Charting the differences: Samus Returns versus Metroid II
While it remains largely faithful to spirit of the original, MercurySteam's remake practically feels like a entirely new game.
Game remakes typically go one of two directions. The first — the faithful audio-visual overhaul that does little to refine or update the source material — is best embodied by Square Enix's Mana series remakes (assuming Adventures of Mana is the bellwether for the entire lineup) or Wonder Boy: The Dragon's Trap. The second approach — the comprehensive top-to-bottom overhaul of the original work — tends to be more common. Some of my personal favorites in this category include Etrian Odyssey Untold (which added an expanded storyline, new dungeons, and supplementary mechanics), Bionic Commando Rearmed (which added new stage, bosses, and a plotline, and tweaked or rebalanced the entire game), and Falcom's Ys remakes like The Oath in Felghana (which are often barely recognizable as the original titles), but there are countless others to pick from.
Among all the remakes I've ever played, few have straddled the balance between those two directions quite so deftly as Nintendo's Game Boy Advance remake of the original Metroid, Zero Mission. Built in a recognizable fashion atop the layout of the NES game, Zero Mission also added a great deal of additional structure (a more guided flow to the critical path, new areas and powers to master, more intricate moment-to-moment design within the existing map layout) as well as quality-of-life gameplay improvements adopted from Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion. It was, without question, a massive and necessary upgrade to a once-cutting-edge game that time had left behind.
I've now spent a few hours with the second official Metroid remake, Samus Returns, which rebuilds Metroid II for Game Boy from scratch. It reminds me in many ways of Zero Mission in the way it updates the visuals and audio to contemporary portable standards, and in how it integrates play mechanics from later Metroid games into a 25-year-old adventure (including some elements from the benighted Other M). That said, Samus Returns skews far more heavily toward the "comprehensive top-to-bottom overhaul" side of the remake ledger than Zero Mission did.
I had intended to tackle Metroid II as part of my game-mapping live stream series Cart-ography before Samus Returns arrived as a sort of mental refresher. Due to some technical issues, though, I didn't manage to conduct the first Metroid II mapping stream until after a review copy of Samus Returns had arrived:
As a result, I ended up going back to Metroid II after playing part of the remake rather than using it for a wholly preparatory approach. This has unexpectedly given me a far greater appreciation of how radically Samus Returns diverges from Metroid II's design. It's definitely a remake of the older game, in that you begin on the surface of planet SR-388 and venture into the planet with Samus Aran to wipe out 39 (or rather, 39 with an asterisk) metroids. Beyond that, though, the remake throws out nearly everything about Metroid II save the broad strokes.
In fact, I found the difference between the two games so striking upon returning to the Game Boy original after making it past the second "earthquake barrier" (the point where caustic water subsides to open new passages once you defeat a set number of metroids) in Samus Returns that, as a sort of thought exercise, I decided to manually map out the new game's first area to compare it against the same section of the original. With the two worlds presented side-by-side in this fashion, I find it's much easier to appreciate just how much of the original game Samus Returns throws out… and how much it adds.
For reference, here's the first section of Metroid II: Everything from the surface to the first earthquake barrier.
Now, here's the equivalent portion of the quest in Samus Returns.
You can disregard the scale issues with the remake's surface exterior area (Samus Returns seemingly zooms the camera in slightly on the surface for dramatic effect, which distorts the one-screen-per-grid-space approach); in practice, what you have here amounts to two very different takes on the same game world.
Again, you can see the similarities in the broad strokes: You begin on the surface and descend while advancing to the right. You'll find a fluid barrier preventing your descent to the next zone in the lower right portion of the map, so you need to destroy the alpha metroid at the lower left in order to advance. But from those basics, Samus Returns plays almost like a different game altogether; Metroid II presented a simple, direct march to each objective, while the remake builds dense, Zero Mission-like navigational puzzles into each step of the way.
In fact, "dense" is probably the best word to describe Samus Returns's design. The environments abandon the original game's linear, corridor-like layouts in favor of one-way routes and alternate paths. Many of the game's doors can't immediately be accessed from the direction in which you first encounter them and have to be navigated around by bombing floors or finding other secrets.
