“I was passing through a wasteland when suddenly my mind drifted … my spirit lifted, my location shifted […]”
— Virtual Boy advertisement
I first played Metroid II: Return of Samus in the dimly lit women’s wing of a homeless shelter in Providence, Rhode Island. There I endured three of my five months of homelessness; the rest of the time was spent on streets or in psychiatric wards. I screamed a lot and frequently lost my mind. It wasn’t the first time I’d been homeless or nearly died, and it won’t be the last.
Nestled in my palms like a religious text is the videogame machine. If it were a console and not a handheld, it would be the idol of the shrine that is an entertainment center. Should someone blaspheme my idol or denomination of favorite games, I am conditioned to swell with indignation. But nevertheless I play and play. I insert the monolithic gray cart into the slot. I slide the switch up on the side of the handheld device. A veneer of light and sound materializes before me, like the face of god in a machine.
This ritual is performed daily as I try to make sense of the way it makes me think and feel about myself and the world around me. I can dismantle the software and the hardware, analyze them, write about the technical aspects of them after great study, but that way of summing them up doesn’t quite actualize how they affected me—what it all meant that first time, in the moment. Our experiences are ineffable, even when we seem to be pressing buttons to move light on a cave wall. As feelings fade and atrophy with time’s passage, we try to resuscitate or exorcise those feelings by telling others so they might understand, so that they may try out this thing we’re excited about. To talk about our experiences is to talk about the ghosts of feelings, because sometimes it’s worth keeping the spirit alive.
When we switch on Metroid II: Return of Samus, we are confronted with eerie, creeping screeches framing a constrained view of space and starlight, of passing comets and dust. The music’s deceptive stillness is evocative of outer space. It chilled me; I felt tenderness and respect welling up inside me. The title screen for Metroid II is one of the most effective and fitting I’ve ever seen for a game.
The title music deviates between abrasive synth squeals and the faint chatter of wriggling organisms. It segues into an apprehensive, exploratory sequence of notes. Toes dip melodically in the water—a bit of comfort as we find a groove in the gloom. Distant explosions warn of danger. And then, at ninety seconds in, the title music is elevated into an urgent, gooseflesh-inducing five-note catharsis. We are carried through this surge of emotion by the echoing beep we always hear when Samus is at low health. The song is an encapsulation of the journey itself, ending in an afterglow of the fading echoes of explosions.
To press start is to embark on an isolated journey into the unknown. Times will be difficult and tense, the music intones, maybe even scary. We will lose our way. But, if we endure, maybe we’ll find the whole mess worthwhile.
When I hand Metroid II to most people they don’t stick around for the title music. Adverse reactions aren’t uncommon. They never finish the game. I feel their reactions are a testament to one of Metroid II’s observable tenets: if you don’t stick around through the hard times, you won’t cherish the pleasant times as much.
Metroid II’s music is unaccomodating and discomforting because it’s reflective of the premise of exploring outer space and alien worlds. Games should be uncomfortable if they have purpose, if they’re handled with tact and emotional intelligence. Too often games are about endless pleasure loops—the moment we’re frustrated or confused, we’re taught to see this as a flaw because videogame tastemakers of yore sold us the toxic myth that fun is paramount.
What is fun? I honestly don’t know or care.
Games about killing should probably make you uncomfortable. They shouldn’t be carefully crafted to be pleasant. Metroid II is openly about killing. It makes me uncomfortable with wordless specificity. This is one of the game’s saving graces.
When Samus dies—a reasonable end given her goal—we are taken back to the title screen. We’ve just heard Samus’ suit crying out for energy. We may leave the title screen running and notice that the music goes on longer than expected, that the echoing beep indicating a lack of energy is the rhythm section of the title theme. The droning low-energy sound-effect increases in tempo to signify how close to dying Samus is. It also causes the Game Boy to lose a sound channel, so composer Yoshimoto Ryoji incorporated it into the game’s music at various points. I want to hug him for that.
Metroid II’s music changes to accommodate what is traditionally a distracting sound, meshing with the music rather than clashing. As a result, the tension in the game’s atmosphere is heightened by context, whereas in other videogames this would detract from the experience. It’s something Yoshimoto’s peer and predecessor, Tanaka Hirokazu, had not considered or, at the very least, implemented.
Tanaka Hirokazu’s philosophy would stand the test of time. Though probably not influenced by Tanaka, Yamaoka Akira would carry a somewhat similar thought process into the Silent Hill series. Both composers have expressed on-record that silence is sometimes all the music one needs.
