Sunday, September 21, 2014

Metroid II: Return of Samus - More Like "Return of Sanity"
How Samus Aran helped prove the viability of sequels on Game Boy.

Metroid did more than slowly creep its way into my heart--you could say it became something of an obsession for me; as my relationship with the game evolved over the course of those few weeks in August of 1989, thoughts of Samus Aran's adventure and the wondrously mysterious planet Zebes invaded every space of my consciousness and for a while were all that mattered in gaming. Metroid, whose unconventional formulas I'd once deemed opaque and worthy of dismissal, had taken form as a game I didn't want to stop playing. I had become so intimately familiar with its world, so entranced by its maddeningly brilliant labyrinthine design and emotion-prickling atmosphere, that it had become a place of comfort--a dependable playground I could explore at my leisure and lose myself in.

Over the following year, I'd always find time to sneak in a Metroid play-through, whether it was the boring after-school hours before cartoons came on or the hour of downtime before a big summer barbecue, whence we'd hurry to my room and make it a goal to reach Tourian before the adults inevitably starting yelling for us to come down. I constantly wrote about Metroid in my specially created, video-game-themed "Superbooks" (made from Mead tablets); I enjoyed drawing and sketching the likes of Ridley and Kraid as part of the creation of my separate card series; and I even plastered a pencil drawing over my liquid-motion spiral timer and turned it into a likeness of Mother Brain (as portrayed in Captain N: The Game Master). 

Yet for as much as Metroid continued consuming my thoughts, there was one other frequently recurring obsession: My dreams for a Metroid sequel. That is, I was always thinking up scenarios for how this hypothetical sequel could play out on the evolving NES, particularly in the area of graphical fidelity; I could envision a much larger world--a desolate-but-organically-functioning planet with plenty more in the way of interconnected, gloriously atmospheric corridors and boss hideouts. There'd be so many new environments shaded in so many different hues that the potential for exploration and discovery would be endless. All I had to do was look at what Tecmo accomplished with Rygar, with its collection of amazingly disparate landscapes and magnificently detailed backdrops, and imagine what could be!

The problem: Never had it been hinted that a sequel was on the way, nor was Metroid 2 something that seemed likely. I mean, it had now been over two years since the original was released, which even back then was a long time for an apparently successful video game to go without a sequel. That, to me, signaled that the time had passed. Convinced of this reality, my dreams faded over time, and I resigned myself to a future where Metroid was forever a single child.

So about a year later, after I had long since abandoned any hope of a Metroid sequel, I grabbed my July issue of Nintendo Power (Volume 26) from the mailbox hanging right outside the front door and took it over to the circular portion of the kitchen counter, where I began flipping through the magazine looking for immediately interesting material, as I always did. Though I never had much interest in such, I decided to take a quick peek at that month's foldout poster, just to get it out of the way early.

Suddenly, there it was...

As I unfolded the poster, I quickly grew excited upon recognizing the robotic visage of Samus Aran holding her arm cannon into the air. The print on the poster's upper segment didn't specifically say "Metroid 2"--there was only the familiar Metroid logo--but the tagline listed beneath ("The universe has expanded") made it instantly, abundantly clear that this was the announcement of the sequel I had long dreamed about. It was no longer just an idea; no--it was real, and I couldn't believe it. It took a few moments for that initial shock to wear off.

However, as I finished completely unfolding the poster, my heart dropped and my excitement soon morphed into a deep concern as my eyes peered down and saw the dire proclamation: 

"Coming soon ... for Game Boy."

I was pissed. "How could Nintendo do this?" I ranted out loud to an audience of no one. "You can't put a sequel to Metroid on friggin' Game Boy--it's black and white! The NES has all these vibrant colors and the potential for large-scale environments, and you instead make the sequel for this underpowered brick, which can barely handle more than one enemy onscreen at a time?! Now it'll never be the classic it would have been otherwise! What the hell are you thinking, Nintendo?" This wasn't how it was supposed to be.

