If you count 2004’s Metroid: Zero Mission as the last “proper” release in the classic style of Metroid games—those side-on, open-ended platformers that’ve inspired countless imitators and even spawned their own genre descriptor—then you’ve probably been waiting an awfully long time to step back into Samus’s shoes. 13 years, in fact. And yet here we are, less than two weeks away from the 3DS release of Metroid: Samus Returns. It’s finally happening.

In many ways, it makes perfect sense for Nintendo to forego an all-new adventure in favor of a re-tooling of Metroid II: Return of Samus. For all the usual reasons, the original game fell out of public favor long ago: the cramped dimensions of the Game Boy’s screen; the lack of an in-game map; the visual homogeneity of the game’s environments. And while I’ve always appreciated Metroid II for the ways it differs from every other game in the series, I understand that not everyone can tolerate these quirks. This chapter of the Samus Aran saga deserves better.

But Metroid: Samus Returns isn’t the first alternate take on Metroid II we’ve seen in recent years. Just last year, in fact, saw the release of a decade-in-the-making fan project called AM2R (Another Metroid 2 Remake), which proved there was a masterpiece waiting to emerge from the corrosive lakes of planet SR388. Nintendo doesn’t tolerate projects that infringe on its IP so the game was C&D’d the day after it was released, but had the company instead slapped its seal of quality on AM2R and published it on the Wii U, it would’ve likely been hailed widely as one of the best games of 2016.

 

Variations on a theme.

Once you release a work of art into the world, it becomes a part of the public consciousness, to be interpreted as its audience sees fit. In the case of AM2R, I get the impression series co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto might agree—if he didn’t have to toe the company line. During an extended gameplay demo for Samus Returns at this year’s E3, Sakamoto stated through a translator that he “wasn’t really looking to make a remake, but more of an homage to [Metroid II], where [he] was sort of objectively able to step back and take a look at it as someone who wasn’t involved [in the original game’s development] and say, what would [he] do different? What sort of sensibilities, what flavor would [he] add?” This is precisely what Milton Guasti, creator of AM2R, did with his own homage—not only bringing the core gameplay up to the standards of the rest of the series, but adding, re-shaping, and re-interpreting from the perspective of someone who’d spent a lifetime loving the series, but had always been on the outside looking in.

While Sakamoto did lead the development of Super Metroid and Metroid: Zero Mission, his penchant for experimentation also gave us the masterful-but-misunderstood Metroid: Fusion (which is in the midst of a critical resurgence), and the thrilling, narratively compromised Metroid: Other M. Not every experiment can be a success, however: Other M’s shortcomings led the game almost straight to the bargain bin—a profoundly rare occurrence for a Nintendo game. Still, without that willingness to tinker, the series risked becoming static. While AM2R arguably succeeded not for what it did new but for giving fans exactly what they wanted, Samus Returns looks to seriously push the boundaries of what could actually be considered a remake. As such, I think it’s valuable to compare and contrast the ways different developers have interpreted an adventure that has long been considered the series’ black sheep. At the very least, it should shed some light on why passion for this series has endured for so long, despite Nintendo’s seeming willingness to bury it until recent years.

LOST ON SR388

The original Metroid was something of a status disruptor upon its release in 1986. Just as players were learning what to expect from their Nintendo games, Metroid presented them not only with an iconography that was entirely unlike anything else seen on the NES, but with a whole new approach to platforming—one that would forever destroy the notion that players needed to move in the same direction, toward the same goals, every single time they played. It was vast, open, and alien to the point that many players just didn’t know what to make of it. In response to this confusion, Nintendo revisited their approach for Metroid II: Return of Samus, restricting the openness in such a way that would ensure players couldn’t ever get too lost while hunting down and destroying Samus’s quarry. The approach was simple: scattered across SR388 were acid lakes that kept Samus from moving forward along the critical path until she’d destroyed every Metroid within a certain vicinity. Once she’d done so, the lakes would drain, revealing new passages for Samus to explore.

See those rocks? Get ready to see a lot more of them.

It was a logical compromise for the series’ transition to a handheld format. Whereas NES Metroid players typically had the luxury of steady electricity and a stable environment in which to create their own hand-drawn maps, Game Boy owners often had to contend with dying batteries, bumpy car rides, or short-burst play sessions crammed into lunch breaks or between classes. Still, despite the limitations of handheld gaming in the early ‘90s, Metroid II’s maps were large enough that players could spend ample time off the beaten path if they wanted to. And yet, there were some players for whom the game just failed to click. Some couldn’t grasp the elegance of the basic gameplay loop without the aid of maps, while others had trouble navigating the game’s environments because their visual sameness made it difficult to judge progress.

