I remember buying Metroid II: Return of Samus in response to a dare — not one set by a friend or even a malicious uncle; this challenge came from my own curiosity. I can’t remember exactly where I read it, but I recall a magazine at the time describing the final boss battle as one you could be ill-prepared for, that you could fail, by not having collected enough missiles during your adventure. Challenge accepted.
Fresh from conquering Koholint in The Legend of Zelda: Link’s Awakening, and nowhere close to besting Probotector (the PAL version of Operation C (the Game Boy version of Contra)), the idea of a Nintendo-developed game that looked to combine my desire for baddie blasting with a cool space-faring main character and Zelda’s secret-stuffed world stylings seemed like a perfect fit for my impressionable, not-yet-ten-years-old self. Little did I know I was buying into a labyrinth, and not the cool David-Bowie-ruled sort that my older sister would soon be heavily into…
After a few hours of very successful Metroid mulching and power-up procuring I was feeling rather good about myself. Easy, I thought foolishly. I remember being impressed by Samus’ nice chunky sprite—the Probotector lads were teeny in comparison; this was like going from Super Mario Land to 6 Golden Coins in terms of a glow up. Looking back today it’s remarkable how this tiny Game Boy game does such a good job of making SR388 imposing. The soundtrack, in particular, was powerful stuff. Beginning in heroic fashion as Samus leaves her ship, objective clear and gun arm ready, the audio quickly turns into confused mystery before slipping into something altogether more oppressive as our heroine delves deeper into the planet’s catacombs and further away from the safety of her ship.
The soundtrack for this game is weird. I love it when Metroid is weird.
Anyway, I got lost. Of course I did; the Game Boy’s 160 x 144 display can’t show a lot, and that’s before you factor in the extra objective of getting enough light on the dim thing to even consider playing it. Hardware aside though, the Spider Ball was principally responsible for my problematic pathfinding. For all of its good efforts to make the most of the handheld’s smaller screen space (the way it let the team place exits anywhere without cluttering the screen with platforms is actually genius) the actual act of finding the gaps you could squeak Samus’ trademark Morph Ball through was, well, not easy.
I remember being stuck in an area with only a few Metroids on my counter, traipsing from left to right time and time again. This wasn’t Zelda; I couldn’t nip to a friendly town and speak to some NPCs for hints. This was a hostile alien planet that I was trying to navigate in order to exterminate a threat to galactic peace. I didn’t mind that I was stuck, but it wasn’t the most riveting gameplay to scrub the walls and ceilings over and over.
But I did, and I truly didn’t mind. It became a ritual every month or so to pop Metroid II in and try to find that elusive crevice. And when I didn’t find the route forward? I don’t know; it was just cool to blast the beasts in the area while humming along to that creepy theme. It was quaint to traipse back through the map to see if there were any more supplies to scoop up (I knew I needed enough missiles for the final battle, after all). Sometimes I’d just start from the beginning and play up to that point again, just because. It was an alien planet; I was fine not knowing the way forward, as I didn’t know where I was, and as far as I could tell the Metroids shouldn’t want me to find them. In my Metroid headcanon, the X Parasite almost wasn’t an issue through sheer incompetence.
This went on for months. I think it might have even been about a year and a half following my initial purchase of the game (I really had the Chozo Ruins music down by this point) when the impossible happened; I stumbled upon the route. This was satisfaction distilled. That moment is why I prefer to play adventures with waypoints off; why I prefer to let my eyes linger on a puzzle rather than dive for GameFAQs, if that’s still a relevant site to bring up in 2020. I did guide writing for a bit actually, around 2013, and even when I was telling people how to do things I preferred to focus on hints first—I hate to think of players getting robbed of those eurekas that make exploring a game world so satisfying.
Needless to say, I sat with Metroid II for the rest of that day to see it through, my brain so overloaded on dopamine that the second half of Metroid II is still all a bit of a blur. Queenie wasn’t even much of a challenge at the end of it all, as I wound up over-prepared thanks to my intense probing of the map’s early caverns. At that point, though, it still felt as if I’d climbed my gaming Everest.
This experience burned Metroid into my brain as a class act, of course. It can’t be overstated just how rewarding it is to work at a game for so long and eventually overcome whatever has you stumped, but I wouldn’t have stuck around if the game hadn’t been so entertaining in its fundamentals, and that’s always been a strength of Nintendo. The blasting was already fun, and the movement felt good—that made exploring fun, even if progress was slow.
This experience with Metroid II also made two truths apparent to me, something I appreciate anew as I look back on it. First, it doesn’t matter how lost you are; the answer to your problem could be one more close inspection away, and sometimes even the most hopeless of projects just needs a fresh perspective to work out—quite an apt outlook to take if we consider Metroid Prime 4’s somewhat troubled development.
Second, games are about a vibe as much as anything else. Metroid II: Return of Samus is set on a hostile alien planet, and it feels like that in every aspect of its design, especially the level design: I shouldn’t be able to easily navigate this place, and even adding things that might frustrate players can help make a world feel more real. This isn’t to say I think Metroid games should always be this way, or that I view Metroid II as some high watermark of ‘Metroidvania’ design—far from it. I’m just saying that this was the vibe that I believe Metroid II was shooting for, and the team at Nintendo, even on a 160 x 144 dot matrix display, nailed that vibe. Maybe achieving that was their own dare that they set themselves…
Anyway, regardless of its inception, and ignoring the kind of bad rap that this labyrinth of a game gets nowadays due to how tricky it can still be to play (even though all of our screens now have more than ample lighting), Metroid II: Return of Samus is why I’m a fan of the Metroid series, and it remains one of the Game Boy games I have the fondest memories of. It might not have been the specific challenge I accepted when I first clunked that cartridge into my Game Boy, but I’m still glad I tackled the task it presented. My gaming tastes could have been remarkably different had I not embraced the joys of getting lost.
Written by Dalagonash