Ranking the top 101 Nintendo games: No. 54, Metroid: Samus Returns
The remaster of a Game Boy classic modernized the gameplay, introduced some brand new concepts, and made for a better overall experience than the original.
I’m ranking the top 101 Nintendo developed/published games of all-time, and you can read about the thought process behind game eligibility and list construction here. You can keep up with the rankings so far through this link.
The Game Boy’s Metroid II: Return of Samus is a real impressive game in a lot of ways, even now, nearly 30 years later. It helped bridge the gap between the original Metroid on the NES and all-time classic Super Metroid on the SNES, not just from a story line perspective, but also in terms of game play. It created the now-classic Varia Suit look, with the large, round shoulders on Samus Aran’s power suit that we’ve come to recognize as her default look, and did so because the monochrome, green-tinted Game Boy couldn’t represent different colors for different suits. So instead, Nintendo R&D1 designed a completely different looking suit, shape-wise, and Samus’ iconic look was born.
While a whole bunch of fun and enjoyable in its own right, you would be forgiven for describing Return of Samus as “a good little Metroid game” or something accidentally condescending like that. It really is a little game, from the earlier part of the Game Boy’s life, and can get a bit repetitive even though it’s a title you can clear without even using up a full afternoon. What’s there, though, is worth revisiting even if it was, for the longest time, the “worst” of the Metroid games, and because of that, despite the short length, I’ve sunk a considerable number of hours into the surface of the Metroid home world of SR-388.
With that being said, though, Metroid II might not have made this list at all without its more modern update, Metroid: Samus Returns. This complete overhaul and remaster of Metroid II released on the Nintendo 3DS in 2017, so late into the handheld’s life cycle that it actually came out eight months after the Nintendo Switch. Development was handled by MercurySteam, a studio you might remember as the co-developer of the Castlevania: Lords of Shadow games for the Playstation 3 and Xbox 360. Yes, there is a developer out there living the dream of every retro indie studio in existence, as they have made both Castlevania and Metroid titles instead of original Metroidvania titles that heavily pulled from them. Don’t worry, y’all, there’s room in my heart for both.
Samus Returns kept the core concept of Metroid II — Samus Aran is on the Metroid home world to eradicate the rest of the Metroids in existence, because apparently Metroids can’t exist in a galaxy where Space Pirates can get their talons on them. You don’t fight any of the “regular” Metroids for the longest time, but instead evolved versions of the species with progressively more armor, stronger attacks, more terrifying speed to size ratios, and so on. This made both Metroid II and Samus Returns into essentially a series of boss fights, separated by exploration of the planet’s subterranean tunnels, which was kind of flipping the script from the original, where the game was mostly exploring punctuated by boss fights.
While that central concept survived, the rest of the game feels almost entirely new. The way you play is new. There are additional non-Metroid bosses and pathways and powers and… it feels like MercurySteam shoved Metroid II inside of another, different game, in order to make a new Metroid II. It’s not a bad feeling, either, as the game definitely rips, and if you aren’t familiar with the original — an entirely possible scenario given the length of time in between the two releases — you’d never even notice that it’s built this way.
In the original, the fights against the evolved Metroids became tiresome over time. Finding every new kind of Metroid evolution was great, no question there, but the fights would get old when you were repeating one you had already done a few times, with little in the way of change to the formula outside of the platforms available to safely stand and land on being in different places. MercurySteam solved this issue in the remaster, by having variations within the evolutions themselves, meaning there were different attacks (fire-based? electric-based?) and attack patterns you needed to protect yourself from, much more variance in the environments you’d fight the Metroids in, and differing ways to fight them.
In the original, the answer was always to aim at whatever the Metroid’s weak point was in the evolution you were facing, and shoot. In Samus Returns, you can still do that, but dodging becomes more of an involved and necessary process because the amount of damage Samus takes from touching a Metroid or taking damage from one has ramped up considerably. And now you also get to punch Metroids in the face.
That’s right, Samus Returns built on one of Other M’s only good concepts, and expanded upon the use of melee attacks. In regular encounters, this is mostly meant as a way of inflicting critical damage on an enemy or stunning them mid-attack. In boss fights, though, this means there are specific moments where Samus can block an incoming physical strike from a Metroid with her own counter where she uses her arm cannon more like a protective gauntlet. This briefly dazes the Metroid, which then begins a series of cinematic quick time button presses where Samus might grab a Metroid’s tail, get a good hold of the creature, and slam it into the ground before finding an opening to lay into it with cannon fire. Or she might jump onto the back of one so she can get behind its head and shoot missiles directly into its face, no aiming at a flying object required.
You don’t have to succeed at the counters that lead to these little cinematic displays of violence, nor do you have to successfully pull off the little chain combos that lead to the above, either, but it sure helps give the fights more energy, more variance, and more of a feeling that you’ve accomplished something when you do. And raises the stakes in the battles in which you fail to properly block and set off these events, because now you need to go at the Metroid the old-fashioned way.
