It was nice to learn about Hiroji Kiyotake, one of the directors of Metroid II, and probably a leading force in the sheer personality and fun that a run of good GB platformers have - Metroid II, Super Mario Land 2, the Wario Lands...
Despite having played most Metroid games I'd never played Metroid 2. I bounced off of it a few times, but after roughing it through Metroid 1 (another brilliant game), I went ahead and played through 2.
At first I was hesitant about the structure of the game - seeming to move away from the chaotic maze of Metroid 1 for a more linear experience. But I think the structure of Metroid 2 - that of burrowing into an ant farm, exploring smaller labyrinths budding from a main path - works well. It enforces the narrative of Samus as this bounty hunter, cold bringer of death, her triumphant "overworld medley" song being replaced by the quiet nature and sounds of Metroids merely living at home.
The black and white graphics look amazing at times - especially level 3 with its mechanical sand maze and the vertical, overgrown shafts. At its best there's a real sense of encroaching into disturbing territory, the way it feels to peer from a safe path into a deep patch of forest. The variety of 'nests' the game manages to convey is inspiring! The game fully understands its visual format and how to exploit it. Metroid fights remain tricky to cheese, with the metroid becoming invincible offscreen, always feeling claustrophobic and chaotic, thrilling.
There are a handful of rough edges (the lack of save points, occasional missile/energy grinding) but I think the rest of the game makes up for it. I love the setpieces with the Metroid counter resetting in the lair, or the omega metroid attacking you after killing the alpha, or the lair of the omegas. I do think that the art could have been a bit more interesting at parts, especially with all of the vine background layers in level 3 - some later levels feel a bit empty .
That being said, the atmosphere never feels overexplained. It was fun to stumble upon the massive Chozo compounds, with dangerous robots, butted right up against Metroid caves and lush caverns.
Shoutout to the ambient music, which works really well! Unsettling, dark stuff, really understanding the 'texture' of the game boy sound palette.
Overall, it's a very strong game, but I can't give it the "5 stars'... I think it might be related to the economy of ammo and energy and how they inevitably shift way in your favor as you progress through the game - enemy encounters always feel a little less exciting once you have the screw attack, plasma beam, etc. It feels a bit counter to the narrative they're setting up with you diving into more dangerous lairs. The Omega metroid may look spooky, but it's not much of a threat with my 150 missiles, varia suit, and 500 energy.