Return of Samus stands as a somewhat unique take on the Metroid franchise, and its position as an overlooked entry in the series ends up being, though understandable, unfortunate not just to the game itself, but also to those who miss out on playing it
Out of the three Nintendo franchises that, after debuting on the NES, would prove to have enough force to move onto future consoles, Metroid was – arguably – the one that had the easiest task when faced with the challenge of reproducing its gameplay on a portable scale. And that is because while the first handheld entries led by both Link and Mario, The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening and Super Mario Land, had to find a way to – with more restricted hardware – replicate the quality gamers had come to expect out of them following a couple of masterpieces, The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past and Super Mario Bros. 3, Samus did not have to live up to as much when the time came for her to make the jump.
After all, although the original Metroid was a good initial effort that unquestionably marked those who played it during the 8-bit era, the series it founded – unlike the other two properties – never got a chance to mature into a fully polished state until much later, as its defining installment would only arrive in 1994 under the name of Super Metroid.
As such, when the context of its release is taken into consideration, Metroid II: Return of Samus can easily be perceived as an odd case when a portable reflection of gameplay that had previously appeared on a home console is actually an improvement over it. Of course, the limitations of the Game Boy – including its inability to produce colors – do make themselves be felt in visuals that are generally forgettable and on a soundtrack that, bordering on dullness, comes off as much less inspired than that of the NES effort.
Yet, on the gameplay front, the title is presented with opportunities to fix the blatant shortcomings of its predecessor and it takes advantage of most of them, producing an experience that – despite its technical inconsistencies – is overall far more enjoyable to tackle than the one contained in Metroid. Consequently, even if it is understandable Return of Samus is a usually overlooked entry in the franchise’s canon, for it is squeezed between its inception and its first major triumph, the quest it holds is satisfying.
Return of Samus begins shortly after the events that unfolded in Metroid. With the Space Pirates’ base on Zebes destroyed and their plans to replicate Metroids in order to use them as bio-weapons halted, the eyes of the Galactic Federation turn towards the titular creatures themselves. Looking to completely obliterate the possibility the beings ever end up posing danger to the universe again, they opt for the most radical path: sending in extermination teams to the home planet of the species, SR388, so that the entire population is killed.
The groups, however, fail repeatedly; and, once more, the galaxy’s governing body, as a last resort, hires bounty hunter Samus Aran to do the job on her own. Armed with nothing but her standard canon, she lands on SR388 ready to blow apart the thirty-nine specimens that are believed to still float around the world’s dark caves.
On premise alone, Return of Samus reveals some uniqueness. The game that preceded it as well as nearly all installments that followed it gravitated around a central goal; usually the annihilation of a sole mighty threat. Superficially, indeed, the Game Boy effort is not different, for the existence of the Metroids is quite a menace. In spite of that, at heart, that setup breathes an air of freshness into the adventure, especially to those who are used to the most popular outings of the saga, like Super Metroid and the Metroid Prime trilogy.
Samus walks onto the planet with a killing quota that she has to meet, and a counter on the bottom of the screen constantly reminds gamers of how many creatures are still alive somewhere in the bowels of SR388. Given the hunter is only blasting out of the hostile place where she is once the deed is done, players have to track down and eliminate every single specimen.
The task of looking for thirty-nine targets inside a map as large and intricate as those generally presented by the franchise is certainly daunting; Return of Samus, however, makes that mission approachable thanks to its structure. Unlike Zebes, as seen in both the series’ debut and Super Metroid, SR388 is not composed of a bunch of thematically distinct areas; it is, actually, formed by one large cave that dives into the depths of the planet. And as Samus explores the maze, she will occasionally encounter deadly pools of lava that will stop her from advancing any further.
Smartly, these obstacles have a purpose: they work towards reducing the area where she must search, for only when all Metroids that exist up to that point are killed will the lava be drained, an occurrence gamers will be alerted of via an earthquake. Only then, therefore, will they be able to move onto the next chain of shafts and corridors.
It is a style of progression that, to a degree, is not common to the franchise. And when compared to many of the saga’s more complex entries, Return of Samus undoubtedly emerges as an experience that is more linear; after all, once gamers are done exploring an area and eliminating all targets present in it, backtracking will not be necessary unless they want to acquire optional collectibles: namely, the traditional missile expansions and extra energy tanks. Still, that does not mean the game lacks the expertly designed labyrinths Metroid is known for.
