As an eight-year-old boy presented with the opportunity to visit Seattle for the first time in the winter of 1991, I had much to be excited about, not the least of which was a building that resembled a spaceship perched atop a 600 foot tall ladder. I remember wondering if the army had captured an alien scout and suspended it in the sky as a warning sign to potential extraterrestrial invaders: don’t mess with Earth. I met my mom’s brother Jim on that trip, and have yet to see him again since. In retrospect, I should’ve spent more time interacting with him: my mom’s been dead seven years now, and my quest to learn more about the woman whose youth is such a mystery to me would likely be much less abortive had I developed stronger ties to her family. Of course, at the time, none of this mattered to me. It was Christmas 1991 and my uncle had just given me one of the best gifts I’ve ever received—Metroid II: Return Of Samus.
Fast-forward to 2010. I’m 27-years-old and nearsighted enough to have been declared legally blind. Optometrists spent much of my youth blaming my deteriorating vision on late nights spent under the covers with flashlights and penny dreadfuls—near the mark, but not quite correct. In truth, I blame my reliance on corrective lenses on Metroid II.
Metroid II was the first game that left me feeling isolated, exposed, and very much afraid. And yet, I couldn’t resist its pull. The concept of horror in console games had not yet been widely established, but here was something that made my skin crawl as I moved cautiously from corridor to corridor, never knowing when a sickening new metroid mutation might pounce on me. The game doesn’t have the same effect on me these days, but I’ve never forgotten that I felt all this from a game played on a monochrome screen less than 3 inches diagonal.
For all the innovations it brought to the platforming genre, I have never been a big fan of the original Metroid. Yes, I played through it: my sister and I spent months trying to ‘penetrate the center of the fortress and defeat the Mother Brain,’ which yielded the game’s basic ending (something about ‘fulfile’-ing my mission.) But to be honest, by the point I realized there was more to it than running back and forth for hours trying to refill my energy reserves, I had already seen the light: I’d played Metroid II and Super Metroid. Whereas the original Metroid presented an open world with no direction, Metroid II experimented with restricting that openness to provide players with a more emotionally compelling experience. It’s popular for revisionist game critics—those, like Jeremy Parish, who insert their adult brains into the child they once were for the purpose of documenting something they knew “even then”—to suggest that Metroid II is too restrictive for its own good; that its technique of tying exploration to the number of Metroids Samus kills is a gimmick. But how is this any different from forcing gamers to kill a set number of mini-bosses to reach Mother Brain’s lair in Super Metroid? I don’t think anyone who actually gives the game a fair shake can argue that the maps in Metroid II aren’t open enough that players can get lost searching for pickups and uncovering secret passages. This has always been the series’ bread and butter, and Metroid II has it in spades.
Among other things the Metroid series owes to Metroid II, there are two that are arguably the most important additions the series has ever seen. First: save points, both in the form of Samus’s iconic ship, and in stations scattered conveniently around SR388’s maps. Second: Samus’s modern visual aesthetic. Ever wonder how the Varia upgrade morphed from its NES incarnation (an orange-to-pink palette swap) to a much beefier, more menacing armor upgrade in the rest of the series? How about the arm cannon’s three-pronged missile launcher? Thank the Gameboy’s monochrome screen, which couldn’t effectively convey the palette swaps used to signify these upgrades in the original game. Talk about making the best of things!
I could go on and on about this game—this blog has seen heavy edits over the past week-and-a-half (and minor ones in 2011 [and 2017!]) as I endeavor to get this out before Metroid: Other M’s impending release. The point I’m trying to make is that you’re doing yourself a huge disservice if you’ve based your decision on whether or not to play Metroid II solely on someone else’s opinion. Its strengths lie in what sets it apart from the series, and if you can learn to appreciate those qualities, you might just find yourself with a deeper appreciation for the evolution of one of Nintendo’s most important series.