Friday, September 9, 2016

Another Metroid 2 Remake - Thoughts

Back in my Stardew Valley entry, I mentioned how we're in an era where the torches of stale Japenese IPs are being passed onto Western indie devs. Nested in this claim are also hundreds of passion projects based off of the framework of an already existing franchise. Whereas a game like Stardew Valley seeks to leave its own unique mark on the world, there are plenty of fan-made games that aim to honor their predecessors by using an existing engine or creating a new—but unmistakably similar—one. Entries like Streets of Rage Remake, Mega Man Unlimited, and a veritable ocean of Doom wads both honor and expand off of their source material, rivaling (and sometimes surpassing) their elders in quality. Joining this pantheon of fan-crafted greatness is Another Metroid 2 Remake (AM2R), a game that masterfully melds Metroid 2 and Metroid: Zero Mission together.

As a diehard Metroid fan that regards Super Metroid as his favorite game of all time, I'm reasonably skeptical of anything that has Samus' Varia-clad sprite attached to it. The series has a special look and style to it that's not easy to imitate; though dozens of Metroidvanias are released each year, only Axiom Verge has come close to capturing the energy and tonality of the original NES Metroid. Delving into a fan-made project can also be a bit of a gamble, since you're unsure of the level of quality you're likely to get... or if the project leader even likes said game for the same reasons you do. An example of something I was kinda looking forward to was Super Mario Fusion for its clever twist on classic Mario gameplay, before it eventually devolved into an orgy of nonsense. Not every project suffers its fate of course, but I'd argue it's more likely for fan games to dive off the deep end due to a lack of guidance than your run-of-the-mill retail product (er, before the advent of Steam Greenlight I suppose).

Thankfully, Another Metroid 2 Remake suffers no such fate. Samus' old-new adventure remains loyal to its predecessor's design while updating it with the modern hallmarks of a 2D Metroid. You'll find familiar items scattered around slightly-familiar locations (Speed Booster, Power Bombs, stacking beams, etc.), and besides a handful of boss battles and one new area, AM2R follows the Game Boy version's structure quite religiously. There's ruins to plunder, dens to be smoked out, and boiling lava to be drained once you've eradicated enough metroids. Despite the Metroid 2 skin, it looks and handles mostly like Zero Mission (with a handful of tweaks you can apply to make it closer to Super Metroid), which is a blessing since the diminutive Game Boy screen didn't allow Samus much flexibility in the older title. Oh, and the soundtrack takes an inspirational nod from the Metroid Prime series, which fits surprisingly well here.

I cannot stress enough how successful AM2R is in both revering and expanding off of Metroid 2's core design philosophy. If you've never played it before, Metroid 2 is kind of a weird game that doesn't quite feel like the other entries in the series: you're never required to backtrack to previous areas for power ups and a significant amount of your time is spent fighting the ~50 metroids in their various evolutionary stages. It's one part spelunker and another part boss rush; Metroid 2 is the one Metroid game that feels truly oppressive, since you're always descending ever-deeper into the vile metroid nest (plus, the soundtrack and the 2-bit color palette contributed greatly in making SR388 feel dark and lifeless).

AM2R successfully takes these aspects and presents them to the player in a prettier bundle, managing to retain what made the original game feel so unique. There's still a sense of unease to encountering a metroid den or traveling too deep into a facility with no save point in sight. Metroid fights are tense, long, and arduous like they were in the original game, though significantly less dependent on spamming missiles and more about studying/absuing AI patterns, especially in the exhausting Zeta and Omega battles. The game is still centered around the bite-sized areas branching off of the main path, though they're thankfully far more original and less repetitive this time around. And lastly, there's plenty of slow, plodding spider ball portions where you'll travel along the ceilings of vast caverns looking for goodies.

These things may not sound too appealing to you—the metroid fights can definitely feel like a chore due to their high HP pool—but I feel that above all else, AM2R respects its forebearer. The project doesn't look upon the Game Boy entry as a failure that needed refinement, but as an under-appreciated gem that would flourish with a new coat of paint and some classic power-ups added. AM2R treats Metroid 2's enemies and layout with reverence, wanting to do more with them by envisioning what a SNES/GBA port of the game might be like. What conveyed this message best wasn't in the opening moments or all the subtle variations I noticed throughout the game—it was the quiet, ambient jaunt the player takes before reaching the final save point. This monsterless vignette is an extremely odd (and slightly uncomfortable) section in the original Metroid 2 that felt a little out of place considering you're already in narrow corridors for the final fifth of the game, but rather than ax the segment, AM2R's philosophy was to showcase—not replace. I still find that portion a bit strange, but it's cool to see that it's been kept.

Like Metroid: Zero Mission long before it, AM2R practically renders its precursor obsolete. For better or worse, it manages to keep the peculiar design decisions that made Metroid 2 feel so divisive whilst wrapping them inside of a more palatable skin, and each of the new tweaks, sounds, and fights it adds feel right at home. Sadly there are still some things that disappointed me—the final fight in particular is nowhere near as insanely nerve-wracking as its original incarnation (dull might be a good word for it)—but I felt that this entry should be about praising DoctorM64 for accomplishing something I'm sure many were doubting would ever even see the light of day. Honestly, it feels damn good to play a great, new 2D Metroid game in 2016...

... though it's unfortunate that Nintendo doesn't feel the same way about the project.

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