Metroid II: Return of Samus
The original Metroid for the Nintendo Entertainment System was groundbreaking, but obviously flawed. Nintendo R&D1 had succeeded in creating a moody exploration-based platformer, and when it came time to develop the imminent sequel, their task was to round out the rough edges and tap into the NES game's concept's potential. Though not the series' pinnacle - that title would be duly assigned to Super Metroid - Metroid II: Return of Samus is a classic in its own right. Even to one not enamored with what it has to offer, there can be no doubt that it serves as the necessary transitionary game between the unrefined 1987 debut and the 1994 masterpiece.
After the events of the first game, wherein Samus, on behalf of the Galactic Federation, defeated the Space Pirates and stopped their plans to breed Metroids as a weapon, the situation is tense as a result of the possibility of the parasitic species still being alive. After sending a research and then a combat group to the species' home planet of SR388, both teams losing contact with the Federation, it became clear that at least one Metroid is remains in existence. The decision is made to send out Samus Aran once more, this time to infiltrate the unexplored planet where she spent her childhood and wipe out the entire species deemed responsible for the extinction of the Chozo race that raised her. It's worth noting that the finale sets the stage for Super Metroid's story quite nicely.
Samus is much larger this time around, taking up much more of the game screen, and her enemies are the same in this regard. She controls just as well as in the previous title, and has a number of abilities and upgrades not featured then. Of her returning abilities: she once more has the ability to collect bombs, which she can lay while in Morph Ball form; the Ice Beam, which freezes enemies before a final shot which destroys them; the Varia suit, which gives her extra resistance to attacks; the Wave Beam, which is a more powerful wave-like beam that can pass through walls; the High Jump Boots, which increase the planet-penetrating protagonist's jump; and the Screw Attack, which turns Samus's jump into a formidable attack in its own right. Several abilities make their first appearance as well: the Spider-Ball, by which Samus can roll along any flat and consistent surface, walls and ceilings included; the Spring Ball, which gives her a jump that can be performed in Morph Ball mode; the Space Jump, allowing her to jump as much as needed when executed properly; the Spazer Beam, an even more powerful beam that shoots three lasers; and the Plasma Beam, which is the game's most powerful. There are, of course, the 6 energy tanks, five of which can be stored as supplements to Samus's health, and 22 missile pods, which at her max allows her to hold 250 missiles ready for fire. What is added to the boss bounty hunter's repertoire - the Spring Ball, Space Jump, and extra beams - completes her list of staple abilities recurring throughout the series.
The progression is very similar to its predecessor, except that sections of the map aren't as obviously separated from one another, giving the world of SR388 a feeling of interconnectedness greater than in 1987's Metroid; also, there are 39 of the titular terrors, and destroying them one by one unlocks areas Samus is previously hindered from entering. It's possible to enter these places, however, and some parts of the map can be explored before or after one another, so speed runners can have a field day with the game as any of the series' other offerings. There is no in-game viewable map, and the map itself is not consistent with its dimensions (hallways here are too long, rooms there couldn't possibly fit where they're place) - this is one of the game's biggest flaws, but certainly not enough to hold the experience back too much given the relatively low difficulty.
The visuals are nothing that can compete with later installments, although they certainly are a step up from the first outing. Samus's sprite is much more distinctive than her NES rendering, mostly due to its size. The Metroids at different stages in their development are menacing and easy to tell apart. The walls and minor enemies aren't any better or worse than how they were presented prior to this particular visit to SR388, and the backgrounds are once more lazily pitch black. 'The 'Title Theme' plays the same role as the one used in the first game, beginning on an eerie tone and moving into bittersweet territory. 'Surface of SR388', which plays during the starting area of the game, serves as the heroic and adventurous track that every Metroid game seems to require; it ranks among the best songs in the series to boot. 'Ancient Chozo Ruins' has a very bouncy melody, albeit a less-than-stellar one. The 'Omega Metroid Theme' is a perfect example of the ambient noise with jarring melodies that the series utilizes to put the listener on edge. 'Metroid Nest' just the opposite, having a steady, creepy melody on the face with unpredictable harmony and percussion in the background, to the same effect. 'Staff Credits' is an upbeat, satisfying tune to phase the player out of the former home planet of the Chozo and Metroid species and back to the real world. It's true that the backgrounds are blank, that not all the visuals are much of a step up from the previous installment, and that the occasional irritating track - namely, 'Ancient Chozo Ruins' - holds the sound back. On the other hand, the atmosphere is quite effective in reeling the player into the world therein, this very likely due to the game's embracing of the basic capabilities of the Game Boy system - much in the same way classic movies were able to utilize black and white and basic special effects to produce marvelous gems.
Samus's second outing is sorely underrated. It takes the elements of the original and makes a much more playable experience. Moreover, it takes a unique direction from said debut and all the two-dimensional successors with its Metroid kill count. At its core, primarily, this is a fun, satisfying play which draws the gamer into its world like the series is known for. Super Metroid may have topped it three years later, but Return of Samus remains among the series' best, along with the likes of Super and Metroid Prime.