I carried that anger with me for quite a while. In fact, by even the end of that first day, I had already declared that I had no interest in ever purchasing this low-grade "Metroid 2." Nuh uh. No way. No how. As far as I was concerned, Nintendo could stuff it.

My rant was sort of empty because I actually had a Game Boy and had grown quite an attachment to it over those first few months of ownership. However, I still regarded it a "lesser" system whose usefulness started and ended at puzzlers and simple, small-scope action games. The idea that it could host a direct sequel--not a re-purposed port or even a spinoff--to a major Nintendo franchise was unthinkable to me. "You can't make a sequel for a machine with less power," I logically concluded. "Doing so makes it instantly inferior and a step back for the series!"

You know how it is, though: Time and marketing have a way of changing our perception.

Now, there was solid reasoning to back the many reservations I had about the nature of this Metroid sequel, but I wasn't prepared to lie to myself and fully commit to those previous boycotting threats, which were reactionary and at best idle. Truthfully, as the months fell off and the Game Boy's under-appreciated virtues became more and more evident to me, I even starting warming up to the idea of a pocket-sized Metroid sequel, which I believed might even benefit from the handheld's unique values. "A Metroid game you can take anywhere you go?" I considered. "What game could augment the atmosphere of those long trips adjacent the endless New Jersey woodland more than that?"

Two specific events cemented this Metroid sequel, now solidly titled Metroid II: Return of Samus, as a sure-fire entry on that year's Christmas list: Nintendo Power Volume 31's feature article, whose second page showed off in-game sprites of all of Samus' new, cool-sounding weapons and abilities (I ignored the maps illustrated on the following pages, of course, to avoid having the game spoiled). And that memorable "Be afraid!" commercial whose every frame was rendered with what appeared to be Game Boy graphics; its alien-looking narrator, who talked like a more-humorless Orson Welles, explained the game's plot ("One Metroid escaped the original adventure and multiplied!"), which I found to be gripping, since it was remarkably close to how I imagined a Metroid sequel would be initiated. (Naturally, it had nothing to do with the game's actual story, but I imagine Nintendo of America was spooked about broadcasting a commercial whose content invoked thoughts of a planned genocide.)

Despite my gripes about its lack of color, Return of Samus appeared to not only look the part--it strived to surpass the original's established template with its large, detailed Samus sprite, which more closely matched the games' artwork, and indeed a vast, sprawling alien world. I didn't think it could be done--that the mold for relocated console sequels could stretch no farther than what I'd seen in Super Mario Land, with its short length and tiny character approximations. As I absorbed all of this new information, my hype for Return of Samus slowly crawled back maximum levels, where it hadn't been for what felt like years (a little over one, to be exact).

That Christmas marked my one-year anniversary as a Game Boy owner, and I knew that there was only one game worthy enough to commemorate the occasion. As I'd wished, the Metroid sequel I'd craved for so very long finally arrived in my hands, and I wasted no time in tearing into it. I immediately fell in love with its manual, whose story description went as far as to thoroughly recap the original game's plot line, including all pre-existing backstory, before segueing into the particulars of Return of Samus; as a continuity hound, I had an immense appreciation for this thoughtful inclusion of Metroid's canonical events, which I had written about and expanded upon so many times in my books. Really, I couldn't remember any other sequel's manual going into that much detail (calm down, Ultima fans).

Also, the manual went above and beyond in delivering a ton of imagery and information where it wasn't entirely necessary; that is, they took the trouble to list and describe every suit upgrade, every item, every beam, and every indigenous creature down to even the most insignificant of lifeforms. I mean, did you really need to know what a "Meboid" was or how it operated? Was it of any benefit to you to have that kind of information about a creature confined to one room in the entire game? Probably not. Yet there it was listed among the Metroid evolutions and other principal inhabitants. 

