"OtherSteve" reviews the "other" Metroid
FOREWORD: Hello readers. Many of you are regulars to our growing site, but to the new guys, I just want to take a quick moment to preface this piece. What you’re about to read is perhaps the most comprehensive Metroid: Other M review out there. As a Metroid fan of many years, the author is doing what he loves—and that sort of honest dedication pervades all of our reviews here at DC. This one’s longer than most, but we feel it was required to communicate the full scope of our assessments. Hopefully you’ll find that it answers your questions and parallels your way of thinking. And if you’d like to leave your thoughts, please do so… enjoy the review!
How do you take a franchise which has been heavily tapped over the past decade (to be precise, seven games in six* years between 2002 and 2007) and convincingly reconstruct it so that it’s (once again) worth playing? With Metroid: Other M, Nintendo and Team Ninja have done their best to permute an otherwise seemingly unmalleable game design without deviating too wildly from the established definition of the series. It isn’t perfect, and it most certainly is different; some particular changes to the beloved formula are sure to irk Metroid purists. But its nonconformities (and missteps) aside, Other M seeks to entertain in a somewhat different way—in fact, a somewhat less Metroid way—more akin to what was introduced in 2002’s Metroid Fusion. The question is: does it succeed?
*Thanks TriforceBun; I obviously can't count. ;-)
Fooled you! Other M is almost entirely third-person.
For starters, the most heavily debated eccentricity of Other M has been its considerably stronger emphasis on story and social interaction than in previous Metroid installments. Boasting lots of voice acting, lengthy FMV sequences, and a shockingly sassy Samus, it far surpasses even Fusion in the realm of narrative and character development. And if you’re like me, you might be concerned that such modifications to the age-old formula could ruin the feel entirely.
But we’ll get to that in a moment. Before we begin our analysis of Other M’s alterations to the classic presentation, let’s talk about the gameplay.
Simple != Bad
Metroid: Other M is frequently misinterpreted as a “2-D” game, but in fact, the game worlds are almost entirely three-dimensional in nature; the camera provides an isometric perspective the entire time, and its behavior is wholly sovereign (meaning there are no camera controls).
Other M leverages the D-pad for navigation. No nunchuk is required; you simply turn the controller sideways, leaving the 1 and 2 buttons for Shoot and Jump, respectively. Although this might seem like a bad idea when a perfectly functional analog stick is available, upon further consideration, it actually has its merits.
What makes this method unique is its simplification of the playing field. Essentially, you can only move in eight cardinal directions in Other M—even though the game world is fully three-dimensional—and because of this, it feels simpler than the average three-dimensional game. This works especially well in long, narrow corridors, where pressing “forward” results in Samus running straight through the hallway, sort of as if you were simply playing a 2-D game. In essence, Samus “snaps” to whatever direction is logical to progress through these sorts of rooms; the camera wraps around all on its own to allow you to continue holding the same direction on the D-pad to progress, even if the room curves (which might explain why some people have mistakenly described the game as 2-D). Team Ninja has done an excellent job implementing this unique and intuitive form of gameplay.
Of course, you can still choose to explore the Z-axis by pressing other directions on the D-pad (again, the world is 3-D—and many larger “free roam” rooms necessitate this, of course), but that option is entirely avoidable in the narrower corridors if you’re merely interested in making forward progress. Meanwhile, the aforementioned independent camera system (which requires zero babysitting and also wisely grants transparence to otherwise obstructive objects in the foreground) removes even more from the player’s realm of concern. The only real negative of the camera, in fact, is that it doesn’t change directions when you’re backtracking, so you’ll sometimes find yourself headed toward the screen in awkward fashion.
And then there’s the auto-aim. Auto-aim, you say? Yes, it sounds preposterous, especially considering that Metroid is heavily comprised of shooter elements. And it’s true that taking out beasts anywhere within a (roughly) 15% arc of Samus’ orientation can be as easy as spamming the Shoot button if you’re so inclined. But after spending enough time with Other M, I think you’ll agree that there would be no other sane way to approach the combat within this framework.
You see, because you can only move Samus in eight directions, it only makes sense that the game must assist your angling to some extent. It even goes so far as to adjust the elevation of Samus’ arm cannon for you (so that you can shoot flying enemies from your position on the ground without needing to press another button to angle your arm)—so overall, hitting your target with a shot is pretty easy. Ask yourself this, though: is it really that different from Prime’s lock-on feature? In Prime, it was comparably easy to sprint through a room, locking on haphazardly and mowing through hazards. Ultimately, this is just another simplification to make the hybrid 2-D/3-D approach manageable—and if you ask me, this one makes sense. Besides, Other M instead chooses to complicate the combat in other, different ways.
