Just to be upfront: I borrowed my friend's copy of Samus Returns after finishing Zero Mission, AM2R (fan Metroid 2 remake), Super, and Fusion because it seemed more enjoyable than playing the original Metroid 2 or taking another crack at Other M. I was not going out of my way to try to enjoy it. I did approach playing it like every other 2D Metroid game, and I 100%'d it to ensure I did not miss any part. I am also not judging it on difficulty.
To get it out of the way first, SR is not a good remake of M2. Zero was a good enough remake that my memories of M1 made it effortless for me to know where I was and where to go. AM2R did the same with M2 (though I should confess I have only watched someone else play the original). In SR, I think when I reached what AM2R called The Tower was the first time since the first area I had a solid sense I knew where I was—and even then, it was because of the combination of the power-ups in the area and the long vertical space around the tower of smaller rooms. After that, I at least knew what would come next, but that was hardly the same as actually recognizing where I was when I was there (the only real hints were the vaguely circular route and the pattern of metroid →
lava rises → omega reveal → acid lowers.
And while AM2R and SR both suffer from being beholden to M2's structure of making you fight the same bosses over and over, I thought AM2R did an OK job updating the metroids' abilities while staying faithful, and making them appropriately challenging without becoming too tedious (apart from the ones that could knock you out of the room and force you to restart the fight...). SR, on the other hand, made the metroids' attack patterns feel even more game-y and had the brilliant idea to make several gamma metroids run away, so not only did you have the tedium of fighting many gamma metroids, you had to fight many of them multiple times!
And of course, it completely drops the ball on the narrative of M2, with its weirdly acrobatic glory kills for an otherwise weighty Samus, making the baby into just another power-up to help you clear a new type of block so you can get more power-ups, and a shoehorned-in fanservicey Ridley fight at the end (and, of course, neglecting to list the power grip as one of Samus's abilities).
Oh, credit where it is due though: SR gets solid points for faithfully remaking the old M2 cavern background noises, where AM2R gave up and just added its own Prime-esque music. On the other hand, AM2R has the better arrangements of M2's actual music tracks, not to mention the parts where SR just doesn't try and pulls music straight from Super/Prime...
But let's pretend I know nothing about M2. SR still feels more like a fan project than AM2R! It has some good puzzles and some solid platforming, but it kind of failed to feel like a cohesive Metroid game to me. Zero, AM2R, and Super had interconnected distinct-looking areas, but the areas in SR felt incredibly samey apart from the lab areas near the end—and even those still had the same enemy types I had been fighting for hours. AM2R tried to flesh out each area to have memorable visuals and landmarks relating to its purpose in Chozo civilization; SR removed most distinctive landmarks and patterns it could have pulled from M2, and while its backgrounds were gorgeous, most were hardly distinctive or memorable.
To put it another way, AM2R starts you exploring the remains of a civilization that happens to also work well as a set of metroidvania areas; SR feels like someone made a planet-sized puzzle box just for you. AM2R (in ways reminiscent of Zero) has faster ways to navigate rooms if you use your abilities cleverly, facilitating backtracking, speedrunning, and sequence-breaking; SR redesigns rooms by...filling them with new morph ball tunnels and asking you to solve the puzzle(?) of going back and forth between the left and right sides until you have pulled all the grapple beam blocks. And when AM2R makes me go through morph ball tunnels, it is flavored as going through pipes, cave-ins, and the like, and usually makes traversal quick once you figure out what you need to do; SR offers no flavor and half the time feels like it is padding playtime with busy work.
AM2R has different enemies in different areas and different depths, and areas where the enemies appear a different densities (including ones devoid of enemies entirely) that yes, contribute to world-building, but also are used to build tension or provide moments of relief. SR, as mentioned, largely has the same enemy types appearing from start to end, but also has them in fairly consistent density.
I think all the above points kind of came together for me in the final halls before the metroid queen—I only recognized them because I thought some patterns of shafts seemed vaguely familiar, and then realized it was about the right place on the map. Where M2 and AM2R had an eerie break in the action in an area that, in flavor, metroids had wiped out all other life from, and in function, built suspense before the final battle...SR turned it into yet another cave with more of the same enemies, and you could be forgiven for mistaking a screenshot from there for any other part of the game.
And finally, there were the sprinkling of other ways SR felt as though it was getting in my way and wasting my time. Where AM2R tried to preserve flow and momentum as well as or better than Fusion and Zero, SR made enemies charge you to encourage use of the momentum-killing melee counter. Where AM2R let you get around the map as fast as you could use your increasing array of abilities, SR added elevators with slow activation times, confirmation dialogs, and animations. Where AM2R decided to roll energy and missile refills into save stations, SR added tedious activation times, confirmation dialogs, and animations to them as well (even though the new Aeion refills were old-style quick pick-ups) that made me opt for grinding enemies and risking skipping save points. Where AM2R followed the example of the Prime games and gave players optional scan logs to explain things and letting them discover the rest through trial and error, SR insisted on grabbing control several times during the initial descent to make sure I absolutely stopped to consider the existence of the big glowing teleport station, or the massive, incredibly conspicuous DNA lock, or the molting metroid right in front of me. Even dropping in on the metroid queen at the end was interrupted by a cutscene, as though they thought I might miss she was threatening and taking up half the screen!
To end this on a positive note, it does, at least, appear the team at MercurySteam has learned from the criticisms of SR. Where SR had a lot of things that would break up flow, Dread additions to Samus's base moveset specifically maintain flow. Where SR had few opportunities for sequence-breaking (and almost softlocked me once for bomb-jumping into an area meant to be accessed with the spider ball), Dread's developers have said they intentionally left sequence-breaking opportunities open. Where the phase drift had few uses beyond running across disintegrating ground and dodging fast projectiles, Dread appears to be bringing back the speed booster with all its speedrunning possibilities. So in a way, I am kind of glad the team had the opportunity to make its mistakes with a game that also has a much better remake available. Unfortunate they had to make those mistakes in an official, Nintendo-published Metroid game, but there is reason for optimism.
And to un-put-aside SR as a remake of M2, a lot of my complaints there will likely be resolved or moot in Dread. It is post-Fusion, so the cutscene acrobatics and the like seem a little less out-of-place than they did on a suit so heavy it needed a power grip to pull itself up ledges. It is not a remake, so there are no themes to undermine or retcons (hopefully) to debate. It is not remaking a game that focused on environmental storytelling, so it can be more thoughtfully designed around having story-heavy cutscenes rather than its grabbing the camera feeling like an unnecessary interruption. And while the Ridley fight in SR felt painfully shoehorned in, it was an excellent take on a classic Metroid boss, and that game design sense applied to non-shoehorned-in bosses could be outstanding!
Either way, less than a week until I find out. See you next mission!