Metroid: Other M

The shifts in gameplay and plot it brings into the franchise do not work entirely, as they sometimes frustrate and occasionally go against essential elements of the series; nevertheless, its successful parts forge a very distinctive Metroid experience

At its heart, Metroid: Other M is a game filled with good intentions. And in the major features it chooses to focus on, one can identify that the minds behind its creation were perfectly conscious of where the franchise stood at the time. After all, coming not too long following the conclusion of the highly praised Prime trilogy, which arguably presented a flawless translation of the series’ gameplay to a first-person perspective, the game shuns the easy and predictable path of merely copying what those three entries had established; a road that would have certainly led to daunting comparisons.

Furthermore, perhaps acknowledging that sidescrolling Metroid efforts had been away for a period of time long enough to make fans miss it badly, the title’s creators opted to build a quest that, despite occurring within tridimensional environments, also offered plenty of locations whose setup brought about echoes of the saga’s 2-D beginnings. Other M, however, is not just about gameplay, for differently from all installments that preceded it, Samus’ exploration of a dangerous environment has to share the spotlight with a second element: a thick story component.

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And, in that department, the team behind the game – especially producer Yoshio Sakamoto – also displays awareness of Metroid’s position not just as a franchise, but in the Nintendo canon as well. Because Samus, more than any other of the company’s major characters, presents a unique and appealing opportunity for storytelling. Her standing as a woman who goes alone into vicious terrain and that, without much help, succeeds in getting rid of intergalactic threats that leave entire armies trembling turned her into an alluring protagonist; and her traumatic past, revealed to players via sources external to the games themselves, made her arch and strength rather compelling.

Yet, during all of the first two decades of its existence, the Metroid franchise mostly ignored that goldmine of personal narrative, opting – instead – to focus on transmitting its tales through charming minimalism; an approach that worked wonderfully, and that – in a way – only served to augment the attractive mystery of Samus herself, but that left fans thirsting for some more.

Metroid: Other M, then, tries to kill two birds with one stone. For the first time ever, it uses 3-D graphics to give players a third-person view into the Metroid universe, therefore generating a gameplay format that is unique. And while it does so, it takes advantage of the technology available at the time of its release to produce a journey that is dedicated to, through visually stunning cutscenes and a whole lot of quality voice acting, tackling a story and the character of Samus Aran straight on.

However, at times, good intentions and the accurate understanding of one’s position do not suffice, and Other M ranks as one of those cases, for in the two areas it explores in an attempt to bring freshness into the franchise, the game unearths a good level of novelty, but also stumbles upon a myriad of problems.

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The game begins shortly after the events depicted in Super Metroid. Having obliterated the Space Pirates’ base in planet Zebes, Samus heads to the Galactic Federation’s headquarters in order to give those who hired her services a report of the successful mission. Still shaken due to her fierce and almost fatal battle against Mother Brain, where she was saved from death thanks to the sacrifice of an infant Metroid, she gets into her ship and leaves the place. It is not long before she tracks down a distress signal coming from an abandoned space station.

Samus boards it looking to investigate the source of trouble, but she quickly finds out she is not alone in that task. As it turns out, the call for help was also picked up by a platoon of Galactic Federation soldiers, and – much to her surprise – that group includes Anthony Higgs, a close friend of Samus from the days before she became an independent bounty hunter, and Adam Malkovich, her former commander and a man who was a father figure to the girl when she joined the federation’s army. Sensing danger is looming, Samus decides to stay on the ship, and Adam allows her to do so as long as she follows his orders and cooperates.

There is a degree of accomplishment to be found in the plot of Metroid: Other M. Visually, its cinematics are great, and although they are quite prominent and sometimes last for over five minutes, they never overwhelm. Sure, the game’s beginning and ending portions are stacked with cutscenes, but the core of its adventure knows how to balance gameplay with plot development. Additionally, the events that occur inside the space station itself do make up for a compelling tale that feeds into the exploration very nicely.

