It’s hard to talk about the forthcoming Nintendo/Tecmo release Metroid: Other M without reflecting back on the history of the franchise. While this latest chapter isn’t afraid to switch up the age-old Metroid formula both by giving long-silent protagonist Samus a true voice and by focusing the storytelling more clearly on her own unique history, it is very much a love letter to the many adventures we have shared with our iconic heroine in ages past.
Metroid: Other M goes out of its way to mine the best that the franchise has to offer, especially with regard to its much touted marriage of the classic 2D series- and Metroid Prime-style controls. Because of this alone the title has easily been at the top of my wish list during this, the annual summer video game doldrums. Having spent ample time with the retail build of the title, however, I seem to find many of my expectations exceeded, but not without some noticeable disappointments.
The plot of the game unfolds at a time after the destruction of Zebes and the supposed extinction of the Metroids. Following the events of Super Metroid, our blonde bounty hunter picks up a distress signal commonly known as the “Baby’s Cry” that appears to be emanating from an abandoned space station known as the “Bottle Ship.” The game goes to great lengths to drive home the personal significance of this pseudo-military jargon as it further reveals, upon meeting a squad of Galactic Federation soldiers, that Samus herself was once a member of the Federation Army.
As fate would have it, this squad includes both Higgs, an old military friend who refers to Samus as “Princess,” and Malkovich, her former commanding officer. The tension between Samus and her old CO opens the door for the first in a series of cut-scene flashbacks in which she reveals much about her time with the Army and hints at her reasons for leaving that structure and camaraderie for the life of a solitary bounty hunter. This powers the narrative of this full-blown space opera as we delve deeper into Samus’s past while simultaneously attempting to unravel the mysteries of the Bottle Ship. What follows is an exhilarating adventure that pushes the series to new heights, but also shows some unfortunate seams.
Both the cut-scenes and the in-game graphics are beautiful, and I won’t damn with faint praise by using the old it-looks-good-for-a-Wii-game routine. Metroid: Other M finally reminds you that the Wii, underpowered as it may be, is a current generation system. Likewise, the title’s use of music, sound effects and voice acting is nearly perfect. I say nearly because, while the plot and dialog are allowed an extra helping of melodrama due to the game’s very Japanese writing style, the delivery of principle voice actress Jessica Martin could be described as a bit grating.
While I’ve heard rumblings from the fan community concerning the fact that Martin approaches the role with a younger and softer intonation than anticipated, my major complaint is the flat, stoic nature of her delivery. I understand that this was an intentional decision made for the sake of the plot and in keeping with the characterization of Samus as a disassociated loner, but it’s not the only time the producers of Metroid: Other M make noticeable sacrifices in the name of their artistic vision.
As I said, my primary interest in Metroid: Other M had more to do with its unique control scheme than even the considerable strength of the property itself. Using a variation of the horizontal controller/vertical controller system honed in the development of Super Paper Mario, Metroid: Other M uses the elegant simplicity of the Wii remote to great effect. The principle gameplay is handled by holding the remote sideways like the classic NES controller. Despite a bit of anxiety concerning using such a distinctly two-dimensional controller style in an obviously three-dimensional environment, the system truly works beautifully.
Navigating the height, length and breadth of the world that unfolds as Samus explores, powers up and retreads the various game zones is handled flawlessly. The title also side-steps a related sticking point, combat, in a number of exciting ways. First, it uses an auto-targeting feature to make sure the bulk of your blasts meet their mark on the all-too familiar enemies, and, second, it uses a series of innovative button press events to spice things up. Tapping the d-pad before an enemy’s attack connects executes the “Sense Move” function, which allows Samus to glide effortlessly out of harm’s way. Likewise, Metroid: Other M adds a pair of similarly executed offensive moves allowing you to use simple button presses to waylay downed enemies or jump on the backs of this game’s equivalent of the classic Hoppers to deliver… well, massive damage.
At practically any time during regular gameplay you can also point the Wii remote directly at the screen to shift to first-person mode. With the help of her trusty in-helmet HUD, this mode affords Samus the opportunity to scan items and fire missiles. Again, this control scheme works incredibly well and the transition from FPS to side-scroller and back is effortless. There are, however, occasions when this first-person mode can be a bit of a drag.
