Review by kobalobasileus

Reviewed: 10/08/10

Old Meets New: The Evolution of Metroid

Metroid: Other M
“Old Meets New: The Evolution of Metroid”

“Metroid: Other M” (“Other M”) is the first game in the series to come out of Japan since “Metroid Fusion” in 2002. In the meantime, the genre-defining Metroid series was given over to the hands of Retro Studios, a Western developer that does what all Western developers do: turn things into first-person shooters. Thus Metroid is a fractured series, as it is influenced by both its origin as THE side-scrolling adventure (“Metroid” and “Super Metroid”) and its most recent incarnations as a trilogy of first-person shooters that started out impressive, but culminated in a fizzle (“Metroid Prime Trilogy”). Having inherited this legacy, “Other M” stands upon very unsteady ground. Fan expectation is fanatical, with no two fans agreeing upon where the series should go. The announcement that “Other M” would return to a side-scrolling point of view, but occasionally switch to first-person while only utilizing a single Wiimote caused trepidation. The beautiful preview gameplay footage that showed the game’s heroine performing various close combat maneuvers and TALKING (OMG!) was met with even more trepidation. It was completely unclear what exactly Nintendo and their newly-tapped partner, Team Ninja, were planning to do with this beloved franchise.

“Other M” was promoted as a ‘cinematic’ take on the Metroid series. This is no understatement, as the game is completely jam-packed with incredibly beautiful pre-rendered cutscenes. These cutscenes blend almost seamlessly with the potent in-game graphics engine that pushes the Wii to its very limits (as indicated by more-than-occasional slowdown). I found that the only noticeable difference between pre-rendered and engine-rendered scenes was the presence of some minor jaggies.

It’s also obvious that Retro Studios has had a major influence on the future of Metroid design aesthetics, as many elements, both visual and audio, seem to have been lifted directly from the “Metroid Prime Trilogy” and pasted into “Other M.” The only new design aesthetic created by Team Ninja is the way in which Samus’ zero suit and power suit interact with each other, which flies in the face of series tradition and needs some serious ret-conning to explain.

The audio is just as pleasing as the graphics. The music is very subtle in most cases, but I particularly liked the remixes of classic Metroid tracks that found their way into this game. The voice acting is well done, though I found the voice chosen for Samus to be a bit unspectacular. For a character who has taken this long to find a voice, I would have thought Nintendo would have spared no expense in finding someone amazing.

The only real beef I have with “Other M’s” presentation is the iffy designs for characters other than Samus (specifically male characters). They look like a big group of degenerate mutants, most of them featuring disturbing, hooked beaks that wouldn’t look out of place in a goblin horde (the sole exception is, of course, the Japanese guy… ethnocentrism rears its (not nearly as) ugly head). I’m also not impressed with the designs for the Galactic Federation helmets. While they are obviously inspired by the helmets from the “Halo” series, I find the way the characters peer out of them when their visors are up to look patently ridiculous. It’s hard to take the big black dude carrying a plasma cannon seriously when he looks like a baby owl peering out of a hollow in a tree!

Finally, “Other M” has one feature that is both intriguing and perplexing at the same time. Upon completing the game, a title-screen option appears that allows the player to watch all of the cutscenes edited-together with some gameplay footage (of boss battles and the like) to create something that calls itself “Metroid: Other M: The Movie.” It lasts about 2 hours, comparable to a real feature film, and does a good job of condensing the “Other M” experience into a form that is easily shared with non-gamers. As an extra, I thought it was pretty cool. But if companies decided to design their games with the intention of turning them into movies, I think it could have a disastrous effect on gameplay. In this respect, “Other M” has set a potentially-dangerous precedent.

The game opens with an epic cinematic re-enactment of the final moments of “Super Metroid,” in which Samus confronts the reborn Mother Brain and perseveres only through the sacrifice of the hatchling metroid she saved at the end of “Metroid 2.” Unlike the original scene, Samus narrates the whole thing… and continues to narrate throughout the entire story of “Other M.” I found it quite refreshing to actually be enlightened as to what was going on and what Samus thought of the whole situation instead of being forced to guess, piece trivial details together, and perceive Samus as a completely cardboard character with no personality. While many fans have lambasted Samus’ newfound personality as weak and uncharacteristic, I think it makes her a far more complex character. It’s one thing to be a silent protagonist with no personality who commits genocide and destroys planets. It’s quite another thing to be a real human being with fears, hopes, and emotions… who is still a tough enough badass to commit genocide and destroy planets when the situation demands it.

