- Metroid: Other M
- CLR Rating:
Release Date: August 31st, 2010
Platform: Nintendo Wii
Developer: Tecmo’s Team Ninja
Genre: 3rd and 1st person Action Shooter
ESRB: T for Teen
Gaiden Gurus Don’t Give a Prime Cut
You can have flaws, problems, but wow them in the end, and you’ve got a hit.
Love him or hate him, screenwriting guru Robert McKee makes a good point, and one that’s often ignored in video games. There are so many poorly executed endings in the history of the medium that it’s become status quo. From mangled single screen affairs to bizarre twists that make you question your protagonist’s intelligence, most of the conclusions never match the road it took to reach them.
Nintendo’s Metroid games however, have always excelled in this area. From the original’s thrilling escape sequence and reveal that Samus was in fact a woman, to its sequel’s quiet reversal turning your fearsome foe into an adorable companion, or the grandiose, planet detonating (literally!) finales of Super Metroid and the Prime trilogy, the cosmic adventures of Ms. Aran have always been satisfying by the time the credits roll. The latest effort in the series, Team Ninja’s Metroid: Other M, is no different. The game ends well, with confrontations and conclusions that should satisfy both the neophyte and the hardcore fan (of which I count myself, having beaten every game in the series). This being said, the road getting there is paved with failed experiments, frustrating, contrary design, and teeming with tired tropes that trouble the title well into the six hour mark. In the case of video games, does Mr. McKee’s opinion about a killer ending hold true?
Our current space opera begins with the end; specifically the ending of 1994’s Super Metroid. Intergalactic bounty hunter Samus Aran reminisces about the loss of the last known titular terror, one which saved her life from the monstrous Mother Brain. After a recovery period that also serves as a brief tutorial, she picks up on a distress call that leads her to a desiccated and mostly deserted research vessel called the Bottle Ship. Here she encounters old comrades also apparently investigating the distress signal: a clichéd cast of Space Marines! Among them is her former CO, Adam Malkovich, and soon enough she decides to follow his command and work with the strike team to figure out the mystery of the abandoned facility. It’s a tale that dwells in comic book melodrama and monologue, but if you’re interested in a series which counts a giant purple space dragon as one of the “serious” villains, how could you expect anything less?
If this particular setting feels familiar to longtime fans, don’t worry that something’s been changed in the Matrix; most of this was done before in Metroid Fusion. From the research vessel that contains recreations of various terrestrial environments, to the strong focus on a linear narrative that has Malkovich ordering little orphan Aran around, the game feels like both a prequel and a retelling (a pretelling then?) of the 2003 GBA game, though with a larger scope and prettier graphics.
Much prettier graphics, as this is probably the best looking game on the Wii! The only rivals on the system might be last year’s Resident Evil: The Darkside Chronicles and Nintendo’s own Super Mario Galaxy. Though the art direction is at times generic, the animations are fluid and beautiful, in both gameplay and the many FMV cutscenes used to sell the story.
Conversely, the audio is a mixed bag. While the trademark moody 80’s sci-fi music returns, it brings with it some terribly dead voice acting. For most of the game Samus sounds more like the replicant Rachel from Blade Runner than a human being, and seems to have a difficult time in conveying any emotion through many sappy soliloquies. The other characters aren’t as bad, but none of the performances are helped by the awkward dialogue from a Japanese translation that is far too literal to sound natural. In general it comes across as 2nd-rate anime, which could have been greatly helped by a professional English-speaking writer to clean everything up.
Perhaps such a professional could have prevented the game from borrowing the worst conceit from Fusion: the idea that Samus is working directly under a superior. Free-roaming exploration has been a series hallmark and here the level design would support this, but due to Adam’s orders, you’re set on an incredibly limited path. The concept extends into your inventory and even though Samus starts off all of her major equipment (avoiding a series trope), she can’t use it until the stern commander often arbitrarily “authorizes” it. This excises the joy of making a character more powerful when you know they can simply turn the ability on or off at a moment’s notice, and it forces you to question her common sense when encountering hostile situations that would be resolved just as quickly were you “authorized” to do so.
