Metroid: Other M

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Aug 31, 2010 Metroid: Other M NA
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Title: Metroid: Other M
Publisher: Nintendo of America, Inc.
Region: America Release: Aug 31, 2010
Model #: Unknown Price: 49.99
Rating: T - Teen
Review
Friday, August 27, 2010
Metroid: Other M is as much a departure for the venerable series of galactic renown as it is a return to form. First-person has been the name of the game for so long that it's hard to really imagine a console Metroid title any other way, particularly in three dimensions. After all, Metroid Prime's perspective was developer Retro Studios' solution to the design challenges a 3D Metroid would present, and without a doubt they succeeded famously in their attempts. What, then, would it take to make a third-person perspective as successful?

As unexpected as it was for Nintendo to partner with a Texas-based studio suffused with first-person shooter veterans for its first 3D-Metroid attempt, it was perhaps even more bizarre to find out that Ninja Gaiden's own Team Ninja would be handling the bulk of Other M's development. And yet, this was series-veteran Yoshio Sakamoto's solution to a problem he didn't feel his team had the expertise to address. Metroid seems to thrive on partnerships these days, as I think I can aptly dub the problem Solved.


Sakamoto's been quite vocal about his goals with Other M. First and foremost, the idea here is to make an "NES game with the latest technology." In theory, that means easy controls that lack complication. In practice, it means playing with the Wii Remote alone—no Nunchuk allowed—and this is where a lot of trepidation with the concept crops up. I had a chance to play Other M earlier this year, and I came away pretty worried about the game in general, most particularly with the control scheme.

Now that I've had a chance to spend some low-pressure time with the final version of the game, and have had a few months to consider my general mentality regarding the choices made, I find myself on the opposite side of the fence. Other M is played in third-person 3D (much like Ninja Gaiden, surprise surprise), and this alone is enough to introduce challenges in a Remote-only control scheme. You hold the Remote NES-style, maneuvering with the D-Pad, leaving no inputs free for camera-control. Accordingly, environments are designed in such a way that they can be easily consumed from a single angle, though that angle will often swivel and pan in a very smooth and natural way.

While an analog stick would be ideal for moving around in a fully 3D environment, the D-Pad performs admirably enough. Its digital nature is the foundation for a system that wouldn't have worked at all with an analog stick, though: the Sense Move. By tapping a direction immediately before being hit by an enemy or hazard, Samus will acrobatically dodge in that direction and train her arm-cannon on the target in question. Not only does this eliminate much of the jankiness you might expect from manual D-Pad-based evasion, it ties into offense by immediately charging your beam to maximum if you press and hold the fire button during the dash. Battles become a frenetic series of dashes and counter-blasts, and always manage to satisfy.


As long as you're facing your target, nine times out of ten you'll successfully connect. There's some extremely generous auto-aim going on here that places the focus less on precision aiming, and more on actual maneuvering throughout the field of battle. In theory, it's extremely similar to Metroid Prime, where once you locked on an enemy, your concern was less about trying to get your attacks pointed in the right direction, but more about timing them to avoid the enemy's defenses and keeping yourself out of the way of his attacks. With as quick-tempoed as battles in Other M are, a more-manual aiming mechanic would have been a nightmare to manage. I don't lament its exclusion, and rather appreciate that it let me focus more on moving around.

Perhaps the most controversial design decision revolves around your ability to point the Wii Remote at the screen and enter a first-person aiming mode, ala the Metroid Primes, at will. It's not so much the toggle itself that's worrisome, as it's actually surprisingly smooth and immediate. The main concern I had coming from Nintendo's Q1 Media Summit was the knowledge that while in first-person, you couldn't move. Sure you can aim around and pivot 360 degrees, but your feet were glued to the ground. I think a lot of my issues with this concept stemmed from assumptions I brought with me from the Prime series. Of course I should be able to move while I aim, I've been doing exactly that for three Metroids in a row now! How can I possibly be expected to evade and target my enemies in cement boots?

The answer is simple: you aren't expected to evade your enemies. Sure, if you exit first-person immediately before being hit you'll perform a Sense Move back into third-person, but that only serves to stress the idea here—you should be fighting most of this battle in that perspective. The behind-the-visor view is designed around the idea of making a quick blast, then retreating. If you stay in first-person and complain that you're getting demolished, you're doing it wrong. Get in a comfortable position, swap in, make your attack, then swap right the hell back out. Finding the openings during combat where you can swap in and out of first-person is actually a big part of the combat strategy in Other M—you can't just point at the screen and expect success when a guy is right up on you. Supplanting this system with Nunchuk-based movement while in first-person would basically undermine the entire combat engine, allowing you to (ineffectively) fight entire battles exclusively behind the visor, and sidestepping the myriad acrobatic techniques available to you in third-person.


