“Metroid: Other M” Review

So, so good. So, so bad. A study in specific flaws vs. a great whole.

Dec 19, 2010 – Metroid: Other M is a game built out of clashing elements. Nintendo partnering with Team Ninja? Absurd. But it happened, and what came of it is exactly the logical conclusion of the partnership. What you’ll get is a game built of mostly excellent mechanics, smooth gameplay, well-done graphics, and a hit or miss story. It is a game of contrasts and paradoxes, where the single best thing about the game is Samus Aran, and the single worst thing about the game is Samus Aran.

Metroid is something of a legendary franchise, despite never having the same mainstream impact that the other Nintendo franchises are known for, such as Mario or The Legend of Zelda. While I have never completed a Metroid game before this one (believe me, I plan to when I get around to my Metroid Trilogy collection) I am familiar with the major elements of the other games. The gameplay, a blend of open-world adventuring, shooting and platforming, is a staple that other similar games are still labeled after; ‘Metroidvania’ style games. First person shooters finally became distinct enough to drop the “Doom Clone” label, but no game of Metroid’s type have ever escaped its gravity. A sense of isolation, even claustrophobia at times, is also a key component to most Metroid games. Chilling and haunting sci-fi music is another tenet of the games, as is the general silence of the main protagonist.

Other M is very much a Metroid game, though it charts new territory as well.

So with that background in mind, it was something of a shock when Other M looked to stray from some of those key concepts. The gameplay stayed fairly similar in many respects, but there were weird mechanics that involved pointing the controller at the screen to fire missiles, or study the environment in first person. Isolation was an iffy subject, because by the looks of it you were teaming up with this group of space marines now. And the biggest change of all was the silence of the protagonist. The new emphasis on story promised a much more vocal Samus Aran than has ever previously been seen. And these gambles have had some unexpected payoffs, and some dreaded blunders.

The game takes place some time after Super Metroid, the SNES game that still holds a treasured place on many top games of all time lists. In fact the first cinematic re-lives the last moments of that game, bringing a terrific flair to it that serves only to enhance the original. Samus Aran is torn up over the loss of “the Baby,” a young metroid that imprinted on her and thought she was its mother. The Baby sacrificed itself protecting Samus from “Mother Brain” the villain of that title. She wanders the galaxy for a while before stumbling across a distress signal. When she goes to investigate she runs across a number of old friends and comrades from her time in the Galactic Federation military; they’ve also shown up to investigate under orders to save anybody they can and figure out what’s going on in this vessel. Leading the group is Adam Malkovich, Samus’s former commander, who she sees as a sort of father figure. It is alluded to that they have a troubled past. This, and the mystery of the events on the ship, all unfold over the course of the game.

The presence of Adam Malkovich is an unwanted distraction during the first half of the game.

The plot is actually quite strong. The mystery of what happened on the ship pulled me in rather effectively and I wanted to know what exactly was going on by the end. There are still some flaws. A mystery that had me fascinated early on is never resolved in a satisfactory manner, for instance, and Adam doesn’t authorize Samus to use her equipment in the exact moments when she obviously needs it. But overall, I actually quite enjoyed my time exploring the ship and its mysteries.

The characterization is where things get touchy. Samus is given some significant emotional issues and character flaws that serve to make her character more interesting. However, the way these flaws are presented make Samus look like an emotional train wreck. The addition of a voice makes it all worse. Her monologues are heavily melodramatic, but the delivery is wooden and dull. She is portrayed as being a scared little girl trapped in a woman’s body who has loads and loads of daddy issues. It’s not that these elements are inherently bad. Far from it. I think they could serve to make her a very interesting character. But the presentation is so heavy-handed, so over-written, that any real weight is robbed from her characterization. It’s hard to take her seriously as simply a capable woman, much less a space-faring bounty hunter.

Samus stares into the sunset.

It is important to note, however, that these presentational issues are most grating in the first few hours of the game and become far less pronounced and bearable as the game goes on. By the end of my time with Metroid: Other M, these issues were several hours behind me and I was having a great time with the game.
And there really is a lot of great things to be said for the game. Though you’re not as isolated as you were in the earlier Metroid titles or the Metroid Prime Trilogy, isolation is still very much a part of the game. Traversing the dangerous interior of the ship is still a lonely and haunting experience. This is, of course, aided by great level design, fantastic music that draws on the many classic sounds of the franchise, and the nice pacing of the story elements.

Gameplay is the true star of the game, and Team Ninja’s expertise in the area of combat especially shows. Fighting the many threats that Samus faces is tense and exciting, but free of the frustrations that one would expect of having only a D-pad and two or three buttons. In fact, the greatest triumph of the team may be how I almost never noticed that I wasn’t using an analogue stick. For a game with movement in three dimensions, this is an accomplishment bordering on a miracle. Furthermore the implementation of the dodge mechanic was an inspired choice that makes combat smooth and largely free of frustration, and the shooting mechanics are satisfying.

There are also some really sweet take-down moves.

The ability to hold up the gun to charge missiles was a good addition as well. But I found the ability to heal using the same method to be largely unnecessary. It is only useable in that manner when you are near death, but it was rare that I reached that point of near-defeat while having enough time to charge up my health bar. A more frequent scenario was finding myself on the verge of death during a boss fight, only to get killed the moment I stopped to charge up my health.