Metroid II elicits moods that share a kinship with games like Silent Hill, King’s Field and Yume Nikki. These are lonely games for lonely, sensitive people wherein one explores a tangentially connected series of dreamy hellscapes.
The oneiric aspects of King’s Field and Yume Nikki are accentuated by their restricted, deliberate movements, as if everything were submerged in the syrupy nightmare fuel of the subconscious. Washed-out faces and non-Euclidean spaces, where the echo of ethereal music fades without traces.
Consider the incidental sounds of the world underfoot and how important they are in Silent Hill 2. Among dozens of footstep samples, Yamaoka Akira recorded noises you’ll only hear for a single solitary step throughout that entire game. The Jack Foley technique of synchronous sound in cinema further immerses us within fictional worlds. And how often do we hear the clop of feet in old radio plays for the sake of evoking atmosphere?
If Metroid II, Yume Nikki, and later King’s Field games share one aspect in which I feel more diversity would enhance the experience, it’s in their monotonous footstep noises. Though the sounds sometimes create a hypnotic drone that is not altogether unpleasant, everyone’s charitability has its limits.
Soft sounds of footfalls remain your sole companion through much of Metroid II. At one point in the game, your only proof of locomotion is the sounds of Samus’ collisions with an environment thoroughly immersed in gloom.
We see an energy tank at the lip of a well occluded by a discarded metroid husk. In order to acquire it, you must dive into an adjacent well and grope around in the dark in ball form. To get a feel for your unseen surroundings, careful attention may be paid to the incidental sounds of Samus’ movements . You can climb walls with the Spider Ball and then intentionally fall in order to aurally measure the drop distance. It’s one of the game’s masterful moments, and makes you realize how much more uncomfortable this genocidal journey could really be.
The mention of genocide brings us to one of Metroid II’s themes: controlled extinction. Playing as a cold, lonely figure, you comb through the ruins of a long-dead avian species and kill in ecoscapes evoking claustrophobia and agoraphobia. It would be dishonest to overlook that Metroid II is about the genocide of the metroids, an extraterrestrial species that is already nearly extinct. The game’s premise of systematic extermination cannot be denied, yet Metroid II turns out to be an anti-genocide game where the initial goal is to commit fantasy genocide against goofy-cute science-fiction creatures.
Metroids are a constantly exploited species that are incapable of interplanetary travel, but they’re frequently treated within the Metroid series as some sort of galactic threat. This is bullshit. Samus is the true chthonic horror that threatens the universe and haunts every cavern, corridor and column wired to a self-destruct device. The tension and dread in controlling Samus isn’t solely from what she will encounter in the stygian void, but her seemingly soulless intent in what she silently agrees to do.
This is the last Metroid game where Samus does contract work befitting the galaxy’s best mass-murdering bounty hunter. She kills for a living, and her mission cannot be overlooked as you make her traipse through the maze. She’s not the type to nuke a planet from orbit. No, Samus is hands-on: she likes to explore and kill to her satisfaction. She insists on landing on a planet’s surface and fucking-up whatever network of bubblegum and barbed wire is holding the entire planetary house of cards together—usually doing this so thoroughly that the world collapses around her ears as she just barely escapes. It’s a singular talent of hers.
Metroid II exhibits no pretentions about what it is. Taken as a standalone game, Return of Samus is a lonely discomforting killquest with no words inserted by inept authors to slightly mar the experience like in every other Metroid game.
Don’t read Metroid II’s instruction manual; it’s antithetical to the game’s unspoken philosophy and spoils discovery. Filled with lists of every item you’ll find and a foolfuck story explanation, the manual also shows names and pictures of every creature and mechanoid you’ll encounter alongside a mini-map. In fact, if you’ve never played the game, I recommend you do that before you read the rest of this piece. The text will wait.
In lieu of any written or spoken narrative, Metroid II simply tells us to press start, when a save file is about to be cleared, when a save is completed, the name of an item we just picked up, who made the game, and then mentions it’s the end when we see our completion time. And even that feels like it’s almost too much.
At the game’s outset, Samus stands at the screen’s center-right, flickering into existence under the shelter of the wing of a large starship. The wing Samus stands under tapers to a point like an arrow, seeming to signal that we go right. The ship’s design is similar to that of Samus’ helmet and visor. Really, the ship looks like Samus. This must be her ship. If we do not press a button, Samus endlessly stares outward, as if conferring the choice of action to the player. Every 2D Metroid game begins with Samus staring outward, evoking this illusion of choice before we’re funneled down a corridor leading to a shaft leading to more funnels of tunnels. The fingerprints of the guiding hands of videogame developers are quite noticeable.
