Metroid II, AM2R, and Samus Returns: How gameplay redefines a narrative

As much as the gaming community complains about remakes, full remakes are actually rare. HD re-releases are common since they don’t require work beyond compatibility testing and texture upgrades, but rebuilding a game from the ground up with new assets in a new engine is an immense undertaking. Remakes tend to sell fewer copies than sequels and new properties so studios naturally shy away from any remake that would take up a good chunk of their resources. This makes it hard to compare the same game as envisioned by different designers, the way we do when the same movie is adapted by different writers and directors.

This is why Metroid II is such a gold mine for discussion and analysis. We have access to the original Metroid II made by Makoto Kano and produced by the late, great, Gunpei Yokoi, AM2R developed by Milton Guasti now a designer at High Moon Studios, and Samus Returns designed by Jacobo Luengo and Aleix Garrido Obernik and produced by Yoshio Sakamoto.

On the surface, these games have the exact same plot. After Samus defeats Mother Brain, the Galactic Federation rules that metroids are far too dangerous. They tell Samus to go to the metroid homeworld of SR388 and commit some good old fashioned alien genocide. The three games hit the same plot beats. Samus descends into the planets bowels exterminating metroids along the way, defeats the metroid queen, and escapes the planet with a metroid hatchling that has mistaken her for its mother.

While the plot is identical across all three games, mechanically they are quite different and small changes in mechanics can drastically change the story being told. It’s like how “I went to the store to get a can of beans” is a wildly story in the settings of present day, World War I, and the zombie apocalypse. So what stories are these three adaptations telling?

Metroid II – The Real Monster Is Yourself

As much as the gaming community complains about remakes, full remakes are actually rare. HD re-releases are common since they don’t require work beyond compatibility testing and texture upgrades, but rebuilding a game from the ground up with new assets in a new engine is an immense undertaking. Remakes tend to sell fewer copies than sequels and new properties so studios naturally shy away from any remake that would take up a good chunk of their resources. This makes it hard to compare the same game as envisioned by different designers, the way we do when the same movie is adapted by different writers and directors.

This is why Metroid II is such a gold mine for discussion and analysis. We have access to the original Metroid II made by Makoto Kano and produced by the late, great, Gunpei Yokoi, AM2R developed by Milton Guasti now a designer at High Moon Studios, and Samus Returns designed by Jacobo Luengo and Aleix Garrido Obernik and produced by Yoshio Sakamoto.

On the surface, these games have the exact same plot. After Samus defeats Mother Brain, the Galactic Federation rules that metroids are far too dangerous. They tell Samus to go to the metroid homeworld of SR388 and commit some good old fashioned alien genocide. The three games hit the same plot beats. Samus descends into the planets bowels exterminating metroids along the way, defeats the metroid queen, and escapes the planet with a metroid hatchling that has mistaken her for its mother.

While the plot is identical across all three games, mechanically they are quite different and small changes in mechanics can drastically change the story being told. It’s like how “I went to the store to get a can of beans” is a wildly story in the settings of present day, World War I, and the zombie apocalypse. So what stories are these three adaptations telling?

This made every second of the game feel like a point of no return. Progressing through the game brought you further away from the planet’s surface and your ship, which stood as a symbol of the outside world. The player frequently felt like they were in over their head, invading an alien planet filled with the most dangerous bio-weapon known to mankind. Samus didn’t have a choice in her adventure. It was either exterminate the metroids or die.

This tense atmosphere was expressed perfectly through Metroid II’s enemy placement. Metroid encounters were telegraphed by empty metroid husks. This let you know you were going in the right direction but also made you feel on edge since it meant a boss battle was coming up. As you progressed deeper into the planet normal enemies became rare and metroids became more common, which only reinforced how dangerous these creatures are.

Then there’s the ending which was simultaneously triumphant and disturbing. After you kill the queen metroid everything comes to a halt. You pick up the baby metroid and wander through empty tunnels, making your way back to your ship. You realize that, with the metroids gone, the planet is barren. What were tense pathways leading to boss battles are now just empty caves, devoid of life and eliciting no emotion. A few minutes ago the game used absence of life as a sign of a dangerous predator, but now the absence of life was caused by you, the player. You were this planet’s most dangerous predator. It gives you one of those “maybe I was the real monster all along” moments that horror stories are so fond of.

Nintendo would capitalize on this self-reflective fear with the release of Metroid Fusion, where it was revealed that Samus’s actions unleashed the X parasite. In Metroid II, the player was left questioning whether or not their actions were right, and Metroid Fusion smacks them in the face and tells them, no! Samus was the invader, exterminating a native species in their home and the metroids were the only thing keeping the universe safe from the X.

Mankind would have been better off if Samus just didn’t accept the mission. In a sense, the ending of Metroid II has Samus Aran sentencing the universe to a fate worse than death because she wasn’t strong enough to question the orders or a provably corrupt government. It’s that weakness in an otherwise strong character that makes her so compelling, and makes her actions in Metroid II so much more chilling.

