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Metroid: Other M (Wii) artwork

Metroid: Other M (Wii) review


"Metroid: Other M tells two stories. One is the story of Samus Aran, galactic bounty hunter - a story that is objectionable because it is poorly written and incompetently executed. The other is the story of Yoshio Sakamoto, videogame developer - a story that is objectionable because it keeps barging in on Metroid: Other M. "



Metroid: Other M tells two stories. One is the story of Samus Aran, galactic bounty hunter - a story that is objectionable because it is poorly written and incompetently executed. The other is the story of Yoshio Sakamoto, videogame developer - a story that is objectionable because it keeps barging in on Metroid: Other M.

The "plot" of Other M, the one about Samus, will get its turn in the crosshairs in due course, as will the rest of the game. But the whole package takes on an entirely new meaning once you know the background. The real story of Other M, the factor that underlies everything wrong with the game, is nothing less than the story of the Metroid series itself.

Have a seat.

Once upon a time, there was a neat little game called Metroid. It was born from a neat idea, it was developed by an internal Nintendo dev team, and it arrived on the NES, offering an experience unlike any "action" game that had come before. You play as Samus, jumping and shooting things. It was named after the most prominent and dangerous enemy you could battle in the game; Metroids were these weird little floating parasite things that literally extract the life force from their prey. They were scary. Anyway, Metroid got sequels - Metroid II for the Game Boy, and Super Metroid for the SNES - the latter of which upped its game just enough to rightfully earn its place as a staple of "Top 100" lists all over the internet forever more.

Very crucial facts: in Metroid II, Samus, having being tasked with destroying all metroids on this one planet, reaches the last one, only to discover it is still an egg. It hatches in front of her. She chooses not to kill it, and instead captures it. This is pretty much the only time Samus ever refuses to do a thing the player is willing her to do. Towards the end of Super Metroid, Samus - about to perish at the hands of a seemingly unbeatable opponent - is saved when this same metroid, now grown, suddenly appears and sacrifices its life for hers. These two events, taken together, form the framework of a pretty neat piece of storytelling. In context, it was a genius piece of game design. It was one of the earliest examples of a game other than a JRPG using game elements as narrative devices, and it made Super Metroid's final fight special.

But after Super Metroid, the series disappeared from the face of the earth, along with Samus, who went unseen outside of Super Smash Bros for the better part of a decade.

When the series surfaced again with Metroid Prime, it was in the hands of some… people… in Texas who had yet to crack open their first GameCube SDK at the time the opportunity to create a new Metroid game was given to them. How Retro Studios ended up with the keys to Metroid is anyone's guess. Even the story of the actual development of Metroid Prime is partially unclear; one thing we do know is that Yoshio Sakamoto, the man largely responsible for the development of the original games, was not involved - while Retro developed, the director's seat was manned by Shigeru Miyamoto. Something else we do know is that when Metroid Prime finally arrived on store shelves, it brought with it universal acclaim, praise for Retro Studios on all accounts; the scale of what they created, the beauty of the environments they designed, the restraint they showed with their presentation, and the triumph with which they authentically updated a 2D sidescroller from two hardware generations prior into a 3D first-person game without making it feel awkward or dated. It was one of those (tragically rare) moments where the Court of Public Opinion and the Court of Whether Or Not This Game Be Awesome were in perfect agreement.

Eventually, Retro got bored of Metroid - they were probably bored the minute the first of Prime's two sequels was greenlit. While said sequels were solid, they were… let's just say, obviously the product of routine rather than creativity. They went to work on "something else", and Nintendo were left wondering what to do with Metroid.

(Epilogue: "something else" turned out to be Donkey Kong Country Returns, a game that proved, beyond all doubt, that Retro were capable of producing gold when given a project they actually believe in.)

To no one's very great surprise, and not unreasonably, direction of the next Metroid game was given back to Sakamoto, who had in the meantime worked on Metroid Fusion and Metroid: Zero Mission for the GameBoy Advance (two games that, being fair here, were pretty damn good!). Sakamoto wasted no time in confirming that he did not consider the Prime series to be part of Metroid "canon", that he wanted to make a game that felt like a "true" sequel to Super Metroid, that he wanted to make a game that told a story about Samus rather than just having her do stuff.

Now, to continue being fair, it's not a crime to have entertainment franchise diverge and go off in completely different directions at almost the same time; in fact, it's arguably a good thing. It creates variety, and allows for originality, keeping things interesting. But Metroid: Other M is something else entirely. Sakamoto doesn't just "disregard" Metroid Prime, he tracks it down to its home town and spends weeks learning its route to work just so he can make sure it sees him as he pointedly walks past it on the street with nose high and eyes straight forward, while a limo pulls up alongside him, an impeccably dressed man steps out and holds the rear door open, and Sakamoto gets in, to be driven off into the distance and never seen again.

