Back in 2002, Nintendo released two games in the Metroid franchise: Metroid Prime, on the Gamecube, was a “first person adventure”, crafted by American second-party developer Retro Studios, that would earn universal adulation and spawn two critically acclaimed, if not quite as successful, sequels, and earn Samus a whole new slew of fans; Metroid Fusion, on the Gameboy Advance, was a direct sequel to Super Metroid, developed by a team led by Yoshio Sakamoto – the same man largely responsible for both Super Metroid and the original NES game.
It’s clear this dual-release strategy was utilized to satisfy two needs: the need to appease longtime fans who’ve enshrined Super Metroid as the pinnacle of video gaming, and the need to appease critics, who’ve long insisted Nintendo is guilty of running their franchises into the ground by iterating endlessly on the same basic formula. And luckily for fans, both games, despite being completely different from one another, managed to somehow capture the essence of what a Metroid game should be. Both games, of course, had their detractors: Prime, predictably, was derided by those who refused to believe the series could successfully transition to an in-helmet viewpoint; Fusion was lambasted for offering too much “guidance” to the detriment of the exploration the series has been known for.
For reasons as-yet undecipherable, Nintendo decided to fuse the philosophies behind 2002′s dual releases into a single Wii title in 2010′s Metroid: Other M, relying on a third-party developer, Team Ninja (best known for its ultra-violent 3D re-imagining of the Ninja Gaiden series and for its questionably prominent breast-physics), with Sakamoto at the helm. Fans were in a delicate position as they tried to resolve Team Ninja’s unique pedigree with Sakamoto’s own reputation for success. I’m happy – ecstatic, actually – to report that, with some notable caveats, Metroid: Other M is the truest Metroid experience on a home console since Super Metroid was released sixteen years ago. Whether or not that’s a good thing depends on what you’re looking for in a Metroid game.
See, Other M hews closely to the Super Metroid formula: the game’s setting, the Bottle Ship, consists of large, sprawling maps separated into themed sectors: ice, fire, jungle…let’s be honest, there’s nothing here we haven’t seen done countless times before; there are about 100 pickups to collect – mostly missiles; and, as expected from this series, Samus is given numerous opportunities to upgrade her offensive and defensive loadout. But Other M takes the modifications that Metroid Fusion made to the formula and runs with them. Samus is, for the most part, only allowed to traverse each of the various sections of the ship when Adam allows her to. Even Samus’s upgrade system is tied to her relationship with Adam: she’s only given access to a weapon or armor modification if he gives her the go-ahead. Besides the fact that this makes absolutely no sense (and is jettisoned completely by the time Samus acquires the Space Jump), it means the upgrades she does get are all dictated by Other M’s story segments, which means you won’t be finding any hidden upgrades to taunt your friends on the playground (or in the office) with.
As for the story, which puts the game somewhere between Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion: after having spent some time with the game’s theater mode after completing it, I can verify that there are, indeed, around 2 hours of cutscenes in the game. No, they aren’t skippable, and yes, the story is poorly written, though this is mostly due to a horrible over-reliance on Samus’s lost-in-translation monologuing and not so much the fault of the narrative itself (the acting isn’t nearly as bad as you’ve heard, but remember what we’re experiencing is basically an English dub of a Japanese adaptation of a Ridley Scott film.) Like the story segments in Fusion, Other M fleshes out Samus’s relationship with Adam Malkovitch effectively, and contains a number of poignant interactions with other characters – including one highly memorable (and, likely, controversial) scene with a certain series mainstay that I won’t spoil. I, for one, like this new, more human Samus.
Speaking of spoilers: I warned in yesterday’s blog that my review would contain spoilers, but after consideration, I decided against it. Having said that, I do want to riff briefly (without spoilers) on Other M’s final boss. Consider this: when I first encountered this boss, I actually exclaimed out loud “oh, that is SWEET!”, much to D’s amusement. As I was explaining to her why this boss encounter was so cool, I was briefly stumped over how to defeat it – and then I realized the key was a modified technique of something Nintendo Power didn’t even know about in their review* of a certain other game in the series released way back in the 1990s…a technique I had discovered on my own as a kid. The amount of fan service this moment provided speaks loads to me about where Sakamoto and Team Ninja’s hearts were on this project: firmly in the right place.
Because, despite a number of potential issues with the game: art design that, while beautiful, pales in comparison to the Prime series; sometimes backwards storytelling that may weaken Samus in the eyes of Americans who are used to seeing her as a stronger, more independent female role model; and a touchy control system that, while emulating past games in the series, makes pulling off certain advanced techniques occasionally difficult; despite all this, Nintendo’s latest is one of the strongest titles in the Metroid series, and I can’t wait to sit down and play through it again.
Metroid: Other M took me approximately 11 hours to finish the game at 100% completion, including a post-credits segment that extended my then 7-hour playtime by nearly 4 hours (!) and ended with another extraordinary example of fan-service. Upon completion, a hard mode is unlocked, which I am planning on sitting down with over the weekend.
Having gotten the review out of the way – well, except for mentioning the game’s fantastic soundtrack that I can’t wait to add to my iPod (there, I figured out a way to work the soundtrack in!) - I’d like to ask readers: what are you looking for in a Metroid game? Are you okay if Nintendo keeps iterating on this same basic premise, like they’ve always done (imagine every 2D Castlevania game, post- Symphony Of The Night…they can go at this forever, folks!), or are you tired of Super Metroid? Where would you see the franchise go, if you were given the reigns? I have my own thoughts…but it’s your turn now. Speak up!
*Classic Nintendo Power reviews weren’t reviews in the way we think of them today, but more like mini-strategy guides.