Metroid II: Return of Samus released in 1991 on the Gameboy to favorable reviews. However, the superior Super Metroid, stellar Metroid Fusion, and fresh perspective of the Metroid Prime trilogy soon overshadowed it. Over the course of its life, Metroid II fell into some bizarre middle ground of mediocrity. It was not nearly as bad as the Metroid games that were ill received like Federation Force and Other M, but it could not keep pace with the best of Samus’ adventures. As a remake of Metroid II, Samus Returns should have been okay at best. Yet Mercury Stream’s latest game is Samus’ best handheld appearance to date, and one of her best games overall.
Samus Returns gets back to Metroid’s roots and gives the player a lone silent protagonist against the world. Samus has no rueful monologues, there are no bossy father figures berating her through a headset, and no fellow bounty hunters to come to her rescue. Aside from the soundtrack, which ranges from hauntingly beautiful to stressfully hectic, the only sounds in Samus Returns are the guttural growls and roars of the creatures desperately trying to kill Samus. It makes for a very lonely and unnerving experience.
Samus Returns only takes the bare minimum from its inspiration. The mission to kill the last remaining Metroids on SR388 (all forty of them) is still the same, but Mercury Stream has reinvented the planet with a fresh layout that features additional rooms, new types of enemies, and bosses never seen in Metroid II. The game constantly kept me on my toes as I learned, very quickly, that my knowledge of the original game was pretty useless. This version of SR388 is much bigger and significantly deadlier. Enemies actively pursue Samus with lethal ferocity and deal out more damage than they did in the original Metroid II.
To deal with these new threats, Samus is equipped with some new powers this time around. Some are pulled from her later adventures, like the Grapple Beam and Super Missiles, but her four new Aeion abilities are entirely unique. Her first Aeion ability, Scan Pulse, is especially helpful, as it reveals hidden rooms and breakable blocks in Samus’ vicinity. Personally, I enjoyed using Beam Burst the most, an Aeion ability that temporarily transforms Samus’ cannon into a rapid-fire machine gun. These abilities run on energy that Samus can collect from defeated enemies or find in the world.
Samus can also freely fire from any angle and melee counter enemies. I was a little apprehensive of both abilities at the start. They slow Samus down a lot. Samus cannot even melee counter unless she is standing still and waiting for the enemies to come to her. However, it quickly becomes clear that both are included to give the player a fighting chance in the early hours of the game. Samus starts the game much weaker than her foes, and waiting to counter or carefully aiming from cover are the best tools Samus initially has at her disposal.
This changes as the game goes on, and the player will notice that their slow, careful approach at Samus Returns’ start is eventually overcome for a faster, reactionary play style. For example, at the game’s start there was a room where I had to cross some lava. I waited for a flying enemy to approach, countered them back after they swooped at me, froze them with the Ice Beam, and hopscotched my way across. I ran into a similar room much later in the game, but this time, after running into the room and taking the split second to see what I was dealing with, I leapt up, used the Grapple Beam to swing across, activated Beam Burst, and, while still in the air, shot down all the enemies behind me. I landed on the other side of the lava bed no worse for wear and was already through the door into the next room before I had a chance to collect all the health orbs the enemies had dropped.
Samus Returns is divided into these two halves: the beginning where the player must play conservatively, and the end where the player can afford to play much more quickly. There is a bit of a muddled area about halfway into the game where the world and enemies demand the player react with a bit more speed and power, and Samus does not have the abilities to do either. However, that part only lasts for about ten minutes, as unlocking a new Aeion ability soon kickstarts the latter, faster half of her adventure.
I know there will be quite a few gamers who scoff at Samus Returns initially forcing the player to go slow. I did the same. It is rather counterintuitive to the franchise’s speed running roots. However, it works surprisingly well within the Metroid formula, as it adds a layer of progression that I have not seen in a Metroid game since Fusion implemented something similar with its assimilation of linear fear.
Samus’ growth from survivalist at Samus Returns’ start, to badass bounty hunter at the game’s end feels good and natural. Most Metroid games have you watch Samus become stronger by simply giving her stronger variations of her starting tools. However, the gameplay largely stays the same throughout, with Samus just being able to deal more damage with the same types of weapons. Samus Returns makes the player feel that change by forcing them to rely on one set of unfamiliar mechanics at the start, and then slowly learn to incorporate and grow beyond that reliance as Samus unlocks more familiar, and powerful, tools.
This fresh perspective into Samus’ growth is all wrapped up into a beautiful 3D package that looks and sounds good, features tight controls, and integrates the best enemies and abilities Metroid has to offer. Reimagined levels and frighteningly unique bosses brings a fresh face to an old formula, and promotes Samus Returns as the go-to example that all video game remakes should strive for. The game hits a ten-minute hiccup halfway through, and players may find their left thumb sore from needing to constantly free aim in the game’s opening hours, but Metroid: Samus Returns is a masterpiece that heralds the return of one of gaming’s biggest icons.