Sometimes you will find yourself ripped from the action and pulled into a sienna-tinted first-person perspective. At this point the game expects you to examine your surroundings, and scan a certain object or item to activate the next cut-scene. Sadly, this is sometimes easier said than done. Whether it was a Galactic Federation logo on a downed enemy or a distant slime trail, I spent much of the early game haphazardly scoping my surroundings just hoping to luck across the right area of the environment so I could perform my scan and get back to the action. This belabored first-person perspective is bad, but the occasional shift to the over-the-shoulder third-person view is far worse.
As you delve deeper into a sordid tale of space politics and bio-weapons, Metroid: Other M even manages to take on the slightest hint of survival horror. This is due less to the onslaught of ravenous enemies – which are present, of course, but you have the ammo to deal with them – and more to do with what I have come to think of as “investigation mode.” In this mode of play, the camera shifts behind Samus’s shoulders (Resident Evil-style), and she is forced to clumsily stomp around cramped rooms and empty hallways.
It represents the worst kind of “walking tank” controls, and it does nothing more than make the player long for the tight response of the primary control scheme. It is yet another unfortunate example of the lengths the game goes to in a foolhardy effort to propel the plot. Yes, I understand that it is important that suspense build between events and that exploring a derelict space craft is a great way to do it (just ask the guys behind Dead Space), but the regular running and jumping and shooting is so damn tight in Metroid: Other M that these interstitial periods can’t help but feel like letdowns.
It’s really a good thing that the bulk of the game’s controls are so highly polished, because Metroid: Other M is hard. Brutally so at times. As you work your way through familiar locales fighting freshly-skinned but familiar enemies to discover familiar power-ups (bombs, missiles, energy tanks, suit upgrades, etc.), it’s hard not to realize how genuinely unfamiliar the level of difficulty truly is. In the absence of even the vaguest of hyperbole, I have to say that this is the most difficult game I have ever played on the Wii. Though I suppose it does bear mentioning that outlandish difficulty is the very hallmark of a Team Ninja production.
Between swarms of enemies, regularly scripted mini-boss battles, environmental hazards and that good, old fashioned jump-puzzle mechanic, the game can be downright vicious. In its defense, navigation booths, the game’s save points, are properly spaced, and additional in-mission restart points prevent you from having to re-traverse already conquered terrain in almost every instance. The game even goes so far as to include a “concentration” feature that’s sole purpose is to allow Samus to regain a modicum of energy and restore her missile supply after having her butt handed to her in a tough fight. It is a feature that provides much needed succor throughout the gaming experience, but, sadly, leaves Samus completely open to attack in the process.
In spite of the above enumerated concessions you will get frustrated by Metroid: Other M. You will swear and scowl when trying to access that just-out-of-reach power-up. You will be confounded while pondering exactly what sort of parkour hoodoo one needs to execute involving Morph Ball, bombs and wall-jumps to reach that particular ledge. And, if you’re anything like me, you will die. A lot.
Unlike many third-party Wii titles I’ve reviewed in the recent past, Metroid: Other M completely understands the audience to which it is slanted. However, said audience is a tad narrow. Longtime fans of the series will likely appreciate the story, the fact that the enigmatic Samus becomes slightly less so, but might be put off by the game’s difficulty. Likewise, teens – as this is a T-rated title – who may feel their gaming palate a bit too refined for many of the system’s other landmark titles will dig the hardcore challenge, but might not care to penetrate the distinctly eastern style of oddly convoluted storytelling. And so I am left with no other option but to give a highly qualified recommendation to Metroid: Other M.
At its best the game combines all that is great about the Metroid franchise with shades of other acclaimed series – like the sweeping, almost too-lifelike worlds of Mass Effect and the sense of impending doom so often associated with the Resident Evil series. At its worst it is a quick, cheap death or, worse yet, a sluggish, sometimes tortuous crawl toward whatever comes next. If you are willing to deal with the pain of the latter, then you will be amply rewarded by the genuine glory of the former. If, however, you’re not willing to take a few lumps for the sake of the ride, perhaps your money is better spent on other endeavors.
WIRED: Beautiful graphics, great use of music and ambient sound, fantastic core control mechanic, amazing action and in-game suspense, genuinely supplements series canon with a truly original story, irrefutably brings hardcore gaming to the Wii.
TIRED: Strange writing with even stranger dialog, poor secondary control mechanic, occasionally frustrating level of difficulty.
Review materials provided by Nintendo