Right Click to Zoom — Fans vs. Funds; A Comparison of Project AM2R and Metroid: Samus Returns

Welcome to this week’s iteration of Right Click to Zoom, the more in-depth article side of this blog. Today, I’ll be looking into both Project AM2R and the newly released Metroid: Samus Returns, and comparing their different game design choices.

As far as I can tell, this is quite possibly a unique situation to have occurred in video game history. The original Metroid 2 was released on the Game Boy in 1991, and now decades later it has received two full remakes within a year of each other. It’s a rare opportunity to study how different developers and game design decisions can impact the delivery of what is effectively the same game, not to mention what elements of the original source material they keep or discard. Let’s give a brief synopsis of the two first for those not familiar.

Project AM2R (short for Another Metroid 2 Remake) was first begun in 2007 and released in August 2016, coinciding with the 30th anniversary of the Metroid franchise. The game was largely the work of Milton “DoctorM64” Guasti, who maintained the AM2R site with a blog of his development updates and design choices. Over the years, he was very thorough in explaining his decisions, ambition, and scope of the game, showing a remarkable amount of professionalism. The process was understandably ongoing, but the end result was an incredibly high quality fan-game incorporating features and updates from the entire Metroid series to that point.

You can still read this development blog on the AM2R website. Sadly, a DMCA claim by Nintendo means the game is no longer officially supported or available for download on the site, but is nonetheless on the internet and easy to find. In fact, just this month an update was released by a dedicated team of fans using the game’s source code, implementing both a New Game+ and Randomizer modes that I will likely try out in the near future.

Metroid: Samus Returns, on the other hand, is the first official “true” Metroid game in the series since Other M in 2010 (the exception being Federation Force, which takes place in the same universe but is a Metroid game in name only). Back in 2015, developers MercurySteam pitched a remake of 2002’s Metroid Fusion to Nintendo for the Wii U/3DS. While the pitch failed, the prototype impressed series creator Yoshio Sakamoto enough to see the team hired to develop their own official Metroid 2 remake instead, and Samus Returns for the 3DS is the result.

Having just played through Samus Returns and completing it the weekend it came out, I believe that MercurySteam did a fantastic job in delivering their vision of the series. At the same time, so did AM2R, so now it’s time to look at what they both did.

A brief history of Metroid

Before looking at specifics, it’s worth observing the Metroid series as a whole briefly. The original title was iconic in that it was one of the first games (especially on home console) to feature no set levels or stages, but instead one continuous map that could be traversed back and forth at will. Exploration was often limited by the requirement of certain upgrades, which would then allow you to get past obstacles in your way and further your progression.

This focus on exploration and progression through item upgrades has remained a staple of the series since those halcyon days. Every game in the series has featured this element, often seeing the player find a door or passageway that they cannot open until they acquire a new power later.

What’s especially interesting about the series is that this progression system usually allows for elements of sequence breaking, with players able to creatively use these mechanics (or sometimes hidden features like wall jumping) to get to places they shouldn’t early. Speedrunning is a huge aspect of the Metroid series, and in fact is required in order to get the best ending screens.

These aspects have continued even after the series made the transition to 3D with Retro Studios’ Metroid Prime trilogy. Whatever the individual task that Samus was undertaking, whatever foes she was fighting, or what equipment she’d gain access to, the concept of a lone bounty hunter exploring an alien world one upgrade at a time has been maintained.

This concept allows for a lot of freedom and exploration, but certain games have handled it differently than others. Super Metroid is perhaps the series pinnacle of dumping Samus in a confusing, oppressive world and having you get completely lost in it, but Metroid Fusion was a slightly more linear take. That game saw Samus on a space station divided between six numbered areas and a hub level, with each area containing a different environment. You would be given objectives and missions in set areas, but often the path to get there was not as straightforward as it seemed, and you’d frequently be moving between them all.