One of the primary reasons AM2R was met with such enthusiasm last year is that it was infused with a colorful aesthetic that made it feel of a piece with Nintendo’s 16- and 32-bit Metroid games. But it also succeeded by doing the obvious: adding in a mapping system that worked exactly as it had in Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion, and Metroid: Zero Mission. No more would players wandering the subterranean expanses of SR388 forget where’d they’d been, or where they were going; all they had to do was hit the pause button to see their location and mapping progress laid out clearly in front of them. The map screen even noted the general location of hidden items, so players who’d passed up a collectible they couldn’t reach at the time could return when they were better equipped.

AM2R’s map screen

Metroid: Samus Returns takes the tried-and-true mapping system a step further, presenting what might be considered the definitive version for the entire series. First, by dint of the 3DS’s two-screen layout, the map is always present during gameplay, meaning players never have to pause to get their bearings. Second, Samus Returns developer MercurySteam has co-opted an interactive notation feature it first designed for the under-appreciated Castlevania: Lords of Shadow – Mirror of Fate, so players can now mark specific areas they’re personally invested in returning to when the time is right. Having an ever-present map is not only incredibly useful from an exploration standpoint; it also helps maintain a sense of immersion that can be broken when players are forced to pause the action to check their location. It’s a shame that Nintendo’s move away from dual-screen hardware means we’ll likely never see this system return for future Metroid adventures.

Samus Returns and AM2R both also feature an optional shortcut system not seen in the original Metroid II, so players who don’t want to traverse constantly back and forth across SR388 can save some time when revisiting previous areas or seeking out the path ahead. I found this feature to be incredibly useful in AM2R when I came to the end of the game and was looking to pump up my missile reserves. For speedrunners looking to break completion-time records, this shortcut system takes on an entirely different meaning. I have no doubt that the community will be exploiting Samus Returns’ Teleport Stations to shave precious seconds off runs, and am eager to see whether the game can be finished faster with or without these officially sanctioned shortcuts.

A Teleport Station in Metroid: Samus Returns

DRAMA AND SURVIVAL

Aside from the addition of a few new power-ups which I’ll discuss in the section following this one, Metroid II’s combat was practically identical to its predecessor’s. And that became a bit of a problem when it came to dealing with the game’s titular antagonists, because their movement patterns weren’t really conducive to four-way aiming. Metroids, particularly in their advanced forms, would swoop in diagonally, making it exceedingly difficult to hit the weak spot on their bellies even when it seemed like Samus should have a clear shot. To be fair, this difficulty helped amp up the tension of these already terrifying confrontations, but hindsight also makes it plain that a game’s difficulty shouldn’t be the result of its limitations. Diagonal aiming became the de facto standard in every Metroid from Super Metroid on, and I’m almost certain it was introduced in response to criticisms of the Game Boy game.

Hanging around with Metroid II: Return of Samus’ Spider Ball.

AM2R’s developer faithfully introduced diagonal aiming to his version of the game, and it made for an immensely satisfying experience. But here again, Metroid: Samus Returns takes this quality-of-life improvement to its logical conclusion, adding full 360-degree control over Samus’s aim. It’s something that’s never been seen before in a side-scrolling Metroid adventure, and it gives players such a precise level of control that it might be difficult to go back to the combat in earlier games. It’s also allowed developer MercurySteam to program more lifelike enemy movement patterns into the game. Combined with the diorama-like quality of Samus Returns’ 3D imagery, this re-introduces SR388 as a living, breathing world that’s miles apart from the hollow void of the Game Boy version.

But again, this is MercurySteam we’re talking about, so free-aiming isn’t the only way Samus Returns’ combat has been “modernized.” A timing-based melee counter allows Samus to conserve ammo and bludgeon enemies, similar to the dodge-and-counter move in Other M. Like in that game, this move is so much more effective than standard blaster fire that it becomes a sort of ritual in Samus Returns—a western movie-style showdown between dark and light that risks becoming a bit boring because it’s used so often. Accompanying this move is a dynamic camera that zooms and jostles, emphasizing the drama of Samus’s waiting until the last possible moment to strike back at a charging enemy. The camera only gets more involved during boss encounters, zooming in close, tilting at oblique angles. It’s pretty standard fare for a MercurySteam game—and for the God of War series that its Castlevania releases aped—but that doesn’t make it any less thrilling here.

Well that’s certainly complicated.

FAN SERVICE VS. PUSHING THE ENVELOPE

Metroid II is perhaps best remembered for defining Samus Aran’s modern look—something that wouldn’t have happened were it not for the game’s lack of color. In the original Metroid, Samus could collect an armor upgrade called the Varia Suit, which signified its enhanced defense capabilities by changing the color of the armor from yellow to pink. In Metroid II, the Game Boy’s lack of color necessitated a different visual signifier that the Varia Suit was equipped, so the game’s designers re-imagined it as a bulkier piece of armor that added giant shoulder pads, thicker plating, and an all-around more dramatic silhouette for Samus. Metroid II also added new weapons in the Spazer and Plasma Beams, new Morph Ball power-ups in the Spring Ball and Spider Ball, and a Space Jump upgrade that let Samus jump without having to stand on solid ground.