After the opening sequence, the story takes off in a direction similar to that of “Metroid Fusion:” Samus is out cruising in her ship when she receives a ‘baby’s cry’ distress call from a ‘bottle ship,’ and proceeds to investigate. I found the baby imagery used throughout the story to be somewhat heavy handed, as if an out-of-touch man was trying to represent how Samus’ biological clock must be ticking like mad, making her perceive everything around her from a maternal perspective. I do think that’s an interesting angle to take, considering Samus’ relationship with the hatchling metroid; it was just poorly-handled.

Upon entering the bottle ship, Samus encounters her old Galactic Federation squad and, out of deference to her former commanding officer/father-figure, agrees to deactivate all of her gadgets and follow his orders. Throughout the rest of the story, the game shows various Samus-narrated flashbacks of her time in the Galactic Federation, which is the first real information we have been given about that particular portion of the series timeline. While this backstory is somewhat clichéd, it’s still interesting to see Samus in another environment. However, I would have much preferred to learn more about Samus’ relationship with the Chozo and how they saved her, raised her, and gave her the power suit… but Space Marines are the flavor of the day in modern gaming, so that’s what we got.

Reunited with her old crew, Samus must work (mostly alone, as her communicator is the only one that wants to work in the bottle ship) to learn the mysteries of the ship and why it is overrun with aliens native to the planet Zebes: the planet that exploded at the end of “Super Metroid.” While in the midst of this investigation, Samus discovers that there is a traitor in their midst… but this plot thread isn’t really resolved satisfactorily. While it does boil down to two possible characters being the traitor, there is no big reveal that answers that question definitively (which is odd, considering how Samus’ narration almost becomes long-winded at other points in the story).

All-in-all, “Other M” definitely feels like a side-story within the main series continuity. It is also rather short (I took 15 hours to get 100% without consulting any form of help).

Most of the flaws that mar “Other M” creep-in as gameplay issues that have no real reason to exist. As is well-known, the chief designer, Yoshio Sakamoto, wished to create a “NES+” type of game, in which the controls are as simple as the 4-button NES controller of long ago. While the development team was successful in that respect, as “Other M” uses only the d-pad, 1, 2, +, and A buttons, some of the choices that went into creating this simplified control scheme were misguided and leave the game with several frustrating faults.

The side-scrolling sections work incredibly well for the most part, with the d-pad moving Samus in a 2D plane similar to that seen in NES-era beat-em-ups (like “Double Dragon” and “River City Ransom”), the 1 button firing Samus’ beam, the 2 button making Samus jump, the A button activating Samus’ Morph Ball, and the + button opening a combination map/inventory screen. Since Samus is no longer guaranteed to be perfectly aligned with an enemy by being parallel with it, her beam weapon has a new auto-target feature that makes her shoot at the nearest enemy in the direction she’s facing. I found this to work quite well, giving us gameplay that truly evolves the original Metroid mechanics into a modern form.

Unfortunately, the 2D gameplay has some problems in the form of two new mechanics: Melee and Dodge. Both of these new mechanics are contextual, which is silly to try in a fast-paced, action-packed environment. The melee mechanic allows Samus to perform ‘finishing moves’ (that I didn’t perceive as doing much more damage than normal attacks… sometimes less!) by tapping the d-pad toward a stunned enemy while her beam is fully charged. This goes against the grain of what Metroid fans have learned to do for decades. Samus has a long-range beam weapon… why would anyone be standing close enough to an enemy to use a melee finishing move in the tiny window of opportunity presented while that enemy is stunned? Even worse, Samus can jump on top of certain enemies with a fully charged beam and perform these types of melee moves… but only inconsistently. It’s much more reliable, but also less flashy, to just rely on killing things from a distance, as Samus has always done.

The dodge mechanic is an obvious adaption from the “Metroid Prime” series, in which Samus could dodge/strafe around an enemy she was locked onto. In “Other M,” though, dodging takes the form of a context-sensitive tap on the d-pad as Samus is about to be hit. This mechanic, again, flies in the face of the skills Metroid fans are expecting to test by rewarding a player for fumbling around at the last minute instead of anticipating attacks and moving out of the way well before they are in any danger. Indeed, during many of the game’s boss battles, I felt like I was being punished for moving out of the way ‘too soon’ instead of relying on dodging (which I did eventually learn how to use). Due to its contextual nature and, again, tiny window of opportunity, I found that the only reliable way to dodge was to anticipate the attack well ahead of time, but instead of moving out of the way, standing still and tap, tap, tapping on the d-pad. While I was able to use this technique to dodge with great reliability, it also made Samus look like she was having a seizure of some sort.

