game?

Those were the larvae.

May we introduce you to their fully-grown forms.

I love that the Zetas are just lil chonky bois.

Encountering each metroid is nervewracking, even with Samus's improved mobility and new offensive skills. The game does a great job building tension by showing you these molted shells as you approach a room with a metroid. Sometimes the metroid is already in the hallway, way before you expect it. Sometimes the husk shows up after you've found the metroid, so you didn't have any proper warning at all. But even if you see the shell, the shrill jingle and freeze-frame when a metroid appears on screen is enough to make you jump if you've got headphones in. Sometimes you even get to see the metroid evolve or advance to its next form right before your eyes.

*chuckles* he he he, I'm in danger!

As with the move from Alien to Aliens, or as we've seen on countless occasions with Doctor Who, the more there is of something, the easier they are to deal with. One Xenomorph? One Dalek? We're so screwed. An army of Xenomorphs? An Army of Daleks? We got this. The same holds true moving from Metroid to Metroid II. As intimidating and awesomly designed as the advanced metroids are, they actually become a bit easier to deal with in larger numbers. But that's cool, too!

I also love the way that each area inhabited by a metroid is completely devoid of all other forms of life, implying that the metroid has taken over that area and absolutely slaughtered all its competition.

That's a good point to segue into talking more about the remake of Metroid II, the 2017 3DS release Samus Returns. I was so excited to see this game announced and released, for many of the same reasons I find myself so stoked for the release of Dread. 2D Metroid had not received much attention in the prior decade; and let's face it, as much as I love Metroid II and think it's a great, envelope-pushing, hardware-defying game, it has aged about as poorly, if not worse, than its predecessor. The lack of map is absolutely crippling. The screen size hamstrings your ability to navigate naturally. The overlapping zones and indistinguishable environments are frustrating. This game desperately needed a Zero Mission, and it finally got it. Just look at what the remake gave them the ability to do:

Even on the Game Boy, Metroid excels at environmental storytelling.
Some of the beats of Metroid II are matched beautifully in the remake.

There is a lot to love about Samus Returns. The game looks great and shows the developers' prowess with the 3DS, showcasing what the system could do late in its life. Earlier I referred to "environmental dressing" in the remake, as MercurySteam fleshed out the bleak, black screen of the Game Boy game into beautiful, detailed, rich background environments that make SR388 feel a lot more like a real place.

I think it's totally unreasonable to ask yourself or someone with modern gaming sensibilities (and adult responsibilities, as mentioned last time) to go back to Metroid II, unless you supplement your experience with the use of a detailed map. The existence of Samus Returns finally gives Metroid fans and newcomers alike the ability to experience this chapter of the story without several caveats and asterisks involved.

Mechanically, Samus Returns is exactly what you want it to be. Samus is mobile, agile, and powerful. There are new power-ups that the series has never seen before...which is only a problem when you consider that this game is before Super and Fusion, so why didn't those come back, and, well, let's just not overthink it. The best addition is the Scan Pulse, a tool that lets you see the surrounding areas of the map, including the location of powerups. Now that the powerups are more transparent, this means that the challenge is no longer finding them, but in obtaining them. MercurySteam did a great job designing little puzzle rooms and challenges to make you consider all your options and abilities to get many of the upgrades.

The melee counter leads to some awesome cinematic battle scenes.

SR isn't perfect, though. While the map has been given a much-welcome fast travel system, as well as more elevators to alleviate the overlaps, the linearity of the game's structure still means you reach the end of a hallway to fight a metroid and...well, just kinda walk back the way you came without much to show for it. Since 1991, Metroidvanias have found a way to make a long trip worth your while. In Samus Returns, where the goal is to seek and destroy, sometimes the destruction is the only thing that you have to look forward to at the end of a long trip...and that's just not as cool as getting a new power-up or suit or something. In an ironic twist, updating the look and feel of this old Game Boy game ends up highlighting some of its structural weaknesses. The 3DS allows for more enemies to be present than was ever possible on the Game Boy, but in adding more enemies, the menace of the metroids and the solitude of the journey is undermined.

