Retrospective – Metroid II: Return of Samus (GB)

Fear. Danger. Isolation. Darkness.

…Metroid II was just plain scary to me.

Following on the heels of the popular NES game Metroid, the unorthodox sequel to that popular game was not merely an iterative upgrade on the same system; instead, Nintendo decided that it would shrink down the original experience into a portable format.

Metroid II was released in the US at the end of 1991 for the GameBoy. It was instantly considered to be an odd entry in the series. Many people at the time enjoyed the title, but were confused as to why they didn’t release it on their ever-popular console. My first exposure to the game took place in the mid-90s, when I was visiting Nevada for a family reunion. My cousins were big GameBoy fans, and they introduced me to Metroid II and Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening. I greatly preferred playing the Zelda game primarily because Metroid II was just plain scary to me.

Just imagine what was going through my mind at the time: the logo appears when you boot up the game. The piercing, repetitive sound effects keep rattling on, with no music to speak of until several seconds in. One might be excused for thinking that the system was broken at that point. When you start the game, Samus suddenly appears and you begin running to the right, with the fantastic background chiptunes emphasizing every move you make.

And yet, something is noticeably different as you begin playing this game. If you have experience with the first Metroid game, you will instantly notice that Samus Aran’s in-game sprite looks very large, taking up a good section of your screen. Because of this, the areas you are exploring look noticeably smaller, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere. You encounter your first Metroid very suddenly, with the background music screeching to a halt and an otherworldly sound blasting out of your speakers unexpectedly, possibly emulating the alien-like sounds that the Metroid would be making.

It actually gave me nightmares…

It is no wonder that this game evoked such fearful feelings within me! The stark color contrasts combined with the nerve-wracking music further emphasized by super strong enemies suddenly attacking you without warning… this created such feelings of anxiety that I couldn’t stick with it as an elementary schooler. For years, Metroid II stuck out in my mind for being a dark, frightening game.

For many years, I had no intention of going back and playing it. It actually gave me nightmares at the time because of how impactful that first experience was. It wasn’t until I became an adult and had a few other side-scrolling Metroid games under my belt that I decided it would be worthwhile to revisit some older GameBoy games, Metroid II being the main game that I wanted to finally put behind me. Would I be able to understand where I was supposed to go in the game? Or would I be doomed to be forever lost and scared among the black-and-white corridors, fated to die over and over again on this alien planet?

Make no mistake: this game is ROUGH. Graphically-speaking, many of the areas just can’t escape the fact that they look the exact same. This makes adventuring very difficult if you do not have a great sense of direction. If it weren’t for the maps that I was able to find online, I don’t think I could have made heads-or-tails as for where I was or where I was supposed to go next. This game is very non-linear in that way, which can make trying to figure out your next objective tricky. While much of the background music in the game is pretty good, there are a few tracks that are rather bizarre in their placement. There are even times where the background music disappears completely, which definitely helps with creating an anxious mood, but also causes parts of the game to feel a bit hollow and incomplete.

Even with those nitpicks, though, I would still heartily recommend that fans of the series go back and spend some time playing this. Nintendo has made it easier to experience the story of Metroid II with the 2017 Nintendo 3DS remake, Metroid: Samus Returns, but for those who like the retro experience, Metroid II is still a perfectly serviceable pioneer in the side-scrolling adventure genre. Whether you are playing on an original GameBoy cartridge or with access to the indispensable save states on the Nintendo 3DS, you will find Metroid II to be as daunting and isolating as it was when it was first released.

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