The 3DS remake was… fine, I suppose, and the fan remake swiftly shut down by Nintendo’s ever-vigilant lawyers was nothing short of fantastic, but what about the real Metroid II, the original monochrome Game Boy game? It doesn’t have the historical significance of the NES classic that started it all, and neither is it as lush or eternally popular as Super Metroid, the SNES game that ended up defining an entire genre. The series’ first portable outing sort of fell down the cracks, outshone on either side by two legends.
Metroid II deserves better. It’s an atmospheric adventure Samus doesn’t so much start and then steadily grow in power through until her suit’s got a new gun for every day of the week and enough energy tanks to casually stroll through lava so much as she does just about make it out the other end in one piece if you’re lucky. There’s an unapologetic harshness permeating every pixel – Metroid II wants to feel uncomfortable and unsettling at all times.
Samus’ mission is a simple one: to find and then exterminate every last metroid on SR388. This could’ve ended up as a straightforward bug hunt against a familiar foe, but Metroid II has a brilliant twist up its sleeve: the metroid terrors seen in the first game – still the most iconic form of these merciless predators – are just the first and usually the weakest of many powerful mutations. The game is happy to play up the drama of this newfound threat, the first alpha metroid Samus encounters seen bursting out of its old body before launching straight at her. Assuming she survives the fight, these empty husks are then found scattered throughout the planet’s network of tunnels for the rest of her adventure, serving as a clue her enemy’s nearby – and as a silent warning too. Whatever’s ahead has had the time to moult, to mature, and Samus is forever too late to do anything about it other than deal with the unknown creature waiting for her.
The sprites used to convey this terror are remarkably large for a Game Boy game, with Samus in particular taking up a heck of a lot of the screen. There are a few good reasons for this: detail’s an obvious one – at this size Samus’ suit is a complex piece of machinery made of individual pieces with visible joints and the aliens she faces have curves, creases, and spikes – but the second reason may not spring to mind quite so quickly: claustrophobia.
A cramped screen is usually considered a bad thing (and with good reason too), but in this case the restricted view only heightens the experience. By literally never giving you the full picture, never allowing you a clear view of the path ahead or letting you see where a hole leads to before you’ve made the leap, every step is a step into the unknown. Within this limited space ceilings loom overhead and thick columns of impassable walls hem Samus in from both sides, and on the few occasions these confines give way to wider areas those voidlike edges feel vast and breathlessly empty and lost in the darkness. Decisions are based on a combination of gut instinct, vague memories, and hope.
The lack of a map is deliberate, and complementary to the above. Getting lost is all part of the experience, that gnawing feeling in the pit of your stomach that you’re going in the wrong direction and wasting your already small pool of supplies a feature, not a flaw. But as true as that may be, the map is not as daunting or complex as it can seem when you’re trapped within it, and exploration is always rewarded in some way – a missile upgrade, health recovery, a secret shortcut – even if you don’t end up finding the one thing you were looking for when you set off.
Your only companion through SR388’s maze of underground caverns is Metroid II’s soundtrack, which discards the usual melodic framework in favour of something more ambient and foreboding. This unusual approach begins from the title screen, harsh pings laid over what could almost be a deep scratching or booming sound that slowly builds into an eerie melody, picked up just a few notes at a time, as if it’s being unearthed in the same moment we’re hearing it. This is not the bombastic theme of a hero but something unsure and ephemeral, a track that fades away to nothingness just as it finds its feet.
[Warning: The linked video contains some short bursts of full screen flashing]
As if to apologise for this early upset Metroid II proper does open with something more upbeat and ordinary – apparently so it can quickly take it away and then refuse to bring it back, filling your ears with dissonant noises and strange cries from unseen creatures instead. This alien soundscape even reacts to your gameplay to a limited extent. A sharp musical sting can be heard whenever you encounter a metroid in its makeshift lair, and should Samus find herself low on health a fraught tune with an alarm-like rhythm replaces all other music until she’s in the clear, serving as an inescapable reminder she’s not OK.
It’s the perfect audio accompaniment to Metroid II’s keenly-felt survival trappings. This is a game where there aren’t enough energy tanks to guarantee her continued existence, save points are never close enough for comfort, and the earthquakes marking a change in the harmful planet swallowing liquid’s level go on just long enough to feel wrong. Health and missiles are more likely to be scavenged in small quantities from fallen enemies than handed over, and even idle flora can harm her. It feels deliciously scrappy and make-do – especially as Samus can only carry one beam type at a time, forcing players to either live adapt to their new shot type or go find one of the alternatives for themselves. The real icing on the horror-cake has got to be the broken Chozo statue found just before the final boss, it’s ice beam gift – a known threat to all metroids – left lying on the floor just behind it. The game never explains how this damage happened (and is better for it), but seeing as at this point Samus and the queen metroid are literally the last two living creatures of any notable size or intelligence left on the entire planet…
So no, Metroid II may not have the historical significance of the NES classic before it or the popularity of the SNES game after it that ended up defining an entire genre – but that just means it’s different, not deficient. This is a clever and demanding game that’s absolutely dripping with darkness, and any who dare to take it on -yes, even today – will soon find themselves consumed by SR388’s network of nightmares.