(Beware, spoilers follow.)
Nintendo is a company that likes to play it safe. It favors proven, affordable technology over the cutting edge; it returns to its core franchises frequently and only once in a while gambles on a completely new IP. Even its riskiest product in recent history — the Wii — was born out of sheer market necessity more than anything, and is a fairly conservative machine once you get past the motion controller.
Nintendo’s Metroid: Other M, on the other hand, is relatively risky. It’s a game with a strong story focus from a company that usually eschews plot. It’s a combat-focused Metroid game. It’s a game that switches between third- and first-person perspectives on the fly. It’s a modern 3D game that relies on a 24-year-old control scheme. Project M, the collaboration behind Other M and headed by series co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto, seems determined to confound expectations in just about every respect.
These have been more or less written into law by the franchise’s two high-water marks — 1994′s Super Metroid, directed by Sakamoto and generally considered one of the best games of all time; and Metroid Prime, released in 2002 by Austin’s own Retro Studios to its own fair share of critical acclaim. Super Metroid and Metroid Prime bookend the franchise conceptually — the wholly 2D and the wholly 3D. Between them they form a set of strict “Metroid standards” which Other M must meet.
Yet in spite of the developers’ many surprising design decisions, Other M turns out to be a sort of a hybrid of those two predecessors. In basic traversal and controls Other M feels like Super Metroid fleshed out into the third dimension; while at the same time the game draws on Metroid Prime for its first-person elements, morph ball segments and environmental puzzles. (The plot and setting rely more heavily on another Metroid title, Metroid Fusion.)
Where Other M outdoes every previous entry in the series is in its combat, which once mastered produces impressive results. Other M complicates the Metroid stand-bys — charged shots and missiles — with two new mechanics: a “sense move” dodge maneuver and a context-sensitive finishing move called “overblast.” Standard combat goes something like this: charge up your arm cannon while waiting for your opponent to make his move. Dodge that attack at the last second, then fire back with a fully charged shot. Repeat until the enemy becomes vulnerable to an overblast, then jump on its head or run under its belly and deliver the finishing move. There’s a rhythm to the ideal Other M combat scenario that doesn’t manifest itself until one has spent multiple hours with the title. It’s showy to be sure; but it’s also fun — and mastery of it is required before tackling the game’s unlockable (and aptly named) Hard Mode.
That’s not to suggest Normal Mode is a cake walk. I died plenty in my two runthroughs, and the game expects you to know your abilities well by the end. (The Speed Boost upgrade sees heavy use, as does the related “shinespark” powered jump function.) Contrary to what some have claimed, spamming the sense move does not render one invincible — rhythm and timing matter. This emphasis on combat for its own sake is a departure for the series, but a welcome one. In my experience, it makes for a highly replayable Metroid experience. Even after you’ve solved all the puzzles, combat remains a rewarding challenge.
On those subsequent playthroughs I tended to skip most of the cutscenes (the minus button does the trick here) — though not all, as there are some wonderful moments in Other M. In fact the story exceeded my expectations. For Nintendo’s first foray into game storytelling, the production values on display are a very nice surprise. The writing and voice acting are solid, and Jessica Martin in particular gets Samus exactly right. Martin’s Samus is aloof, almost robotic (as you might expect from a loner who practically lives in a cyborg suit) but can also be desperately vulnerable when the plot calls for it. Nicely done, Ms. Martin.
For some gamers, however, those moments of vulnerability seem completely out of character for the famous bounty hunter. The detractors and I will simply have to agree to disagree on this point. I felt the character of Samus was eminently believable throughout, in both her strongest and her weakest moments. Based on what we learn of the relationship between the two, it’s not surprising to me that Samus would want to disable her more powerful suit functions to keep Adam Malkovich, her former superior, happy.
Besides, leaving it to Adam to authorize each upgrade “at the last minute” makes for some wonderfully dramatic moments. Yes, there is a great sense of accomplishment that comes with receiving the Varia Suit or Space Jump only after defeating a major enemy. But there’s a different sense of excitement that comes with pulling out that trump card just when you need it most. In my view, neither is the “right” approach for the Metroid series; they’re just different — and both are entertaining.
One of the fascinating aspects of Other M’s story is how certain plot details are left as an exercise for the reader. There’s a traitor on Adam’s team, and by the end you’ll have been given enough clues to deduce who it is — but the game never actually comes out and tells you who. I had to play the game through a second time before it became obvious. Similarly, the question of who finally does him in only becomes clear once the whole story is in view.
Another surprise: some of the story’s themes are quite “adult,” and not in the juvenile sense of the term usually applied to games. For example, there are two mother-daughter relationships that form key parts of the plot. Both end in tragedy, but one leads to redemption while the other seems doomed from the start. The question of how these relationships come to such different ends could fuel at least a couple college theses.
This sense of Other M as a “Metroid for grown-ups” comes through in other ways. The soundtrack is largely devoid of the kind of catchy tunes that formed the backbeat of Super Metroid (though some do return and I think I may even have heard a tune from the original Metroid at one point). In place of these highly-listenable tracks is an understated, often eerie assortment of semi-industrial tones and sound effects that would seem right at home in a theatrical sci-fi thriller. Metroid games are often about atmosphere, and thanks in no small part to the score there were a couple parts of Other M that had me thinking twice about proceeding. Like so much about Other M, it’s important to give the music a chance. It’s very carefully crafted, allows the equally excellent sound design to shine through, and always suits the current environment.
For all the changes, though, there is plenty about Other M that remains thoroughly “Metroid.” The criss-crossing, backtracking level design that defines the series always boggles my mind — how does anyone design a game like this? — and Other M is no exception. The developers managed to prevent the world from becoming as “siloed” (literally, even) as Metroid Fusion while still keeping the player on the right track. At the same time the game provides a number of those “there’s nowhere to go” apparent dead-ends that you’d expect from a Metroid game. Eventually you’ll be guided back to old ground and given the chance to use your upgrades to find some previously-missed items and pathways before the game finally unfolds into an open-world free-for-all and leaves you to locate all 100% of the hidden extras. It’s truly baffling how one game can balance all of these angles so well, and I’d submit Other M pulls this balance off better than any other title in the series.
I could go on for many more paragraphs like this (I haven’t even touched on the graphics, which are some of the best on Wii); but after over 20 hours spent with the game I’ll leave you with this: The other day I was watching my nine-year-old son play Super Metroid on the Virtual Console. As much as I love that game, and as many times as I’ve played through it, following Samus as she navigated the caverns of Brinstar didn’t make me want to revisit Super Metroid. It made me want to play more Metroid: Other M.