Super NES classic Super Metroid is one of the best games of all time. That’s not an opinion, that’s a fact, at least as far as I’m concerned; it was a beautifully crafted, impeccably balanced, gorgeous (for 16-bit,) masterpiece that, while somewhat of a sleeper hit when it was originally released, has since attained legendary status thanks to years of praise from fans and critics alike. Hell, respected gaming magazine EGM emphatically named it their number one game of all time in their one-hundredth issue.
Now, the Metroid series has never been Nintendo’s most popular or best selling franchise, but it has thankfully had enough of a following to ensure a number of (mostly) great sequels, ranging from the underrated Metroid Fusion and Zero Mission (an excellent remake of the original NES Metroid,) to the amazing, must-own first person adventure Metroid Prime. Outside of a few misguided spin-offs on the DS, the series has enjoyed a flawless reputation. So when Nintendo announced that the next entry into the Metroid franchise, entitled Other M, would be a direct sequel to Super Metroid, fans were understandably excited. When they also announced that the game would combine the talents of key staff from the original Super Metroid team with the technical mastery of Tecmo’s Team Ninja development studio (best known for Ninja Gaiden and the Dead or Alive series,) it began to seem like Other M would be another guaranteed classic.
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite pan out that way.
At times Other M is as good, and perhaps even better than the legendary Super Metroid. Other times, it’s absolutely one of the most frustrating, infuriatingly bad games I’ve ever played. It is, overall, an incredibly schizophrenic experience that can’t seem to decide if it wants to make you happy, or troll you to the point where you’ll want to snap the disc in half.
The first thing you notice when you start playing Metroid: Other M is it’s unconventional control scheme: most of the time you hold the controller sideways, NES-style, using the D-pad to move Samus and the 1 and 2 buttons to jump and shoot, just like in the original classic NES game. However, if you turn the remote ninety-degrees and point it at the screen, the game shifts to a first-person mode, where you can use the Wii remote’s pointer to aim and shoot FPS style.
The NES style controls actually work well for the most part; while only having two buttons to work with seems like it would make combat overly simple, Other M also adds a number of new moves to Samus’s repertoire that add variety and challenge to the game’s many battles; by tapping the d-pad away from the enemy at the moment of attack, Samus will leap out of the way at the last second and set herself up for a counter attack, and by tapping towards an enemy when they leave themselves open, Samus will attack them with a brutally cinematic, God of War style finisher. While the lack of a lock-on causes a few missed shots when enemies run off screen, the third person combat in this game works surprisingly well and is both intense and satisfying.
Unfortunately, major problems arise when the game starts to incorporate the first person aiming mode into combat. While the game starts off easy enough, later encounters require you to switch between the two different controller positions regularly while at the same time expecting you to be able to aim quickly and accurately. Wii shooters like Metroid Prime 3 and The Conduit have shown the Wii-mote is more than capable of providing an accurate interface for shooting, but having to awkwardly fumble with the controller every time you want to aim at a specific spot causes a lot of problems. Like in the Wii launch title Zelda: Twilight Princess, the aiming spazzes out everytime the Wii-mote goes off screen, and this problem is only exacerbated when you’re constantly forced to change the position of the controller in your hands. This wouldn’t be so bad if the game provided you with ample time to take a shot, but many enemies (and most of the bosses) require that you change controller positions, take aim and shoot accurately without wasting a millisecond, and it becomes incredibly frustrating to lose a long boss fight just because you took half-a-second too long to shift the controller around in your hands. You do eventually get used to it and adjust to the incredibly strict timing needed to beat many of the latter half’s encounters, so it doesn’t exactly ruin the game, but regardless, even by the end of the game, it never felt intuitive and always felt awkward and forced.
Another perplexing choice of motion controls comes in how you recover Samus’s health and reload her missile launcher: Unlike previous games where you’d have to collect health and ammo pick-ups from fallen enemies, Samus can regenerate her health and missiles by standing still and holding the Wii remote straight up while holding down the big A button. There are two problems with this: regenerating health takes so long that it’s almost impossible to use during the game’s frenetically paced boss fights (when you’d probably need it the most,) and sometimes the game occasionally doesn’t notice that you’re holding the controller upright and trying to recharge, causing you to stand still and do nothing while the enemy wails on you. It’s a weird design choice and a completely unnecessary change from the old way of doing things.