Consider the route from the earthquake barrier to the first metroid in each game. In Metroid II, that involves a simple path: Left, down, left.
If Samus Returns worked the same way, the route to the alpha metroid would be equally simple and direct.
That's not how it goes, though. The door that leads directly to the metroid, marked in dark purple one level below the item marked "Scan Pulse," requires a charged shot to be opened. However, you don't acquire the charge beam power-up until after you destroy the metroid. So you have to take a more circuitous route, then use the direct route to return to the barrier area… but only after a side excursion to collect the charge beam.
You can see how drastically this changes the experience. The challenge in Metroid II largely stemmed from trying to keep track of your current location amidst a vast landscape of repetitive monochrome structures; Samus Returns gives SR-388 an elaborate facelift and an automap, so orienteering is no longer a problem. There's even a teleporter located in each zone (the green T-shape on the hand-drawn map) that allows you to easily zip back and forth between areas, a much-needed addition to the classic Metroid formula. So now the challenge comes from complexity. You no longer struggle to figure out where you are but rather how you're getting to where you need to go.
On top of that, you can see just how much has been added to this one small segment of the game. The only points of interest along the way to Metroid II's first alpha encounter appeared in the metroid's lair: A pair of recharge depots. Here, in addition to those spots, this one excursion yields an extra save station, several missile expansions, an energy tank upgrade, the charge beam, and the Scan Pulse "aion" power. Neither the charge beam nor the Scan Pulse (which allows you to send out a radar wave to detect hidden rooms and objects nearby) appeared in Metroid II at all. It's also worth noting that while Samus began Metroid II already in possession of 30 missiles and the morph ball, here you need to find the morph ball en route to the first metroid. In return, though, she begins the adventure with the ledge grab skill that she canonically learned in Zero Mission — a power she lacked her first time through this adventure.
Also new here from the original game: Doors. The only doors that appeared in Metroid II were the red (well, "red") ones that could only be opened with five missiles. Otherwise, the interior of SR-388 took the form of a free-flowing series of caverns with momentary loading transitions between individual sections but no hard barriers. The addition of standard Metroid-style bubble doors here doesn't simply help make a game that's always been an aesthetic outlier to the series feel more like its kin, it has also allowed the designers to create more involved navigational challenges. Besides the doors that can only be opened with charged shots, I've also encountered doors barred by a variety of weird life forms (purple eyeball creatures or green foliage) as well as doors whose power supply has been cut off and won't work until Samus gets the lights working again. On top of that, SR-388's interior has now been divided into standalone zones connected by elevators, as in every other 2D Metroid game.
MercurySteam and Nintendo have done a great job of upgrading the overall layout and feel of Metroid II to make it into more of a proper entry in the series. While there was something appealing about the way the original version felt so unlike any other chapter of the series — it felt more like a descent into the unknown wilderness of an uncharted planet rather than a journey through someone else's abandoned ruins (which is very much the aesthetic the environmental artists have gone for in Samus Returns) — this more deliberate format plays a lot better. I've been pining for a proper Metroid II remake since Zero Mission, but I wouldn't have dreamed we'd ever see so comprehensive an environmental and mechanical overhaul as Samus Returns offers.
That said, I'm not certain I'm completely smitten with this remake. I'm still coming to terms with the much-vaunted melee counter system, in which the optimal way to fight nearly every single creature in the game is to let it charge aggressively at Samus and stun it for an instant kill with a properly timed retaliatory strike. I see what MercurySteam was going for, I think, but so far I've found it can be a distraction and often bogs down exploration and backtracking with the need to engage in the same semi-passive ritual any time you encounter a monster.
At the moment, though, I'm only a couple of hours into the adventure and have acquired only a fraction of Samus's skills (not to mention only shot down barely more than half a dozen metroids). There's still plenty more game to be seen and conquered, and I'm definitely invested enough in this beautiful, thoughtful, and much-needed remake to give its new combat mechanic more time to grow on me. For now, I'll keep exploring (and mapping) this great new-ish addition to the Metroid saga and see how it all shakes out once everything's said and done.