A Trip Through Game Boy History in 15 Games – Metroid II

July 17, 2016 // Published by Stephen Keating

By Kitten
Metroid II: The Return of Samus

(NA November 1991; JP January 21, 1992)

Despite Nintendo having had a mostly good track record with its Game Boy output, it still felt as if they had some weird sort of reluctance to take the console as seriously as they did the NES. Most of their releases were either quirky spin-offs or one-off titles that they seemed less confident in, and characters like Wario, who saw his birth on the console, almost felt allegorical for how the Game Boy was being treated – as this weird, goofy cousin of the NES there to scoop up money.

Gunpei Yokoi – the designer of the Game Boy, the man who once tutored Shigeru Miyamoto, and co-creator and producer of the Metroid series – saw using his console as a way to hopefully bring Metroid into being as successful as Zelda and Mario had been. Confidence in his idea brought to life one of Nintendo’s most impressive exclusives to the console, Metroid II: The Return of Samus.

One of few outlying titles in Nintendo history revealing a genuine effort on their part to take their handhelds as seriously as they did their home consoles, Metroid II was one of Nintendo’s only stabs at a direct sequel to a popular NES game on the Game Boy. Taking place shortly after the events of the first game, Metroid II saw Samus leaving the planet of the space pirates and focusing her efforts on SR388 – the mysterious homeworld of the eponymous Metroid.

Her mission? Genocide. The threat of the Metroid creature was considered so great that they were deemed a threat to all life, and the only person talented enough to handle this was none other than the baddest bounty hunter in the galaxy. Take a minute, here, to reflect on the climate of games at the time, and how they were largely considered something meant for boys and young men. Take another minute to consider that the most influential gaming company in the entire world was releasing a game where you were the lone woman capable of saving all life from a terrible threat.

It’s a little bit empowering, isn’t it? As a transgender woman under thirty who came across Metroid II at a young age, long before I was “out” and when my feelings on gender were something still maturing in my head, it’s important to mention just how much this meant. Girls could be just as cool as all my other heroes, like the blue guy from Contra or Mario on his adventures to save the princess. Seeing a woman being sold to someone my age as something other than a helpless damsel or incompetent third wheel was extremely meaningful.

The fact that Samus’ characterization was so minimal and her dialogue completely nonexistent only furthered my ability to project who I wanted to be onto her. I didn’t want to be a handsome boy hero who got all the love and accolades, I wanted to be the badass woman in a suit of armor, alone on an isolated planet and surrounded by nothing familiar. When you explore the strange alien world in the game, you are not alone with Samus, you are alone as Samus.

Metroid II often stands in stark contrast to most games available on the console, both literally and figuratively. Gone are the bright white backgrounds filled with the occasional detail, now exists only the black void of the cavernous interior of an alien world. Forgotten are the upbeat tunes of joyful adventure, instead they have been replaced with brooding, ambient sounds. Bright cartoonish enemies are nowhere to be seen, and their counterparts are frightening life indigenous to a strange and violent world.

Most Game Boy games are meant to be played in a very wide variety of conditions, but Metroid II is almost custom engineered to be that game you play past when you know you should be awake, alone and wrapped in a blanket on your bed. It was a vastly different – albeit entirely legitimate – way of tackling the Game Boy than most developers has tried.

Much like the original before it, Metroid II places its focus on atmosphere and exploration above all else. Rather than be divided into linear stages, the game is a sprawling, interconnected map. However, differing from its previous installment, your progress is gated by whether or not you’ve eliminated all Metroids within a given area, instead of if you’ve got the right power-up to get past a particular roadblock. This paces the game a bit more linearly than either its predecessor or immediate sequel, and gives the game a slightly more guided – yet still relatively open – vibe.

The sense of isolation in the game is palpable, and the atmosphere is heavy. The world around you is filled with things out to get you, and every move you make is guided by your ultimate goal of eliminating a species from existence. Pausing reminds you how many Metroids are in the area, and the counter for how many remain in total is something present every moment of play, never to leave your mind. As your mind wanders during the games many atmospherically empty corridors, it’s always brought back to your ultimate and ghastly intent.

A disappointment I have with the game is that perhaps everything is a little too violent. Very few enemies lack the capability or intent of harming you. Most enemies are placed in such a way that you could argue they’re minding their own business, but the game knows exactly what it’s doing by using them as obstacles and rewarding you with health and missile pick-ups for killing them. This makes SR388 seem almost nonsensically hostile. While this could be argued as the intent, it seems slightly more like it’s a byproduct of being a video game in a day and age where having non-hostile entities was seen as a neat aside rather than something the game could focus on in a meaningful way.

I feel as if violence certainly has its place in games, but exploring an alien world would be kind of nice if you could simply exist peacefully among its environments for a few moments, rather than struggle to survive. The joy of discovery is often hampered by the constant sense of dread and anxiety, with the oppressiveness of the environment rarely leaving time to soak it in without an entire absence of life accompanying that. The game also tries to rush you to the end on replays, having made you aware of its time counter that grades your progress with a jarringly sexist and out-of-place use of its protagonist undressing herself. How finishing a game this atmospheric with a time limit seeks to add anything to is outside of my understanding.

Beyond that, much of Metroid II’s combat is left far less to skill or cleverness and more to checks of attrition. Your missile count and health bar are usually more important to whether you’ll survive an encounter than your tenacity to persist, which I feel contradicts both the game’s atmosphere and the character of Samus. The game also decides to yank you around at a few points, taking you on long detours to kill just one or two Metroids in what feels less like of an expansion of the game’s lurid atmosphere and more like obvious padding.

All of these complaints, however, are things that become more and more apparent when looking at the game from a modern point of view, and its design was still stupendously progressive for its time. I just wish to make a point that it does bear mentioning that Metroid II’s design wasn’t perfect, and that many of its worst elements are what have been capitalized upon in modern day. Rather than immortalizing its carefully crafted atmosphere, what’s worshipped are things like that feeling you get when you pick up a new item expansion. That’s something that should have quickly been considered ancillary or irrelevant to the progress of designing a better experience.

For every step that Metroid II made forward, its legacy has been pointedly disappointing and since lost all of that steam. I still love the game, but returning to it after having played game after game that cite it as inspiration but completely fail to understand what it did right has left it with its flaws absurdly apparent and difficult to see past. I can hardly enjoy it on replays, but its not for lack of strength that it demonstrated, but rather that seeing this with a fresh pair of eyes is nearly impossible after years of point-missing knock-offs and imitations.

Let’s not forget what it did right, however, and press forward. What’s important to consider here is not that Metroid II wasn’t capitalized upon, but that it’s still there to be learned from. So, let’s knock off the remake culture and move on in the way we were meant to – taking the pieces that mattered and letting them scatter and blossom.