I, for one, was blown away by the sense of scope as evoked by the depth of imagery and the exhaustive detail that accompanied it, even if I felt neither left much in the way of mystery. I made it a point to pore over the manual's every word, hoping to be as researched as possible before setting out to explore this whole new world.

After filing to memory the last detail--the nature of Omega Metroids--I tossed the manual aside and headed to the quiet confines of our den, where I huddled on the left side of the sectional sofa, which was positioned beneath the room's hanging lamp, and snapped the cartridge into the Game Boy. From there, it was all about first impressions, starting with the title screen: I was disappointed to learn (or, rather, hear) that it didn't feature an emotive intro theme matching the one I'd heard so many times in the original--there was instead this strange series of beeps and crashing noises that sounded like a nighttime symphony of crickets during a solar storm. I waited for some music to kick in or for an in-game storyline explanation to appear, but nothing was happening; so I moved on, my excitement dampened a bit by the lack of a strong, emotional lead-in. (A somewhat-touching ditty does emerge from the noise after roughly a minute, but that's just too long a wait.)

What was occurring was my first bout with sequel shock, which I couldn't explain at the time. That is, when you get so attached to a game--like, say, Metroid--there's always that propensity to form a negative opinion about its sequel immediately upon learning that it doesn't conform to every established convention. For at least the few opening minutes, I was a bit soured on the game: I didn't find the Samus-appears fanfare nearly as moving or powerful as Metroid's. I didn't like that the action was slow-moving and that the character animation was so very lacking (Samus' spin-jumps in Metroid, for instance, entailed so many more frames). And I wasn't happy with Samus starting out with so many missiles, the handout of which spoke to me that Return of Samus might not be as exploration-based as I had hoped.

But once I played around a bit in the opening areas and got a feel for the game, I quickly became a fan of some of its new additions: I thought having Samus' ship parked on the planet's surface, at the ready, was a tremendous new addition, and the ship, itself, made for a memorable visual; I liked that I could return here any time and replenish my health and missiles. There was actual background detail to be seen (well, at least for the first few screens). Being able to crouch and fire finally allowed for a more practical means of combating the small ground-stalkers who could otherwise sneak under your shooting range. And the ability to fire downward, which was sorely missing in the original, was particularly useful for both combat and further planetary penetration. 

This wasn't Zebes--it was SR388, and it was time to accept its differences and begin digging beneath its surface.

Despite being aware of the series' penchant for spurning side-scrolling conventions, I instinctually headed down and to the right side, where any further progress was curtailed by a flood of life-draining lava, as depicted in manual; so I re-routed to the right side, where I had a surprise encounter with the first Metroid evolution--an Alpha Metroid, which bounced me around a bit before I recovered and destroyed it with the required five missile-blasts. It was only then that I understood the connection between the Metroids and those earthquakes also spoken about in the manual (though, I never questioned the the cause-and-effect and how an unstable planet's lava-shifting could be conveniently timed to a Metroid's death; today I see it as a game's interpretation of events compared to how it probably played out from the storyteller's perspective).

I didn't play too far into Return of Samus in that first session--I cleaned out the first dome area--due to the usual Christmas Day activities taking precedence, but I made a lot of mental notes and spent parts of the day reflecting upon them. Mostly, I weighed the pros and cons and often compared it to its predecessor: Proving that I'd become accustomed to what I once diagnosed as obtuse level design, I was disappointed that it didn't feature a lot of that random wall- and floor-bombing that made Metroid's world feel mysteriously expansive, as if there was more to it than there actually was; oh, Return of Samus had instances of wall-breaching, like that hidden tunnel above a Wallfire in the first dome, but it felt too obvious. "Is this game too linear?" I wondered, hoping that it'd open up a bit. 