Metroid 2 appears on the surface to play like Super Metroid, but is actually far more linear than Fusion was. The aim of the game is to exterminate the titular Metroid species, exploring each area until you found all the Metroids within, whereupon the level would open up and allow you to the next region. You’ll constantly be moving forward, and unless you feel the need to backtrack for hidden collectables from previously inaccessible areas, there’s little need to return.

If anything, this was the most combat-oriented game in the series, as each of the Metroid encounters serves as a mini boss of gradually increasing severity and culminating with the Metroid Queen at the end. Exploration still remained a part of it, but it was very much about pushing forward rather than traveling back and forth.

So, with two different games being developed from the same original source, how do they differ?

Series tribute versus modern game

If I were to simplify the differences in design goals between AM2R and Samus Returns, it’d be that the former chose to encompass all features of the entire series up to that point, whereas the latter focused purely on Metroid 2 and delivering a modern take on it. The end result are two games that play and feel similar, but clearly have different focal points.

AM2R’s designs goals were to bring Metroid 2 up to the standards set in the later 2D Metroid games, the last of which was the remake of the original title Zero Mission in 2004. It’s fully sprite based as those titles were, using art strongly reminiscent if not directly influenced by them. All of Samus’ arsenal has been updated to later forms, and equipment not present in Metroid 2 such as the Speed Booster and Gravity Suit have been added.

The Speed Booster in particular is a real game changer. Rather than just being a flat movement speed upgrade, the booster charges up as Samus runs in an uninterrupted line, activating after a certain distance and dramatically increasing her speed to the point of running through some walls and killing enemies.

Most importantly however, it allows the execution of the Shinespark; pressing down to crouch while charged will preserve the charge for a few seconds, which can then be executed by jumping in a certain direction to launch oneself with the booster’s powers in places you couldn’t otherwise reach. From its inclusion in Super Metroid onwards, the Shinespark was notorious for being required for some of the trickiest item pickups, but also for enabling most of the sequence breaking in the game. There’s one hidden scene with accompanying dialogue in Fusion that requires a chain of these, and few players ever saw it without guides.

Samus Returns chose not to include the Speed Booster at all. There’s a similar technique to the Shinespark available by combining the Spider Ball with Power Bombs to launch Samus in a specific direction, but this is a much simpler implementation and is never needed to complete the game. AM2R, on the other hand, completely embraces the Speed Booster and changes sections of level geometry from the original to incorporate this aspect, including some of the hidden item and sequence break potential. You may not need to master the Shinespark to finish the game, but you do need to be aware of it and still use the base Speed Booster creatively.

With all that said, there’s very little that AM2R does with overall game mechanics that aren’t already included in other Metroid titles; it simply incorporates them for a more updated feel. By contrast, Samus Returns features numerous additions to the base game, which I’ll go over now. Firstly, the inclusion of the new Aeion abilities. You get four of them as the game progresses, all of which pull from the same new energy gauge that is replenished slightly on any enemy kill.

The simplest but perhaps the most important is the Scan Pulse, which uses a small amount of energy in order to reveal the map around your position as well as show breakable terrain for a few seconds. Given that Metroid’s usual approach to mapping areas is to have you fumble in the dark or else receive a partially revealed map from set Map Stations, this is a new and interesting way to handle things. I’d imagine a few purists might say that it ruins much of the exploration and trial and error aspect of discovery, but usually just revealing areas and a small range of what was ahead did not particularly help solving puzzles or preparing.

Your other three Aeion abilities are all much larger drains on your gauge, but serve as a combination of puzzle and exploration assistance as well as combat utility. Lightning Armour absorbs damage you take from your gauge and can buy you a few extra mistakes in fights, but also lets you traverse some environmental hazards. Beam Burst increases the intensity of your beam weapon for added damage in fights, but also lets you punch through otherwise unbreakable targets and obstacles. Phase Shift slows time for everyone but you, making fights more predictable but also allowing you to run faster than crumbling floors breaking underneath you (much like the absent Speed Booster does in other Metroid titles). They’re interesting utility pieces and a nice factor to manage without being game breaking.

