…Jonny sighed as he muttered to himself.
Until replaying Metroid Other M this month and then listening back to our contemporaneous discussion on Ep. 210 of RFN, I couldn’t recall much of the game itself. I cleared it with 100% within the first week or so of release, but it didn't leave an enduring impression. Maybe I should blame the circumstances -- at the time, I was finishing my dissertation and trying to stay focused on that massive project. Now that my memory is freshened up, I'm inclined to believe that the game’s transience is also due to recycled ideas and a dearth of truly exciting, new experiences. Still, there are many smart aspects of this direct follow-up to Super Metroid. While its most valuable additions to the franchise are subtle, they could influence upcoming games like Retro Studios' long-awaited Metroid Prime 4.
Back in 2009, we were spoiled by three Prime games released over a span of just five years. I love those game as much as anyone, but it was clear that Metroid needed to reconnect to its roots as a fast-scrolling action game. From that angle, Other M is wildly successful. It reclaims the fast, snappy, twitch-reliant aspects of classic Metroid games, and finally provides a context for realizing Rippers, Speed Booster, Screw Attack, and other franchise favorites that were never convincingly implemented in the Prime spin-off series. Smart updates to health and missile stocks raise the stakes during combat and eliminate stockpiling.
That’s not to say the modernized classic design is always successful. Other M is entirely 3D, but full appreciation for the volumetric design is limited to stationary, slow first-person viewing. The primary, zoomed-out action feels more like a 2D game with extra depth. Rooms that rely on 3D platforming can be frustrating, sometimes confusing. The controls absolutely harm any sense of immersion, as moving Samus freely with the D-pad lacks both the comfort and precision we've enjoyed in most 3D games since the N64 launched 14 years earlier.
It doesn’t help that Other M neglects another core tenet of the franchise: exploration is passively discouraged throughout the story. Map segments and objectives are revealed in small portions gated by nearby save rooms, and that repetitive sequence feels like more like funneling than a breadcrumb trail. Even though the game never lets you wonder where to go next, navigation between sectors to the next objective is confusing. The map is not very useful -- it's a 2D projection and doesn't auto-fill as you explore. The mini-map and pause-screen map don't correlate very well, so it's easy to become disoriented even (especially?) when actively monitoring both. Metroid Prime had a more sophisticated map interface eight years earlier, and this game would have benefited from simply copying that feature.
Storytelling is the most distinguishing feature of this Metroid game. Eschewing the atmospheric storytelling that its predecessors pioneered, Other M introduces several speaking characters and extensive narration by Samus herself. The focus on her personal story expands upon the approach taken in Metroid Fusion, but with console production standards in 2009, that approach is vastly more disruptive than in Fusion. I can't recall another Nintendo game that spends this much time in pre-rendered cinema scenes. Many are so lengthy that I set down the Wii Remote, and the worst are so dull that I sought distraction on my phone. Whether despite or because of the technical limitations, Super Metroid tells a more interesting story with barely two sentences of text and voice. Looking back at NWR forum users' feedback on this topic, several people were quick to point out that the quality of production on these scenes was at or above industry standards of the time -- and they're right. The dissonance comes from the mating of these typical narrative techniques (and pitfalls) with a franchise beloved for its minimalistic, atmosphere-driven story.
Consider that even the text-heavy lore of Metroid Prime's scan logs are 99% optional. In contrast, Other M contains so many (mandatory) videos that the developers included a Theater Mode to rewatch them after completing the game. Just imagine the furor if Nintendo had followed a similar path with Zelda, especially if the writing and voice direction were as stiff and unsatisfying as those in Other M. Here’s one of the worst lines: "Anthony sighed as he muttered to himself." Come on, just show him sighing and muttering! He’s a named, voiced character, and he's right there in the scene. If you want Metroid to be about characters, then animate the characters and let them tell the story through their interactions.
Other M isn’t sterile, though. It offers noir styling with over-shoulder camera views, tension lighting, creepy sound effects, low music, detached narration, flashbacks, etc. I’ve always been annoyed that Samus doesn't visually embody her upgrades (especially Varia and Gravity Suit) -- a series staple since the original game. However, Samus does looks great every moment of Other M. You can definitely see the Team Ninja magic in how stylishly and nimbly she spins through all the nasty enemies. Particle effects are vivid and memorable, elevating the overall image quality in every battle and scripted, real-time scene. Visually, Other M targets classic sci-fi films of the late 20th century, with villains to match. These cues suggest larger themes intended for Other M, and if the story's mysteries were more compelling, maybe it could have worked to bring a fresh, interesting new take on Samus and her adventure on the Bottle Ship.
Ultimately, the story’s build-up to reveal the fate of Commander Adam Malkovich is all for naught, as he drops out of the story with a most ill-conceived, flaccid use of the heroic sacrifice trope. Whatever interest Metroid Fusion engendered in Adam’s relationship to Samus, the potential is wasted by Other M’s mishandling of their shared past. This entry may always be canon, but based on my recent trip through it, I’m ready to leave Other M in the past and look ahead to better developments for the cherished Metroid saga.