Why were there Two Versions of Metroid for the NES?

Posted by Steven Collier on Mar. 15th, 2016

If you owned a Nintendo, you remember Metroid. It was a sci-fi platformer that featured a huge arsenal of weapons, health, and armor upgrades that could only be discovered through careful exploration. Metroid was an early milestone for the NES and showcased the upper-limits of what the 8-bit system could do. Today, it's a certified classic that's withstood the test of time and seen multiple remakes. It was also one of the first Nintendo games to ever get a special rerelease. But, I bet you don't know why that happened.

There are Two Versions of Metroid!

During the Nintendo Entertainment System's legendary run, two variants of Metroid were produced. The original black label version features a scene Samus battling aliens in fully pixellated glory. Then there's a rarer yellow label which sports substantially more detailed artwork. These same graphics were also featured on the game boxes, creating two distinctly different editions of Metroid. And while the actual game remains identical in both editions, it's still a rather striking aesthetic shift. So, why did it happen? To answer that, you've got to look to what was happening on the the Game Boy at the time.

There was a Sequel to Metroid?

Metroid has long been considered one of Nintendo's big three, after Mario and Zelda. However, unlike those two, Samus never had a second adventure on the NES. After Samus' 1986 debut in Metroid, Nintendo ws slow to develop a sequel about their masked bounty-hunter. This is possibly due to the fact that Samus' first adventure ended with her firing a few hundred rockets into a mutated brain in a jar, after attempting to single-handedly murder an entire planet,which was a little more extreme than anything Mario did. Still, Metroid's revolutionary gameplay earned it a legion of fans. This led Nintendo to try using the game's enormous popularity to sell a newer console. And so Metroid II: Return of Samus was finally released to the Game Boy in 1991.

Metroid II was a big deal when it released. The Game Boy had already been out for a few years when it dropped, and Nintendo was desperate to breathe some new life into their handheld system. Their goal was to make a handheld game that was on par with an NES title. Despite the fact that the Game Boy's hardware was substantially weaker than that of the Nintendo's, Metroid II managed to efficiently cut corners to create a deeply compelling experience.

Metroid II was Designed to Sell The Game Boy!

Metroid II used unusually large game sprites to compensate for the  Game Boy's small screen size. This naturally meant that fewer enemies had room to appear on the screen, so the team developed a game that made both the enemies and Samus more mobile than they had been in the original Metroid. This allowed for faster, more intense, one-on-one battles between Samus and the aliens she encountered. This focus on individual battles is also why Metroid II has more boss fights than any other game in the entire series: a whopping 40 in total. It was a winning formula, and the mechanics would later appear in every subsequent Metroid game.

Even the Wu-Tang Clan Hyped-up the Sequel!

The game may not have been as technically impressive as its predecessor, but it succeeded in looking about as good as any NES game out there, an unprecedented achievement in '91. In fact it was so impressive that two years later Nintendo was still using Metroid II as a system seller. When the Super Game Boy was released for the SNES, Metroid II was billed as the handheld game you needed to play on your TV. The game was featured on every Super Game Boy box, and the peripheral even featured a special pre-programmed color pallette designed specifically for playing Metroid II. But if that wasn't crazy enough, Nintendo actually commissioned the Wu-Tang Clan to star in a commercial about the game. It never aired. But, it helps emphasize just how enormous this game's promotional campaign became. 

The Original Metroid Got Redesigned!

So, what does all of this have to do with the fact that there were two editions of Metroid for the NES? Well, take a look at the box art for Metroid II and the Yellow Label edition of Metroid. See anything similar? Yeah, Samus looks virtually identical on both.  

You won't find variant labels like these on the European or Japanese editions of Metroid. That's because no one invested in the franchise as much as Nintendo of America. They wanted Metroid II to move millions of Game Boys and Super Game Boys. Metroid II was intended to be one of their best-sellers. And with all the money behind Metroid II, even the original Metroid was retroactively made into part of its marketing. From 1992 onward, every copy of Metroid for the NES was designed to look as similar as possible to its handheld counterpart in order to create cross-promotion. Each copy of the NES game was even branded with the words "THE ORIGINAL" to help avoid the confusion that sprung up around the fact that the games now looked so similar. And you know what? It worked.Metroid II was Nintendo of America's bread and butter, throughout the early 90s, and reinvigorated everyone's interest in the series.

Buy Metroid - For the NES

So tell us, were you won over by the remodeled yellow label Metroid? Or did you grow up playing the original black label? Which Metroid label do you prefer? Which do you remember more clearly? As always, we'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments section.

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