Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Metroid II - Return of the Sidescrolling Action/Adventure Exploration Game


Original Game Boy Palette
Metroid II was released during a relative drought of quality first party titles from Nintendo for the Game Boy.  Nintendo had released all the launch games for the system in July of 1989, Alleyway, Super Mario Land, Tennis and Tetris, but after that its releases had dropped substantially while its third party licensees like Konami and Capcom picked up the slack.  While Nintendo released other games like Golf, Solar Striker, Qix, Radar Mission and F-1 Race during 1990 and 1991, it was not until Metroid II was released in November of 1991 that one was really reassured that Nintendo was going to give its handheld system its best.  More classics, like Super Mario Land 2, Wario Land, Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening and Donkey Kong would follow about once a year thereafter.

Original Game Boy Palette
Metroid II helped cement the fact that certain premium games would have battery backed RAM.  Almost every classic game Nintendo developed for its cartridge systems thereafter would also have the extra battery backed RAM. The extra RAM allows for a more forgiving saving system than passwords.  The original Metroid, whether played on cartridge or disk, did not save your current health and did not save your location except at an elevator (Famicom Disk System Metroid always restarts you at Brinstar.)  There are save points liberally scattered throughout Metroid II's SR388.

Original Game Boy Palette
Graphically, the smaller screen resolution (160x144 vs. 256x240) and limited number of colors available (4 vs. 52), when compared to the NES, required certain compromises.  The graphics artists could scale down Samus compared to her NES sprites, or keep the NES scale and show a smaller screen area.  Nintendo had scaled down the graphics for Super Mario Land, but the result looked rather simplistic and lacked detail.

Original Game Boy Palette
The designers made the right choice in keeping the scale the same.  With a larger scale, they could show more detailed backgrounds and enemies.  This is important in a large game that is limited to a four color monochrome palette.  As a result, while most parts of SR388 look natural, other parts look like they were designed by intelligent beings.  Samus' armor is much more detailed, especially after she acquires the Varia suit.  Also, her left/right facing sprites are not totally mirror images of each other, now her arm cannon is always on her right arm.

Super  Game Boy Default Palette
The enemies too take on a greater variety.  Most look like the planet's indigenous life, but some enemies look and act like constructs or robots gone haywire.  The same enigmatic power statutes appear in both Metroid and Metroid II, but their connection to each other, the Metroids and the Space Pirates is not detailed until later games in the series.

Super  Game Boy Default Palette
The sound and music in Metroid II is often underrated.  The music starts out fairly jaunty and adventurous, not unlike the Brinstar music of the original.  When dealing with the Chozo-inspired structures, the music is rather clinical not unlike the music for the Chozo rooms in the original game.  Metroid encounter music sounds appropriately frantic.

Super  Game Boy Default Palette
After that, the games sharply diverge.  Metroid has a distinct musical theme for each area.  Metroid II does not.  In many areas, you will only hear something akin to ambient noise.  The noise tends to become more ominous as you descend deeper into the planet.  Finally, toward the end of the game, you get new music, but it evokes an undercurrent of dread and foreboding.  The final areas are almost completely devoid of non-Metroid lifeforms.

Super  Game Boy Default Palette
Gameplay wise, the smaller screen gives a more claustrophobic feel to the game compared to the vast, empty spaces of Metroid.  Control has improved in many ways. Samus can now duck and shoot and shoot downwards from the air.  These additions eliminate much of the frustration of the original Metroid.  There are no longer cheap hits when you pass through doorways.  The new items are the space jump, spider ball and jump ball.  All prove very useful.

Game Boy Color Built-in Custom Palette
The space jump allows you to keep jumping after you jump in a somersault.  Controlling the space jump is pretty easy once you get the hang of it. If you wait until you start to dip from the maximum height of your somersault, you will nail the next jump every time.  It is much easier to space jump against a straight wall.  You can also do something like a space jump if you touch an enemy in mid air and press jump.

Game Boy Color Built-in Custom Palette
The spider ball is a bit tricky to maneuver.  If you let go of the directional you are pressing, you may have to press more than one directional to get going in the right direction again.  Although it allows you to climb on any wall, you will get knocked off if you hit an enemy, spikes or are too close to a bomb blast.

Game Boy Color Built-in Custom Palette
There are two new weapons in addition to the ice and wave beam, the spazer and plasma beams.  Each beam cannot be used with another beam, but the beams are easy to find (the wave beam is not easy to find in Metroid).  Each have their strengths and weaknesses, and when you need the ice beam at the end, you can find another one in the final area without having to backtrack.

