Many successors to NES games took a clear departure from that of their predecessors. The top-down adventure The Legend of Zelda became a difficult side-scrolling platformer. The stage-based action platformer Castlevania became an equally compelling adventure game. Metroid II: Return of Samus too departed from its roots, but not so much in gameplay. Instead, it abandoned the neon walls that Samus explored on the NES and squished her adventure onto a tiny green screen.
Released in November of 1991, Metroid II was developed for Game Boy, its release falling in between the timelines of two generations of home consoles. While it did opt out of the power and opportunity that a console would provide, the Game Boy sequel pushed the platform to a new level. Metroid II: Return of Samus was produced by Gunpei Yokoi, the father of Nintendo’s design principles and creator of both the Game & Watch and the Game Boy. Hiromi Kiyotake, designer of the character Samus Aran, served as director of the game with Hiroyuki Kimora, who first worked on character designs for Super Mario Bros. 3.
Metroid II takes place after the story events of the first game, taking Samus to the planet SR388 where her task is to eliminate the last of the Metroids. The player is tasked with tracking down the Metroids across the game map and killing them one by one. The end of the game’s story carries directly into its sequel on the SNES, where the last Metroid is held in captivity after Samus’ rescue.
The game is quite simple when compared to the others in the series, but it really holds an impressive amount of weight in the history of the franchise. Unlike other early Game Boy games, Metroid II is a core part of the entire story. It bridges two games, yes, but it adds a new layer to Samus’ character. Her decision at the end of the game to let the last Metroid live comes full circle in Metroid Fusion when Samus would find herself saved by the Metroid DNA. Additionally, the limitations of the Game Boy forced the artists to change the design of Samus, so that there was a visual difference between Samus suits that could be differentiated without the use of color as in the NES.
The game adds a new mechanic for Morph Ball mode in the form of the Spider Ball, allowing Samus to climb walls and ceilings while curled up. The Space Jump is added, which lets players bounce across the screen using the Screw Attack, allowing multiple enemies to be defeated without firing a shot and allowing Samus to reach areas otherwise unnavigable.
Now, as highly as I can speak about the story and creativity behind the design of the game, playing it is another thing. Metroid II remains one of the most difficult to play. Not because of the challenge or skill involved, but because of how similar each section of the game is. Everything seems to bleed together and there is no easy way to signify progression outside of knowing how many Metroid there were left to kill.
The areas within the game are difficult to tell apart and the music leaves so much more to be desired. The eeriness of the NES soundtrack and the way that every note in its themes haunts you as you explore was entirely missing from this entry in the franchise. It would be exciting to live in a world where Metroid Dread was the Zero Mission to Return of Samus, but almost a decade after that game’s disappearance and amidst the DMCA takedowns of the long-in-development Another Metroid 2 Remake, who knows if Metroid II: Return of Samus will ever get its true tribute from Nintendo.
If you still have a Game Boy around, track down a copy of this game and feel it in its true form. On a Game Boy Color, it will play in glorious form as the Game Boy Color developers made sure to add a Metroid palette that provides some much needed balance to the visuals of the game. Of course, it has also been rereleased on Virtual Console, albeit without any of the great color upgrades that it received on the new hardware.