The scripted camera system is great, but there are times where you’ll want (or need) to have a look from a different angle. Fortunately, doing so in Other M is as simple as pointing the Wii remote at the screen, at which point you will receive a first-person perspective and pointer-based aiming system (obviously inspired by Prime). The transition takes a second, but the action around you slows down for a moment to give you time to reorient yourself. It’s a bit jarring rotating the controller and then locating the pointer, but it usually gets the job done without too much hassle.
You can’t walk while in this position, but it does allow you to free-look by holding the B button and aim manually (or lock on), as well as fire missiles and super missiles (in fact, you can only fire missiles in this perspective, and only once a lock-on has been established). The game leverages this mechanic during many battles, where the best strategy is often to freeze a monster’s appendage with your Ice Beam and then follow up with a well-placed missile. It’d still work better if you could at least dodge while in first-person view, but you can’t have it all. (CORRECTION: You actually can dodge in first-person, but it's performed somewhat annoyingly by flicking the remote left and right. Thanks Andy and Ronny!)
Another alteration of the combat system is the addition of close combat mechanics (thanks to Team Ninja’s expertise in the area). For instance, you can now hop onto enemies’ backs and perform a so-called “Overblast” attack, which finishes them off in a single blow (a similar attack can be performed from the front as well). The tougher enemies won’t allow this to happen until they’ve been significantly damaged, but it’s a rewarding and surefire way of killing off your aggressor. Even many of the bosses can be finished in this fashion, providing a memorable conclusion to an often stressful battle. While they aren’t entirely dependable, these techniques work fairly well in context with the design.
Another more pervasive addition, meanwhile, might also be more controversial: the dodging. Thanks to the frequently hectic nature of the third-person combat, personally, I enjoyed the option to avoid an oncoming attack by simply tapping a direction on the D-pad. However, I will admit that I possibly enjoyed it too much. See, it sometimes feels almost unfairly easy; while fighting some bosses, for instance, you might find yourself repeatedly tapping the D-pad to dodge continuously until you manage an opening for a shot, completely stoic in the wake of whatever projectile chaos the beast is tossing your direction. Plus, each successful dodge automatically maxes out your beam charge instantly—so there’s extra incentive to hammer.
Fortunately, most of the time, the game does a pretty good job of providing enemies which are challenging and unique enough in their attack patterns to offset the convenience of a carefree dodge mechanic (stuff like gravity wells can make any battle confusing and difficult). Nevertheless, series purists who so loved squeezing Samus in between approaching glowing orbs and dots probably will not appreciate this departure.
Nothing a few dozen dodges can't solve
And that isn’t the last of the notable gameplay differences. Now, you’ll no longer be hunting for and collecting health and ammo pickups; there are none. In Other M, there are only two ways to regain life and missiles: find a save point, or concentrate. Concentration is a technique performed by pointing the Wii Remote upward and holding the A button. It requires at least several seconds to complete, and provided it isn’t interrupted (by, say, your assailants), it results in a complete replenishment of your missile inventory, as well as the first energy tank (you can actually collect hidden E-Recovery tank expansions to expand this beyond the first E-tank as well). As for Super Missiles and Power Bombs, well, there are actually no pickups for those, either; you simply charge your missile cannon or morph ball to dispense either (the Power Bombs also require a short recharging period, while the Super Missiles consume 5 missiles apiece).
You might be wondering how well this modified system works. Personally, while I respect the attempt at refinement, I actually enjoy collecting health and ammo pickups. I think it’s sort of exciting and hectic in a way, and I don’t feel like the new concentration mechanic works as well in practice. You have to wait for a break in the action to pull it off, and it won’t refill any health unless you’re in the red—two things that, to me, limit its appeal. It feels almost more like your typical self-healing FPS system than it does a Metroid feature.
Another Fusion-borrowed “feature” that’s likely to get Metroid traditionalists up in arms is the map guidance, which cannot be disabled. Now, granted, this indicator only displays your intended destination (as well as its direction relative to Samus on the on-screen mini-radar), but it’s still something many gamers—including myself—chose to disable in the Prime games. Like Fusion, mission briefings from commander Adam Malkovich prompt these map targets. If you ask me, I like my Metroid solitary and uneasy… so yes, it was a bit of a nuisance in my eyes, just as it was in Fusion. However, arguably, the most important part of every Metroid game is the path from A to B, not so much that actual location of B. So while it’s certainly unfortunate you can’t turn off the indicator, it doesn’t break the experience or anything like that. It just—again—feels like Fusion.