I also wasn't big on its musical score (if I could call it that) beyond the surface of SR388. I thought the starting-area theme, though not on the level of Brinstar's rousing anthem, was terrific; it had a heroic quality to it and succeeded in inspiring me. But every other area theme seemed to be composed of these odd chirping sounds and psychedelic warbles that I was hesitant to even define as "music." It was a big letdown after Metroid's evocative score, among which were memorable pieces like the quietly desperate, disconsolate theme of Kraid's hideout and the frightening, sinister-sounding humming of Ridley's hideout. "Where's the emotion?" I thought.

On the other hand, I thought the Spider Ball upgrade was wonderfully inventive, if not annoyingly glitchy and potentially game-breaking, and I enjoyed experimenting with it and navigating the dome area's cavernous ceiling structure; doing so would have felt taboo if not for the occasional presence of spikes or flying creatures, which signaled that the designers intended for this behavior. I was also happy to see the return of the Chozo statues even if I didn't understand how, exactly, they were connected to SR388 (they were "some unknown civilization," according to the manual, but what were they doing here?). I remember it being the game's only ongoing mystery (or so I believed when contemplating what I perceived as cryptic, hidden themes).

That's the way it went over those first few sessions: I'd take issue with the fact that the cast of creatures included robots, which I thought detracted from the game's organic feel and hinted that the planet wasn't truly devoid of intelligent life (I'm not sure why this bothered me, but I think I was worried that the presence of such diminished SR388's long-deserted vibe), but then I'd have a blast zapping enemies with the Spazer and Plasma beams (which were placed way too close in proximity) and space-jumping my away across the domes' towering expanses (well, as long as I could before inevitably mistiming a button-press). I didn't find the transitional phases--those long strings of indistinguishable, zigzagging tunnels--to be terribly interesting in design, but the intense scraps with the Gamma Metroids, the terrifyingly aggressive Zeta Metroids, and imposing Omega Metroids were always appropriately nerve-wracking.

It was turning out that Return of Samus was as linear as I feared, the exploration factor reserved for only the domes and used strictly as the means to uncover optional upgrades; there was no sense that exploration could be the key to opening up whole new self-contained areas that housed secrets upon secrets, which the original Metroid had in spades. I mean, I liked how they rewarded me for my explorative efforts with weapons I might have otherwise missed, but there was a rushed nature to their placement that always made it feel too soon (like how the aforementioned Spazer and Plasma beam were found only rooms apart, and one dome in particular had, like, 60% of the game's upgrades stuffed into it). 

The only puzzling obstruction I faced was a seemingly impenetrable wall that threatened to hinder my progress. I remember the moment well because it occurred on the morning of New Year's eve; for whatever reason, I paused the game and headed to the kitchen, where I expressed my frustration to my aunt, who was helping to prepare for the night's activities while our parents were out shopping. Surprisingly, our short chat didn't yield any useful results. Well, it turns out all I had to do was fire missiles into the barrier to clear away its two pixelated chunks. You know--'cause that's really something that should stump you.

Return of Samus ended strong, showcasing some semblance of a soundtrack that grew increasingly urgent and evil-sounding as the Metroid counter neared depletion and screen after screen of deserted real-estate pointed toward a final confrontation with something menacing. The unexpected return of the base-form Metroids caught me off guard, their sudden appearance providing both a nostalgic callback and an ominous tone that pervaded the entirety of the end-game sequence. I don't remember how I fared against the final boss, the ghastly Metroid Queen, in our first encounter, but I recall the heart-pounding nature of it as I continued to screw up the timing of my evasive jumps and wildly mashed the attack button in attempt to stifle the Queen's nasty head-extending bite-attacks. And there was of course the hatching of the apparently harmless baby Metroid, which helped me escape the planet's depths and formed bond that would mean much more to me at a later date.

As I watched the credits roll, my final impression of Metroid II: Return of Samus was mostly positive, and the build-up to the final encounter was a big reason for that. Most importantly, I felt the need to play it at least one more time.

