Thoughts, Words, Works

Not entirely an Other M @

Actual game screenshot of young Samus giving a thumbs-down

I recently acquired and played Metroid: Other M. (Aside: you have no idea how weird it feels to type that in <em> tags.) When I first heard that Team Ninja was going to be making the next Metroid game, and I saw the trailers, I was worried. I've blogged before about the gradual corruption of the Metroid formula and all signs indicated that this game would accelerate that loathsome trend. Yet, being as I did have an interest in how the series' plot develops, I wondered if Other M might be an enjoyable game in its own right. Having finished it, my relationship with the game is a bit hard to describe in short, if you can forgive my longwindedness, please read on.

First off, I am a longstanding Metroid fan. Super Metroid is my favorite game of all time, tied with Chrono Trigger. The graphics in Super Metroid strike a wonderful balance of stylish and functional. The music is atmospheric and memorable. The powerups are plentiful, wonderfully paced, and the drive to earn each new one is unmatched. The game strikes what, to me, is the perfect balance of a nonlinear sandbox and a progressive series of missions. Finally, the storyline, while present and even deeply moving, succeeds because it is so understated and unassuming. In the end, when a game is so close to perfection, comparisons to it are inevitable because whenever the sequel deviates, it runs the risk of degredation.

The other game to which I must inevitably draw comparisons is Metroid Prime - because it stands in effect as an alternate approach to 3D-ifying the Metroid series. Though some parts of Other M occasionally seem influenced or straight-out adapted from the Prime games, the realization that dawned on me as I played the game is that it draws its direct ancestry from Super Metroid, not from the Prime series. But let me first state some of the fundamentals of Metroid Prime - the first game in particular - that appealed to me. First off, it maintained one of the fundamental parts of the Metroid atmosphere: the idea that Samus is exploring a hostile environment, alone, overcoming a network of remorseless villains and inhospitable terrain with no help outside the power-ups she gains as relics from the mysterious and vanished Chozo civilization. The scan visor system provided an ingenious answer to the question of how one adds more story to a game while maintaining that solace. Meanwhile, the massively interactive and detailed environments set a new standard for how unique and special even the unimportant rooms could be; and just as important, what you see is what you get: the game's spectacularly-detailed collision detection allowed inventive gamers much more leeway into creative sequence breaking than the designers intended, but it also provided a strong sense of immersion as you were never "road-coned" away from certain areas by an invisible wall. And finally, the move-and-target controls were very effective for both exploration and action.

Metroid: Other M twists the Metroid formula in several ways, some I didn't expect, and some that are natural consequences of being, as the back of the box touts, "The most action-packed Metroid game ever!" or of how it ups the cinematic ante of the series. Let's start with the latter. Certainly the game invokes cutscenes and story development more than most prior Metroid games, but strangely it doesn't feel like it was meant as a movie; much of the narration comes off as if it were meant to be read, not spoken. In other words, Other M commits the cardinal sin of movie-writing and wallows in excessive exposition. The voice-acting itself isn't bad - as my cohort Spiritsnare notes, Samus sounds somewhat wooden, like she's at a funeral all the time, but I'll gladly take that over the awful and cheesey hamsmanship to which many voiced games fall prey. (As an aside, I'd like to add that Mike McGillicuty's voicing for Anthony Higgs, is spot-on and excellent.) The writing itself isn't bad, either - taken alone, it would give fascinating insight into Samus's character, but put with the cutscenes it feels redundant and trying. Metroid: Other M represents a swing in the opposite direction from Super Metroid's tendency to show, not tell. As for the plot itself, without spoiling, I can say that it contains some interesting developments and twists, though it really takes a while to pay out. The cinematics themselves are totally gorgeous to the point of being excessive in particles, bloom, reflections, and everything else that makes things shiny, but I think it works in the context and setting of the game. I think it would work even better if the environments were a bit less glossy by comparison; if the cutscenes (especially flashbacks) are a sea of chrome, the early environments are a desert of plastic. Later areas are a little more interesting and gritty. Overall, though, the graphical quality of the cutscenes is excellent, and feel like a real treat to see animated with such high budget, with a particular scene (the Ridley battle) standing out. I did find it a peculiar choice that so many of the cutscenes maintain the game's (third-person) HUD but not the full in-visor first person display.

Speaking of that scene, there are those who complain that it and the game as a whole do wrong by Samus's character, obliterating her unique strength as a fearless female protagonist. While such reports may be overblown - there is unfortunately some merit to the argument, as the plotline emphasizes the extent to which she depends on strong men emotionally or otherwise. I think that showing weakness is not in itself detrimental to Samus's character, as it makes her more complex and relatable. Feeling like a little girl while staring into the face of the monster that murdered your parents and you thought you killed: that's meaningful. Getting all whiny/mopey every time you see your old commanding officer, especially when he's off to save the galaxy, that's going a bit too far. That said, I don't think it's done to such an extreme that the next game couldn't come along and reassert Samus's independence, nor do I think it ruins the plot.

And although the plot, clumsy as it is, doesn't ruin the Metroid franchise (far from it), it does a surprising amount of damage to the gameplay. There are too many segments where the camera is arbitrarily forced into a closer perspective as Samus holds down her gun and the player is forced to trod ploddingly and uneventfully into a cutscene trigger. There's no good reason many of these segments couldn't have been cut entirely, or converted to either full-on cutscenes or standard fully-interactive gameplay. At the very least, I'd have appreciated it if Samus would just walk faster. There's another frustrating gimmick, which is in scenes where the camera is locked into 1st-person and the player must find a particular item of interest, and hold on it for a moment before being able to lock on and subsequently trigger the cutscene that continues the story. The problem is that there's no indicator -- often no guidance whatsoever -- of what you're supposed to find, so it's very easy to become frustrated and stuck at one of these segments far longer than necessary.

