It's not great for a Metroid game, but there is some fun to be had... after the credits roll.
I beat Metroid: Other M on Saturday night and instantly sat down to write a very negative, raw, emotional review of what had turned out to be a very disappointing game. The next day, however, I sat down with it again and discovered that, bizarrely, it actually improves immensely once you load up your completed game. So, I binned the old review and played some more. And what I found was wonderful, so I have to try this review again. And the more I thought about the story and the pacing of Other M, famously lambasted by other media outlets, I came to realize that, really, none of us should be surprised by the direction the series has gone. We’ll get to that in a minute, but first, let’s talk about this newest game in Samus’s long-running adventures.
Other M takes place on the Bottle Ship, a biological research space station that bears an uncanny resemblance to Metroid Fusion’s BSL research station. During the course of the game’s story you will see many references to Fusion; so many, in fact, that you’ll begin to wonder whether Sakamoto gave the Team Ninja developers copies of that 2002 GBA game and said “make a 3D version of this.” Of course, the new kids on the block are Adam Malkovich and his squad of Galactic Federation soldiers, who are (supposedly) responding to the same distress signal that caused Samus herself to alter course. The story quickly spirals out of control, throwing every tired sci-fi cliché in a blender. To spoil absolutely nothing, you’ll hear about government conspiracies, vengeful AIs, cloning, and genetic manipulation. I rolled my eyes so often that I developed vertigo. While the game never devolves into a Metal Gear Solid-style “run from cut-scene to cut-scene”, there are times when it feels dangerously close to that, especially at the end.
But Other M’s main story is almost an aside to the center stage: Samus Aran herself. After more than 20 years of being mute, everyone’s favorite space-faring bounty hunter is in the spotlight, chatting it up through long-winded, robotic internal monologues. The problems are twofold: the writing is awful, and while intending to make Samus more human, it instead makes her whiny and insecure. Worse, Samus’s voice actress is phoning the performance in, sounding more like the Enterprise’s computer than a living, breathing human. The emotional depth implied in the writing is not adequately explored in the voice acting. What’s really sad is that Samus—the main character—is outclassed by every other character in the game who has spoken dialogue.
Even more disappointing, though, is that the story is presented in such a way that it actually affects your exploration of the Bottle Ship. It is impossible to get 100% of the items during the story. Doors are strategically locked off to drive your progress in a certain direction, and you don’t get full access to Samus’s suit upgrades until after the credits roll. For any hardcore Metroid fan like myself, this means that the story mode is essentially filler, existing only to make the player sit through the convoluted storyline. The real fun doesn’t begin until Samus returns to the Bottle Ship, at which point she can explore it at her leisure. You have to sit through the story to get to the real Metroid game underneath.
Once the post-game scenario begins, the real fun comes with it. While incomplete, the map now shows the location of every missile and energy tank, and you can go hog-wild trying to find everything before facing a final, awesome boss and the game’s second ending. I was really impressed with how the game uses all of Samus’s upgrades fairly evenly in pursuit of items. In one instance, you’ll look up at the ceiling while sliding down a ramp to blow a panel open with a Super Missile, then run back up the slope with the Speed Booster and hit a Grapple Point that was inside the panel on the return trip. All this to get a Missile Tank? Hell yes, and it’s what Metroid games are all about.
The control scheme is unique in that players only use the Wii Remote held on its side, NES-style. Using the D-pad to move through 3D space is not the most comfortable setup in the world, but the game does use some cheats to make it easier—forced perspective and a camera that follows Samus, not the geography, allowing you to keep pressing one direction to move around a continuous surface, for example. It’s also initially alarming that there’s no lock-on button, since our girl will often be shooting down swarms of enemies. There is a good auto-aim function, though, and Samus will clear the room as long as she’s looking in the right direction. She can also dodge by tapping a direction on the D-pad before an impact. One nice touch here is that if the player is charging the beam (with the 1 button), it will hit a full charge the second Samus dodges, and immediately releasing the button after the dodge will cause Samus to automatically fire at her attacker, like a reversal.