Reading between the lines is the wrong phrase here, unless maybe the lines are octuple-spaced and flank not sentences but entire paragraphs of long, flowing prose, written in font at least two sizes larger than that of the lines between which they sit. However we're perceiving it, the message is loud and clear: Metroid Prime never happened.

Really, Sakamoto wanted too much. He wanted to create a new Metroid experience, one that built on the foundations of Super Metroid and updated it for a new gaming generation. But he also wanted to show up Retro Studios, who successfully did exactly the same thing without his help. He wanted to show the world how much Metroid gains from the direct involvement of Yoshio Sakamoto. He couldn't create a new game in the style of Metroid Prime (even armed with a new team who wouldn't be bored with the idea) because that would be improving on Metroid Prime, not Super Metroid. He couldn't play to his strengths and create a new game that played like Super Metroid either, not only because that would be admitting defeat in the "how to make a new Metroid experience" war, but also because that ship had already sailed, with Metroid Fusion at the helm, Metroid: Zero Mission as first mate, and Shadow Complex stowing away.

There was something else, too: in 1999, when Metroid was in limbo and mostly forgotten by the gaming masses, bringing it back in a project as expensive as Metroid Prime was a risk, especially to the sorts of people who answer to shareholders. So, to ensure its investment would pay out, Nintendo laid down the law at Retro Studios, maintaining eagle eyes and an iron fist so tight that one couldn't even make an its/it's mixup in the comments of the source code without a Nintendo executive knowing about it. The work week during crunch time was said to exceed 100 hours. You can guarantee that, during the month before Metroid Prime launched, there wasn't one employee at Retro Studios who wouldn't murder Miyamoto on sight. Well, that business certainly did pay off, and, and by 2006, when Metroid was "safe" again, you could be sure that the days of such scrutiny were long gone. Needless to say, Sakamoto was largely left to his own devices. This was unfortunate, because a project with origins as convoluted as Other M's absolutely cannot afford to be any less than astoundingly good if it is to stand a chance of not being disappointing, but the "safe" status of Metroid ensured that if the result was bad, it would still sell, in turn ensuring the maximum number of disappointed people.

Fortunately for Nintendo, the world is full of the kinds of people who earnestly believed that Call of Duty: World at War was the followup to Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. But that's besides the point.

The point is, frankly, that this could be the end of the review right here, and you'd have enough information to understand completely why Metroid: Other M is so bad. The specifics are practically irrelevant at this juncture - the game is broken on a fundamental level before the contents of the disk are even factored into the equation. The review will continue solely because the point that all this serves to underline has yet to actually be stated or justified.

Well, here it is: the contents of the disk aren't that great, really.

The very first thing you experience after selecting "New Game" from the main menu is a lengthy, eye-popping CGI recreation of the climactic final encounter of Super Metroid. This is to make absolutely sure that no one is under any delusions concerning which game's glory days we are reliving. To continue being fair, it should be said that, yes, the final boss of Super Metroid and the whole thing with the baby metroid saving Samus was brilliant in its original context, and yes, it did make inspired use of narrative mechanics unique to videogames to deliver an incredible, knuckle-whitening, pulse-pounding, heartstring-tugging, genre-defining experience of a boss battle for which everyone responsible (Sakamoto included) should rightly congratulate themselves. But! Seeing it trotted out again, as a self-indulgent god-damned cutscene (and god help you if you believe that bits of the scene won't be replayed and re-narrated again and again later down the line) is enough to make one seriously question whether the whole experience was the product of a moment of genius or a moment of clarity.

Yes, not even five minutes after "New Game" is selected, Sakamoto manages to almost completely undermine one of the crowning achievements of the game he is trying to glorify, by trading on the nostalgia of his past creation rather than its genius.

Meanwhile, Samus is narrating all this. Samus' voice actor leaves a certain something to be desired. You might think, given Sakamoto's intent to put a serious cinematic spin on Metroid and tell a story that purportedly revolves around Samus - a former silent protagonist - as a character, that he would personally fire anyone who even whispered the phrase "Gold Master" before a complete performance was recorded, peer-reviewed and independently certified "out-of-the-park", but you'd be mistaken. In this, Sakamoto's cinematic masterpiece, the central character reads each and every line of dialogue like she's dictating a letter. Jessica Martin, Samus' English voice actor, would later admit to not knowing a thing about Samus or even having played any Metroid game, ever. To put the general criticism another way, Jennifer Hale provided a much more believable performance in the Prime series, and the entirety of Samus' dialogue in those games consisted of a few grunts and a scream. At least she sounded genuinely in pain when screaming.

Eventually you get to actually move around and shoot things. The controls, at least, are pretty good… most of the time. You can either run, jump shoot, or do Samus' traditional roll-into-a-ball-and-drop-bombs gambit in 3rd person perspective by holding the Wii Remote sideways, or you can point it at the screen to stand perfectly still in exchange for the ability to look around in first person and fire missiles. It takes about a second for the game to register that you have switched from one mode to the other. It's pretty awkward. No explanation is given as to why you can't move while in first person given that the D-Pad isn't being used for anything else, or, more pertinently, why the developers went with this control scheme in the first place when the Nunchuck and Classic/GameCube controller configurations exist - though by this point it's impossible to completely disregard the possibility that it's just Sakamoto cutting off his nose to spite his face again.

