Considering how Other M picks up directly after the events of Super Metroid, it’s easy to assume that it will be a faithful 3D interpretation of that seminal classic. However, Samus Aran’s long opening monologue that recalls her memories of the baby metroid’s sacrifice quickly reveals that Yoshio Sakamoto and Nintendo SPD Group No. 1 are willfully neglecting that influential game’s intuitive storytelling. Other M is the logical conclusion to the misguided ideas introduced in Metroid Fusion that break the series’ careful harmony between player and gameworld to ultimately exert its authority over both.
After her encore on Zebes, Samus Aran finds herself recuperating on a Federation medical facility. Following a painfully explicit tutorial on her entire suite of moves, items and abilities, that is easily the most manufactured scene the otherwise organically-told franchise had seen to date, she boards her ship and heads out to the depths of space. It’s not long before she intercepts an SOS from the abandoned science station “Bottle Ship”, where she engages a Federation military squad led by her former military CO Adam Malkovich, whose team has been sent in to investigate why the facility went down and why it’s littered with the crew’s corpses. Confronted by unresolved emotions about the reunion, Samus agrees to cooperate and delves into the Bottle Ship’s depths.
As a three dimensional translation of the side-scrolling series, Other M is fascinating for how it’s the polar opposite of Metroid Prime’s subtle intuitive brilliance in virtually every way, despite both coming from the same central premise. The design answers any questions as to why Retro Studios decided to use a first person perspective when Super Metroid’s classic side-scrolling level structure is reworked into a twisting and turning three-dimensional environment navigated with an on-rail camera system that forces every other gameplay element to be artificially tweaked to make them work within it.
The primary challenge with the translation comes from the fact that Metroid’s combat is ranged and not melee. In side scrolling games, the player and enemy exist on the same plane, so the game only needs controls for simple angles to shoot across. Three dimensional games offer exponentially more angles, so when enemies can be placed at weird angles the player can’t freely aim at, as is the case here because the devs put Samus’ control on the Wii remote’s d-pad, the game must artificially connect the player to their target. It’s no surprise then to see that when Team Ninja tackled the combat system, they had to outfit Samus with a generous auto-locked targeting system.
Unfortunately, with every additional foot a shot travels, the more obvious it is that there are automated aids taking control, breaking the illusion of player agency and revealing the tricks for what they are. When Samus is automatically pivoting thirty degrees and nailing an enemy the player can’t even see, there’s little question about who is making those hits land. Once that control is confiscated from the player, the combat needs to have another emotional draw and largely becomes about how quickly you can hit the fire button. In this one aspect, Other M successfully recreates the micro pacing and euphoria of slamming the fire button that the series has had thus far. But the older games still put player action completely at their finger tips rather than letting the system simulate it so they felt responsible for overcoming obstacles. The automation is also applied defensively into a dodge that executes as long as you’re pushing in a direction when you’re attacked.
There’s no getting around the fact that Other M is at the mercy of the Wii remote itself, but what isn’t immediately apparent is why Nintendo decided to configure the controls based around holding the controller sideways like a NES pad when Metroid Prime 3: Corruption had proven the full nunchuck config was a viable option three years before. If the framing on Samus was the priority, then the right angles that build the world are more visually consistent with the d-pad than the thumbstick.
Designing gameplay that relies on automation rather than skill keeps the player from harmonizing with the game enough as it is, but by slavishly bolting Samus’ large cache of abilities, ones you’ll need to extend the lock-and-key progression across an eight hour game, to the Wii remote’s modest functionality, the two are further separated.
In order to fire a missile, the player needs to point the Wii remote at the screen, at which point the game sights down Samus’ arm cannon in first person. Forget for a second how seriously this betrays Other M’s aesthetic integrity, it also breaks its immersion. Consider what results from what should be the simple act of firing missiles: when the player is forced to completely reposition their hands so they can point the remote at the screen and are rewarded with the uncomfortable disorientation that comes with the move between looking at Samus in third person and looking from her in first, they are physically and mentally ejected from the game’s internal reality.
