Saturday, October 9, 2010

Metroid II: Return of Samus

Half a decade after the abominable first Metroid game, Nintendo finally opted to release a follow-up. This was odd in the sense that most sequels tended to come out only a year or two after the original game's release. For instance, Super Mario Bros. was followed by its sequel a mere year later. Ditto virtually every other game that warranted a sequel. So why did Metroid II take so long to come out? And...Game Boy? It's on the Game Boy?

5 Years Later.At first the idea of putting the first sequel to a franchise-worthy game (in terms of popularity...obviously not quality) exclusively on a big gray and green paperweight seems moronic. But on further reflection, it just might be genius. Consider all the people who were reluctant to invest in a Game Boy. It's too big, drains batteries too fast, doesn't play in color...apart from its portability it really didn't have much going for it. And by 1991 the system could only really boast Tetris and Super Mario Land, and we all know that wasn't much to brag about. So really, by putting Metroid II on the Game Boy, Nintendo was forcing fans to go out and buy the system if they didn't already own it. Pretty tricky stuff, eh?

The story of Metroid II takes place some vague length of time from the first game. In that first game you destroyed the Space Pirate base on Zebes and killed Mother Brain, their freaky leader-in-a-jar. In doing so you helped prevent them from experimenting with metroids to their nefarious ends, and the Galactic Federation (the "good guys" who hired you) decide metroids are too dangerous a species to have alive in the galaxy. So they start sending teams of troopers to planet SR388, which they have determined is the metroid homeworld. These troopers were assigned to eliminate the metroids, but all got killed on the planet. So Samus is hired to go to SR388 and do the job herself, and be quick about it. So let me make this abundantly clear: your goal in Metroid II is to commit genocide as efficiently as possible.

Metroidmorphosis.To that end you have some sort of device that I guess can read metroid energy signatures or something. It tells you how many metroids are left alive on the planet, so you know at any given time how close you are to successfully murdering a species. But when you first encounter the bodies of metroids in the game, which doesn't take long, you'll notice that they are empty. That is, the jellyfish-like shell is there, but there is nothing inside. You can even jump in yourself if you're feeling that demented. And this is because apparently the metroids you that you had come to know from the first game were just the larval stage of the organism. So you will encounter what are known as Alpha Metroids, which fly around trying to headbutt you and are immune to any weapon but missiles. Occasionally, as above, you can even catch them emerging from their shells. It seems a novel concept, and while I can't really complain about not having something latch onto my head incessantly, the whole thing just feels totally out of place and bizarre.

On that note, the entire layout of the game is different than might be expected. Whereas the first Metroid was just open-ended and had you explore everywhere to find powerups that might let you into new areas, Metroid II is far more linear. At the beginning of the game, only certain metroids are accessible to you, because acid blocks your way to all other areas. Upon killing every metroid you can, an earthquake occurs. This earthquake will remove some of the acid that had been in your way, revealing a little more of the game world, with more metroids there to kill. Killing them removes more of the acid, and so forth. The first game was all about finding powerups and trying to locate Mother Brain, but this is just an exercise in "find the metroids in this area, then proceed to the next" over and over until the last bit of the game. It's not necessarily a bad thing; it just feels odd and never stops feeling odd the entire game.

Room to jump.That's not to say that powerups aren't a big part of Metroid II as well. Every powerup from the first game makes a return in Metroid II, with the exception of the morph ball (which you start with) and the long shot (which is unnecessary because your shots now actually travel the length of screen to begin with...imagine that). It also adds a few new powerups, all of which are helpful and interesting. The spring ball allows you to jump in morph ball mode, which relieves a lot of the tedium of trying to propel yourself with bombs. The spider ball allows you to cling to walls and travel on ceilings. The space jump allows you to jump in midair repeatedly, and when combined with the screw attack makes you virtually invincible when leaping. There are also two new beams: the spazer and the plasma beam. The spazer splits your shot in three ways making it easier to hit targets, while the plasma beam burns through enemies, crossing the length of the screen unhindered by enemies or walls, killing everything in its wake. You can still only hold one weapon at a time though, so there is some planning involved. And as you can see, perhaps the greatest powerup improvement is the fact that the statues holding them can now actually be jumped over. Gone are the days of being stuck behind a giant stone bird. Thank goodness.

It just Zeta missile.As you progress through the game, you'll start to see further incarnations of the metroids. You'll enter a room with an Alpha Metroid only to see it grow in size, gain armor in the back (making it only vulnerable from the front or below), and a big swinging electric tentacle. Thus you fight your first Gamma Metroid, and soon thereafter every metroid you find is of this harder variety, which also take twice as many missiles to kill. Then you'll see the Gamma transform as well, growing legs, having the tentacle turn into a tail, sporting a distinctive head. This is the Zeta Metroid, which takes twice the missiles to kill as the Gamma did, is only vulnerable from the front, and spits balls of fire at you. I'm going to go on record as saying that by now any claim these creatures had to the name "metroid" is gone completely. Now it's closer a floating space toddler. What happened to the standard metroids? I never thought I'd miss them, but sheesh.