The mystery of what exactly is going on, which is kept pretty foggy until the adventure is coming to a close, creates a sense of danger that is perfect for the Metroid franchise. And even if Samus is not effectively alone in the ship, the feeling of loneliness and isolation that is an integral part of the series is very much alive; so much, in fact, that the dark corridors, atmospheric soundtrack, and obscure yet palpable menace that hides within the station come together to create moments of sheer tension that often recall what one would find in a well-directed thriller.

Nevertheless, despite those great qualities, issues related to narrative abound. Firstly, there is the character of Samus Aran. It is definitely thrilling to catch glimpses, via numerous flashbacks, of her past as a young, bratty, and immature Galactic Federation soldier under the command of Adam Malkovich; and it is understandable she was not always the mighty warrior showcased in Metroid games. Likewise, it is perfectly admissible that, as a strong woman and a mature adult, she carry feelings, worries, and fears under her helmet; Samus is, after all, a human and not a robot. Yet, the game has a lot of trouble capturing that emotional side.

In the portrayal of Samus’ past self and in the monologues that happen throughout the story, Other M sports writing that is sometimes way too cheesy for its own good, and there are instances when the hunter still comes off as a teenager. Moreover, during a few key points in the quest, Samus has reactions that simply do not match the strength she displayed during missions that, chronologically, preceded the one she deals with in the game, creating a degree of incongruence that is head-scratching and frustrating.

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Another big problem that is connected to writing appears in how Other M handles the tools Samus uses to interact with the environment around her. Metroid games have always been built around having the character set out only with the most basic features of her suit, and then forcing her to slowly upgrade it by acquiring items placed in key locations; an action which – in turn – allows her to reach new areas of the world that were, without that skill, impossible to get to.

Other M makes use of that kind of progression as well, but it does it all a bit differently. Traditionally, Metroid entires have explained the fact Samus has to start from scratch all the time either via accidents that damage her armor or by not bothering to go into details. In Other M, the approach shifts. As she enters the station, the bounty hunter has all of her skills activated; however, Adam – as the commander of the squad she encounters – orders her to only employ the tools he authorizes.

It is a choice that leads to some ridiculous situations. First of all, the reasoning does not make any sense; Adam argues that given they are looking for survivors and are not totally sure of what is going on, using all skills could be problematic. It is an explanation that works for an item like the Power Bomb, which disintegrates everything in sight, but that is not really valid for any other pieces of her arsenal. Players, then, have to pass by numerous locked up locations and visible collectibles, such as expansions to the character’s missile and energy tanks as well as a couple of other new upgrades, that could easily be respectively reached or picked up if Samus opted to use a harmless ability she has access to.

Yet more absurd and grave is how the game has a handful of portions where Samus absolutely ignores skills that would go a long way towards saving her or her partners’ skins just because Adam has not given her the green light: she goes through deadly fiery landscapes without the heat protection of her suit on; she lets a friend dangle over lava for a few seconds when the solution to save him is her yet-to-be-authorized grappling hook; and more.

In terms of gameplay, Other M is – in a way – a reflection of its story; that is, a mixed bag of components that click and add great character to the product, and pieces that seem oddly out of place. That first positive aspect is mostly linked to the game’s blatant inclination towards action. It is certainly not a trait that will universally please the entirety of the franchise’s fanbase, but it is undeniable that it causes the title to have a very distinctive identity.

Surely, a bit of what goes on in Other M, as tradition dictates, revolves around finding new skills and then going to places that were previously inaccessible without them. Still, more than any other Metroid outing before it, the game puts a heavy focus on taking down enemies. Numerous are the rooms where doors will be locked until all bad guys are disposed of; and many are the bosses and mini-bosses that Samus will have to deal with as she proceeds through the space station, and albeit not being as great as those of the Prime trilogy given the overall simplicity of the methods used to defeat them, they do a decent enough job when it comes to being menacing threats.

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A lot of that action vein, of course, comes from the partnership that Nintendo forged with Team Ninja for the making of Other M. The masterminds behind the physical confrontations of the Ninja Gaiden and Dead or Alive properties bring a load of the melee goodness found in those games to the world of Metroid. Consequently, combats get beastly pretty fast. Foes are not shy to grab a hold of Samus to throw her viciously onto walls or onto the ground; simultaneously, the hunter herself gains a bunch of moves that allow her to handle that new type of struggle.