A Downgrade in the Upgrades
The final item on the list of major gameplay differences is the upgrades system. In Other M, you won’t be actively collecting them as in most other Metroid titles in order to progress. Instead, in a decidedly less appealing and rather illogical nod to Fusion, you will instead merely be “authorized” to use your suit’s enhancements as those features are warranted by the circumstances at hand.
This is a highly controversial matter within the Metroid fanbase, as some argue that it completely removes the mystery and sense of accomplishment associated with the acquisition of items. Others contend that the effect remains the same; the only difference is that you don’t physically pick up the item. (Admittedly, there is still a strong emphasis on backtracking and leveraging newly-acquired abilities to reach new areas.) Regardless of how you feel about the issue, it’s hard to deny that the item scavenger hunting has long been a defining characteristic of the Metroid franchise—and to see it simplified as such only serves to blur the lines further between Metroid and the archetypical action/adventure game.
While backtracking, Samus often runs toward the screen, which can be awkward
The Art of Permutation
So far, we’ve only covered gameplay differences. But before we get to the presentation, let’s back up for just a moment and examine these changes in context with the whole of the series. How do these differences affect Other M’s appeal?
Perhaps the best way to communicate the impact that Other M’s changes have on the overall sensation would be to first determine what makes Metroid. If I were to best describe the crucial ingredients which define Metroid, I think it would go something like this:
Nonlinear action/platforming/exploration featuring large, sci-fi, maze-like alien environments
A massive number of hidden power-ups and secrets
Frequent backtracking, often out of necessity to acquire needed (often hidden) items
A marked sense of loneliness and trepidation which underscores the exploration
Little or no interaction with other characters or guided assistance
If you agree with these points, then clearly, the biggest violation that Other M commits is #5 (followed by #1 and possibly #4 as well). There’s more interaction in Other M than in any other entry in the series to date, and in fact, Samus is probably the most vocal character of all—each of them voice acted, to boot.
There’s no denying that this completely alters the feel of the experience; in some ways, it’s a return to the Fusion design (where Samus interjects on a regular basis with her thoughts and reflections on various matters), but it’s even more contrasted now because—again—these are fully voice-acted cut scenes we’re talking about here. Samus says things like “Why am I still alive?” and “The words pierced my heart”… it’s an exercise in character development and introspection. Furthermore, many of these scenes are lengthy, too… so get used to some spectating laced between your bouts of explorative platforming.
It’d be different, perhaps, if the cut scenes were authentically great. But, as is too often the case in games, they fall well short of a truly believable cinematic experience. This isn’t to say that there aren’t some impressive video moments in Other M; the biggest problem is instead that the dialogue and voice acting are often merely average. Moreover, Samus isn’t the self-confident badass that most of us pegged her to be. Instead, she comes across less steadfast, and more concerned with the opinions and judgments of her peers, even as she was a goofy teen rebel (giving thumbs down when everyone else gave thumbs up to the CO) years ago. Personally, I don’t particularly like this Samus.
There are also some wholly unnecessary “what’s wrong with this picture?” moments scattered throughout the game’s cut scenes where the player is forced to locate an item of interest from a stationary point. Sometimes the answers make no logical sense at all, and it totally kills the rhythm and mood of some tense situations. Presumably they were added to enhance the interactivity of these story-telling moments, but the game would have been better without them.
If you can forgive the somewhat excessive FMV interludes, the important thing is that the explorative platforming still exists. While the cut scenes might provide an uncommon explicitness to the Metroid storytelling, the implicit sense of loneliness and trepidation is still alive and well elsewhere. So although you’re certainly invested in a more complex plot in Other M, between it all, you are free to explore mostly uninterrupted as usual—albeit generally subject to your map guidance’s presence.
This is why you never let a Samus surprise you from above
Breaking sequence breaking
Returning to our above list, there are a few other deviations that warrant discussion. Firstly, thanks primarily to the fact that Other M simply gives you items when they’re needed, the trademark nonlinearity (and presumably sequence-breaking potential) of the game is notably diminished. You’re still backtracking on a regular basis (so #3 is heavily intact, thankfully), and there are tons (around 100) of missile expansions, E-tank and E-Recovery tank expansions, and even so-called “Accel Charge” upgrades (which cut the amount of time required to charge your beam), so #2 is well integrated also.
The “marked sense of loneliness and trepidation” that #4 specifies is also achieved in-between the major events (and FMVs); you’ll be happy to know that during gameplay, you rarely ever encounter another human. Plus, a number of the environments (especially later on) possess that requisite moodiness that the series demands, so for the most part, this sensation is preserved. It’s not as prevalent as it was in Super Metroid and Prime—when you were completely and totally alone—but at least it’s mostly preserved.