Also noticeable is the metroid counter in the lower-right corner of the screen reading 39. If the game’s goal isn’t already apparent, it will be after you kill your first metroid and the counter scrambles, stopping at 38. You’re not leaving until you reduce that counter to zero by shooting all the metroids to bits. The numbers are cold, inarguable. Absolute. The number of remaining metroids almost never leaves the screen between the title screen and the credit roll. When you pause the game, the counter changes to an L meaning “left”, meaning this is how many metroids you have left to kill before the acid lowers.
Yes, acid. In order to mitigate backtracking for missed metroids and the possibility that players will become hopelessly lost in the labyrinth, Metroid II’s game designers made a concession. It comes in the form of a corrosive acid that recedes when the player kills a requisite number of metroids, making the game’s focus much different than that of the first Metroid. The game’s acid fixes the sequence of events into tiers.
When you’re lost in a game you’ll try anything, so you might try going through the acid like I did. Submerging Samus in acid is to make her endure a searing, corroding agony just to kill a couple metroids earlier than intended. The implications this has for Samus’ psyche aren’t promising. It makes it seem as though Samus wants to murder all the metroids so badly that she’s willing to go through unimaginable pain. Compare this to Other M and its mandate that Samus suffer in a super-heated area before getting permission from the man she worships to activate her heat-resistant armor. At least in Metroid II her own personal bloodlust is reason enough to compel her to endure hell. I’ll take bloodlusty Samus anyday.
Due to the limitations of the Famicom, the screen cannot scroll diagonally in the first Metroid and has borders on the top, bottom or sides. Metroid’s entire map is laid out orthogonally with long interconnecting shafts and corridors; it is a grid of metro tubes, forever subscribing to perpendicularity and parallels. Metroid II begins under open sky and invites players to jump on nearby platforms to show off the free-scrolling capabilities of the Game Boy.
Cold alien rock surrounds Samus and obscures the sky as she enters the cave that will constitute the rest of the game. Gray clusters of starlight offset the sky from the oily stillness of the cave walls. The game’s most pleasant songs play when the sky is visible. We barely see any sky.
One of those pleasant songs is the uplifting, heroic theme that begins once the player has control of Samus. The song is a surge of inspiration, evocative of the invigorating promise of progress. It will play each time you enter the main shaft winding deeper into the game’s labyrinth. When comparing it to the music for other areas, the most striking thing about the SR388 surface music is its tonality. Its harmoniousness reveals how intentionally dissonant most of Metroid II’s soundtrack is. Though the melody changes, it’s the same two chords over and over. It’s an undulation of two poles, of a rising duality that resets itself. The piece never stops; it retains its movement no matter how much it loops and rises and falls. Any resolve afforded by the song soon recedes as a jarring crackle of bass announces entry into new areas. The game’s journey is a sine wave of emotional peaks and valleys as it tells a wordless story.
To descend into the inky caves of Metroid II is to get a taste of the overwhelming feeling of being lost and confused. Samus’s elegance is displayed in spacious shadows where cramped earth can envelope her in the time taken to land several somersaults. The level design carefully alternates between enclosed environments and wide-open dead space, all of which is augmented further by the squint-inducing green screen of a Game Boy. Some areas are intentionally designed to resemble one another, with slight details altered to tip off more observant explorers while others think they’re going in circles. Other areas loop and overlap to simulate 3D space in an otherwise 2D environment. This all works in concert to make the player feel lost in a shrewdly twisted web.
Return of Samus is the last Metroid game where Samus moves as if the gravity on the planet she visits has a looser tug to it, smoothing her movements into easy undulations. The calm buoyancy of the game’s physics allow for more comfortable maneuvering in the confines of SR388’s caves. Movement is tight and more easily studied, allowing one to jump and wiggle around enemies in spaces that initially seem too cramped or crowded.
Moving on to Super Metroid from this feels like an adrenaline boost, and the gravity of Zebes is inexplicably different from how it was in the first Metroid. Somehow, Zebes’ gravity is the same as the Ceres space station’s.
The feeling of being overshadowed by the immense scale of Metroid II’s dome-like caverns is magnified by the reduced scope of the Game Boy screen in correlation with the generous size of Samus’ sprite. Within these large domes are the underground ruins of an extinct civilization—towering edifices the player can both scale and enter. Each of the game’s five most spacious areas contains a building swallowed by earth. Some buildings seem to be sinking into groundwater. One is embedded into crumbling rock and hangs precariously, doomed to fall.
