Where Gaming's Best Stories Are Told
The Story Behind Metroid II and Its Importance to the Metroid Canon
On November 24th, Metroid fans and 3DS owners alike got a very special treat – the Gameboy classic Metroid II: Return of Samus appeared on the handheld's Virtual Console service to bring gamers back to Samus's desolate adventure into the heart of SR-388, the home planet of the vicious Metroid species.
However, something is surely amiss here. This isn't a re-release of Super Metroid or Metroid Prime, two of the franchise's best games and, arguably, two of the best games Nintendo has ever made. Rather, this is a re-release of a black-and-white Gameboy game with seemingly the least in common with any other Metroid game to date. Gone are the Space Pirates, Mother Brain, hell, even a world map. You step into the boots of the galaxy's finest bounty hunter with only your Power Suit and one objective: kill every last Metroid on this god-forsaken rock.
Metroid II: Return of Samus is certainly quite the deviation from the traditional Metroid formula, which could be part of the reason why the game is so little spoken of when it comes to the franchise. While it was only Samus's second adventure to be developed at the time (though, chronologically, the game is the sixth in the series), it would become the first Metroid game to appear on a portable device, and specifically the only Metroid game to be made on the original Gameboy, with Metroid Fusion and Metroid Zero Mission following on the Gameboy Advance many years later.
Thus, the entire existence of this game is rather an odd one. It throws a wrench in the circuitry of the regular flow of Metroid games. Yet, there's much more to this monochromatic Metroid game at first glance; while Return of Samus seems to be just a simple game with a simple objective, seemingly out-of-place in the franchise, Metroid II finds its biggest contributions to the series coming from one of the most unlikely sources: plot. No, you won't find any earth-shattering, mind-blowing cut scenes straight out of Other M, nor will you find hundreds upon hundreds of documents to scan that unearth a much bigger story a la Metroid Prime. But what you will find is a foundation, the basis for what culminates in later games like Super Metroid, Other M, and Metroid Fusion. Indeed, without the events of Return of Samus, the rest of the canon likely could have ended up much differently, if not at all entirely.
Before we get into what makes the game so important, we must understand where this piece fits into the entire puzzle. Unlike franchises like Halo or Call of Duty, games are not necessarily developed in the order in which the plot takes place. Instead, the Metroid franchise jumps around quite a lot – for example, while Metroid Fusion is chronologically the last Metroid game in the series, it is actually the fourth Metroid game to be developed, followed by the entire Prime series, plus Other M.
In the case of Metroid II, it is actually not a direct sequel to the original Metroid. In fact, Metroid II takes place after the Prime games, which means the first game is succeeded by Prime 1, Hunters, Prime 2: Echoes, Prime 3: Corruption, and then finally Metroid II. After the events of Metroid II, Super Metroid, Other M, and Fusion follow in that order.
It is certainly necessary to understand the order in which the game stakes place, as it'll make it much easier to understand how exactly Samus finds herself on SR-388 to kill every last Metroid in Return of Samus. After successfully defeating Mother Brain and her minions on Zebes in the original Metroid, Samus takes off after a job well done. Simultaneously, the Space Pirates are not quite finished yet – the remaining members of the horde split up into two groups, one of which is meant to revive their failed plans on Zebes, as well as Mother Brain and her cohorts; the other ends up on Tallon IV and begins to take control of the ultra-radioactive substance known as Phazon. Samus eventually receives a distress signal coming from a pirate frigate stationed just outside Tallon IV, beginning the events of Prime 1.
Samus taking on Mother Brain at the end of Super Metroid
After defeating the pirates, Ridley, and Metroid Prime, Samus must then rid the entire universe of Phazon before Dark Samus, the main antagonist of Prime's 2 and 3, takes control. Being the stellar heroine that she is, Samus is successful, and after Dark Samus is defeated and the Phazon home world is destroyed, peace is once again restored to the galaxy.
However, the Galactic Federation, the over-seeing organization that controls planets and colonies across the stars and the provider of Samus's bounties, decides that they have had enough of the Space Pirates trying to use Metroids as biological weapons. The Federation, understanding the true power of the Metroid species through the events of Metroid and the Prime series, orders Samus to head to SR-388 and eliminate every last Metroid. With mass genocide seemingly not outside Samus's moral code, she agrees and heads to SR-388 to begin to her mission, which is the crux of Metroid II.