Team Ninja didn’t draw all of their inspiration from Fusion though, and have crafted an interesting battle system that is reminiscent of their past work on Ninja Gaiden, while combining some elements from the Prime games. Usually you’ll fight from a 3rd person camera view that is focused on quickly evading enemy fire at the last second before countering with the bounty hunter’s auto-aiming arm cannon or trying to perform flashier grapples on stunned enemies. When more precise attacks are required, a simple rotation of the Wii remote puts you into a 1st-person “visor” view and missiles become available. The controls are responsive and play well in the 3rd-person mode, and there’s a nifty slow-motion effect in the transition between the two views that alleviates concerns about the remote not registering quickly enough.
There are even more camera tricks under the game’s sleeve though. At key points you’ll get locked into the visor view until you spot an important clue in the environment, and when in confined quarters the camera zooms into a close over-the-shoulder view and the walking speed is slowed (I call it the “bathroom cam” after the first location it’s encountered). These new systems are bold attempts at reinventing a series that’s over two decades old and the team should be given some major credit for trying to mix things up.
Unfortunately for each idea that works, there’s something that disrupts the player from truly enjoying it and every game mechanic feels compromised in some way or another. The combat system is flashy and fun to watch, but has no depth so after the first hours it becomes tedious to play. It also gets ludicrously easy as dodges are very simple to execute, have no delay or cooldown, and with a tilt of the Wii Remote you can heal yourself when low on energy. This “concentration” system used to gain health also replenishes missiles so you can’t run out of ammo, which destroys any incentive the player has to explore and look for upgrades! Not that using missiles is fun anymore, since they fire too slowly to merit much use. The forced perspective shifts are effective in setting a tone of suspense and mystery in a few instances, but usually drag on far too long and disrupt the flow of the game’s pacing, which is as glacial as the Phendrana Drifts to begin with!
Separately, each of these issues could be minor quibbles, but they combine with the limited exploration and the whining protagonist to form a major series of problems that can’t be ignored. No matter how much you might want to love the game out of nostalgia or give it a pass for being in a series of pedigree, you’ll have to face the truth: Metroid has jumped the shark . . . or at least bomb-jumped over Mother Brain.
But then, when all hope is lost, something happens.
A new plot element is introduced that’s a bit trite, but it works to hook you back into the game. At the same time, the artificial restrictions to exploration that are holding everything back start to shed off like a reptile’s skin. Then story twists occur that illuminate series-long concepts and bring in completely new ideas. The base combat doesn’t change, but minor enemies get ignored entirely with the return of some classic upgrades, and boss battles become more frequent, more dramatic, and more complex. Forced perspective shifts become less common, then stop occurring altogether, and the level design even gets better. Characters stop behaving entirely as caricature, and though the stilted dialogue stays melodramatic, the situation builds up enough to warrant it and everything actually starts to prove emotionally effective.
All of this builds up to an exciting climax and a sudden, but still satisfying, resolution. Then a really interesting post-credits mode that allows for further exploration and a couple of classic moments unlocks, along with some nice bonuses Though certain frustrations (namely the static combat) never go away entirely, the game really opens up and improves, but only just before and directly after you beat it!
With videogames there is a balancing act between gameplay and story: both aspects have to co-exist and counter each other to be successful. McKee’s advice holds true for story, and the early stumbles here can be forgiven by the time the credits roll. But when the overall gameplay functions in much the same arc, and concurrently, it doesn’t hold water. You can’t ask the player to invest hours into a game before introducing a real plot hook, especially if you hold back on key elements that make the series what it is or don’t add something equally as compelling in the interim. Neither happens here, and so the game is very back loaded in quality on both fronts, which is the exact opposite problem of most videogames.
As it happens, it doesn’t make Metroid: Other M the worst game in the galaxy, but simply adequate. However, “adequate” doesn’t live up to the quality this series has generally upheld. This game is in a lot of ways noble for attempting new things, but it’s a noble failure for any lifelong fan, which hurts to admit to when you count yourself as one of their ranks. If there’s a consolation for such fans, it’s that the game’s core elements could definitely be improved were a sequel made. As for Samus’ current mission, though the ending is solid, it shouldn’t be the only thing justifying the means it takes to get there.