When Metroid was first released it was a unique game: with a lot of exploring to do across a giant map and with plenty of hidden items and paths, those willing to spend the time to find everything were well rewarded. The original title has aged fairly poorly though — the game lacks many things we take for granted nowadays, one being that there is no map, so your only options are to try and remember every path or draw a crude map yourself.
You'd expect it to be well known whether the sequel rectifies these issues, but for some reason Metroid II: Return of Samus seems to be the most overlooked entry in the series. Is that because it's a bad game, or just because not a lot of people know about it? This release on the 3DS Virtual Console gives this title another chance to make its case.
Taking place after Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and before Super Metroid in the series timeline, Samus has been ordered to travel to SR388, the Metroid home planet, to exterminate every remaining specimen once and for all and prevent the Space Pirates from using them again. With that basic premise in hand, it becomes clear that this game is much, much more linear than the first. SR388 is divided into different levels — progress into the planet's deeper regions is blocked by a huge vertical tunnel filled with lava, with exits to the sides leading off to relatively small separate areas housing Metroid nests. Killing a certain number of Metroids will (somehow) cause the lava to lower, granting you access to deeper, more challenging sections of the planet.
As with most titles in the series, the most famous "regular" Metroids don't actually appear until near the end of the game. Before that, you'll mostly be killing Metroids in different stages of their evolution — Alpha, Gamma, Zeta and Omega. Naturally, they become much stronger and faster as you progress, so when you encounter stronger types you need to have some spare lives ready. There's a total of 39 Metroids to kill to eliminate the species, with the last naturally being the biggest test.
Of course, it wouldn't be a Metroid game without various power-ups. Aside from the collectible Missile Expansions and Energy Tanks, you'll get pretty much every single thing which was also in the first game — Morph Ball Bombs, Ice and Wave Beams, the Varia Suit, High Jump Boots, the Screw Attack and more. This title also introduces many more power-ups which have since returned for other games in the series - the Space Jump Boots, Spider Ball and Plasma Beam, to name a few. Not all equipment is necessary to beat the game, but it'll certainly make it a lot easier.
One of the biggest issues with the first Metroid game was the immense difficulty you'd face after dying; there was no easy way to restore life and missiles, meaning you'd have to keep killing enemies in the hopes of them dropping health and ammo for you. Metroid II seriously improves on this, although it's still not exactly perfect. Scattered around the various locales of SR388 are energy and missile-restoring "hot spots". Running into either of these icons will fully restore the thing they represent. They're still a far cry from Super Metroid's health-restoring save points, but anything is better than spending an hour regaining life and ammo. Metroid II also features save points, made possible by a battery backup in the original Game Boy cart. When these are combined with the Virtual Console restore point and suspend state functions, there are plenty of save options to help you through the game.
Graphically this title is fine: the background in almost every area is entirely black, but the platforms in the foreground and the enemies on and around them are all quite detailed, so you can easily identify what you're trying to kill. Perhaps the game's only bad point is the music. Some of the areas have basic tunes which, although not really good, are somewhat catchy, but most places seem to have what sounds like an attempt at ambient sounds — random bleeps and bloops which are supposed to be environmental tones. Sadly, this doesn't really work and they tend to get annoying after hearing them again and again.
Metroid II expands on the original title quite nicely. There's still no map for the game's giant world, but because it's fairly linear it shouldn't really be a problem most of the time. There's still a decent amount of exploration and hidden items to find, and the hunt to find and kill the 39 Metroids is fairly fun. Although nowhere near the 2D masterpiece that is Super Metroid, Metroid II has held up better than the original game and as such is still very much worth playing.