Just as Metroid II through fans of the original game a huge curve ball with its many differences compared to Metroid, the release of Other M on the heels of Metroid Prime 3 proved to be just as much of a deviation. If you played the game, you most likely also cringed at Samus's constant obsession over “the baby,” referring to the infant Metroid that saves her life in the dramatic cut scene at the beginning of the game, which was the actual final battle versus Mother Brain at the end of the preceding game, Super Metroid. That Metroid is clearly no ordinary Metroid, but anyone who has played Metroid II understands why – after killing the Queen Metroid of SR-388, Samus happens upon a Metroid egg, which hatches as she approaches it. The newborn creature immediately imprints and Samus becomes, in its eyes, its true mother.
At the end of Metroid II, nothing really seems to come of it; the real story begins in its direct sequel, Super Metroid. The infant Metroid Samus found in Metroid II had been brought into the Ceres research station for study. Samus leaves once things are under control, but immediately receives a distress signal from Ceres. Upon her return, she finds that the entire facility has been slaughtered by Ridley, who apparently survived the events of Metroid Prime 3, and cannot stop him from kidnapping the infant Metroid and bringing it to Zebes, where one of the aforementioned Space Pirate groups, the one that had not gone to Tallon IV, had rebuilt their Zebes facilities to their former glory.
Samus is able to tear through Zebes once more and decimate all of the Space Pirates and their leaders, but not before Mother Brain gains the upper hand and transforms into an immense giant that, with one fell swoop, knocks the bounty hunter onto the edge of death. Without the sudden arrival of the infant Metroid, now much larger and more fierce, Samus may not have survived that mission.
However, while Samus does survive, the infant Metroid does not. Unfortunately, Samus makes us remember that time and time again in Other M in her terribly monotonous voice, but I digress – my thoughts on Other M are surely for another time.
The Baby Metroid, now fully grown, as it appears in Super Metroid
The infant Metroid ultimately proves to be more important than what the end of Metroid II made it seem, which is particularly interesting because that same Metroid would end up spurring on the rest of the games to follow in Return of Samus's footsteps. The Metroid being kidnapped not only resulted in the complete destruction of the Space Pirates and the planet Zebes itself, but also Samus's emotional state in Other M, as her brief time being a “mother,” in whatever sense of the word you want to use, definitely left an impact on the heroine in games to come.
It is this relationship between Samus and the Metroid, mother and offspring, that cements itself as being the foundation for a majority of the main arc of the Metroid canon. Likewise, we also see a change in Samus herself – in many other Metroid games, even Metroid II, Samus is motivated by her mission and her goal to complete the mission. However, in Super Metroid, we see that Samus's connection to the infant Metroid, a creature she was supposed to kill the second she got the opportunity to, becomes the fuel that fires her rampage through Zebes.
Likewise, as the Baby Metroid saves Samus's life at the end of Super Metroid, it does so again in Metroid Fusion – after coming in contact with stray X parasites on a research mission to SR-388 with Federation scientists, Samus gets a vaccine that prevents the parasites from completely destroying her body from the inside. This vaccine was only successful because it had Metroid DNA in it, its source being the same infant Metroid she saved in Metroid II. With the vaccine, she gains the capacity to take on the infestation of the X parasites, which were able to grow in the absence of their natural predators, the Metroids (which, as we should remember, are essentially extinct since Samus slaughtered them all previously in Return of Samus). Without the help of the infant Metroid, nay the mere existence of it, Samus likely would not have even survived the events of Metroid Fusion, let alone the battle against Mother Brain on Zebes.
Samus's arch-nemesis Ridley has a weird way of crashing the party no matter what time of day it is. If you think you killed him the last game, you definitely did not. Always expect to see the plasma-breathing space dragon when you step into the boots of Samus Aran. However, after Samus defeated Ridley in Metroid, Metroid Prime, and Metroid Prime 3, he and the rest of his Space Pirates were nowhere to be seen. Why?
Well, chronologically, it wouldn't be the first time Ridley didn't RSVP. In Metroid Prime Hunters, which takes place between Prime1 and Prime 2, all of Samus's regular enemies (Mother Brain, Kraid, Ridley, the Space Pirates, even actual Metroids) are nowhere to be seen. So for this to happen in Metroid II, as it indeed did happen, certainly doesn't seem too farfetched. It is worth noting, however, that Metroid II was only the second game to be developed, so Ridley's non-appearance in Hunters (he also does not appear in Prime 2) was not part of the equation at the time.