Metroid 2’s Varia Suit informed the heroine’s look for decades to come.

In this regard, AM2R didn’t do anything truly new—but then it didn’t really need to. Samus was already perfectly tuned for navigating SR388 in Metroid II. No, what Guasti added to AM2R was pure fan service: the Gravity Suit, Speed Boost, Power Bombs and Super Missiles were retconned in from Super Metroid, while wall-jumping and ledge-grabbing made their way in from Zero Mission. But the addition of the Gravity Suit, in particular, demonstrated a love for the series that even Samus Returns might be lacking, because it allowed Samus to navigate the one all-new area featured in AM2R: the water-logged Distribution Center. The Distribution Center is notable for being home to the aquatic boss monster Serris, who dedicated fans will remember was introduced in Metroid Fusion. Serris was never explicitly called out in Fusion as a native of SR388, but given that Fusion’s research station was built to study the ecology of that planet, it’s a fairly logical conclusion on Guasti’s part.

The Serris fight, which AM2R retconned into SR388 after it first appeared in Metroid Fusion.

In stark contrast to AM2R, Metroid: Samus Returns introduces abilities that have never been seen in previous Metroid games. These abilities rely on a separate energy reserve called Aeion, and they’re only active until that energy runs out. There’s a Beam Burst that gives Samus a rapid-fire attack—useful for dealing quick damage during boss fights. Lightning Armor surrounds Samus with elemental energy that can absorb environmental hazards. Phase Drift slows down time, allowing Samus to navigate environmental traps that move too quickly during the normal flow of time. And the Scan Pulse helps players locate breakable walls and hidden passages. If you’ve played MercurySteam’s 3DS Castlevania game, these new abilities should feel pretty familiar—the Lightning Armor, for example, is little more than a sci-fi take on Mirror of Fate’s Spirit of Belnades ability. These aren’t the usual power-ups players have come to expect from a classic Metroid adventure—but they do give MercurySteam a chance to re-introduce concepts they’re proud of, in a game that is likely to see far more success than its previous 3DS release.

Having trouble locating a hidden item? Metroid: Samus Returns has a solution for you.

VARIATIONS ON A THEME

In examining these three wildly different versions of the adventure once known solely as Metroid II: Return of Samus, it becomes clear where the difference lies between a fan project and an official release that just so happens to be developed by fans. AM2R, as excellent as it is, was created with the reverence of a fan who wanted nothing less and nothing more than to bring Samus’s SR388 adventure in line with Super Metroid and Metroid: Zero Mission, just as Zero Mission had done with the original Metroid. In an interview with Kotaku, Guasti declared his intent: “Metroid is the only Nintendo universe with a cohesive story, with a well defined continuity. People could enjoy most chapters of that story while playing great solid games. The only chapter that felt outdated was Metroid 2. So finally releasing AM2R added that last piece that was missing.”

Metroid: Samus Returns, on the other hand, shows what happens when fans are given the keys to the kingdom. Before the game became a reality, MercurySteam had long been interested in remaking a classic Metroid adventure, even going so far as to build a prototype to sell its vision to Nintendo. Once Sakamoto learned how well the developer could handle the genre—and how much the team loved the series he helped to create—he decided to give the partnership a chance. With Sakamoto’s desire to experiment and MercurySteam’s experience bringing modern technology to the genre, Samus Returns has the potential to stray even further from its source material than Zero Mission ever did, and that’s exciting. But it’s also significant for another reason entirely: it has the potential to signal a whole new era for Nintendo development, one in which fans from outside the company are given a chance to play with Nintendo’s beloved IP. We’ve already seen how well that can work with the excellent Mario + Rabbids: Kingdom Battle, and if Nintendo is smart, they’ll continue relying on talented superfans to pump up their software output in the Switch era.

Regardless of where you stand as a fan of the series—whether you’ve embraced AM2R or rejected it outright as an infringement of Nintendo’s intellectual property; whether you’re willing to dive in to Metroid: Samus Returns despite what many consider to be a misstep with Mirror of Fate—there’s no denying that it’s never been a more interesting time to be a fan of the series. Personally, I’ve never been more thrilled by an unexpected Nintendo announcement than when the company unveiled Samus Returns at this year’s E3, just minutes after debuting a teaser for Metroid Prime 4. But then, Metroid II: Return of Samus has always been a favorite of mine. Even if Samus Returns crashes and burns—which seems pretty unlikely at this point—there’s no doubt that there’s finally a version of Samus’s SR388 expeditation that can be enjoyed by everyone. You need merely to choose.