Metroid II: An Appreciation

There really aren’t too many games released for Game Boy that get a lot of shine these days. The first-generation Pokemon games are glaring exceptions to this, as is Link’s Awakening, but for the most part, time and the nostalgia machine have moved on from the system. This is pretty understandable – even the best titles released for Game Boy are ‘compressed’ versions (or janky ports) of games already released on console. Games such as Super Mario Land, Mega Man: Dr. Wily’s Revenge, and Final Fantasy Adventure are fine enough on their own merits, but hampered by the Game Boy’s limitations and therefore not remembered as fondly as their console-based counterparts.

Metroid II occupies a curious space in this landscape. It resides fully in the shadow of its successor, the incomparable Super Metroid, and as such is regarded as a footnote, the game that was released before the release of the game people actually care about. And that’s a shame, because Metroid II is a vital bridge between the original Metroid for NES, and its genre-defying follow-up.

Metroid II was released on Game Boy in 1991, a full five years after the release of Metroid on NES. The first game in the Metroid series is fun enough, but it’s also deeply flawed in the sense that it was designed in a radically different time for adventure games. It makes very few concessions to the player, if any. Secret passages containing necessary items are placed in weird locations, the map itself is kind of repetitive, and the only way to determine where you should be going and what you should be looking for is by getting stuck. Sometimes, the only way to find what’s next is to shoot at all the walls and see what happens. It’s also quite difficult, and the jump physics are a little wonky. All of this was par for the course then but is deeply off-putting to modern sensibilities. (This is also true of The Legend of Zelda, its contemporary and most natural point of comparison. However, the first Zelda game is more polished, and holds up better as a result.) By all means, play Metroid, but do so at your own risk, and with some idea of what you’re getting into.

Metroid II, when it is mentioned at all, is typically lumped in with the first game with little mention of what it brings to the table. While not as fully realized as Super Metroid, Metroid II is still an evolutionary leap past the original. The jump physics are immensely tightened up. You can shoot in four directions instead of three, and you can also crouch to shoot enemies at ground level. When you get stuck, the game makes it clear what item you will need in order to progress, and that item is never too far away. In addition, the narrow, repetitive corridors of the first Metroid are replaced with vast caverns to explore, poke around, and get lost in.

In addition, the structure of the game is such that it is always clear what area you should be exploring. The central conceit of the game is that you are hunting Metroids on their home planet, the areas of which only open up after you have destroyed all of the Metroids of the section you are in. If an area contains any powerups that are necessary later in the game, certain Metroids in that area will be placed in locations that require those powerups. In other words, the area design is tightly and smarty constructed to ensure that there’s no way to advance past an area without getting everything you need.

The amount of powerups available is also vastly increased; the first time I played Metroid II, I was routinely astonished to find items I didn’t think even existed in the series until Super Metroid. To name just one such example, the friggin’ Space Jump, which lets you ‘fly’ by continually jumping in midair, is in Metroid II. Who would’ve guessed? Metroid II also has the Spider Ball, which allows you to climb up walls and ceilings, and is just about the coolest thing in the universe and adds a whole entire dimension to exploration. If Super Metroid has any flaw, it’s that it doesn’t have the Spider Ball.

The best thing about Metroid II though, is that Metroid II is scary. Excellent atmosphere is a hallmark of the Metroid series, but the games themselves aren’t all that scary, really. Your sprite is too small relative to the rest of the screen for ambushes to be effective, limiting the potential for jump scares. Metroid II makes the relatively small screen space of the Game Boy into an advantage by making your sprite huge relative to the screen itself. This means that when you run into Metroids, you often do so with little warning, and with little room to maneuver or reposition yourself. In addition, you need missiles to defeat Metroids, and missile refills themselves are few and far between. So are health refills. This claustrophobia and scarcity of resources combine to make Metroid II a sort of proto-survival horror game. Fights with Metroids, particularly later in the game, are tense. It’s thrilling.

In conclusion, play Metroid II. It’s both a forgotten landmark of its genre and a unique entry in said genre. It’s fun as hell, and it needs more shine.

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