Speaking of unnecessary changes, there’s also the issue of the game’s narrative. Previous games in the series have always presented Samus as a mysterious, independent, quiet bad-ass… Basically, she was Boba Fett with boobs. Other M tries to fill out Samus’s backstory and give her more of a personality, which wouldn’t be so bad if the story in this game wasn’t so poorly written. Taking place immediately after the events of Super Metroid, Other M sees an emotionally distraught Samus reunited with her former commander Adam Malkovich, her surrogate father figure and friend, as they and a team of space marines investigate a derelict research vessel found adrift in deep space. The set-up has potential, but every element of the story falls flat on it’s face; I understand that Samus has some issues to deal with, but instead of giving her pathos, Samus’s constant whining and her deadpan delivery (apparently her voice actress was as bored with the story as I was,) just come off as annoying. They didn’t just stop at taking away the quiet from Samus’s previous “quiet bad-ass” reputation, as they’ve stripped away some of her toughness as well; upon encountering Ridley, Samus’s arch nemesis and rival, Samus cowers in a fear, apparently forgetting that she has already pretty much beaten this guy four or five times by this point in the series’ chronology.
The ill-thought out narrative finds its way into the gameplay as well: Instead of having to collect the series’s usual upgrades from fallen enemies or on site as she has in previous games, Samus starts off with all of her abilities unlocked; however, upon joining the space marines for their investigation, Samus purposefully disables most of her suit’s abilities until she’s authorized to use them by her commander. I appreciate the development team trying to find an in-universe explanation for why Samus can’t use all of her uber-abilities from the start, but the way it’s implemented within the game just doesn’t make sense. Take the Varia Suit upgrade for example: it’s an upgrade for Samus’s armor that allows her to avoid taking damage from extreme heat. One would think that her commander, who is apparently a smart and reasonable guy, would tell her to unlock this feature when she enters an area thats filled with lava and a dangerously high temperature (that constantly causes your health to go down,) but no, he only allows Samus to unlock this feature once she’s near the end of that area. I understand why it’s like that from a game balance perspective, but as an attempt to explain away the need for Samus to regain her abilities within the narrative, it falls completely flat on it’s face, which begs the question, why not just use the old upgrade system if the new explanation is equally ridiculous?
There are also sections where Samus must search for clues regarding what transpired on the spaceship. In these parts, players are forced to search a screen using the Wii-mote as a pointer, trying to find the one clue (which is usually only a few pixels wide and barely visible) that’ll allow Samus to continue her investigation. These sections are tedious, and the part of the screen you’re supposed to click on is usually far too small and obscure to be found unless you just randomly click on everything or go to GameFAQs for the solution to avoid wasting your time. It’s mind-blowing that a gameplay element this bad somehow made it through the entire development process.
But outside of those admittedly substantial issues, there’s still a lot that Other M manages to do the right. The series’s trademark focus on exploration remains intact, and the game manages to strike a nice balance between the non-linearity of the older titles in the series and the more structured recent entries like Metroid Fusion. Like that game, Other M points out where your next destination should be and outlines the path you should take to get there, but unlike Fusion, there’s plenty of detours and secret rooms to find along the way, so it still manages to maintain a sense of freedom and exploration. Power-ups, like extra health tanks or ammo capacity upgrades, are cleverly hidden within most of the game’s rooms, and tracking down every collectible in the game feels genuinely rewarding. While other parts of the game may have suffered from unnecessary changes from the standard Metroid formula, at the very least, the platforming and sense of exploration that have defined the series remain intact.
Another area where Metroid: Other M excels is in it’s presentation. I hate to use the cliched caveat of “It looks good… for a Wii game.” but in Other M’s case, it’s true. Outside of a few blurry textures, the environments are large and detailed, and the characters, especially Samus, are well animated and rendered. The cut-scenes may be filled with insipid characters and trite dialogue, but at the very least they’re nice to look at. Sure, nobody is going to mistake Other M for a 360 or PS3 game, but it’s clean, colorful style and cinematic presentation make it stand out from the rest of the Wii library.
Metroid: Other M is a hard game to review because while the game does a lot wrong (and I mean, a lot), it does manage to do several things amazingly well, perhaps even perfectly. It’s a game that has visible, almost tangible potential that’s never quite completely realized, and that almost makes it even more frustrating. It’s myriad of flaws make it hard to recommend to everybody, but it’s so goddamn good sometimes that I want to tell everybody to go out and at least try it, if only for the fleeting moments where Other M just feels perfect. It’s an uncharacteristically sloppy entry into a series noted for perfection, and while it’s nowhere near as good as any of it’s predecessors, you could certainly do a lot worse than Metroid: Other M.