Regardless, why is any of this important? Metroid II went along its business without Mother Brain, Ridley, or anyone associated with them, so why make a point of mentioning Ridley at all? Well, it's not necessarily why Ridley should have shown up in Metroid II, which is entirely subjective, but rather what is more important is to analyze his whereabouts during the events of Metroid II.
As we know, Ridley's ability to reappear in Metroid games time and time again after seemingly being killed in a previous game does not seem to manifest itself in Metroid II. Thus, we must look to the events prior to Metroid II to find out why. Remember, Metroid II does not come after Metroid chronologically, but instead Metroid Prime 3: Corruption.
When Samus faces off against Ridley for the second time in Corruption, he appears in a mutated form unlike any of his previous incarnations. While he maintains his identity as “Meta Ridley” for most of the events in the Prime games (after being mechanically enhanced by the Space Pirates after the events of Metroid), he fights Samus at the end of Corruption while being infected and taken over by Phazon, taking the form of “Omega Ridley.” When Samus finally defeats him, his death is not so certain – Ridley does not just fall to the ground dead, instead wrapping his wings around him and, well, not dropping dead, but essentially vanishing. But Samus eventually destroys the source of all the Phazon in the universe, so that also means it would be gone from Ridley's body.
Samus would find many Metroids, but not Ridley, on this mission.
This presents an odd, but reasonable predicament for the Space Pirates, who have revived Ridley at least once before these events. With the Phazon entirely gone from his body, it's very likely Ridley, if he's alive, would simply be able to be conditioned back to fighting form in a state that would match his first appearance in Metroid rather than his Meta Ridley form in Prime 1. However, if he did die, at the very least his body could possibly be in a state to be revived without any problems resulting from radioactivity.
However, Ridley could have also been just completely destroyed by Samus, thus prompting the Space Pirates to simply clone Ridley (similar to how the Galactic Federation does so in Other M), thus allowing him to show up in Super Metroid, though that is just speculation. Either way, it seems very clear that Metroid II actually seems to serve as a buffer for Ridley – his appearance in Metroid II simply would not make any sense considering his failures in Corruption. However, the time between Corruption and Super Metroid could have easily been a reasonable amount to allow Ridley to return, in one way or another.
Even though the following is not necessarily in regards to canon, Metroid II still sports many qualities that have outlasted the original release of the game and have had an impact on the franchise outside the realm of story and plot. Namely, this includes changes and additions made from Metroid to Metroid II.
First, Samus's iconic Varia Suit did show up in Metroid, but the form most fans come to recognize today, with its overly-large shoulder pads, originates in Return of Samus. Because the game was released on the Gameboy, which did not have the luxury of colors that the NES had, developers needed a way to distinguish the Varia Suit upgrade and Samus's starting Power Suit in a grayscale game. Thus, the Varia Suit was given its distinguishable shoulder embellishment to set it apart from the lack thereof of shoulder pads on the normal Power Suit, and this upgrade's appearance has stayed essentially the same in every Metroid game since.
Metroid II was also the birthplace of many of Samus's now-standard weapons and upgrades, including the Plasma Beam, Spider Ball, and Morph Ball Jump. The Plasma Beam would go on to become a staple part of Samus's arsenal in the 2D side-scrolling games like Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion, even making an appearance in the Prime series. Speaking of which, the Spider Ball would find many uses in Metroid Prime and its following sequels, where the introduction of 3D brought the Morph Ball into an entirely new realm of importance and reliability to complete puzzles.
Finally, in a move that all Metroid players would go on to love, and eventually take for granted, Metroid II featured specific rooms that allowed players to save their game without having to enter a password. Because of this, the original Metroid would stay the only game in the series to use passwords to access save files; thankfully, Nintendo made the smart decision to dissolve the password system for good starting with Return of Samus.
Understand that a story does not come together without all of its many parts working in coercion and with stability. Along these lines, Metroid II fits into the canon as a piece of the puzzle more important than most fans probably think. The conventions and events of Return of Samus provide a much larger backdrop to the entire succeeding Metroid storyline than at first glance, so if you have your 3DS within reach, maybe it won't be that bad of an idea to download this classic adventure and experience Samus's journey into the depths of the Metroid home planet, an adventure that, as we find out later, changes her life forever.