The other weird thing is that pointing the Wii Remote at the screen will make Samus jump into first-person view. At this point, she’s a stationary turret that can only look around by holding down the B button and moving the pointer. This mode is used for specifically targeting enemies, using Missiles and Super Missiles, and triggering events by looking at things. The lock-on is a bit loose: you have to “find” whatever it is that the pointer can target (it’s rarely obvious during non-fight sequences), then hold down B to lock-on, then tap A to fire a Missile or hold A to charge up a Super Missile. You won’t jump from third to first-person a lot during fights, as there’s rarely a need. However, certain boss encounters demand it, and the unintuitive controller movement sometimes gets you in trouble. During one late-game boss battle, I had to stun the monster’s helpers with my Plasma Beam, then blast them with Missiles. Unfortunately, because I couldn’t move while using the Missile, the other helpers (and the boss) were violently attacking me while I was trying to shoot the one I’d stunned! And when multiple targets are on-screen at once, the targeting system basically has a seizure. This makes the final, forced first-person battle extremely frustrating and, dare I say, broken. Most, if not all of these problems would disappear if the player was allowed to use the Wii Remote + Nunchuk, or, in a best-case scenario, the Classic Controller.
Happily, this is the best-looking game on Wii, no questions asked. Team Ninja, true to form, has crafted a visual experience that seems to betray the hardware it's running on. The Super Mario Galaxy games don't look this good. Even Metroid Prime shows a few cracks now and again, but Other M is colorful, atmospheric, smooth, and bright. Reflections appear on the floors and walls, and particle effects explode out of every enemy in the game. The detail on Samus' beam weapons and the explosions they produce are wonderful. The pre-rendered cut scenes are similarly beautiful, though some of the heroine's Federation compatriots look a little bland (don't worry; they don't play a big part). In short, Other M looks like it's running on higher-end hardware. The only blemish is that the game will, on occasion, experience slight but noticeable slowdown and some irritating “now loading” sequences during the post-game exploration. It’s especially annoying (but hilarious) when you’re in the middle of a speed boost.
Character design is similarly brilliant. Samus herself looks absolutely amazing, better than she did in the Prime games. The aliens that populate the Bottle Ship are weird and wild, with several modeled on prehistoric creatures, including cameos from Anamalocaris and a trilobite. The highlights for me, though, are the dinosaur versions of tree people (think of the Ents from The Lord of the Rings). While most of the series regulars are here—Zoomers, Shriekbats, Bulls—they are incomparable to the newcomers.
There is surprisingly little actual music. A musical score only punctuates certain enemy encounters, and you will not find the classic Metroid music here. Some might find that unnaturally out of place, but I enjoyed it, because the tradeoff is that Other M is filled to the brim with ambient noise. Creatures, rustling plants, Samus's footsteps and (sometimes) breathing all suddenly come to the fore in a way they haven't in past games. Running water, flowing magma, and cold wind impart the idea that the separate biospheres of the Bottle Ship are living, breathing ecosystems. While some players may miss the music, others will find the overall experienced heightened by its absence. The Bottle Ship itself is intricately designed, with impressive set pieces, plenty of variety, and lots of nooks and crannies to explore with the Morph Ball.
Because the Bottle Ship is locked down during your initial play through, it feels inconsequential, perhaps existing for the sole purpose of driving the story forward. The real meat of the game—of any proper Metroid game—doesn’t come until after Samus returns to the Bottle Ship to find something she “left behind”. At that point, you can go wherever you want, collect all the items, and fight a seriously awesome bonus boss. You’ll get a Theater Mode (which you’ll never watch) and access to concept art galleries. Ultimately, Other M doesn’t get good until you slog through the over-baked story; if you can handle that, you’ll be in for a real treat of a game.