For several hours, I wasn’t sure what to think of switching over on occasion to using the Wii remote pointer in first-person mode, but by the end of the game it felt natural and I appreciated having he added dimension to gameplay.

Searching the environment for clues.

The mechanic worked very effectively and added a great feel of exploration, not unlike an adventure game (although sequences where you were forced into first person to find specific elements in the environment got annoying).

Its use in combat is a little less smooth, but I like how it forced me to think strategically about how best to approach a combat situation so that I could use my missiles without being hit. I eventually got fast enough switching back and forth between first and third person that I was never even bothered by the fact that you can’t move while in first person. The down time for me during the switch was about as long as pulling up the iron-sights in a first person shooter. In the end, I love the addition of the mechanic, and find it to be a fascinating and creative use of the Wii controller’s functionality.

Show 'em how it's done.

Again, I cannot emphasize enough how good the controls feel. Very few occasions made me wish they were any different, and these moments were mostly fleeting. Team Ninja’s marriage of first and third person is marvelously successful. The only perspective I felt was largely underwhelming was the third-person over-the-shoulder camera. It was during these scenes that I most keenly felt the loss of the analogue stick.

The graphics are quite good for the Wii’s hardware, only rarely dropping the framerate. Samus looks good, and the cinematics are terrific.

The environments can also be very pretty and atmospheric

Textures occasionally look noticeably flat and fuzzy, but these are usually background elements that will go unnoticed. It’s hard to argue against the game’s appearance, especially when it runs so smooth for almost the entirety of the experience. Nintendo shows once again that they know best how to pull the juice out of their own hardware.

On a final note, there is another mission after the credits that takes Samus back to the ship to retrieve a lost item that had the most genuinely touching scene for me in the whole game. That, on top of a truly isolated experience made all the more haunting by the memories of friends lost there. I really enjoyed that little extra tid-bit.

Closing Comments:

So where does this leave me when I try and score a game? On the one hand, I feel that the presentation of the character, the dialogue, inner monologue and voice acting varied from terrible to merely sub-par. On the other hand, the plot was great, the gameplay fantastic, and the production values sky-high. Not to mention the fact that their efforts to give Samus a character and personality is a noble goal, if largely unsuccessful. So I have to judge it based on my take-away experience, and by the end of the game that take-away was actually a very good one. Despite my complaints, I had a great time with the game and how much more can you really ask for?

STAR RATING: (4 Stars out of 5)

Four out of Five Stars

For those of you who stuck around after the rating, I’ve got a extra segment for you called Spoiler Talk. It’s a segment in which I discuss what I thought of certain elements of the story or themes that are too spoilerish for the main review. What I say here doesn’t ever trump my review, instead it might give insight into what exactly made me give something the score I did. So let’s get started.

Spoiler Talk:

What You Don't Hear: Copious Melodrama

The largest single complaint laid against the game always boils down to the portrayal of Samus’ character. In that vein I’m going to focus primarily on that. The plot and events of the game are mostly self-explanatory so I’m pretty much going to leave them alone (though I’m upset that we never find out for sure the identity of the betrayer among the Galactic Federation troops).

Samus is a badass while you’re playing her. Hell, she’s kind of a badass in most of the cinematics too. But then she is shown to be almost completely subservient to some guy we’ve barely heard mention of in the series before (outside of some vagueness in Metroid: Fusion.) She goes so far as to wait for his authorization before using her equipment. Even in cases where her equipment means the difference between life and death. The oft-cited varia suit in the volcano levels being the perfect example of this. It’s discouraging to see someone who represents us, who we might even look up to in some sense, debasing herself I this way.

It's a rare moment when you don't want Samus to tell Adam to shove it.

Now let me frankly say that I think super-feminist examinations of this phenomenon declaring Samus as being completely destroyed as a character are going too far. It is not sexist to portray a woman who has some frailties and weaknesses. I don’t think that goal of feminism should ever be the goal of macho-izing the female gender. The ‘Macho’ attitude hasn’t exactly done a lot for the male gender in many respects. We don’t need female bald-space-marines to add to the overabundance of male ones. That said, I can’t argue that this isn’t bad for Samus as a character. As I said in the article, the way she is presented is damaging, even if the intentions were noble.

Her friendship with Anthony, particularly as shown in the end cinematic, goes a longer way towards humanizing her in a realistic fashion that her melodrama at the beginning of the story. The only scene where I really felt for her and her loss of Adam was when she retrieved Adam’s helmet in the portion of the game after the end credits. For whatever reason, I found that segment to be pretty touching.

Samus' ties to other chracters are important and generally a good thing.

When Samus fights Ridley in this game, she’s already fought and defeated him once in her past. But despite this, she turns into a little girl (she is literally depicted as such in the cinematic) the moment she sees him again. This is the cinematic I would expect for their first meeting, when she is just meeting the shadowy monsters of her past for the first time, not now. Should she be scared? Yeah, sure. But there are more subtle ways of showing that, which are more true to where her character should be at this point in her life.

The strange thumbs-up/thumbs-down element of the story comes across as weird to western gamers, myself included.


But my exposure to anime has given me enough of a window to Japanese culture to know that this is a cultural discrepancy. A slight, but jarring inconsistency that makes the western audience scratch their heads at the weird meaning given to the gesture during the story sequences.
Again, despite my major qualms, I really enjoyed myself, which surprises me quite a lot. I wasn’t sure where I was going to land after the first few hours, and I’m glad I landed thumbs up.

– Edward L. Cheever II~


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