Save for the quest’s home stretch, when just a few creatures remain and developers, disappointingly so, go for simpler caves that feature slightly tricky platforming, each one of the areas uncovered whenever the lava goes away is pleasantly intricate. Various are the rooms that have multiple doors leading to distinct places, and that configuration, when allied with the fact finding all Metroids necessarily goes through doing a thorough exploration of the region, forces players to pay close attention to the paths they are following.
Furthermore, whether it is in the navigation within the region itself or in the act of advancing towards brand new areas, Return of Samus does make pretty great use of the property’s greatest staple; that is, acquiring suit upgrades and then using those new tricks to reach previously inaccessible locations. In fact, in addition to the missiles, morph ball, and bombs of the original Metroid, the Game Boy effort is responsible for the introduction of many remarkable tools that are so notable they have practically become an integral part of the character of Samus.
Not only does it bring two new kinds of beams to the table, which are entirely optional for the completion of the quest, but it also marks the debut of the spider and spring ball, which let the hunter – respectively – jump and cling onto walls when in morph ball form; and the powerful space jump, a deadly acrobatic move that besides letting Samus perform an infinite sequence of jumps is also stunningly effective in getting rid of most enemies.
Return of Samus, therefore, creates new assets and brings forth a gameplay format that is somewhat distinctive. On top of that, it also implements a handful of enhancements in comparison to its prequel. In terms of design, players will be happy to find out that walls and floors, with no weaknesses in sight, that often had to be destroyed in the prequel so that Samus could advance are gone; sadly, even if it happens in less absurd ways, they are still used relatively frequently to hide some of the extra collectibles.
Additionally, as a major relief, Samus can now crouch to shoot as well as aim downwards while executing a jump. Those features, which although very obvious were absent from the NES game, allow her to easily dispose of foes that are shorter than her, do not automatically turn floating or flying beings into living nightmares, and add great fluidity to the game’s action component, as it is possible to hop over enemies, shoot at them, and keep on moving. Moreover, the title also eliminates two major sources of frustration that overwhelmed the original Metroid: the fact that getting a game over meant having to return to the start of the area where Samus was killed with very little energy, and the lack of healing rooms.
To solve those issues, Return of Samus uses save points – a development supported by the then infant widespread use of an internal memory in the cartridges – and special spots where it is possible to fill up Samus’ health and missiles. Truthfully, those moments of relief could have been more abundant and well-placed, especially given the title’s handheld nature, and the permanent orbs that restore the hunter’s energy and missile tanks could have been less hidden given how essential they are; yet, their presence is a considerable step forward that makes Return of Samus – despite its age – palatable to modern gamers.
Unfortunately, and going against those measures towards wide accessibility, the game – perhaps due to technological limitations – simultaneously fails in dealing with a central issue that makes the original Metroid hard to get through without any sort of external help: the lack of a map.
Return of Samus does have other shortcomings, but none of them are as big as that one. The adventure’s more linear progression, for example, is a characteristic that is not inherently negative, as it is bound to please some and disappoint others. Likewise, given the thirty-nine Metroids are just minor foes, even if they are encountered in different evolutionary states that get progressively tougher, the six-hour quest is left with only one boss fight; however, that also ranks as a minor source of punctual complaints. Contrarily, the fact Return of Samus does not have a map is an unshakable hindrance, and its absence is felt much more strongly than in the original Metroid for a pair of reasons.
Firstly, because the caves of SR388 form a world that is far bigger than Zebes; secondly, because since the Game Boy does not produce colors, the caves look exactly the same for the most part. There are some shifts in textures here and there, but they are neither significant nor consistent, as there is no thematic separation between the areas that are slowly unlocked. Due to that, getting completely lost is always possible, and when the number of Metroids in the region Samus is in becomes really low, there is a good chance players will have to walk around aimlessly for a while hoping to stumble upon the last few beings, which – needless to say – can be annoying.
Metroid II: Return of Samus is, quite obviously, not the point when the property matured into the gaming juggernaut it is today, for that moment was still in its future. Nevertheless, the progress it achieves in relation to its prequel is noticeable. The adventure carries an overall design that is much smoother; introduces abilities that would go on to become major staples; puts together a larger world of equally intricate setup; and implements small improvements that, when added up, create an experience that is more pleasant and fun to go through.
Consequently, although it is hard to deny the Game Boy’s limitations and the lack of a map considerably hold the quest back, the title also represents a weird instance when the translation of gameplay from a console to a portable resulted in a superior product. And thanks to its distinct premise and ultimate goal, which give birth to a different sort of progression, Return of Samus stands as a somewhat unique take on the Metroid franchise, and its position as an overlooked entry in the series ends up being unfortunate not just to the game itself, but also to those who miss out on playing it.