At the risk of having this devolve into one of those generic template-like comments on certain entrants for particular beloved series, Metroid 2: Return of Samus, while not inherently a bad game by any stretch of the imagination, doesn’t climb as high amid the hierarchy of other iterations in the series. More highly of course than the likes of Other M & Federation Force, but if one is willing to disregard both the 2010 and 2016 efforts, you’ll be hard pressed to find anyone who won’t deny that the 1991 title for the Game Boy hasn’t exactly aged well, be it visually or mechanically.
This despite the surprising number of additions it brought to the table, not to mention the ways in which it improved upon the series’ progenitor. A seamlessly-connected world, the ability to aim in a number of new directions, new items, a change to objective structure — the underlining one being to hunt down a set amount of Metroids before one can naturally progress — despite all this, such has been the high bench-mark series colossi like Super Metroid & Metroid Prime have set (not to mention the overall high acclaim the series has garnered over the years), Metroid 2 has thus been fated to skirt the lower tier of fan preference through no fault of its own. Which in turn, due in parts to those same fans, why a remake of the Game Boy title has been requested for many years. And even pursued by those not under the employment of Nintendo themselves.
Metroid: Samus Returns is that remake, headed by developers MercurySteam — whom already have had past experience with the Metroidvania formula through their work on the Castlevania series — and spear-headed by Yoshio Sakamoto, one of the original creators of the series. Samus Returns takes proceedings past the events of the Prime trilogy and takes us to the doctrine home of the Metroid species in the form of planet SR388. Samus Aran, voted unanimously in favor by the Galactic Federation, is tasked with exterminating the parasitic life-form once and for all, in all their mutated forms. While the basic structure of Metroid 2 hasn’t altered that much here — exploring subterranean regions, acquiring new items and subsequently killing a set number of Metroids before one can burrow deeper into the planet — Samus Returns has you instead gather DNA from your fallen foes and return them to what are referred to as Chozo Seals. A slight change from the original that simply had the screen shake as if caught in an earthquake to denote (perhaps somewhat obtusely) that a new area had been unlocked.
Despite it coming off as common sense, Samus Returns’ updates and notable tweaks breathe new life into the vexing surroundings of SR388. From a map that comes bundled with the ability to lay down stamps for future reference, to the parallax-like overlaying of backgrounds and environmental details for each of the unnamed regions, Samus Returns at last gives the world’s setting more meaning and decoration, if not the same level of fascinating, environmental story-telling the series has mastered in previous attempts. The religious-scientific aesthetic of the Chozo race is of course present and that too plays into the settings on show, from temples and holy sites to advanced mining facilities. While it may not play as integral a role or perhaps be as much at the forefront of the presentation as fellow 2D titles offer, Samus Returns makes efforts at fleshing out SR388’s history, if not giving fully-fleshed reasons to get engrossed.
Perhaps one of the more prominent new additions is that Samus Returns furthers the 2D games’ sense of pace despite still carrying that same pedigree of exploration. In a series first, the new melee counter — whereby Samus can knock back an attacking enemy when triggered at the right interval — allows for an easier kill (as well as a greater amount of energy to pick up), yet for the most part, much like the kill animations in DOOM, they thankfully don’t end up detrimental to the overall pace of the gameplay. Which, like Zero Mission — a remake of the original Metroid on the Game Boy Advance — furthers the justification for the game’s more kinetic but impactful pace. Allowing you to sprint through rooms and front-flip off high platforms, all the while still knowing where and when to throw up an enemy or two to trip you up. Said enemies may not pose as much the same variety or indeed quantity, which admittedly is a tad disappointing, but the deliberate contrast to that of 3D Metroid titles is just as entertaining and enjoyable to carry through with.
Speaking of tripping one’s self up, the biggest surprise to be had in Samus Returns is the way the impending confrontation with the Metroids has been reworked. While there remains that subtle build-up towards the next confrontation — finding an empty, molted Metroid shell lying about as your sensor begins to ping faster the closer you get — the biggest positive is unquestionably the battles themselves which if one isn’t careful, can net you plenty of game over’s in a short period of time. The Metroids here are more menacing and more dexterous in their attacks; differing evolutionary phases conjuring deadlier and more proficient attacks as you slowly make your way through the ranks from the smaller Alpha’s, up through the Gamma’s, Zeta’s, Omega’s…and before long, the Queen Metroid itself.
Another new feature — coming in the form of new items to scout out and unlock — are the Aeion abilities, four distinct D-Pad activated perks that run on the designated Aeion energy bar. Providing temporal skills such as the ability to scan a surrounding radius on the map (in order to find breakable sections of a wall or floor) or even buffing your beam’s power output, these and a whole host of returning Metroid 2-debuted items combine once again in numerous puzzle-solving ways to keep players guessing and subsequently create that series-standard eureka moment that, here especially, is even more palpable to feel. Because, surprisingly, Samus Returns feels like one of the more elaborate Metroid Worlds to work one’s way around, if not the largest.
Whether this is down to the non-linear style of its main objective — and the fact one has to literally scout out the right number of Metroids to exterminate — or that SR388 provides players with a number of possible routes, while it’s easy to forget about the notable block from before that you didn’t have the right item for (which is ultimately preventing you from finding the last Metroid to kill), Samus Returns’ saving grace is in how carefully, but successfully, balances the need to naturally explore and subtly guiding the player on the right course. The ease at which one get genuinely lost in Samus Returns will of course divide players — some seeing it as a greater disdain on the overall experience than others — but had this been but the most meagre of gripes with this game, perhaps this much sought-after remake could very well stand among the greats of the series.
But what stops it from doing so is how seemingly lacking in confidence in parts Samus Returns feels and comes off as. Whether it’s the aforementioned lack of enemy variety or how the environments don’t quite evoke that same level of aesthetic detail Zero Mission or even Fusion managed, it doesn’t take long for the player to come face to face with the exact same item jingle used in Metroid Prime and feel that such a sound — memorable and well-placed it was for that game — really shouldn’t be here. Again, some may consider this a minor gripe, yet with all these other smaller criticisms added up, engaging a play-through it is, the lack of that same omnipresent tone that has furthered the atmosphere of past entries, does beg the question of whether this remake goes as far as it can to flesh out planet SR388 to the same level of Zebes or Tallon IV or even the B.S.L. if we’re keeping to the 2D perspective.
While not allowing for the subterranean trek through SR388 to fully flourish in its own individual right, Metroid: Samus Returns is nonetheless a highly enjoyable remake of one of the series’ more overlooked and forgotten entrants. With new items and gameplay mechanics added into the mix, not to mention the surprisingly tense confrontations with the many titular foes throughout, Nintendo’s own take on how Metroid 2 would and should fare in the modern age is frantic in its action but carefully balanced by the series’ slow-burning exploration. With Metroid Prime 4 looming on the horizon, the signs here at least are notably promising.