AM2R – Reliving the Sins of The Past

Now let’s talk about AM2R, a game that saw Metroid II’s limited Gameboy mechanics and decided that the Metroids of the Super Nintendo and Gameboy Advance eras were better. It feels almost identical to Super Metroid. The camera is zoomed out, making areas much less claustrophobic and making it easier to see where you’re going. Save points restore your ammo and health eliminating Metroid IIs resource scarcity. The isolated areas are now connected by a single massive tunnel network which can now be backtracked through. Samus moves faster, hits harder, and has a ton of new abilities. She feels more than equipped for anything that SR388 can throw at her.

These alterations kill the horror theme of the original Metroid II and replace it with a narrative based on exploration, which is essentially the narrative of Super Metroid or Metroid Prime. AM2R isn’t a dark story about the ethicality of murdering an entire alien race; rather it is an Indiana Jones style adventure story about uncovering the past of the Chozo.

The graphics of AM2R do a lot to reinforce this narrative. Barren caves are littered with Chozo statues. Empty rooms are now filled with pipes and machinery. What was a barren alien planet is now the hollowed out ruins of a Chozo colony. You’ll travel through a water treatment plant, a weapon manufacturing plant, a religious temple, and more. You aren’t spelunking through a tunnel network, you are walking manufactured floors imbedded into the planet’s bedrock. The extra bosses you fight are technological or artificial in nature and new game areas are modeled as the interiors of buildings and facilities. The environments are so engaging that Samus’s quest to eradicate the metroids becomes secondary to the discovery of who the Chozo were and what they were doing on SR388.

The mechanics reinforce this focus on exploration. Aside from her extra weapons, Samus is given the use of the Speed Booster, an upgrade that, together with the Shine Spark, is specifically meant for traversal and exploration. Many of the puzzles that lock away upgrades are solvable through exploration. Poke around enough and you’ll find your way to every missile upgrade in the game.

Out of all three games, AM2R railroads you the least. Heck, you can get the Gravity Suit before the Varia Suit, if you really want to. Aside from lava, which acts as a gatekeeper based on how many metroids you killed, the entire planet is open for Samus to explore. Guasti wanted to be sure that Samus’s journey in AM2R could be crafted and customized to the player’s specific playstyle. As a result, speedrunners, completionists, and casual players will have massively different experiences in AM2R, whereas they will usually hit the same areas in the same order in Metroid II and Samus Returns. This focus on individual experience only reinforces the exploration based narrative.

AM2R slowly stops populating levels with enemies as you progress deeper into the planet’s core, much like Metroid II did. Yet this newfound isolation isn’t used to create a feeling of horror or tension. Instead, Guasti added another layer of storytelling by phasing out biological enemies halfway through the game and replacing them with mechanical enemies. It makes the player feel like the only thing that can survive the metroid infested halls of SR388 are the technological relics of the Chozo.

By the time Samus enters the final cave system there are no further traces of biological life. Like before, Samus must make her way through corridors to face the queen metroid, but these corridors aren’t just barren caverns. They are massive hollowed out structures built by the Chozo. The long run up to the queen allows you to bask in how massive they are. This fills you with a sort of wonder for the Chozo and reverence for the maps you traverse, rather than a sense of dread.

Even the battle with the metroid queen has an aspect of travel in it. Instead of facing her in a dark cramped room, she shatters the ruins around her and chases you through them. The battle is tense because you see the queen metroid destroying the Chozo’s legacy.

When you defeat her and obtain the baby metroid, you will once again find no enemies on your trek back to the planet’s surface. Instead of reflecting on your own actions, you are left to reflect on the actions of the Chozo. As Samus’s ship pulls away from the soft nighttime sky of SR388 the game ends on that iconic line “The last metroid is in captivity. The galaxy is at peace.” You realize that Samus just destroyed the last great work of the Chozo, the metroids themselves.

The end of AM2R was the end of an era, an adventure that made us re-live the end of the Chozo. Since Samus was raised by the Chozo, AM2R was as much a journey of self-discovery, as it was a story of ruin diving adventure.

Samus Returns – Time to Kill Metroids and Chew Bubblegum

This brings us to Samus Returns. Whereas Metroid II was a horror story and AM2R was a story about uncovering the past, Samus Returns is an action story. Samus has a mission, and that mission is killing aliens. There’s nothing that’s going to come between her and kickin’ some alien butt!

…. Do metroids even have butts?

Samus Returns also introduces new mechanics to the Metroid II formula, and they are all focused on combat. Samus gets her new weapons from other Metroid games and Aeion Abilities which further increase her combat prowess. These abilities have some role in traversal, but they basically amount to a shield, rapid fire, and bullet time, three abilities that you are used to finding in action games.

Her other new ability is the melee counter, which lets her counter-attack enemies by parrying them the instant they strike. While Metroid II and AM2R featured Samus carefully descending into the depths of an alien planet, Samus Returns literally features Samus punching aliens with her gun arm before blowing them up.