Game Boy Color Built-in Custom Palette
Enemies are very similar to Metroid, with the exception of the Metroids themselves.  The Metroids act like a string of mini-bosses.  Six forms of the Metroid are present in the game.  The Alpha Metroids have no attack and are easy to kill.  The Gamma Metroids are annoying, have a lightning bolt barrier and always seem to be found in inconvenient places.  Zeta and Omega Metroids are hard to hit, breathe fireballs and take lots of missiles to kill.  You have to remember how to kill the non-mutated Metroids from the first game.  The Queen Metroid takes up most of the screen, attacks with her jaws and fireballs and has a long neck.  Killing her takes a lot of missiles, but there is another way to do it.  Ironically, non-mutated Metroids are more dangerous than Alpha Metroids.  In a nice touch, the game will often warn you if there is a Metroid nearby with a Metroid shell husk.  You also can see Metroids molt into their final forms.

One criticism that can be leveled at the original Metroid is "where are the Space Pirates?"  The Space Pirates, other than their bosses Kraid and Ridley, are not introduced until Super Metroid.  Many of the enemies in Metroid, although they appear natural, are aggressive toward you.  Most of the enemies in Metroid II seem more indifferent to your presence, especially the robotic enemies.  There is no need to explain away the lack of Space Pirates on SR388.  Between the spartan graphics, minimalist music and naturalistic enemy designs and behavior, this game gives a rare sense, for the era, of being totally alone as you explore the caverns and ruins of SR388.

Metroid II allows you to have 5 energy tanks and 250 missiles (compared to the 5 and 255 of Metroid).  You start with 30 missiles and the ball and the long beam, so you are not totally unpowered when you start the game.  While most enemies give energy balls, some only give missiles.  If you know which enemies give missiles, you can replenish your supply more quickly.  Also, there are rechargeable energy and missile spots throughout the planet.  Missiles dropped from enemies in Metroid II give you 5 missiles instead of 2 as in the original Metroid.  This means you will waste less time replenishing your missile supply.

One criticism of Metroid II is that it sacrifices the non-linear gameplay of the original.  The game is controlled by earthquakes that affect the lava present throughout the planet.  Each time you clear a certain number of Metroids, the lava level will change.  The Metroid counter is useful to tell you how many Metroids you need to kill in each area and how far you have progressed in the game.  There are four main areas where you can acquire items, missile and energy tanks.  When you open a new area, all the previous areas remain open to you.  So you are given as much exploration as the original Metroid, just not all at once.  Moreover, even in the original Metroid many areas are sealed off unless you find the appropriate items or defeat the mini-Bosses first.  Even so, you can do everything you need to do in each area without having to backtrack to an earlier area.

The Metroid series is notable for being more popular in the US than in Japan, even though most games in the series were made by Japanese teams.  Metroid II was released two months earlier in the US than in Japan, which was almost unheard of at the time.  The game contains no substantial English text, making it unnecessary to make any changes to localize it.  The ROM is the same for every region the game was released in.  Future Metroid games would always be released first in the US with the exception of Super Metroid.  Super Metroid was released in Japan only a month earlier than the US, which was practically a simultaneous release in those days.  Both cartridges contain the same ROM, and English speakers have the unusual option of choosing to have Japanese text for the menus and subtitles for the opening.

Although Nintendo may have been working on a colorized version of Metroid II for the Game Boy Color, it was never released.  The Game Boy Color has a custom palette built into the unit for Metroid II, and it looks pretty nice.  The blue backgrounds look distinct against the red and yellow of the sprites.  At times, some sprites use green instead of red.  The Game Boy Color supports up to 10 colors for certain Game Boy games, including Metroid II.  Nintendo's choice of default palette for the Super Game Boy is not bad, but is a bit cartoony and needs a bit of tweaking to look best in my opinion.  Some of the alternate palette options given in the Super Game Boy Player's Guide are decent.  Even turning the green to black makes a big difference.  The Super Game Boy only supports 4 colors for non-Super Game Boy enhanced Game Boy games.

Super Metroid picks up where Metroid II left off, and Metroid Fusion has something of a "virtual" return to SR388.  Metroid games were AWOL after Super Metroid's release in 1994.  Eight years would pass before another Metroid game would grace either a home or portable Nintendo console.  The success of Metroid II meant that future quality games in the series would be made for the portable consoles.

1 comment:

HunterZ said...

I bought Metroid II when it was new, and played the heck out of it. I remember keeping a save file at the end of the game so that I could hear the ending credits music. Definitely one of my favorites for the system.

I think the game had almost the right amount of music. Most of the non-music areas were large caverns, where the lack of music amplified the empty feeling.

The game is also loaded with secrets. You pretty much have to crawl every wall and ceiling with spider ball to find them, which people probably found a bit too tedious given that the power-up was absent from Super Metroid.