Metroid: Other M is a complicated game. It’s clear that Team Ninja has a lot of respect for the Super Metroid team, a fact made obvious during the opening cutscenes. The player is treated to a beautiful and artistic CGI recreation of the climactic battle with Mother Brain and the fully grown “baby” Metroid. They manage to instill a malice and alien grotesqueness in their rendition of Mother Brain that, even having long since left that cutscene behind, stays with me to this moment.
Everything about the development of Other M (a name that sounds odd at first but actually has about three layers of meaning by the end of the story) tells me that they wanted to redefine, not roll back, the Metroid series. To make the title something more than it already is. And let’s be clear here, I did enjoy the game. I had fun with it and I played it to completion. But it is a tragically problematic game, one loaded with inventive folly and well meant counter-productivity.
One thing that Team Ninja nailed (and had been lacking in the Prime series) was the sense of Samus as an agile character. Unfortunately, the limitations of the first person perspective in Prime often made her feel stiff, like a tank with legs. Other M restores the rapid movement and the physicality of the character. The stated goal of Other M was to elicit a classic SNES feel on a modern system, and of all the Metroid games available, Other M does play most like Super Metroid.
To that end, Team Ninja introduced a radical new control scheme that, and I am being very blunt here, doesn’t really work so well. It’s usable, and generally capable. You hold the Wiimote horizontally (like a NES controller) for normal movement, and you aim it at the screen for targetting sequences. The idea was to recreate the tactile sensation of playing a classic game. In that respect, their control scheme works. But it’s just awkward.
The Wiimote d-pad really isn’t up to the task of controlling a character in a modern third person shooter. It’s a stiff and inarticulate input compared to the nunchuck thumbstick. And the game suffers from an underwhelming button / targetting system as well. Dodging (which is necessary throughout the game) is done by quickly tapping the d-pad when an attack is incoming. That’s the same d-pad used for movement. Many boss fights devolved into me staggering around the screen making miniature See-Threepio steps in order to land the proper dodges. A separate dodge button is needed in this game, but isn’t available.
Then there’s the targetting. In third person mode, the game “auto-targets” for you as long as you’ve pointed Samus in generally the right direction. It does a decent job of this, but not a great one. Most of the time I blasted more or less what I wanted to blast. But when it mattered the most, Samus would often automatically pick either the least important enemy or the enemy I’d dealt the least damage to. First person targetting mode is simply not fun. The second or so it takes to switch does not mesh with the extremely fast paced and agile gameplay of Other M. It’s ironic, in a way, that they made the rest of the game so much more movement oriented and then introduced a system that requires you to remain absolutely stationary.
The end result is that you never use missiles unless the game forces you to. A charged up beam shot is at least as powerful and can be fired off in a fraction of the time, and with a fraction of the danger, as even a quick fired missile. In that respect, missiles ceased to hold any value to me other than as a door key or a mandatory exercise in running far enough away from an enemy to use my annoying target lock. Had Team Ninja not insisted on using the horizontal controller, they could likely have solved all of these problems. They’d have had an extra button or two to dodge with, a better control stick to move with, and they could have provided a manual targeting indicator in third person mode via the Wiimote. They also could have had a much faster transition into first person mode. Sadly, these are just pipe dreams, and as it stands I have to call the control scheme for Other M a failure, because it fought me every step of the way.
There was one way that Team Ninja wanted to differentiate Other M from previous Metroid titles, and that was by providing for a richer story. And they tried, bless their hearts. However, the story they spun for me routinely pissed me off. Let’s start with the obvious problem. That was not Samus Aran. Despite her having, perhaps, one sentence of dialogue per game up to this point, most gamers know Samus Aran very well. She’s a galactic bounty hunter with, well, ovaries of titanium. She touches down on barren, hostile worlds and leaps into danger with precise and feverish determination. She can be subtle, and can be sentimental, but she has always been a badass.
The Samus Aran presented in Other M spends all of her time as either an emotionless stump or as a scared little girl. I don’t place any of the blame on voice actress Jessica Martin, who clearly delivered very specific and intentional performances. But Samus’ narration sounds so distant it’s as if she’s reading it off of a postcard, and Samus’ in-game reactions are written and designed to make her sound like an immature child (despite this game being next to last chronologically). It’s the writing team that I have beef with on this one.