Return of Samus is the only 2D Metroid with buildings the player can walk on and enter. Every door in Metroid II is located in abandoned buildings, and behind every door is an item that’s been sealed away like a time capsule. Each door is a barrier that is hopelessly locked, necessitating that you blast through it with missiles. Compare this to Super Metroid, where the continuity of the map is constantly sabotaged by the ridiculous bottlenecking of doors meant to transition into the next room. These doors are, of course, the perfect size for Samus to pass through and only her arsenal can open them. Some doors are located in outside areas where the sky is visible, making the game world feel like a box with holes poked in the sides of it. This problem endlessly reveals the artificiality of areas intended to seem organic and makes the game designers’ guiding hands hamfistedly obvious. The Space Pirates—somehow an entire species—mill around inside rooms between these doors as if they’re doomed to wait forever. Space Pirates don’t have missiles or Power Bombs, so how would they be inside places where these weapons are needed to ingress? It doesn’t feel like aliens on Zebes built those damn mazes or that they’re natural formations; it feels like sleep-deprived game developers built them.
The Metroid series’ codification of prefab doors bookending every tunnel and open space on its alien worlds is something I’ve never appreciated. They resemble editors’ brackets simply reading [omitted] to smooth over the sudden transitions from one different area to another.
In the first Metroid, door transitions are even more dubious; they’re something the player must be wary of since creatures can attack Samus as she’s entering or leaving a room. One example is in Kraid’s lair, where Dessgeega creatures will damage Samus as she enters an area. Entering areas in ball form cannot always alleviate this problem and renders the damage unavoidable. The culprit is the plodding door transitions that allow enemies to move when the player cannot. Just try getting through Tourian to Mother Brain without getting hit.
The mandatory Spider Ball is often a Metroid II talking point. It shows up again in the Metroid Prime games and its functionality is extremely limited, with obvious rails forcing the player’s movement. Through suggestive level design, Metroid II’s Spider Ball does not encourage one to obsessively check every area like Super Metroid’s optional X-ray visor. The Spider Ball also helps prevent blind jumps in an initial playthrough, allowing beginners to maneuver through areas at a slowed pace.
After obtaining the Spider Ball, the very first dome-shaped cavern the player encounters has high ceilings traversable and bombable only with the Spider Ball. Yet nearly every high-ceilinged cavern you bomb with the Spider Ball leads to dead-ends that rarely yield items. Spikes line high-ceilinged areas, hinting that combing every tile with the Spider Ball isn’t the point. Bombing everything with the Spider Ball is an unnecessary exercise in making one’s own misery, since Metroid II is rich with visual cues.
Where there are spikes, we almost always find a metroid floating somewhere nearby, as if they’ve been corralled by spikes leading into nooks. Maybe the metroids use the spikes as home defense.
As in the first Metroid, Samus can unfurl from her ball-form in mid-air and gain an extra jump. You also get an extra jump when you take damage, allowing the use of enemies as momentary platforms without the Ice Beam. When landing in ball form, you can hold down on the D-pad when you touch the ground to cancel or delay your bounce so you won’t bump into an enemy. You can also jump away from the edge of a platform and launch yourself downward (this is the hardest of them all to do consistently). I was elated to find that nearly all of these discoveries I made have long been incorporated into speedruns of the game. The mechanics in Metroid II were graspable enough that I could intuit the possibilities on my own in a homeless shelter with no internet access or outside help.
Another maneuver I intuited on my own is that, after acquiring the Spring Ball, if you jump to the left in ball form and press down on the D-pad to initiate the Spider Ball, Samus is launched in an arc that is the fastest mode of travel in the game. However, this only works when jumping to the left. Acquiring the Varia Suit increases Samus’ speed to the point where rolling on the ground is no longer the faster mode of travel. This results in a state where activating the Spider Ball while Spring Ball jumping is the fastest way to move to the left, but running in the Varia Suit is the fastest way to move to the right. This provides Samus’ moveset with breadth and depth and renders each of her movement methods practically useful depending on context.
On the other hand, the Spring Ball, Screw Attack and High Jump Boots are wholly optional and probably unnecessary from a level design perspective, but do make combat more manageable and allow for quicker maneuvering in later areas. The Spring Ball, however, is a speedrunning necessity.
I discovered a lot of sequence breaks, too. One was at the entrance to the game’s second building. I managed to climb up to the roof, but to do so I had to take damage from spikes and enemies while utilizing the Ice Beam to freeze them in mid-air. At the top of the building, I discovered plants that only existed in that area. The plants’ stems would extend and their petals open up to shower the area in spores. I shot the spores and collected the energy that they left behind. I shot the plants, too, only to find they were indestructible.