The first-person sections of the game are riddled with gameplay and control issues that make me wish they had been left-out entirely. While it is quite cool to switch from holding the Wiimote like a NES controller to pointing it at the screen to switch to first-person, it can get tedious switching perspective, especially when one considers “Other M’s” greatest control flaw: Samus cannot move in first-person! While it is supposedly possible for Samus to dodge in first-person mode just like in side-scrolling mode, it has an even smaller window of opportunity and relies on motion/pointer controls instead of tapping a button (and thus it was impossible to use my tappity-tap method to make it work). And in a completely bone-headed design move, someone in the dev team thought it would be a good idea to ONLY allow Samus to fire missiles while in first-person. While it’s obvious that the devs were trying to draw upon the first-person aspects of the “Metroid Prime Trilogy,” their good intentions weren’t enough to make it actually work. Why they couldn’t have switched the orientation of the d-pad and allowed the player to use it in first-person mode is a question for the ages (that sort of movement certainly worked in other first-person games, like “Dragon Quest Swords”). I also found it quite annoying that the (unmappable) button layout in first-person assigns A to shoot and B to lock-on. The mechanical action of moving my thumb up and down on the A button naturally caused the Wiimote to waver a bit in the air, which made hitting anything without a missile lock nearly impossible except by holding the Wiimote with two hands.

First-person mode is also home to a series of much-maligned ‘scavenger hunt’ events that are scattered throughout the game’s narrative. In each of these events, the game locks the player into first-person mode and forces them to hunt for an ‘object of interest’ in order to trigger the next cutscene. Almost every one of these scenes had me spinning in circles, completely stumped as to what I was looking for. One of them actually took me 20 minutes simply because the object of interest was so small and the hint at what I was looking for so non-existent. Worst of all is that one of the climactic battles near the end of the game uses this mechanic, but also throws indestructible enemies into the mix.

The rest of the gameplay feels very much like what we would get if the Metroid team was given a do-over on “Metroid Fusion” and actually did it right. While the exploration aspect that is traditional in the Metroid series is hindered at times by doors that lock behind Samus and elevators that don’t work without authorization, I found it to be much less irritating than in “Metroid Fusion,” especially due to the fact that the entire game world opens up for exploration during the post-game. The fact that Samus already has all of her advanced weaponry and gadgets, but won’t use them until authorized to do so, can be somewhat frustrating. I can understand, from a story perspective, why Samus would agree not to use her high-grade munitions without permission… but simple utilities and defensive gear? It would have been much better from a story perspective if Samus’ gear was in some sort of auto-diagnostic mode and conveniently came back online at specific points in the story. As it is the sequence of upgrading seems rather forced, and exploration only nets Samus more missiles, energy upgrades (some of which are fragmented, a la the Zelda series’ Pieces of Heart), and charge accelerators (which make her main beam charge faster).

Finally, “Other M” uses a completely new mechanic for energy and missiles. Instead of dropping from enemies, Samus can instead recharge all of her missiles at will. While it takes a few seconds, it guarantees that the player will never need to worry about running out of missiles while battling a boss that can only be harmed by them. Energy can be recharged the same way, but only when Samus’ energy meter is in the red. While in such a precarious condition, standing still for long enough to recharge can be dangerous in and of itself. This mechanic is neither better nor worse than the old system of enemy drops; it’s just different and noteworthy.

I enjoyed “Metroid: Other M,” despite its flaws. The great cinematics and story-telling enhance both Samus and her universe, while the somewhat-flawed gameplay shows that the Metroid team is at least on the right track, despite having ample room for improvement. I am eager to see where the ongoing narrative of the Metroid saga will take us in the future and how much polish the developers can put on the gameplay now that they have seen what works and what doesn’t. The short length of the game makes me hesitate to suggest that non-Metroid fans buy it outright, as a rental would be more than sufficient. While not the best game in this beloved series, it is also far from the worst.

Presentation: 9/10
Story: 7/10
Gameplay: 6/10
Overall (not an average): 7/10

Rating:   3.5 - Good

Product Release: Metroid: Other M (US, 08/31/10)

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