So it doesn't help when the Zeta Metroids then transform yet again into the Omega Metroids. They look the same really, except that they're a lot bigger, spit bigger balls of plasma, try to run into you a lot, and take 50% more missiles to kill than the Zeta. That's six times more missiles than the Alpha Metroids took to kill, if you've been keeping track. Ridiculous.

Device of saving.Which is why it's wonderful that this game made a few really key improvements to the series. First, the game actually had a save feature. While the first Metroid had a save system, it only existed in Japan. America had a bulky password system that only showed you your password when you died. If you were out of time to play, but far enough in the game, you had to sit there in acid for 5 minutes killing yourself just so you could continue later. Metroid II eliminates these issues with the save post. Just stand on one and save your game instantly and completely. Man, it's so simple. And not only that! But the first thing you might notice when you start the game is your health. It's at 99. That's right folks, you actually start the game off with full life. Amazing. And loading a save file puts you at whatever life you had when you saved. Brilliant. Moreover, in various spots in the game are energy and missile refills. Touching either will max out your supply of that item. So you don't even have to sit there grinding life in increments of 5 anymore. You can also now shoot directly below you when in midair, which you will use a lot throughout. You can even fire while crouched. While these improvements are fantastic, their inclusion doesn't make Metroid II a great game. Rather, they're all so simple and obvious that it just makes the first Metroid game look even more atrocious in retrospect for not having them.

And speaking of not having something, you know what else the first game didn't have? A freaking map. Know what Metroid II still doesn't have? A freaking map. Oh sure, the game is more linear, harder to get lost. If you're stuck you at least know where to be looking for stuff. But give me a damn map already. Stop trying to make me buy Nintendo Power to actually see how to get around the place. And don't act like selling magazines wasn't your goal this time as well. We know where you put that map.

So anyway, after you maplessly find your way to the lair of the Metroid Queen, you finally encounter some of the "standard" metroids again. And at first you feel nostalgic and relieved, because these are the guys you remember. But you'll quickly be pissed off, because these are the guys you remember. They'll latch onto your head too quickly for you to react, take multiple bombs to get off, reattach in less than a second...and they're still immune to everything but the ice beam. Good grief. On second thought I didn't miss you folks at all. At least this time around Nintendo put another ice beam right next to them so it's easy enough to reacquire. There's also a save point and an energy/missile refill there. Ain't it funny what common sense design can do for a game.

Too far.Common sense clearly didn't apply to the Queen though. So you're saying that metroids will, if given the time and resources, evolve into giant bony dragon dogs who spit gobs of plasma at anything that comes near? I call shenanigans. And naturally it's not weak to ice. None of the other metroid "evolutions" were, after all. So instead you get to pound its face with stupid amounts of missiles. And you have less room to maneuver than you'd think looking at that picture, because the Queen pretty regularly sticks her big head out and waves it around. The good news is if you nail it in the mouth with a missile, you can roll your ball into its throat and down into its stomach thing. Then you can start laying bombs, and it dies a LOT faster this way. I guess they're rewarding outside-the-box thinking, and I can appreciate that.

So after killing the Queen and exterminating an entire species you proceed back to your ship. But on the way out, the last metroid egg hatches, and out comes a little baby, thinking you're its mom. And conveniently, there are barriers in your way that are immune to all your weaponry, but that metroids can just touch and destroy. It doesn't make a lick of sense, but what in this game has? So the baby metroid opens a path back to your ship, and you get super sentimental, don't kill it, and instead let it in with you. So in Metroid II you have killed off the entirety of a species with the exception of one...and you're taking that as your pet. That's simultaneously awful and badass.

Which might describe the game experience itself, really. Everything in this game is better executed than before, and so for the first time the concept of playing an interstellar bounty hunter feels pretty cool. But that's what the first game should have accomplished. The linearity of Metroid II manages to partially destroy the atmosphere of exploration the first game tried to establish, and the only reason this is acceptable is because if Metroid II had been expansive, its lack of a map would have driven players to suicide before game's end. And there's a definite ceiling on "cool factor" when you're asked to fight the sorts of absurdities Metroid II keeps pushing in your face. As a result, Metroid II is vastly superior to the first in terms of gameplay, but remains merely an average game in its own right.

Oh yeah, the music sucks too. Sounds like clowns burying themselves alive.

Bottom Line: 10/20

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