When enemies have been weakened, she can try jumping onto their backs to deliver a fully charged blast from her arm-canon; when creatures lie on the ground, she can approach them and shove a killing shot down their throats; and by pressing any direction on the Wiimote’s D-pad as the character is about to be hit by attacks, she will perform an acrobatic dodge. The commands behind those moves work well, and that implementation turns battles into thrilling and cinematic affairs, giving Other M a lot of personality.

The title’s fresh gameplay elements, however, also contain some sour notes. Likely as an influence of Team Ninja, Other M has half a dozen spots when players are suddenly required to press dodging buttons timely in order to avoid immediate death; needless to say, given those moments come out of nowhere and offer no room for failure, they create frustration. On a similar note, the quest also has a handful of occasions when Samus will be forced into a first-person view so that she can scan points of interest that will lead to discoveries that advance the story; although not frequent, it is absolutely ridiculous how those segments will often expect players to find details that are so tiny they are sometimes very hard to see.

In addition, developers made a very odd choice regarding the adventure’s control scheme, as gamers have to command Samus solely with the Wiimote. What that decision does is leave only three buttons available for actions, just one more – for example – than what is found on an NES controller. It is limiting to say the least, and it causes two problems.

Firstly, and as a minor annoyance, there is no way to aim, and hitting shots depends on the game’s usually effective, but not perfect, automatic control of the direction Samus’ canon is facing. Secondly, coming off as a problem that is utterly dumbfounding and that will lead to some irritation, there is the game’s handling of missiles. This always useful tool can only be fired when Samus switches to the first-person view, which is achieved by pointing the Wiimote towards the screen.

Unfortunately, doing so will not only make her quite vulnerable to enemy attacks, but it will also strongly disrupt the flow of combats. Although she can dodge when seeing the world from that perspective, an action that is triggered by pointing away from the screen, she is completely unable to move, which – to say the least – feels odd. Since the usage of missiles is critical in points when the game reaches its maximum levels of tension, it is maddening that players have to stop on their tracks and stand in the battlefield like sitting ducks just because Nintendo chose to keep the control scheme minimalistic and only employ the Wiimote.

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Outside the realm of action, Other M bumps into some other shortcomings as well. With its mixture of corridors and wide explorable spaces, the game reaches for a nice balance between action and environmental puzzle solving that relies on searching one’s surroundings, and its automatic camera angles produce stunning cinematic views of the scenery. Yet, that exploration suffers, and that is because, especially compared to other Metroid games, Other M is too simple and linear. Adam invariably tells Samus where she needs to head to, and a blinking pointer on the map always guides her, often going to the extent of showing the door she has to enter.

As such, the usual appealing Metroid mystery of discovering where a new skill can be used to open the way is absent, and – to make matters worse – the choice to backtrack to previously visited areas to look for collectibles is also restricted due to how, at times, the game will simply lock doors for no reason at all, forcing players to pursue the path that will advance the story. As a consequence, it is easy to see that, in trying to build a Metroid game with a more prominent focus on plot, Other M abandons part of what makes the franchise so special, which – in the end – might be the biggest sin it commits.

That, however, does not mean Metroid: Other M is bad. It is clear that the shifts in gameplay and plot that it brings into the franchise do not work entirely, as they sometimes frustrate and occasionally go against essential elements of the series. Nevertheless, its successful parts come together to forge a very distinctive Metroid experience. Its focus on action may generate an adventure that is shorter and simpler than those of its 3-D counterparts, but it brings a physical thrill to combats that did not exist before it.

And its dedication to storytelling may at times veer towards the cheesy and incongruent, but it is responsible for a compelling tension-inducing mystery and an interesting – even if irregular in quality – glimpse into the past of Samus Aran. Therefore, although it does have many rough spots and holds a nature that is unlikely to satisfy everyone, it is an adventure that deserves either a try or at least a pat on the back for the different path it takes.

Final Score: 6 – Good

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