What is a much bigger inclusion in Samus Returns’ retinue is the Melee Counter. At a touch of a button, Samus swings her arm to strike at whatever is nearby. Many enemies that have physical attacks will give you a very small window to press this and interrupt their attack, leaving them stunned and vulnerable. It’s your primary method of dealing with many mundane enemies, but even bosses have small attack windows where this is useful, shaving off several seconds of damage dealing or opening weak points and often playing unique animations in the process. It’s a simple inclusion, but one that feels natural to Samus and at times makes you wonder how she’s gone this long without it.

Beyond these mechanics, the way the game handles is itself radically different from previous 2D iterations. AM2R has Samus able to shoot in 8 directions easily, and can even walk backwards while firing at something before her; new to the series but still in keeping with the same moveset restrictions of old. By contrast, Samus Returns does away with this and gives you free aiming with the thumbstick, while the L button locks your movement in place so you can aim. It’s fluid and intuitive, yet completely unlike anything else in the 2D Metroid games thus far.

All of these design features are incorporated into Samus Returns with the purpose of making it feel more like a modern retelling of the game and, in fact, an expansion and development of the entire series. AM2R is an incredibly solid game and instantly familiar to Metroid fans, but at the same time all of its technology could have been built and released at the same time as Metroid: Zero Mission in 2004. Samus Returns, on the other hand, is inherently a newer beast that wouldn’t have worked well (and certainly not as smoothly) in that era. Even the fully 3D models, graphics and cutscenes in a nonetheless 2D playable space evoke that sense.

That said, neither approach is inherently right or wrong, and no single one is better than the other. It ultimately comes down to personal preference as to which you enjoy more; a modern retelling, or a classic updating. What truly matter is that the game in question is well-designed and plays well, which is absolutely true of both titles.

Dedication to Metroid 2, for better or worse

Perhaps my biggest criticisms of both games are their adherence to specific Metroid 2 facets in some way. While it’s admirable that they hold true to the basis of their predecessor, both games end up choosing to invoke some older design elements that were necessary in 1991 but make for less necessary inclusions now. In this regard, the way their counterpart game handles them is usually much better.

Starting with AM2R, we have the Metroid fights. In Metroid 2, you explored the planet of SR388, found the Metroids that were lurking there, and killed them. As you went deeper, you found older Metroids that had advanced through their lifecycle, with these later forms proving larger and tougher.

You still do that in both games, but in AM2R the fights are largely similar to how they were in the original. The movements of the creatures are more fluid and they have a handful of additional attacks, certainly, but an Alpha Metroid will still just fly at you in relatively predictable patterns based on your movements. You dodge its charges if you can and then shoot its underside with missiles.

That’s not to say that these fights aren’t still good, let alone challenging — though Omega Metroids aren’t as difficult as you might expect, leaving them feeling as though they were overnerfed in the patch that reduced their power. They’re enjoyable enough, but there are times when they can be quite a nuisance simply because of how limited they are. Getting an Alpha Metroid into a position to hit it can be a struggle, and it can shift directions in air faster than you can, making damage almost a certainty. There’s also the repeat nature of the fights, as you’re effectively fighting the same boss multiple times, which can drive the tedium up a bit and is at least somewhat alleviated by different environmental hazards and room layouts for the encounter.

After playing Samus Returns, however, it’s hard to go back to the AM2R fights. In the newer game, the free aiming means that it’s no longer about getting a Metroid into a position where you can damage it, it’s about surviving the assault and then carefully aiming at the weak point. The movements and attacks of the Metroids are all completely overhauled, seeming less like random flailing and more like concentrated assaults against an invader. Alpha Metroids will wind up and charge straight at you, which can be countered to create a vulnerability. Gamma Metroids have numerous energy attacks. Zeta Metroids are now the xenomorph from the Alien movies, and Omegas are terrifyingly mobile titans.