A perfect example of this is Samus’ first encounter with Ridley. At this point in her lifetime, she has fought and defeated Ridley at least five different times, and every time he has been resurrected to fight her again. Yet upon encountering Ridley in Other M, Samus stands frozen in place, paralyzed with fear, for the duration of an entire cutscene. The savior of the galaxy, the only person in all of humanity that can fight and destroy the Metroid scourge, is sent into a catatonic terror shock by an enemy whose ass she routinely whips. Like I said: that’s not Samus Aran.
That leads me to my other problem, the cutscenes themselves. A lot of websites touted Other M as a “new type of video game”. And yet I was routinely shifted out of gameplay into a series of pre-rendered cutscenes in order to advance the story. In fact, just about every piece of plot and advancement took place during those cutscenes, quite possibly because there was no way to make the player act as stupidly as they had Samus act over the course of the game. Games have been progressively discarding cutscenes in an attempt to make the story feel like part of the player’s experience (Valve does a particularly good job of this). To drag me back into a long series of cutscenes, and then force me to either sit through a boring B-movie retelling of the current plot or a flashback to Samus doing something distinctly un-Samus-like was both aggravating and insulting.
Compare that to the storytelling done in Prime. Certainly, there were a few NPCs in Prime (especially in Echoes), but the majority of the backstory and plot were told through exploration and reading. Yet somehow that felt more real and more compelling to me than the fully rendered and voices cutscenes – probably because it all took place from the same point of reference and via the same scanning mechanic that brought me all of my other tactical and exploratory information.
And of course I can’t let scanning slide. Team Ninja tried to retain the “scanning” element from Prime, and did so in perhaps the worst possible way. Throughout the game, you will reach key points in the plot where you get locked into first person mode in a non-combat situation. That means you cannot move and cannot interact with the environment in any way except to scan for a clue or object that will continue to advance the plot. You can aim the camera, but that’s about it. The game leaves you standing there until you happen to scroll your targeting reticle over whatever item the game developers wanted you to find.
The problem is that the object in question can sometimes be very inobvious and very small. The reticle doesn’t immediately indicate that you’ve found the right object, either. You have to leave it hovering for a few seconds. In one case, my “target” was two pixels on the screen in the distance. In another case, it was the branch of a plant. I appreciate that they wanted to add exploratory elements to the game (since otherwise everything is very linear), but this was a terrible and uninteresting way to do it. They reduced Metroid to the sort of game I’d expect to play in a web browser, and I resent them for it.
Much has been made of how they wrote in the upgrades for Samus in Other M. Usually, in each Prime title Samus has to get injured so that she loses all of her gear. That way there’s a reason for her to re-acquire it. It was a tired gaming trope, but it got the job done. Not wanting to fall back on that idea again, Samus comes fully kitted out in Other M, but is under orders not to use most of her gear without “authorization”, which she just so happens to get in such a way that gates the game for players the way that gear collection would.
Except that it makes no sense. I mean, I can understand a few of those items being on lockdown for safety reasons (such as Power Bombs). But is there any reason to need authorization to run fast? Or jump higher? Or to wear heat-proof armor while stuck in lava? And yet Samus has to be given permission to activate each of these suit utilities. It also felt like another instance of the game breaking character because, history of not, I simply can’t imagine Samus putting up with those sorts of restrictions. It was particularly frustrating when I could see an item that I wasn’t allowed to get because my grapple beam “wasn’t turned on”. Essentially, they replaced a lame plot device with an even lamer one.
It ultimately lead to one of the most frustrating moments in recent gaming history. I came across a boss that I simply could not defeat. Every time I would get to the end of the staged encounter, every time an obvious clue was presented to me to use a particular item on the boss, and then about eight seconds later I would die. I must have gotten killed about fifteen times during that fight until I realized that, without giving me any indication or on-screen notice, I now had access to another type of weapon. I only figured this out when I went into my suit loadout menu to try and figure out if there were any abilities I was overlooking. And this was by no means the only combat situation in which I was doing the right thing, but not in the right way. Frustratingly, the game has no mechanic for differentiating between this and abject failure.
