3.5 out of 5. While it lacks the improvements its successors pioneered, it's still a masterclass example of horror and atmosphere, especially given its limitations.
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SPOILER WARNING

Because of its integral part in the Metroid story, I will be talking about the game's ending in this review. If you've played Super Metroid, you already know what happens based on the first minute of its intro. If you haven't been spoiled somehow, then I highly recommend playing this game blind and skipping the spoiler paragraph in this review.

How Metroidvania is it? Medium Fit. The game is divided into segments that can be fully completed before moving forward, so no backtracking. However each segment could be described as Metroidvania-like
Primary Challenge: Ranged Combat
Time to beat: ~5 hours
Review Info: Metroid II: Return of Samus was played on the Nintendo 3DS using the Virtual Console.

More Info

Developer: Nintendo
Publisher: Nintendo
Sub-genre: Metroid-Like
Features: 2D Platformer, Ranged Combat, Environmental Storytelling, Horror
Difficulty: Medium, High
Linearity/Openness: High Gating - No Handholding
Platforms: Gameboy, 3DS
Release Date: 1991/11/02
Available Languages: English, Japanese

Store Links

    Amazon    Nintendo eShop    

Buy Metroid II : Return of Samus if you like…

  • Atmospheric Horror
  • Wordless Storytelling
  • Hunting
  • More Linear Level Design
  • Seeing Metroid's Story Roots

▼ Review continues below ▼

The second entry in the Metroid series makes its way onto the monochromatic and unlit screen of the original Gameboy. Even though there is no color and the camera is zoomed in, Metroid II: Return of Samus is a major improvement on the original Metroid, and it is an important launching point for the themes of the series going forward. I’m not going to try and hide the fact that I have a significant amount of nostalgic bias going into this game; it was, for all intents and purposes, my first “Metroidvania” game, which I played back in the 1990s. So, unfortunately, I am unable to provide any insight on what it’s like to play this game for the first time after experiencing all of the game design developments since its release. I am not blind to its archaic combat design and obtuse progression points, but I think there’s more to this game than just the gameplay. Metroid II: Return of Samus takes its limitations and creates a chilling atmosphere and a somber story about xenocidal murder, and in this sense it’s a work of art.

The story behind Metroid II, according to the manual, is that the Galactic Federation sent a research group to planet SR388 to make sure no more Metroids were living there. An accident occurred confirming that the Metroids were there and more dangerous than ever, and the news and subsequent panic spread fast throughout the galaxy. In response, the Federation hired the bounty hunter Samus to deal with the situation again. Her directive: kill every single Metroid and bring about the extinction of the species.

Pulling away from looking at the game for a minute, and thinking just about the narrative, this setup portrays Samus as a professional killer. Taking down the Metroids is just another job; Samus is a glorified exterminator. The initial music as you enter the first caves of SR388 is pleasant, like the type of thing a contractor would listen to while preparing for their routine. For the player (if you haven’t read the instruction manual), you’ve got little to go by except to just explore. If you’re astute you’ll notice that you have a Metroid counter, and when you encounter and kill your first Metroid, that counter goes down. So to win, you just have to kill them all.

The Metroid counter drives the progression into the game, because for some reason the number of Metroids in existence determines the level of acid that blocks Samus’ path forward. The game is thus divided into segments based on killing a specific number of Metroids, and every secret can be found in each section before going forward. Because of this, arguments are made that Metroid II isn’t really a Metroidvania, which isn’t unfair, but compared to the first game, all of the same ability upgrades are there and then some. While you only really need three upgrades to beat the game, the others make doing so a lot easier. This is especially true since Missiles are required to defeat Metroids, so finding ammo upgrades is more important than ever. Therefore, within each section you’ll be doing a lot of Metroidvania style exploration.

The first Metroid you encounter sheds its iconic appearance and attacks you as a floating bug-like thing, indicating that what you encountered in Metroid 1 was not their final form. As you progress to kill more than 35 other Metroids, they grow into more and more difficult creatures, keeping the fights diverse. However, the Metroids in general don’t have particularly well-designed attack patterns. Generally speaking their main tactic is personal space violation, which in a game about ranged combat with an extra zoomed in screen and no dodge button, it can get pretty frustrating. The primary strategy against every evolved Metroid encounter is getting them stuck on terrain somewhere so you can safely hit them without them being able to get too close. The required missile-only kill method can also add to the frustration, especially since later Metroid forms can take more than 20 missiles to defeat. Finding a Metroid and running out of missiles is as certain a failure as losing all of your life, except the only recourse is to grind out more missiles or to go find a refill station.

Thankfully there are refill stations though, unlike the first game where relying on enemy drop RNG was the only option. Keeping a mental map of where you found one will save you a lot of time in the long run, even if it means backtracking a little bit to do it. It could be argued that this design choice supports the exploration aspect of the game, since your success relies on making the environment your own. In practice it still made me want a map system so I didn’t have to make my own or look up someone else’s just because I ran out of missiles. I didn’t generally want to spend 10 minutes mugging local insects hoping that they’re able to supply them for me, even if this is what I did as a kid. Looking at just the designs surrounding the combat, Metroid II definitely falls short of modern developments, and this aspect is likely going to be a deal breaker for anyone who didn’t grow up with this game.