To flip the tables, however, Samus Returns is lacking in boss fights beyond these Metroid battles. The original Metroid 2 had only one other non-Metroid boss, that being the optional Arachnus which rewarded the Spring Ball upgrade. This fight later returned in Metroid Fusion, and now reappears in both AM2R and Samus Returns with that later incarnation in mind. Beyond this, Samus Returns has added just two new boss fights, both near the end of the game. They’re both good and well-designed fights (even if one of them is infuriatingly tough and the single greatest cause of my deaths in game), but it’s somewhat sparse besides, remaining as true to the original as possible.

On the other hand, AM2R fully overhauled the bosses in the game. While the Metroid fights are less interesting to me, numerous other fights were added throughout the game, all of which make sense for their area and are often enhanced callbacks to similar encounters through the series. There’s even an optional boss (besides the Arachnus) towards the end of the game that many players didn’t even know about which is a nod to Metroid Fusion. Most of these are as interesting and varied as the comparatively limited controls allow them to be. It wasn’t afraid to add in new features and challenges for Samus to overcome if it made sense, but Samus Returns played it almost completely true to the original.

This leads into the next point, which is perhaps the biggest weakness of Samus Returns’ design that AM2R completely bucks: the map design.

As a quick aside, this is a common trend that recent remakes have fallen into. Fire Emblem Echoes: Shadows of Valentia, for example, was a very good game that incorporated many of the newer Fire Emblem series mechanics into itself, but the map designs were largely unchanged from the original. This was kind of a problem, however, as the map designs were now 25 years old and were… well, boring. Overly large and empty, with little design features and tactical options aside from occasional chokepoints that were usually designed to give enemies an unfair advantage.

So it is once more with Samus Returns. While a very modern and fluid game otherwise, the overall map of the game world has been designed to be as close to the original Metroid 2 as possible. Much of the map will look pretty similar when put side by side, and many major rooms, hallways and towers are structured closely to their predecessor. The contents and side upgrades will occasionally be changed up or require the newly added Grapple Beam to traverse, and there are more water sections to incorporate the inclusion of the liquid-defying Gravity Suit, but it still navigates much as it did over two decades ago.

This may start feeling strange to series veterans about the time they reach their first save point. In later games of which AM2R is included, save points are usually single rooms scattered about that fully heal and replenish your ammo. There’s little going on in these rooms and rarely if ever secret passages in them; I recall there being a secret hidden in one in Fusion, and it blew my mind. You step out, take a breather, and get ready for your next segment.

Instead, Samus Returns has the save points scattered randomly amidst other, often larger rooms as they were placed in Metroid 2 (where having save points at all was a huge deal as far as technology went). They don’t heal you, they just save your game. Furthermore, there are ammo and energy stations littered around the map that each individually replenish things but are otherwise disconnected. Again, it’s in keeping with how it was in the original game, but we’ve moved so much further that returning to this archaic system feels very strange.

AM2R does not have this problem at all, with huge stretches of game changed to make more sense and incorporate the other changes (such as the previously mentioned Speed Booster and Gravity Suit inclusions). Couple this with the bosses, and the game will feel much fresher and catch even accomplished Metroid 2 players off guard. There are much less feelings of surprise in Samus Returns as a result of these map changes, and those that are stand out more for being so rare but otherwise well done.

Additionally, AM2R uses this alteration to its advantage, creating an SR388 that makes a lot more sense. Rather than simply labeling the areas by numbers as Samus Returns has done, each zone is given a new title and is changed to fit the theme. Areas like the Hydro Station, the Tower, and the Nest feel so much more impactful than simply Area 3, 5, 7 etc. This is heightened even further with the inclusion of logbook entries that provide background information on the area’s function before the planet collapsed into ruins. It felt much more like I was moving through a world than a series of levels in AM2R compared to Samus Returns, and that is easily the biggest strength that game has over the modern counterpart.

AM2R even goes so far as to feature a completely new, flooded area in order to introduce the Gravity Suit, meaning you get a new and fresh reason for its inclusion. It’s not the only new area either, as there are places within the game that detail where the lost research and rescue teams were dispatched before they lost contact prior to Samus’ arrival — a detail that was mentioned in the original Metroid 2 manual but otherwise never shown. Once again, Samus Returns keeping to the first map where possible means that these details are also never covered.