It occurred to me then and later on, when I kept killing for energy and missiles, that the Metroid series’ insistence that player be awarded with items and health pickups for murdering things was an unfortunate leftover from, perhaps, The Legend of Zelda. Enemies sure as hell don’t drop anything when you kill them in Super Mario Bros.—it leaves the game world feeling emptier. (Killing in Mario makes things feel safer, too; an invoked sentiment that makes me uneasy.)
Enemies dropping health or items or money is an outdated videogame dogma, a lazy excuse to pad out games by making players kill-grind in order to complete the game. Even the world’s fastest tool-assisted speedrun of Metroid II has the runner stopping to grind for missiles for several seconds. In the first three Metroid games, creatures emerge from chutes and then rush to attack Samus. These supposedly indigenous creatures exist for grinding in some areas and clash with the ecological storytelling.
In the first Metroid, always resuming the game with 30 Energy necessitated grinding through creature-killing for most players, as it is the only way to recharge Samus in between the game’s energy tanks. Leisurely shooting creatures was mechanically encouraged.
Metroid II contained the most energy and missile recharge stations out of any Metroid game for a decade. It is the only Metroid game where the contents of the creature chutes run out before you’re fully recharged, implying that the life Samus wipes out is finite. Unfortunately, leaving an area and coming back replenishes the creature chutes, yet some rooms in Metroid II are full of empty chutes from which no creatures emerge, reinforcing how indiscriminately killing makes the game world emptier. Since Metroid II is a game about how a killer seems to change her ways and stops killing, the game’s themes could have been reinforced by making its defeated creatures crumple into corpses with no energy or missiles given. Killing should’ve made the world feel deader and made you feel like a jerk.
Many things in Metroid II only appear once. For example, near the game’s end, you encounter a round rock with a texture you’ve never seen before. You need to damage it with a missile instead of the usual bomb. At this point, figuring out a way through should be easy using the game’s established logic.
Compare this and Metroid II’s acid to Super Metroid’s introduction of contrived picture blocks showing you which weapon-key you need to unlock an eco-door. One of Super Metroid’s most condescending concessions is its codification of paths to progress with pictures of rocket boosts and bullets and bombs. Blocks that the player would usually morph-ball bomb in earlier games are inexplicably replaced by more bottlenecking blocks that need to destroyed with Super Missiles, Power Bombs and Shinesparks.
Metroid II has no elevators marking entry into a new area like every other Metroid game; it switches tile palettes with fade-outs and fade-ins. The lack of elevators makes narrative sense, since nearly all traces of technology are either gone, malfunctioning, or sealed away behind reinforced rooms.
The technology Samus finds is that of an extinct avian species. This avian species built statues bearing their likeness and enshrined them. These statues hold still-functioning weapons systems and movement technology, which enhances one’s ability to move in virtually any space with weapons in tow. No creature could hide from the avians’ wrath. The avians worshiped themselves and war and how clever they were at doing it, and then they died.
Metroid II is a hellish labyrinth of the mind, even if it seems like gray clusters of caves you blow shit up in. The sources of your obsessions sequester into the recesses of your mind’s inner oblivion. In avoiding your agonies, they have become alien. Whatever form they take in your neural tracts, they wait for you to face them, because neither of you will ever stop until one of you perishes. The numbing, ennui-inducing bite of being lost and lonely accentuates the monotony of wandering confusion. You try to piece yourself back together as you suffer. The acid will never stop burning your conscience until you do away with your adversarial mental manifestations. The vampires of the past.
I lost myself in a game of murder and mazes because suffering in the bondage of a Game Boy screen is easier than the suffering awaiting beyond its borders. It’s something palatable to my pain. It’s something uncomfortable I can deal with, because people ruined me and threw me away, as they do with all broken toys.
The deeper we descend into darkness, the more we question what we see. We pass through an aperture and, with a blink, find ourselves suspended over a series of spikes.
How did we end up here? Is this game broken? Maybe I’m just broken; maybe I imagined all that because I’m losing my mind. I can’t even find my way back to check.
The tiles of the game world reassemble, allowing passage outside ordinary bounds. Here we may rummage through the mind-maze’s glitchy rubbish.
The deeper we descend, the more oppressive the world and its ambience become. Tension knots as the number of living metroids dwindles. Each battle becomes a drain, a gauntlet with no rest stops. This oppressiveness is calculated with greater meticulousness than in any other Metroid. Everything seems to happen in the right spot, especially the musical cues. All the killing is as uncomfortable as it should be; its tedium masks no pretensions.
Exempting one case, metroids always guard their territory and will not seek Samus out. They won’t bother her until she encroaches on their space. Samus is the trespasser.