The decision to eliminate health pickups is presumably an attempt to streamline the game with modern ideas, but only adds more responsibility to the overtaxed controller. You can still restore your inventory at save stations, but by manually holding the controller up and pressing the A button, you can replenish your stocks. That’s great when you’re low on missiles, as you can do it anywhere, but iffy for your health, since you can only do so below 50% of your last energy tank. Considering that only happens when you’re in active engagements, it means that you’re too often incentivized to run directly into enemies to take a little damage so you can recover more.
Metroid has always excelled by quietly narrating a story through its environments even if it occasionally needed to have tiny scripted cutscenes that defined some event. That organic storytelling changed with Metroid Fusion’s text narration scenes, and Other M makes its plot even more explicit than it was there, despite the virtually identical setup of the two games. By being a massive biological research and development complex, the Bottle Ship justifiably acts as a wildlife preserve featuring full holographic environments that simulate various natural habitats.
Where Metroid had relayed its narrative organically through its gameplay and Samus was characterized purely by her actions, Other M features long-winded CG cut-scenes and exhausting internal monologues, often accompanied by flashbacks of the bounty hunter as a young, rebellious soldier under Adam Malkovich’s command. It’s bad enough that the technique is so poorly executed to the point that several times her dialogue interrupts another character’s exposition to fill in gaps of information that character should have provided themselves, redefining the bounty hunter as a self-reflecting woman full of doubt, rather than the strong, no nonsense warrior that had explored treacherous alien worlds. Terrible as these new techniques are, things get worse when applied on top of the item-based progression.
The beats always come regularly in Metroid, extending the rhythm out from the combat to the exploration with every new ability Samus collects. That pacing isn’t the problem in Other M; how those items get allocated are. When Samus goes under Adam’s command, he dictates when she is authorized to use the abilities she’s had since the prologue and often only after the player has spent a significant amount of time butting their heads against a situation that calls for them. The worst instance has you running through a lava area, constantly losing energy from the heat, before you’re granted the right to activate your Varia suit to negate the damage. It’s a needlessly arbitrary choice that robs the player of functionality and Samus of characterization. This new-found submissiveness is at odds with the expanded move set that allows her to ruthlessly eliminate her enemies and her history of doing exactly that.
At best you could argue that Samus is neglecting to use her abilities out of some stoic respect for the authority of her CO. But the story does such a poor job establishing a relationship the player respects, and then grants it insane levels of authority over them, that the player is left resenting the whole thing. The production values on Samus don’t help the situation either. Samus’ narration that tells the bulk of the story is delivered with flat acting that makes her character sound disinterested even when reminiscing about traumatic events. There is also a huge disparity between the Samus in the suit and the one out- inside she stands ramrod straight and doesn’t flinch at danger, out she is either an irritating and rebellious teenager or a slender and awkwardly lithe adult. The end result really, REALLY diminishes a great character.
Other M presents an interesting dilemma for the Metroid franchise. Though many of the faults in the narrative are purely the result of bad decisions, its move to a third person polygonal world exposes trade-offs that ultimately keep it from coming together. So where does that leave the series going forward? Maybe it doesn’t matter, as Other M is the logical conclusion to Fusion’s direction anyway, leaving Prime as the sole heir to the legacy of Super Metroid. For a game that insists on developing Samus as a character, Other M sure does its damnedest to separate her from the player.
DEVELOPERS: Nintendo SPD Group No. 1, Team Ninja
PLATFORM: Nintendo Wii
Dane Thomsen is the author of ZIGZAG, a sport-punk adventure in a world of electrifying mystery. With the voice of her people as her guide, Alex walks neon purple streets thrown into chaos, wielding the concussive force of her baseball bat the mighty ‘.357’ against the forces of evil. Print and kindle editions are available on Amazon. For sample chapters and to see his other works please check out his blog.