Metroid: Other M‘s plot is, as suspected from my early moments with the game, a poorly presented mess that takes the forefront to everything else, such as the actual game, which isn’t terrible or spectacular. It’s passable, something a legacy series from Nintendo shouldn’t be satisfied with being. It has elements of a Metroid game — item collecting, hallway running, speed boosting, and the controls for the most part are sound — but it is a very poor Metroid game, and if you want to get really dramatic Metroid: Other M is a confounding, depressing situation that’s frankly, kind of a dead horse at this point.
But here goes.
The story makes no sense, and its presentation is even worse. Samus, after the events of Super Metroid, gets a distress call from a space station and decides to check it out. She explains in zombie-like monotone that the distress signal is called a “Baby’s Cry”, then goes at length to explain why it’s called that. It’s entirely flippant information that goes on for far too long. Oh, and the space station is shaped like a baby’s bottle and called a Bottle Ship. Samus is also still hurting over losing the baby Metroid from Super Metroid. And Other M is a poorly hidden anagram for “mother.” Notice a theme here yet?
The plot’s subtle as a sledgehammer and it gets worse and worse all the way up to the nonsensical, anticlimactic final moments. After the schmaltzy end credits I tossed aside my Wiimote, threw my face into my hands and grumbled into my palms, “How did Nintendo let this out the door?”
The major selling point of this game was — besides it’s a goddamn Metroid game — the story, and Samus’ personality specifically. It’s obvious they put more effort into the story than anything else, which is embarrassing. The first thing the back of the box advertises is “The tale of Samus can now be told”, which is doubly embarrassing because Samus is an idiot in this game and her presence barely even matters. A deus ex machina (actually, several) at the end of the game (and throughout) sees to that. If she didn’t go to the Bottle Ship not a single thing would change. Again, it’s mind-boggling Nintendo let this out the door.
It’s also mind-boggling that all of this could’ve been avoided. Silent visual storytelling, one of the things the Metroid series has always been good at, is still evident in Other M. The game opens with a CG video recreation of the ending of Super Metroid, when Samus was rescued from Mother Brain by the baby Metroid from the end of Metroid 2. It’s a great fanservice moment, the first of several in Other M, with a few nice touches like the first-person cutaways where one can see Samus’ health regenerate in her heads-up display — a result of the Metroid hatchling imbuing Samus with the Hyper Beam needed to take Mother Brain down. It’s a great detail, and it’s one of several indications that the Metroid team still knows how to tell a story through visuals alone. Always show, never tell. Right?
So while all the unnecessary voice acting? Why try to make Metroid into Final Fantasy XIII or Metal Gear Solid 4 — a “cinematic experience?” We can clearly see there’s an eviscerated scientist lying on the floor, we already suspect there’s an assassin onboard the space station, and we can see for ourselves that (SPOILER!) Ridley’s back for the 27th time. We don’t need Samus’ worst Philip Marlowe impression to explain to us what we have just seen for ourselves for 5 to 10 minutes at time. It’s insulting!
The problem is that story never really belonged in Metroid except for in instruction manuals or some introductory text crawl. That, and nobody really cared about Samus’ feelings. The series was a game, first and last. The story was there just to give us a setting and objective. Turning Metroid into yet another JRPG-style “cinematic experience” — and not even a modern one, this is like PlayStation One Legend of Dragoon era Full Motion Video anime buffoonery — just turns it into yet another passive experience, instead one to be engaged in. In Other M I felt like a pawn scrolling across scenery doing chores for a man I never see until the end. Then the man (SPOILER!) kills himself for no reason. I only rarely felt like a badass intergalactic bounty hunter.
For that matter, Nintendo has no clue what a bounty hunter is or does.
The story’s nonsense leaks into the game design. Samus, like, is totally in like with her superior Adam to the point that she volunteers to switch off all her abilities from Super Metroid until Adam authorizes their use. Which makes no sense on any level, despite her lengthy monologue explaining her decision, and makes for a phony sense of progression throughout the game. It robs us of the fun of finding that new ability, of being empowered. When Adam authorizes something it’s an “Ugh, finally” finally, not “Oh, what’s this? Yes! Now I can do this and this and this!” There’s no sense of discovery. No “wow.” They’re always authorized right when the story says you need them, and when Samus starts authorizing things herself later in the game, things stop making sense completely.