The exception is the encounter with the last alpha metroid in the game. We discover another metroid husk behind the husk of the alpha metroid. Killing the alpha metroid triggers another telltale earthquake. According to formula, the acid has lowered, but instead the acid has risen, trapping us. We circle back around to where we saw the two metroid husks since we’ve only killed one, and find a new metroid form we’ve never seen before—that of the omega metroid.
Metroids are smart enough to lay traps, and they seem to be able to control the acid around them, making it rise in certain areas to block passages in order to protect the rest of the hive. The metroid hive works in a system of hierarchical defense. When every metroid on a certain tier of a cavern dies, the acid recedes. Since metroids are capable of flight without any propulsion and can shoot thunderbolts and fireballs out of their faces, why can’t they control the volatile chemicals seeping through the planet’s surface?
The wordlessness of every event invites one to fill in the blanks to their own satisfaction, no matter how strange things get. The whole damn game is strange and feels like a murder nightmare.
After killing so many metroids that the counter says one is left, we delve deeper into the metroids’ dwellings only to discover they’re empty. The metroids may have picked the place clean in their hunts, but Samus has left the game world much deader than they have. Everything begins to sound like rasping, irregular breaths and rumbling heartbeats—an increasingly rapid arrhythmia. The music’s breathing sounds match the movement of the metroid sprite in the game’s HUD.
We pass into a decaying laboratory hanging from the cave ceiling and find it filled with spikes. To reflect this, the music is foreboding and sharp, resembling cold needles rather than something organic. There is no tonal center to the music; it meanders without care for the listener’s comfort. The loping rhythm of the piercing square waves constitute what could be considered the melody.
Within the lab are containment tubes and more spikes. Perhaps the avian civilization created the killer jellyfish here, and the floors lined with spikes corralled and contained them along with the blast doors.
An optional discovery within the lab itself is a defaced avian statue sitting directly under the metroid queen’s abode. The statue once held the Ice Beam no doubt used for metroid containment. Extreme cold is a young killer-jellyfish’s weakness. The metroid queen seems to know who the avians are and that the Ice Beam posed a threat to her children, so she attacked the statue. But, rather than destroy the Ice Beam, the metroid queen knocked it behind the headless statue. The face of the statue was destroyed because the metroid mama remembers her parents, and she doesn’t like them.
Soon we see the egg from Alien that everyone ever has already pointed out. It foreshadows Samus’ imminent change of heart, passing above her like a thought crossing her mind. Players are required to pass under the egg in ball form so Samus resembles the egg.
We experience another subversion of Metroid II’s established norms—a shocking musical spike is overtaken by formidable bass growls as the metroid counter scrambles and shoots up to 9.
The nature of descension is invoked, and we see the empty downward spiral that comes with killing. Eight new lives arrive in Samus’ sights, so she must wipe them out. Through much of the game, Samus seems heartless.
Suspense continues to amp with clear, focused calculation as we kill eight more metroids than anticipated. The counter again reads that there is only one metroid left. Worries as to what the final metroid encounter will hold continue to compound and then peak as Samus reaches the chamber directly above where the metroid queen resides.
Having maintained tension for so long, the music bursts into a pulsating roar. Buried beneath the throbbing overload of suspense are a metroid’s coos, heard for the first time. Metroid II’s designers have amassed a dramatic storm of tension through their use of music, environmental design and basic Metroid game mechanics. And let’s not forget to thank them for exploiting the noir visual style necessitated by the Game Boy hardware.
Metroid II plays like a hard-boiled sci-fi detective story. We’ve investigated the caves and ruins and seen the many metamorphoses of the metroids’ life cycles and the shells they leave behind, but a lingering question pervaded each discovery: where are all the metroids coming from?
This answer is revealed as we drop into the metroid queen’s chamber. The queen’s visage resembles the toothy grimace of a crocodile—if the crocodile had eight eyes. Her neck extends similarly to the game’s indestructible plant creatures. If you don’t put the metroid queen out of her misery early by letting her swallow you and then ball-bombing her belly, the battle is more grueling and thus more thematically appropriate. If you torture the queen to death with missiles, repeating the age-old loop of the boss pattern, her dying cries become more plaintive and pitiful. You might even feel something, and it won’t be nice. The metroid queen disintegrates when she dies just as Samus does.
When the queen dies, she triggers one last earthquake, sealing Samus in the room. Samus cannot return to the surface the way she came in. She is seemingly trapped in the labyrinth forever. Yet what is this blissful, disorienting music that fades in after the metroid queen’s corpse has faded out? It’s a melody that folds into itself with offset overlaps. It’s optimistic and forward-looking after a harrowing trek through hell. It feels like a funeral. You’ve just committed genocide; here’s a musical door prize.