There's one more intersection of story and gameplay, though in this case it's the story that suffers instead: the unlocking of power-ups. Every Metroid sequel has some problem dealing with the fact that gameplay demands you start fresh and acquire new power-ups throughout the current game. Super Metroid doesn't bother explaining it. Metroid Prime's halfway-believable justification has Samus getting smashed into a wall from an explosion and her power-suit malfunctioning. Metroid: Other M does it by disallowing use of special weapons and then selectivly authorizing each new one a while after it becomes obviously necessary, but this excuse falls apart over the course of the game, starting with the fact that even purely-defensive power-ups like the Varia Suit are disabled and eventually Adam stops giving Samus permission and she enables things herself, but even then only after she needs them, like going through an entire area and boss fight that would've been trivialized by the Gravity Suit but not using it, then enabling it with no prompting on the way back through the area, as if Samus looked at it and said, "No way.", culminating in how in order to finish off the final story boss, you have to use a power-up the game hasn't explained that you can finally use... or how to use it.

The gripes go on and on; the contextual "SENSEMOVE" reaction system with its huge timing window makes movement during battles somewhat unpredictable and easy to mess up by dodging unintentionally, but it also becomes critical to completely abuse the system for higher-level play. The "Concentrate" mechanic, where Samus can refill her missiles at the drop of a hat and restore energy from the red to at least 1 full tank simply by standing in place uninterrupted, is likewise somewhat broken, and wouldn't be half as necessary if the game did not inexplicably do away with the Metroid-series staple of getting energy and missile drops from defeated enemies. Thanks to that, my genre instincts that tell me always to defeat any enemy in front of me fail, as it's often safer to ignore any enemy that's not a present threat rather than drawing its attention and taking damage.

Another genre instinct that misled me was the desire to inspect everything in every room, a need which Metroid Prime and its scan visor perhaps took to an extreme. Switching from third person camera to first person, by changing the Wiimote from sideways to pointing it at the screen, is clunky and slow, since you're not always sure which way you'll be looking when you finally get the view under control. This is bad enough in combat (you get somewhat used to it, and it helps to sit back a bit farther from your TV than I initially was) but it also makes investigating things in first-person view a bit trying. For better or for worse, there's really not all that much that's worth investigating in first-person view; most rooms have literally nothing aside from enemies that you can lock onto or inspect in first-person view, and there's no scan text either. It makes the game world seem somewhat more generic, and makes it easier to miss dumb little things, but on the other hand it gives you fewer excuses and barriers to moving through the various rooms and levels with as fast a pace as possible. Speaking of which, the doors in the game no longer require you to shoot or bomb them to open, which is not really a problem, but it's a habit I felt kind of silly for not managing to throw.

Also in comparison to Metroid Prime and probably chosen in favor of pace, the environments are not a case of you get what you see. Ignoring the holograph rooms, where things are literally not what you see until you toggle the computer panel, there are all kinds of nooks, ledges, and other environmental details that are simply there for you to look at, but not touch. The game feels almost 2-and-a-half-D with its level design and cameras, because even though the physics are fully 3D, you're pretty much always moving in one of four planes, which is convenient since you're using a D-pad, not an analog stick, to move around. I would still take either the Gamecube games' controller's move/aim system or Metroid Prime 3's stick-movement/wiimote-aim system for the intense combats. That said, some of the more advanced movement power-ups like the Speed booster and screw attack work decidedly better in third-person than first, even in three dimensional space. Going back to the environments, though, it's frustrating not knowing what obstacles you can pass and what's an invisible wall, or not being able to tell which surfaces support wall-jumping. (In at least one instance, I discovered that I could benefit by jumping off the literal fourth wall where the screen looks in.)

One of the corruptions from the later Prime games that Other M disperses is the presence of bottomless pits. Luckily enough, or perhaps precisely because you're so road-coned in this game, it returns to the prior Metroid days where any pit you can fall into, you can and will climb out of. That, and the lack of true "escort missions" (though there are one or two "cooperative" battles) are small, pleasant quirks in the face of greater deviations from the formula. And though the early parts of the game made me worry with so few powerups being gained, the game does have a decent variety including most of Samus's "canonical" arsenal from Super plus a couple of others. The bonus content, after the main credits, includes a couple of particular throwbacks that should satisfy dedicated fans, namely the identity of the extra boss and presence of a timed escape sequence.

Finally, there's the music, or rather, there isn't. Something that struck me and immensely disappointed me is that in place of the catchy, moody, excellent music that characterizes every other Metroid game, the background for most of Metroid: Other M is populated with a sparse, barely-ambient soundtrack often mistakable for plain silence. Some of the battles and cutscenes have more noticeable music, arranging tried-and-true franchise themes, but even that is bland and immediately forgettable by comparison to its source material. Unlike most aspects of the game, where good things came mixed with bad, the music was an unequivocal disappointment and whoever was responsible for sound direction and music composition should be ashamed.

So in the end, there were many, many things that annoyed me about Other M. Some don't even bear mentioning given the more crippling flaws in the game. Despite all its deviations, the game remains Metroid enough at its core that I could not enjoy it as a different type of game entirely, but eventually I was able to acknowledge it as a member of the Metroid family proper, a bit twisted but still reminiscent of the games that are most true to form. In fact, in many ways, the ability to speed through areas unhindered as you near the endgame reminds me of one of the enjoyable parts of Super Metroid in ways that the Prime series, with its meticulous exploration and complex environments, never could. Am I still waiting for a true Metroid successor? Yes. But in the mean time, I gained something kind of nice, a prettier but dim-witted half-sister to the game I love.


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