The game is also much longer than the original, which means the lack of additional bosses or enemies stands out a lot more. The advanced Metroid battles are definitely awesome and cinematic, but after a few, it gets tired. Changing up the terrains and chasing the Gammas around from room to room gets old a lot faster than it did in Metroid II. There is one extra boss, the massive robot Diggernaut, and he's awesome. That fight was a welcome one, but it did make me wonder why they couldn't have added another extra boss or two to break the monotony.

Diggernaut is the star of a great boss battle and a fun escape sequence. Diggernaut is awesome.

I hate to be so negative about Samus Returns, because I really do like it. But as I reflect on it more, I can't help but feel like it found itself in a weird middle ground. It wasn't faithful enough to Metroid II to celebrate the genius of the original work, but it also wasn't different enough from Metroid II to escape the shortcomings of the source material. The most indicative example of this phenomenon is in the ending.

The final sequence of Metroid II is a solitary climb back to your ship with The Baby Metroid. Your path was originally blocked by an impassable substance, forcing you into the lair of the Queen Metroid, but you find that The Baby is able to eat it up and let you through. With contemplative music and a total lack of enemy interference, you climb back up to your starship and take off. It's solemn and, deliberately, a bit anticlimactic. The ending of Samus Returns, however, is different. You rescue The Baby in a beautifully animated and directed scene, but instead of a solitary, pensive climb to the ship, you're met with...the same slew of enemies you've been slaughtering for hours, hopping around in the lair of the Metroid Queen like she's not the most threatening life form in the galaxy. Not only that, but if you want to 100% the game, you actually take The Baby all over SR388, where it chews up the crystal blockage to give you access to the last 8% of powerups or so. The Baby is no longer the powerfully subversive anticlimax; it's just another powerup to get you the last few missile upgrades.

The Baby...

For as many gripes as I have, and as much as the post-Queen sequence bugged me, I do want to make it abundantly clear that I enjoy Samus Returns. Even the ending has a redeeming note: the final Ridley fight is downright sick. Cinematic, challenging, exciting, fun--it made me almost completely forget how frustrated I was with the last 2 hours of the game.

Do not attempt without a map.

I felt like I was cruising through this game, but apparently not.

For both canonical and metanarrative reasons, the second chapter of Metroid will certainly impact the upcoming release of Dread. The moment The Baby hatches and becomes imprinted to Samus remains arguably the most critical plot points in the series, felt significantly in every game that follows II in the timeline. Early signs point to Dread further exploring Samus's deteriorating relationship with the Galactic Federation, and The Baby episode definitely heightens that tension even years afterward. I can't imagine Dread will go without mentioning or exploring The Baby narrative some more, especially because the game is directed by Sakamoto, the director of The Baby-obsessed Other M. On the other hand, maybe he's all The Baby'd out.

Speaking of metanarrative, Dread is also being developed MercurySteam, and it's abundantly clear already that their work on the 3DS is translating directly into their Switch entry. The look and movement are clearly related. I'm extremely optimistic about their work here, because without the predetermined structure of Metroid II I think this team can really spread their wings and find more of their own identity in the development. I'm expecting much more of the good of Samus Returns and much less of the disappointing stuff.

That wraps up our look at the second chapter of the Metroid canon. But do you remember how I said the whole mission of the game is questionably ethical? It is genocide, after all. Well, that begins to get addressed in the post-credits stinger of Samus Returns. The eradication of the metroids has led to a relative peace on SR388...but then we see a harmless enemy get hijacked by something amorphous and menacing. Our disruption of the ecosystem may have given room for the propagation of something new, something different, and something potentially more dangerous. We'll find out more about that new apex predator in chapter 4. For now, we head back to planet Zebes for one of the greatest games ever made.

ooooooh crap.

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