I played through it several times over the next few months, actually, which was the sign of an obvious truth: Despite my having a few issues with certain parts of its design, Return of Samus had managed to win me over. As I became more familiar with its world, things started making sense to me: The music wasn't a cacophony of chirps and bleeps in place of actual music; it was instead an unsettling ambiance made to capture the feeling of an alien world and provide atmosphere in the way only the Metroid series was brave enough to attempt. The robots weren't out-of-place drones; they were derelict machines long abandoned by their creators, the Chozo--doomed to expel the remainder of their electrical energy functioning for a lost cause. It had to be linear, with little opportunity for meandering--it was an urgent, calculated hunt for dangerous creatures that were a threat to rapidly multiply at any time and invade neighboring planets.

So even though I wasn't happy that Return of Samus lacked the labyrinthine complexity of its forebearer, I at least understood why it did; even then, it still possessed enough in the way of exploration and mystery to capture a great deal of the original's adventurous spirit and provide me a world I enjoyed revisiting again and again. So while there was never the possibility that the game could resonate with me as strongly as the original Metroid, it wound up coming pretty close.

desirable aspects to where it still succeeded in capturing a great deal of the original's adventurous spirit and providing me a world I enjoyed revisiting again and again. So while there was never the possibility that the game could resonate with me as strongly as the original Metroid, it wound up coming pretty close.

From then on, Return of Samus, like its predecessor, was a game I'd load up whenever I needed an adventure fix and there was time available. Due to the demands of school and the associated extracurricular activities, the time most convenient for me turned out to be Friday night, when I was finally free of obligation. Thus, Return of Samus settled in as my first "Friday game," and I'd routinely break it out every week at the same time and park myself in that same spot on our sectional sofa beneath the hanging lamp. It stood for years as companion to my Friday-night TV-viewing habits, which consisted mainly of ABC's TGIF lineup of Full House, Family Matters and Perfect Strangers.

It never did become one of those "road games" I speak of when talking about my Game Boy collection (a category represented by the likes of Tetris, the Super Mario Land games, Castlevania II: Belmont's Revenge and Mega Man II), but it didn't need to; no--it found its place as the perfect "home game" best played in that wooden-walled, L-shaped den where many of my group's fondest gaming memories were formed.

Of course, those times couldn't last forever, and my visits to SR388 started becoming more and more sparse. Yeah--I gave Return of Samus a few play-throughs on the Super Game Boy, trying my best to match its palette to the original, and I revisited it a few times in the future on my GameCube's Game Boy Player, but it was never quite the same. It's only in the past few years that I've returned to it with any regularity thanks to the 3DS Virtual Console, which is now my only means for playing it (my Game Boy died years ago due to neglect; mainly, I accidentally left the batteries in and they corroded, destroying the outer circuits). I'm not surprised that it was the first time in a long time that playing Samus' pocket-sized adventure felt right; truly, it was finally back where it belonged, right there on a portable device, its natural habitat.

Nowadays, there aren't too many Friday nights I can devote to playing Return of Samus, so it's instead been solidly positioned as a Metroid binge game, played whenever I get on that Metroid kick and can't help but run through Samus' original three adventures, whose combined magic never fails to consume me no matter my mental state. Return of Samus, in particular, will always stand out to me as emblematic of why I loved the original Game Boy; to me, every fragment of its composition will be forever married to that old gray brick, whose unmistakable aesthetics have a way of embellishing my favorite games with its intangible, irreplicably nostalgic qualities. So what if it lacks a little bit of color?

It's not exactly the best entry in the series (and it's certainly not bottom-tier, as it's usually ranked), but I nonetheless hold Return of Samus in high regard for all those happy times I spent with it. I won't soon forget the many Metroid hunts that dominated my Friday nights, whether I was alone or with friends.
More importantly, I can credit Metroid II: Return of Samus with helping to cement the Game Boy in my mind as a major video-game platform worthy of playing host to the medium's biggest franchises, sequel or otherwise. Really, I should never have doubted it.

Mission accomplished, Samus: Your time was a few weeks, and your rate for convincing was 100%.

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