The first-person mode is a bit more natural when you're not in a combat scenario, serving primarily as a method for examining your surroundings. Detail-oriented exploration is a cornerstone of Metroid gameplay, and in this context the first-person mode feels like a hybrid between Super Metroid and Metroid Prime's offerings. You'll never find yourself unlocking logbook data about things or researching the history of every little rock and turbine, instead merely identifying which of those rocks and turbines can be destroyed, and by which item in your arsenal. The game will occasionally force you into first-person perspective, actually, largely just to keep you involved in dramatic situations. You'll be tasked with identifying and locking on to one tiny thing in your viewpoint that will further the storytelling, and this is a lot more aggravating in practice than it might sound. While maybe once or twice it helped engage me more in what was going on, most of the times it was just a nightmare to actually find and identify what they wanted me to find. I almost restarted the game once, thinking it had glitched and there was nothing to find, but nope, it was just tiny, innocuous, and far away. This really could have been tuned better.

Sakamoto's secondary focus in Other M is plot and progression, which might stick out as a bit odd to series veterans. Titles like Super Metroid are renowned for their ability to draw the player into a world with little-to-no exposition, but Metroid Fusion on the GBA started to toy with these ideas a bit more liberally. Other M seems to have progressed directly from Fusion, in that you are very much on a scripted mission, with considerable human interaction and assistance along the way. The game's maps are generally pretty straightforward, and will extend ahead of you with every save station you visit. There aren't too many new connections made between places as you go, it's usually just a matter of finding nooks and crannies along the way. Sorely lacking are huge multi-room puzzle extravaganzas like the shinespark trials found both in Fusion and Zero Mission, or the golem's head puzzle in Corruption. There are some tricky puzzles here and there, sure, but they're only ever one or two steps. The acquisition of most hidden items is fairly straightforward.


Other M spends a lot of time developing Samus's character, which has been largely ignored by the franchise barring some brief glimpses in Fusion. Peeks into Samus's Galactic Federation days portray her as young and inexperienced, with something to prove. It's nothing particularly original, but it's painted in contrast to her present-day self, which is much more put together, but still pretty broody. It works well enough, and I never felt her actions were inconsistent with her character as a whole. For as much as the game claims to be about discovering Samus' past, though, the vast bulk of the actual storytelling is in the present-day, revolving around the events on the mysterious Bottle Ship. There's an ensemble cast, and Samus interacts with them on a fairly regular basis. Except for some iffy voice over work early on in the game, the general presentation is extraordinary, with dazzling cinematic quality and execution.

Thankfully, the expanded cast doesn't ever negatively affect the "Metroid atmosphere" that so defines the series. Sure they'll be hanging around in story-heavy sequences here and there, but these segments only bookend the extremely solitary and atmospheric gameplay that veterans have come to expect. Atmosphere is actually one of Other M's strengths, with genuinely creepy locales and soundscapes producing some tense scenes that far outpace anything managed by the Primes. Retro's efforts are still unmatched when it comes to raw artistic talent in the building of their environments, but Other M is a solid effort nonetheless. Returning to the art style of the pre-Prime titles is exciting in itself, and creates a very nostalgic feel that captures the Metroid essence in a way I hadn't realized I was missing.

Nostalgia is a huge emphasis in Other M, or at least the notion of callbacks to previous titles. You'll almost feel like you're playing fan-fiction at points, considering how many references are made in short order, but maybe this is just what happens when Sakamoto sits on his fiction for nearly a decade while the Prime titles occupy the spotlight with their own mythologies. Either way, long-time fans will be positively tickled by some of what they'll have the opportunity to play, and what they'll get to fight against.


Regrettably, this ties into what is perhaps Other M's biggest downer. The game climaxes with a positively thrilling scenario that I salivated at the thought of playing... only to have it snatched away at the last second. To be fair, what you get to do instead is still pretty exciting, but I couldn't help but feel cheated. Things did look a little rosier, though, when I realized that the credits weren't actually the end of the game. I was plopped right back in the Bottle Ship with a chance to pick up all of the items I missed (which were all noted on the map), but there was one more objective left to complete. Let's just say that I recommend you get as many of those items as you can before you make your way to the real finale. (For the curious, I received the game from Nintendo on Monday, beat it on Tuesday, and got 100% on Wednesday. Completed with 55% items in a little under nine hours, and achieved 100% at eleven and a half. Not nearly as long as Nintendo may have suggested, but for a series that's known for being speed-runnable in under an hour, it's not too shabby.)

I think I finally understand what Sakamoto meant when he suggested that Other M is the game people had been expecting from the Metroid franchise. It's not so much that the Primes are being disrespected here, as while their plot may be categorically ignored, there are plenty of callbacks by way of the first-person perspective, a few enemies, the handling of the morph ball, and even a powerup that was first pioneered in Echoes. As much as I adore the Primes, I have to admit that this feels much more like the 2D originals, on account of the art style, play style, and the setpieces that make up its plot. The freedom of structure enjoyed in those originals may be missing, but Other M definitely channels their vibe. I can't wait to see where the series goes next.
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