So then, overall, how different does Other M feel? Very different, I’d say, considering the fairly heavy alterations to the classic Metroid template. Is this a bad thing? If you didn’t enjoy Fusion at all, then yeah, it’s bad—there’s really no other way of viewing it. On the other hand, if you’re like me, and you were peeved by Fusion’s hand-holding and excessive narrative, but still enjoyed the overall experience, the same probably applies here.
But we aren’t done quite yet. Even if everything else was perfect, subpar level design, creature design, and mapping could completely ruin a Metroid title. After all, since backtracking is so inherently frequent, we ought to expect these items to receive heavy attention from the designers.
While it can’t compete with the best of the series, Other M’s implementation of most of these crucial elements is still pretty solid. The various sprawling corridors and winding tunnels connect in sometimes surprising ways, and the eerie locales transition seamlessly from one theme to the next. There are plenty of morph ball tubes and tight spaces to explore, although, unlike in Prime, many nooks and crannies are now obstructed by a more restrictive invisible barrier around environmental obstacles.
Some of the later areas in the game are particularly disconcerting, with a notable air of foreboding flavoring the mood. The music, meanwhile, is rarely melodic (and thus hardly memorable), but in general, it complements the atmosphere well. Graphically, Other M is great overall, but inconsistent at times: it’s frequently beautiful and occasionally quite the opposite. The fluidity of the (mostly) 60-fps action would normally count as an asset, but the inconsistency of the frame rate (which regularly stutters and dips to around 30 fps) actually renders it somewhat annoying. The art style and environmental complexity can’t quite compete with the best of Prime, but at the same time, Other M’s best is still impressive. Some areas are gorgeously realized, and it’ll make you wish there was more of it. Again, it’s not the best the series has seen, but for the most part, it’s detectably Metroid.
And the bosses? Samus will run up against some pretty impressive monsters in Other M (especially the last one… no, I mean the last one), even if some of them do seem too easy thanks to the overly powerful dodging technique. The battles are more cinematic than they were in previous Metroid games, and some of the closing sequences are pretty exciting.
Texture work is a mixed bag, but overall, it's a pretty game
The game will take you just around 9-10 hours to complete the first time through, and collecting everything will probably require closer to 13 to 15. It’s actually impossible to achieve a 100% item collection rate on the first trip, so you’ll have to return to the Bottle Ship after the credits roll to finish the job. No sweat; you’ll want to anyway, as there is some pretty cool “post-game” content that factors into those final few hours. Regrettably, most of the hidden expansions are pretty easy to find, but there are a handful which are pretty evil and quite clever.
There’s another problem though. While the game isn’t really short by traditional Metroid standards, it commits a pretty reprehensible infraction: it leads you on. Without spoiling anything, at a certain point in the game, hints are dropped that you will be undertaking a pretty fearsome and ambitious task. It’s a damn cool idea, and you’ll catch yourself smiling when the concept is introduced to you.
So you make your way to the target, and once you arrive… you can’t do it. And you never do. In fact, the game just writes it out of the story, you are forced instead to head back and pursue decidedly less epic objectives, to such extent that you probably won’t even expect the game to end when it does. This is a big no no, and I was shocked to encounter it. Fortunately, there are some unexpected things you do get to accomplish subsequently, so it’s at least partially forgivable.
Wrapping it up
A few thousand words later, and you’re probably wondering what all of these minute criticisms add up to. I realize that this review probably reads overly negatively, so I can’t stress enough the fact that Metroid: Other M simply has a lot to live up to. Metroid is a hallmark series which spawned some of the greatest games of all time—so when a game falls just short of those standards, it doesn’t make it bad by any means. In fact, Other M is indeed a great game; the real question is just this: if the changes to the classic formula are mostly detrimental, how much of a negative effect do they actually have?
And the answer, as is often the case, is contingent upon your personal opinion of what matters most. If you’re a die-hard Metroid fan looking for some action in Samus’ universe, you might resent the homogenized reinvention (FMV emphasis and hand-holding) that underlies Other M’s infrastructure, but you’ll still have a good time. If you’re purely an action/adventure fan looking for a solid game to enjoy, this will likely satiate. But if you hated Fusion’s modifications to the classic design, you’ll dislike Other M’s revisions even more. There’s no question about it: when the averages are calculated, in spite of its competence, Other M is farther from the comfortable franchise mean than any other Metroid title to date—so whether or not you can appreciate that sort of departure is entirely for you to determine.