Another videogame about murder and mazes with a pointless, empty boss at the end of it all, I thought.
And then comes Metroid II’s crowning moment that it would be soulless without. Again we encounter the glowing egg that we saw earlier. The egg bursts, and with a chirrup the metroid gravitates around Samus incessantly. Samus’ presence imprints onto the last metroid that she is their parent.
Samus’ motives in keeping the last metroid alive are unclear: are they purely utilitarian, or has she had a change of heart? The game’s rules, possibly mirroring Samus’ wishes, don’t allow for the metroid baby to be killed—bullets seem to barely miss or pass through the metroid. Of course, killing the metroid would doom Samus to a slow death deep underground, but this is not immediately apparent.
In order for the player to proceed, the newly hatched metroid must consume immovable foodstuffs preventing their progress. Samus must nourish the metroid child after killing their entire family. Without the traditional Metroid mechanics of exploring and extermination leading up to it, this subversive ending would not have the resonance that it does.
To portray Samus’ sudden refusal to carry out her genocide mission, the game has the player nurture and nourish life instead of ending it. The fundamental nature of Metroid’s game-design ethos is subtly changed to reflect the altered tone. Paths are no longer opened with destructive weapons; instead, progress can only be made when the player provides life-giving nourishment to a newborn whose entire family they’ve just killed. The significance is that the player cannot stand idly by while the metroid child eats; they must lead the child to the food and take part in feeding them.
The genocide run ends with an ascension back to the planet surface and Samus’ return to the comforting shelter of a ship ten tiles wide. The game has moved in a circle, following the cycle of life and death. Once Samus touches the glowing capsule presumably for containing the metroid, the game is over.
(Utilizing the scroll glitch that occurs while tapping the select button, we find that the “capsule” is the well-hidden sprite of a missile recharge station. Samus always falls back on her weapons.)
This is the first and last moment in the Metroid series wherein Samus has a companion who follows her. It was a stroke of brilliance to be ignored in Metroid II’s sequels for the sake of appealing to a wider audience with pleasantly crafted murder mazes.
Yes, I’m talking about Super Metroid. Metroid II’s ending and overall narrative overshadow Super Metroid’s.
Super Metroid’s ending is about who the metroid baby will defend and throw themselves over when their adoptive parents they’ve known for less than a week try and kill one another. The kid died for you, genocidal protagonist who massacred their biological family, so you get the silly rainbow beam and your precious escape sequence. Consistently teasing the player’s peaked pleasure, Super Metroid’s ending toys with taking power from the player only to indulge them immediately afterward. God forbid our pornography preclude the climax.
Super Metroid’s ending is emotionally unearned and piggybacks on Metroid II’s ending, especially when viewing Super Metroid as a standalone game. (Its reliance on visual and textual flashbacks to the first two games corroborate this.) There is not much reason to care about the metroid that dies at the hands of Mother Brain if you’ve never played Metroid II.
What movie title suits the infant metroid best? Gone in Sixty Seconds.
I would feel like a jerk to not praise Super Metroid’s ending for blurring the line between cutscene and traditional play with deft strokes. It’s the game’s most stand-out, trailblazing set-piece. Over a decade later, we would see Call of Duty protagonists suddenly injured with predictable frequency while goofy on-screen button prompts jarred us out of the action.
Super Metroid opens with a nonsensical syllogism spoken by Dan Owsen: “The last metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace.” The foolish introduction gets more painful as we have Samus, the silent murderer-turned-surrogate-mother, speaking for the first time. The metroid larva, which saved Samus from a slow death underground and seemingly bequeathed a touch of humanity to her heartless character, is referred to by Samus as a “confused child”.
Samus is shown as a stoic who experiences events from a utilitarian perspective. She wouldn’t snuff out the last of the metroids for the sheer science of having a domesticated metroid. In Super Metroid’s flashback she is shown canonically aiming at the newborn, while Metroid II deferred to the player’s own reactions.
Precluding other interpretations of Metroid II’s ending, Samus exhibits emotion most when talking about the scientists’ findings. Honestly, Super Metroid’s intro ruined Metroid II’s ending for me.
This brings me to my conclusion that Samus is a mass-murdering antisocial space nerd. While this fits Samus’ character considering her actions in previous games, it’s reflective of the designers having no idea what they were doing with Samus from the beginning.