These cinematics — and the behavior of the evolved Metroids in general — are extremely impressive, too, giving the Metroids a level of believability as real creatures that didn’t necessarily exist on the Game Boy iteration of the title. It’s so well done that it makes the entire idea that these little energy ball creatures can eventually evolve into enormous dragon-type creatures a whole lot easier to digest. Not that I was picking apart Metroid II for being unrealistic or anything in its depiction of creatures who convert stolen life force into the advancing of evolutionary stages: it’s just that you can see the logic play out more successfully with all of the animations and life the the 3DS is capable of injecting into these creatures more than you could on the Game Boy, is all.
Also new to the game, and the franchise as a whole, are the Aeion abilities. These have their own energy supply, and perform a variety of tasks and support for Samus. One is Scan Pulse, which lets you send out a pulse to see where some items may be hidden or where there are blocks that can be broken by weapons fire. There is also the Lightning Armor, which helps block damage at the cost of your Aeion energy supply; Beam Burst, which allows for extreme rapid fire that is capable of destroying powerful armors and regenerating enemies; and Phase Drift, which slows down time. They, in many ways, make the Metroid experience easier, but MercurySteam, thankfully, also adjusted the difficulty in other ways, to ensure that utilizing these abilities properly would be a necessity for advancement through the game, and not just a way to make traversing the environment easier and more varied.
Not everything is so well-balanced, however. The melee attacks are a necessity for the regular enemies you find scattered throughout SR-388, but the problem with that is that, eventually, you get tired of fighting those creatures again and again. There is a lot of backtracking in a Metroid game, generally speaking, and in Metroid II, in particular. Part of this is because the developers could only fit so much game onto a Game Boy cartridge, so you end up returning to the same few spaces again and again more regularly than in larger Metroid worlds. Samus Returns is larger than its inspiration, but it still has you doing a ton of backtracking — fine on its own, as it tends to be in Metroid games — but now those small, annoying creatures who made the early hours so dangerous are annoying for a different reason: because they break up your momentum when you just want to be moving along, all super-powered and unbothered.
It’s the only bit of artificial padding the game’s newfound length feels like it has, which is great, in the sense that there’s just the one issue, and none of the actually new material feels like a slog or out of place. But it is disappointing that this negative feeling exists at all. It’s nitpicking, though, the kind of difference in quality that is mostly only discussed when comparing one Metroid to another, not anything close to gamebreaking or outright disappointing. It’s a lot easier to focus on how successful most of the new additions are, like, say, how the game actually makes the interactions with the Metroid baby much more than just a credits scene playing in the background.
Really, more disappointing to me is that the final boss music is different and worse. The original Metroid Queen theme is a banger, MercurySteam, what were you thinking? Here’s a Metroid Metal rendition of the song, even:
I’m half-kidding, as Samus Returns’ Metroid Queen theme is actually great, too, with some real Prime vibes throughout as well as, if you listen, nods to other notable Metroid boss themes, I just kind of wish they had updated the Game Boy original in the way that independent artists like Metroid Metal have in the intervening years. But maybe that’s because I am the kind of person who owns a t-shirt for a band that makes metal versions of Metroid songs and then shares their videos in a retro video game newsletter, which is to say, not the world’s largest audience opportunity.
Uh, anyway. Remakes and remasters are kind of a touchy subject for me sometimes. Many remakes out there are just updates into HD for games that probably didn’t need them — hell, some of them at this point are just updates from one level of HD to a newer one — and/or a veiled excuse to charge $40-60 for an old game once again that could have just been made available in its original form instead. (As an example, you can imagine the difference in my excitement levels for the remaster of Capcom’s Resident Evil 2 vs. the planned remaster for Resident Evil 4. Society has not moved past the need for the original RE4!) I’m perfectly happy with games from the past remaining untouched but made available again in ways where we won’t lose touch with gaming history, and can instead celebrate it. We, sadly, do not always get that opportunity. There is a balance to be struck on occasion, though, where something fun but flawed like Metroid II can get much more than a flashy coat of paint, but a modern re-imagining instead, and have it work out wonderfully both in terms of being able to make new fans for the original’s vision while satisfying those who remember the original well.
And hell, if you prefer just going back to Metroid II, it’s available on the same system as Samus Returns, for $4 on the eShop.
Nintendo has plenty of problems when it comes to adequately sharing their past, or making it available or easily accessible. When they do a remake, though, they tend to commit to it in a way that justifies it. Metroid: Samus Returns is certainly not the only title where Nintendo has taken advantage of the advances in hardware to do much more than slap some HD resolution onto an old game before re-releasing it in its now-definitive form. It is probably the most extreme example of that desire to justify a remake, though, and, with any luck, we’ll see more of this kind of update in the future. More of this, and less of mostly resolution-enhanced Super Mario 3D All-Stars type releases, please.
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