One last key difference that’s worth mentioning is the Ice Beam. This has always been crucial for defeating the cold-susceptible Metroids, but its use has evolved as the series has progressed. Freezing an enemy means you can use them as a platform to reach higher locations, which is especially useful prior to getting the Space Jump ability. The games handle this in a completely different fashion however.

To start, the Ice Beam is acquired fairly early on in Samus Returns. Unlike all the other beam upgrades (aside from the grapple beam) that stack with each other to create a single powerful attack, the Ice Beam is a separate weapon. It does little damage and is largely used for this puzzle solving aspect, though it can also allow enemies to be destroyed easily with missiles while frozen. The beam will also damage Metroids alongside your missiles, unlike the basic beam, but beyond this capability I rarely found myself using it.

Taking the path of Super Metroid, AM2R instead gives you the Ice Beam late in the game and adds it to your primary attack, combining full power with additional utility. Rather than becoming a puzzle solving tool that is largely ignored once later upgrades are gained, it instead adds another power spike to your arsenal and negates the need to rapidly switch weapons when fighting Metroids. Ultimately, this isn’t as big a deal as the other points I’ve made and is mostly just a stylistic difference, but I felt it was worth mentioning.

For the most part, these games are exceptionally well done. What’s most interesting is that they only start to break apart and get clunky when they pay too much homage and lip service to their origins. Yes, Metroid 2 was groundbreaking for its time, but we’ve had over 25 years of game development and design to further refine from since. Trading that off for the sake of adherence to an original title is honestly where the question of remakes and remasters can start to fall in contention, and that’s another article’s topic entirely.

The balancing act

It’s worth talking about the difficulty of the game for a moment here, as both versions have amplified the challenge of the original (mostly to counteract how much of Metroid 2’s difficulty was purely due to technical limitations). Both games feature difficulty selection as well, which is a nice touch, though Samus Returns locks its hard mode behind completing the game once… or else using an amiibo to unlock a Fusion mode. Definitely not my idea of DLC, but that’s the market for you.

Regardless, both games have made the decision to make themselves tougher to beat than a standard Metroid title. The Metroids are more in-depth as bosses, but they’re also stronger, faster, more varied and can easily take you out if you don’t respect them. The non-Metroid bosses are also quite challenging in both games, with the newly included encounters proving much tougher than I anticipated.

This challenge continues to ramp up to the final encounter with the Metroid Queen, and both iterations of this fight are far more intense, dramatic, and challenging than the original game. They are very fitting conclusions to the title, though they once again showcase the difference in approaches; AM2R’s fight is still in keeping with series predecessors but finishes with some very nice dramatic flair, while Samus Returns favours a more mechanically varied approach with the Queen’s repertoire sizably expanded.

With this increase in difficulty comes the act of balancing it while still providing the growing sense of power that is the hallmark of a Metroid title. This is a point where I feel both games set themselves a mark, and both miss it slightly.

AM2R certainly has moments of challenge and difficulty, but this does not keep pace with Samus’ rapidly increasing arsenal. About the time you gain the Screw Attack (even if it is late in the game), I found myself barely threatened anymore. The vast majority of enemies couldn’t stand against it, and my beams and missiles could make effortless work of them otherwise. The Metroids fell in quick succession, exacerbated further by the reduced power of the Omegas. It was only really the Queen fight that felt like a threat.

On the other hand, Samus Returns started to feel somewhat like a struggle in the final sections of the game, and I began to question if I’d really gotten all that stronger. Many of the enemies that you encounter previously will appear again as palette swaps that are tougher and more resilient, so fights still often relied on well timed counters and a similar amount of time investment. Even as I gained more Energy Tanks to increase my health, the incoming damage was increasing at roughly the same increment, or perhaps even faster. The boss that guards the Power Bombs near the end of the game took me numerous attempts to beat, simply because it dished out so much damage that even a single mistake could jeopardise the whole multiple minute duration fight.