In survival horror games often the argument is made that limiting the player’s ability to deal with the game’s monsters adds to the tension, and could be considered a pro on the game design. I’m going to make that argument here. Even though you’re the hunter, Metroids are scary, and the intro to their battle music is stark and startling. Especially once Metroids start to grow bigger, just running into one unprepared is going to put your health at critical level, if not kill you. Metroids are often telegraphed by showing their shed skin before you walk into their lair. Using these hints, once you suspect that a Metroid is nearby, you’ll be creeping slowly toward them so you can get the drop on them instead of visa versa. These environmental telegraphs are used beautifully in this way, but they even use them to play on your expectations occasionally, which is ground-breaking for a dot-matrix game from the 90s.

Adding to this horror-like atmosphere is the music, or rather lack of it. Metroid II conveys its alien world with its sounds more than anything. In most cases outside of the main path deeper into the planet, all you will hear are ambient clicking sounds or indications of otherworldly creatures that surround you. Of course as you get even deeper these noises get more menacing, and the build up to the final encounter is still burned into my brain as one of the most memorable gaming experiences of my childhood.

The final boss fight is the exception to the poor combat of this game, and still stands as one of the best in the Metroid series – in my opinion. Every element of its design is nearly perfect; it has a distinct pattern you can react to, multiple weakpoints and strategies, and even has an escape route if you want to run like a sissy when things go south. Even with all this said, it’s hard if you don’t know some of its tricks. Parts of the final Metroid’s body are more resilient than others, and just firing away at it will take your entire stock of missiles to defeat it, and that’s only if you’ve found over 200 missiles along your way. It truly is the perfect capstone for the entire game, but it’s what happens after your Metroid counter hits zero that sets the tone for the rest of the Metroid series.

Metroid II is a story about murder. Technically your quarry in this game is completely innocent; beings that induced fear simply by existing and being what they are. Even though the manual states that the Galactic federation put the matter under serious consideration, it’s still Xenocide. The mere fact that Samus was willing to do it in the first place exposes her as merely a cold job taker – and subsequent lore expansion even suggests it may have been motivated by revenge. The player’s motives likely reflect this narrative; you just have to get your Metroid counter to zero to win, right?

However, in the quiet moments after a loud and raging battle, when your blood is most likely going to be filled with burning adrenaline, you encounter a single egg. Out of the egg, a single Metroid hatches. The music that plays at this point is somber, yet hopeful. Perhaps allegorically, you need this Metroid in order to exit the cave at all, since it removes the obstacles blocking your path back to your spaceship, where you quietly leave.

There’s a lot going on in this ending, though none of it is said with words, and all of it comes from what the player brings into the experience. Why, after a game about hunting monsters, are you required to rescue one Metroid, as dangerous as they are? If you’ve played Super Metroid, it doesn’t take 5 minutes into that game to realize that it was a mistake. Did Samus just think that the galaxy could benefit from Metroid research? Or perhaps, was it an act of mercy driven by guilt? These are all ideas that could be expanded upon in future games for the series, and with Super Metroid at least, it was. I like that in the Super Metroid recap of this scene they added Samus pointing her gun at the Metroid, as if she had every intention of killing it, and hesitated.


Metroid II’s ending and legacy is something that could be the subject of specific analysis, which is something I intend to do at a future point in time once I’ve experienced every game that came after it. As a standalone incident within its own game though, its a thought-provoking juxtaposition against what is, for all intents and purposes, a horror game. Some players have called the ending lame and boring, and that may be all you get out of it – everything I’m saying here being merely pretentious.

For me though, Metroid II will always be special. Even with the various remakes available there’s something to be said for what the designers were able to accomplish within the limitations available to them. It’s not the most inviting game for modern audiences, but it’s still more accessible than the original Metroid. If you’re just after the cliff notes, then skipping straight to Super Metroid is an option since the most important matters are recapped nicely there. Whether I think the remakes are adequate replacements is something I will cover in my reviews of those games. But, I think if you go into the original Metroid II: Return of Samus knowing what to expect – a game about atmosphere and tension, and narrative – you may find something enjoyable. And perhaps, even something special to you as well.


Final Score

3.5/5

Scoring system overview


Metroidvania Breakdown

Combat
– 2.5

For most of the game your main strategy will be cheesing Metroids on level architecture, but the final boss is very good

Platforming
– 2.5

Like many Gameboy games the camera is zoomed in very close, making platforming a little wonky - but functional

Exploration
– 3.5

Not having a map will have you very lost, but there are a ton of goodies to be found - many of which are crucial to long term success.

Puzzle
– 2.5

There really aren't any ''puzzles'' to mention

Story
– 4

The most important events for subsequent Metroid games occurs in this game, and its execution is nearly flawless for being a gameboy game.

Graphics
– 4

Environments feel truly alien, and Metroids are highly detailed

Music
– 4

Often there's no music at all, just ambient alien sounds, and it's fantastic.

Replayability
– 3

There are minor rewards for speedrunning the game