To make the melee counter engaging, enemy behavior had to change. In Metroid II and AM2R, enemies would follow simple behavior patterns. It was as if Samus was stumbling upon creatures in their native habitat. Not so in Samus Returns. Every single enemy is out to get you. As soon as an enemy sees you, they immediately attack. Enemies do a ton of damage making them the primary threat (as opposed to resource scarcity.) It makes you feel like you are in a hostile jungle with fangs and claws at all sides, ready to tear away at you.

Yet this danger is never terrifying. It’s just another challenge for Samus to overcome. All of the enemies exist solely for Samus to kill them. While she could have ignored enemies in Metroid II or AM2R, she has to stop and murder each and every thing that crosses her path in Samus Returns.

Samus Returns isn’t interested in exploration at all. Its Scan Pulse ability completely removes the need to explore. It reveals the map around you and notifies you immediately if an upgrade is locked until you get some sort of new beam or ability. Areas in Samus Returns are even more isolated than they were in Metroid II, with an elevator at the beginning and end of each area sectioning off your progress. Tons of slippery walls and bomb sucking air vents prevent you from using your abilities to explore the environment. You aren’t meant to explore. You are meant to go from one area to the next, killing everything along the way.

The game is practically designed around killing. Environments are all just random varieties of caves. They don’t tell a story nor do they give you a sense of dread. Instead, they set up interesting combat encounters. Enemies will attack from above and below, ambush you in cramped spaces, or disable some of your weapons. Some enemies are even invulnerable until you find certain upgrades.

The atmospheric parts of Metroid II have been gutted. Enemies don’t become rarer as you go deeper into the planet. In fact, enemies only become more plentiful. Ridding a room of a metroid only allows it to be swarmed with basic enemies on revisits. Even the final stretch of the game, after defeating the queen metroid, is littered with enemies. You don’t get any time to sit back and reflect. You have to keep shooting enemies in the face.

The queen metroid isn’t even the final fight this time around. Samus’s journey isn’t over when she rids the universe of the metroid threat. Instead, she returns to the surface to fight…Ridley, for some reason. This totally retcons the beginning of Super Metroid, but it certainly gives Samus more opportunities to do high flying flips and acrobatic stunts.

And it’s these stunts that most clearly characterize Samus Returns as an action game. All the action tropes are there. When you fight a giant robot in the middle of the game, Samus finishes it off by slowly walking away and firing a beam in its face. When you melee counter a metroid, Samus mounts it like an eager Titanfall player and starts peppering fire into its mouth and belly. Every fight is meant to be a cinematic spectacle because the action is taking center stage.

The focus on action and the cameo appearance by Ridley reduces the scope of the game. Instead of being its own adventure with its own themes and tones, Samus Returns is an extension of Samus’s personal vendetta with the Space Pirates. It’s a game about how Samus is preparing for Super Metroid, the conflict that would eventually bring the Space Pirates to their knees.

What story we do get from is completely incongruous to the game’s mechanical tone. The Chozo memories that you receive by collecting all the upgrades tell a story about how the Chozo came to SR388, found Aeion energy within its life-forms, and unleashed the X by attempting to harvest that energy. They created the metroids to fight against the X, but this caused the metroids to mutate into the monstrous forms you fight throughout the game. They then sealed these evolved metroids with purple acid to prevent them from getting off the planet. This is a fantastic story for Metroid II or AM2R but there is no evidence of this story outside the Chozo Memories in Samus Returns., not even a nod or two in the background. Oh well, more fodder for the “Aeion energy and the X are the same thing” theory I’m crafting.

Bringing it all together

By playing all three interpretations of Metroid II, we can see that mechanics have a profound effect on narrative. But which is the “real” story?

If you look at Metroid II as a precursor to Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion, then the original tells the true story. Its horror tone sets up an ongoing meta-narrative that focuses on the consequences of Samus’s actions. Super Metroid only happens because of Samus’s actions in the original Metroid, and Metroid Fusion only happens because of her actions in Metroid II. In both situations she attempts to make the galaxy safer but her actions merely make the situation worse. She essentially ends up repeating the mistakes of the Chozo.

If you look at Metroid II as a successor to the Metroid Prime series, then AM2R tells the “real” story. The Prime series focused on exploration as a way to tell the history of the Chozo. Instead of focusing on Samus’s individual role in the events of the galaxy, it focuses on what the Chozo (and the Luminoth) did before her. Prime was a series that focused on world building, and it’s AM2R that shares that tone more than any other.

Finally (and I know this is going to piss off some Metroid fans out there), but if you look at Other M as the last true Metroid title, then Samus Returns tells the truest story. Other M sets up the entirety of the Metroid franchise as a personal conflict for Samus Aran. It eschews the lore of the Chozo for the specific events that make a difference in Samus’s own life. Every conflict in Other M is personal, and conflict is set up specifically to be shown as a threat to Samus, not necessarily the rest of the galaxy. Samus Returns is crafted in the exact same way. The focus on action and combat and portrayal of Samus as a lone hero (so much so that Ridley chases her to SR388 for some unknown reason) makes the events of Samus Returns a personal trial for Samus, which was exactly what Other M did.

Of course, more will be revealed after we get to play the upcoming Metroid Prime 4. What do you think? Which Metroid II story is the 0story that makes most sense to you? Let us know in the comments.