Despite this general feeling, there were moments in later stages of Samus Returns where I felt powerful and accomplished. Similarly, there were still the occasional moments in AM2R where the Screw Attack and beam onslaught wasn’t enough to keep me completely invincible. It’s hard to say which one got closer to their mark, and even harder to say which approach is inherently better. Too hard, or too easy? I guess that’s up to the individual player.

Show, don’t tell

As I’ve mostly covered the full extent of differences between the two titles and am close to wrapping this up, I want to touch on one similarity that both games feature: depicting Samus as a character.

The last game in the Metroid series (excluding Federation Force) was the heavily criticised Other M. While many points of the game are contentious among fans, perhaps the biggest flaw was its depiction of the powerful armoured bounty hunter that leads the series more so than the titular aliens. Samus has always been depicted as a powerful warrior that has taken down galaxy threatening problems almost entirely on her own. Other M’s Samus… didn’t show this. She felt weak and insipid, focusing almost exclusively on two aspects: her strange need to impress and follow the orders of CO Adam Malkovich despite him practically abusing her (and even shooting her!), and the overpowering maternal instincts that the baby Metroid from the series left her experiencing.

That is, again, another article’s worth of contentious points that I could make, so I digress. Other M’s approach to characterising Samus flew entirely in the face of what has been shown in all other Metroid titles. Samus rarely speaks, with the vast majority of her thoughts being presented as internal monologues or journal entries. Instead, she’s shown in cutscenes and by stance as being always resilient, powerful, and always prepared. 90% of her character has been derived almost entirely in body language, particularly from the more expressive capabilities of the 3D Prime series. Much of the storytelling in the games utilised this method of show rather than tell as well, even in the original Metroid 2.

AM2R goes back to these roots. It further fleshes out the world by supplementing it with optional logbook entries to provide some more context, but even with this much of the added meaning and history of your locale can be derived just by seeing it. Samus herself comes across as an implacable combatant, equally up to the task of taming this hostile planet.

Samus Returns has the added advantage of full 3D models and cutscenes to further get the point across. While it’s less detailed in its world building, its depiction of Samus goes far beyond what AM2R is capable of, invoking much of the feel of Metroid Prime. You’ll frequently get shots of Samus scanning the environment or investigating something nearby, but is always agile in avoiding threats and quick to respond to assaults.

Perhaps the best individual moment to me was when, after a lengthy battle with a challenging foe, she begins investigating the powerup left behind. The boss starts to stir and move slightly, and without even looking, Samus just lines up her cannon with its vitals and fires the killing blow. It’s a cliche, sure, but it’s still very effective and miles better than her characterisation in Other M.

A good time to be a Metroid fan

By now, I’d hope that I’ve made it fairly clear where and how the differences of the two games lie. The differences in game design are often not significantly diverse, but they nonetheless branch off into two paths that explore different approaches to retelling the same previously told story. The end result in both titles comes back to a solid conclusion and a satisfying end result.

Absolutely, both AM2R and Samus Returns are great titles, solid Metroid games, and worthy inclusions in the series. Even if only one of them is officially recognised, neither overrides the other’s presence or right to exist. Both are worth experiencing and have different approaches and focuses. I could not give a direct suggestion on which one I would recommend if asked; instead, I’d encourage you to take this write-up to heart and play whichever sounds more personally favourable.

Remakes are commonplace in today’s age, but rare is it that a single game gets two of them. Rarer still is that both turn out to be excellent games and great additions to the series. Nintendo may have chosen to axe any support or tolerance of AM2R, but the fans of the series have not and will not, and I fully expect both games to be discussed by veterans of Metroid for some time to come.

What matters most is that after seven years of no new games, thirteen of no 2D games, and countless years of worry that Nintendo may have relegated Samus Aran to a corner of their history fit only to fill cameos… the Metroid series is back at long last. If the announced Metroid Prime 4 and any other games in the series are developed with the care and attention that MercurySteam or the AM2R team gave their projects, then there’s only a bright future ahead for her.

See you in the next mission. Delf out.


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