And speaking of frustration? Other M is the most gated Metroid game I’ve ever played. Between the authorizing of abilities, the constantly locked doors (which get opened by advancing the plot rather than by acquiring a new ability) and the rigidly skyboxed gaming area, I’ve never felt quite as cramped or constricted in a Metroid game – not even in Fusion. It flew directly in the face of Team Ninja’s obvious desire to pay homage to Super Metroid, because that game offered me an unprecedented level of exploratory freedom. There were many times when I found a way to get to an item or a path, but it wasn’t the way that the developers had intended, so an invisible wall simply bounced me away. I’d analyzed my game environment, created a solution using the tools the game had given me, and then was punished for my creativity. That is not Metroid.
Which brings me to my last in a long line of personal gripes with Other M, and that is the sexualization of Samus Aran. When Team Ninja was first announced as working on a new Metroid game, there were obvious jokes about their previous titles (most notably the Dead or Alive series) and the overt oversexualization of its female characters. The concern was immediate, considering Metroid’s odd history with Samus Aran.
Younger readers might not really appreciate the significance of Samus being cast as a girl, or of that being kept a secret when Metroid first launched for the NES. In fact, the developers working on Metroid didn’t truly understand how important that would be. Rumors about how Samus ended up as a female character range from it just being a neat little surprise to it being a nod to Sigourney Weaver’s character in Alien (which served as a major inspiration for the original Metroid game).
But what they did was actually monumental. This was a top tier game. Everyone who liked video games played Metroid. In many other ways (such as the use of items to unlock new areas and the non-linear progression of levels) Metroid was an absolutely groundbreaking title. And its starring character, Samus Aran, was a total bad ass. Up until that point in gaming girls were helpless princesses waiting to be saved – to say nothing of Custer’s Revenge. Here was a lead character that didn’t make decisions based on gender or stereotypes. She played like a hero. In a subculture almost entirely dominated by boys and young men, Samus Aran being female was important specifically because her being female was less important than her kicking ass.
Not that Nintendo is completely free of guilt here – in all of Samus’ 2D outings completing the game fast enough or with enough of a collection rate would cause Samus to peel down to various degrees of quasi-revealing bathing suits and work out clothes. Certainly while Zero Suit Samus doesn’t show a lot of skin, she also doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination. Retro Studios, responsible for the Metroid Prime games, walked that tradition back considerably by never really removing her from her armor at all. But there is a distinct difference between how Nintendo handled Samus and how Team Ninja does.
Up until Other M, there has been a rule about Samus Aran, at least as she is portrayed in game. She’s a bad ass first. Yes, she’s allowed to be hot (though always in an athletic context), and her fabled agility certainly trends towards the Aeon Flux side of the spectrum. And while Team Ninja does seem to find a vast number of reasons for Samus to appear only in the Zero Suit, they aren’t overt about it. There was maybe one suggestive butt shot in the entire game (and again, they kept her very toned and athletic looking as befits her character), so by no means did they hypersexualize Samus. This sure as hell isn’t Bayonetta.
But what they did was more subtle. It was in the way Samus walked, the way she rounded corners, the poses she shifted into as she aimed. Most of this all took place in the cutscenes when the player didn’t have direct control over Samus anyway. Her movements were very soft – almost timid looking. The animations on her model reinforced the audio portrayal of her as an insecure child. While it was never overt, it was a distinct shift in how Samus was characterized. And once again, it just didn’t fit the character. Gone were the heel-dug, weapon out battle stances. Instead we got animations and poses that would have looked more appropriate in an evening gown than in power armor.
And maybe that’s my real issue. Clearly, Team Ninja was trying to address the character in the armor. The Samus Aran that they thought we’d never seen. I contend, however, that we have seen her. That she has been established and developed, even in silence, as being both the armor and the person within it. And as an audience we’ve spent many hours inside that armor already. The Prime series put us behind the visible faceplate as an experience-oriented way to connect us with the character. Team Ninja makes the mistake of thinking that the armor has kept audiences from understanding Samus, without understanding for themselves that Samus is the armor.