For comparison, in Super Metroid finding the Speed Booster’s an event, a setpiece. You grab it, run out of the area like hell because lava’s rising and you find out you can smash through walls in the process, escaping in the nick of time. It was thrilling in 1994, and it still is today. In Other M Adam hands you the Speed Booster when there’s a wall made of ice in the way. You run up a hill, break through some ice and that’s it. It’s represented in 3D very well — in fact, Other M is very good about translating Samus’ moves to the third dimension, especially the Screw Attack and Shinespark.
The best thing about the game is how it succeeds at bringing Samus’ 2D movement into a 3D space as Samus leaps and dashes in fluid, flashy movements like that of a space ninja. Makes sense, the game’s co-developed by Team Ninja, who translated their classic 2D Ninja Gaiden series to 3D a generation earlier. They’re good at that, but as smooth as Samus feels (Hey, not remotely what I meant!) it pangs of copy-paste straight out of Ninja Gaiden. Many animations, like a hefty beetle alien tossing Samus up in the air, look like they were culled from Ninja Gaiden.
The level design is typical of Ryu Hayabusa’s games as well, with wide open arenas for wrestling monsters, interspersed with bland corridors that lead to more wide open arenas. The areas are stock video game levels: woods, volcano, an icy cavern, even a desert. Truly alien environments like Maridia, Brinstar, Norfair — nada. The deserts and jungles are all holograms anyway, that you have to turn off to progress. Yes, Other M makes the player an accomplice in killing Metroid‘s atmosphere.
The combat, while not entirely killed, is a piece of cake once the Sensemove dodge ability is mastered. Which is easy to do! One can just mash the D-pad and escape nearly every fight unscathed, including most boss fights, including the second-to-final boss. The final boss? An insulting, anticlimactic pixel hunt. You don’t even have to bother with auto-aiming at bad guys, running right by them works just as well, unless it’s a locked-room situation where you have to kill a monster nest in first-person mode with missiles. Otherwise, there’s no incentive to kill things most of the time. They don’t drop health or missile recovery items anymore now that holding the Wiimote up vertically restores health in near-death situations. And health energy shouldn’t be a big deal anyway because you can just Sensemove your way out of every fight.
And that anticlimactic pixel hunt? Absolutely blood boiling. There are several Where’s Waldo-type interruptions that have the player search for itty-bitty clues in the environment via a first-person perspective. These shoehorned searches serve no purpose except to remind you that you’re playing a game on the Wii. They grind the game’s already dubious flow to a halt and are frustrating as hell because the things you need to find are either so tiny or painted the same color as the background. Green blood on green grass, for example.
Gosh, what else? The art design’s questionable. Samus, Ridley and all the new enemy designs look lousy. Samus looks nowhere near as good as her model in Super Smash Bros. Brawl and Ridley lost any menace he had now that he’s a beefy monkey dragon thing with bulging biceps. Chamelons, horse shoe crabs, lava men from Johnny Quest, a mid-boss lava dragon with buck teeth like the sharks from that Steve Zahn animal movie — it’s laughable, although returning enemies from previous games hold up well.
The soundtrack goes for ambiance rather than indelible melodies the series has been known for, which isn’t bad outside of the game from what I’ve listened, but it’s disappointing there isn’t a single new memorable piece of music in a new Metroid game.
Special attention must also be paid to how well the game builds up the final moments then completely, maddeningly squanders the promise by — for the love of God, why — having Adam take care of everything, only to realize minutes later he’s taken care of nothing at all. We get the promise of a new Tourian, of impossible-to-beat Metroids, of a possible new incarnation of Mother Brain, all the makings of an exciting climax, only to have it float away into space — offscreen — during the same stupid cutscene. Ridley gets killed offscreen, too. Even the solution to that final damn pixel hunt gets robbed away from us.
If we go by the cheesy end credits, complete with Samus’ ship flying through constellations shaped like Anthony and Adam’s faces to the bland tune of nondescript orchestral music, we have director Yoshio Sakamoto to blame for making Metroid into something it’s not — a maudlin murder mystery that’s also an average action game with wrestling moves. He also directed Super Metroid, Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Zero Mission, which are really, really good games, so it appears we have yet another George Lucas situation on our hands. I’ll never know why they made the choices they made considering that every once in a while all the things director Sakamoto and his team are brilliant at peek out from under the miasma of terrible storytelling and awkward gameplay mechanics. I hope they never make these choices again.
Oh, and since when did Samus turn into Magical Girl Pretty Sammy?