Samus being a female character was a jokey whim in the first Metroid. The twist is “bet you didn’t suspect a woman could do all that!” The hidden endings to the first Metroid are problematic not just because you’re rewarded with Samus in a leotard if you beat the game in under three hours, but also because if you beat the game in under one hour, she’s wearing even less clothing. There is no reason for Samus to take off even more of her clothes since the designers already got their point across (however hamfisted and boneheaded that point was). The roots of speedrunning lie in Metroid’s encouragement of players to bolt through it for the sake of a strip show.
Metroid II’s ending is a precursor to self-described “art games” that would be produced over a decade later. Before we had to make up a self-aggrandizing term to explain why we’re not killing things, there was this love letter to the future that no one read.
Someday, maybe games can be about more than shooting shit and quickly collecting number-go-uppers in order to see bikini-girl. Of course, you still see bikini Samus, which runs counter to the game’s tone. The end credits sequence and its celebratory music remain Metroid II’s most unsightly blemish.
(Samus’ underwear are a reference to what Ellen Ripley wears at the end of Alien, but Alien had a reason for it.)
Imagine a game where Samus’ goal is less about killing and more about exploration. She befriends the fauna and they help one another. Regardless of the designers’ intent, Metroid II ends on a promising note that implies murder mazes aren’t the future of videogames. Regrettably, the bulk of the game is still a maze where Samus does her murderscaping.
The deeper we descend, the closer we are to ascending.
I played Metroid II in a vermin-infested room jam-packed with bunk beds where me and nine other women slept. That is, when the buzzing fluorescents hanging inches from our faces weren’t making it impossible to sleep. The buds of my earphones were jammed into my ears to drown out the snoring and squabbling and soul-crushing sobbing. Everyone was lost and confused. Everyone wanted and deserved a better life. They called the bunk room a cave where they lost all sense of time. It felt like the world outside didn’t exist, or like the world had forgotten us and we didn’t exist.
To keep my sanity, I’d explore the streets of Providence and get lost. Mostly on accident. I would often panic and take umbrage at my ineptitude and lack of knowledge of the city’s layout. In the beginning of my exploration, I utilized an inadvertently developed form of urban geolocation, incorporating omnipresent fast-food franchises and their spatial relativity to street names and other landmarks that stuck in my memory.
When I played Metroid II, I memorized the locations of save columns, the arrangement of tiles and textures and creatures and buildings and shrines and missile-doors and corrosive acid. These digital objects were my city streets, my landmark buildings and my Dunkin’ Donuts Center. I felt like an object myself, representative of something no one can ever know, moving through the city where people passed by me as unknowable figures that intrigued me just as I might intrigue them. Alien creatures in a world I can never fully understand. There was a delight and mystery in having nowhere in particular to be and exploring the world around me.
Samus’ ship was like the homeless shelter, and I’d come back to recharge. It was comforting to find my way back, even though I didn’t want to go all the way back. The homeless shelter was at a nexus in downtown Providence where a potent mixture of the well-off and the impoverished passed by one another as if disparate, as if from distant dimensions. Wealthy people in tailored suits walked to work at twenty-plus-story high-rises while homeless people drifted with purpose to the next available opportunity. Often I would find and give what money I had to someone holding up a wafer of cardboard with a plea for help written on it in black marker. Most times people came up to me and asked. I sometimes asked why they didn’t ask the wealthy people in suits for money, and usually got this response: “They get aggravated or ignore you.” Twice I overheard rich persons say they were bored or unhappy, so they were going on a vacation to another country.
An impenetrable barrier of sociocultural alienation, indicative of willful ignorance on an individual level and intentional systemic oppression on an institutional level. Society’s ills swelled with self-evidence, but I couldn’t stop them. To shout it to the skies, I knew, would only produce sharp glances in my direction and a more hurried shuffling of feet. God, they were all me. We were all so close but so far away.
I imagined society’s ills were like Samus. Autarkic and unfeeling, moving unseen through walls and hallways and elevator shafts, tunneling under my feet to the next building and wiping out empathy wherever it may hide.
God, I thought, why the fuck am I playing a videogame when I could do something?
So what are you going to do? was the rejoinder of my abusers, who will always live on in me. You’re already busted. Ignorant and powerless. You’re also crazy.
I could think of nothing to do. I had nothing to my name, had nothing but a Metroid game. I didn’t even have any clothes. Everything was stolen.
There is something universal in being lost in manufactured adversity and finding our way through when things are at their most bleak. When supposed opportunities are girdled by the myopia-inducing distress of present circumstances. I like to think that we can circumnavigate those binds. I like to think that, somehow, we can tunnel our way out and cherish the open air again.