Anyway, you're running around in this little training room, fighting these little enemy holograms, showing off all of Samus' toys and testing out the new combat mechanics. If credit is to be given where due, then credit is going to be given here; when not worrying about having to turn your controller around in your hand, combat feels pretty damn good. This is probably due to the involvement of Team Ninja - don't ask how they got involved with Metroid, because it's not even certain that they know, but since they're here, they're bringing what they have to the table, and what they have is a talent for beautiful, visceral combat. It's the one area (besides graphics) in which Other M manages to outdo Metroid Prime - Prime had its share of shooting things in the face until they die, but it was so technical, so clean. It was all about scanning an enemy, picking the right weapon for the job, and continuing to press the fire button until the desired result is achieved. Other M, on the other hand, is not just fast and active, but brutal, and violent. It's about suppressing an enemy, building up your energy, charging right at it in its state of momentary weakness and shoving your god-damn arm cannon right down its fucking throat.

Then doing the exact same thing to the next enemy.

Look, they get credit for trying, OK?

All this is followed by some more cutscenes during which Samus says a few things and then recounts the things she just said. She also recounts the closing events of Super Metroid for what is by now the third time. You see, it's very important that the player understands how much she's thinking about it and how it weighs on her conscience, and that she thinks of the baby metroid responsible for her victory against Mother Brain as "the baby" rather than "the baby metroid". It's also crucial to understand that the distress call Samus picks up is codenamed "baby's cry" because it has the urgency of a baby crying and is designed to attract the attention of anyone nearby (as opposed to those other kinds of distress signal). The signal originates from something called the "Bottle Ship". Subtlety is not Other M's strong suit. The time it takes a person to realize this is probably directly proportional to the time it took to try putting the "M" in front.

And THEN, the characterization of Samus begins. This is the big one - the single factor that's supposed to set Other M apart from all those other Metroid games, with their "silent protagonists" and their "explore and investigate" attitudes. Other M was going to differentiate itself both by giving Samus a voice and by making the story of the game involve her character more heavily. So, how'd they do?

Samus' character is so poorly conveyed that merely witnessing the attempt is guaranteed to substantially lower your IQ. It is based entirely upon two things. The first is the repeated retelling (and reliving) and "deep emotional scars" of the ending of Super Metroid - though Other M's retelling robs said ending of the context that made it meaningful. This is because it neglects to mention the events of Metroid II - you know, Samus sole moment of actual characterization prior to Other M chronologically. The second is the newly revealed fact that, at an unspecified time in the past, during her time in the Galactic Federation Army, Samus questioned the orders of her Commanding Officer (who is a man, which is important because Samus is a woman, see?). Some people think it's sexist. It isn't, it's just stupid. It's not even coherent enough to be offensive. For one thing, at no point during the game or its backstory does anyone actually discriminate against Samus on account of gender. For another, the "incident" purportedly at the heart of her newfound massive inferiority complex was… actually completely irrelevant, because all her guilt is centered around the fact that she doubted her orders. She didn't even follow through on her doubts - a thing happened, she questioned her orders, she was told to stand down, she stood down. Somehow, this caused her to develop a complete inability to ever question orders, despite her firm belief that she could have improved things by doing so. Then she left the Federation.

What the hell is even going on with this explanation? Granted, the incident in question ended (by dramatic necessity) in tragedy, but not on account of Samus' actions. As it happened, she saw that tragedy was imminent, asked her CO to allow her to (selflessly?) render assistance, and was told that circumstances were beyond her control. The thing happened, everyone was sad. Now, authors are given a certain amount of leeway when it comes to addressing the psychological health of their characters, but only to an extent. Suspension of disbelief only goes so far, and "so far" is not far enough to allow this version of events to be linked to the development of a crippling inability to ever question a given authority. It's completely backwards! Now, if Samus had caused a tragedy by intervening (especially if she did so with good intentions), then maybe the inferiority complex thing would fly. As it is, however… well, let's just say that this whole plotline, like the game itself, is broken before it even gets underway.

Anyway. Samus is inevitably reunited with her former CO aboard the Bottle Ship and offers to help them investigate. He refers to her as an "outsider" because she is not under his direct command. Samus takes this to be a personal insult. She then promptly deactivates all but the most basic features of her Power Suit, reactivating them only when explicitly instructed to by her former CO. Ostensibly, this is due to some kind of hangup about excessive force - you know this because he tells you three times in a single cutscene that Power Bombs are far too dangerous to ever be used for any purpose ever. However, it gets just a tad ridiculous when you have Samus running round in a boiling hot room, literally burning to death, in full possession of the tech that can save her, but unwilling to use it because she hasn't been ordered to, because you know what happened last time you questioned your orders, right, Samus?

No, wait, nothing happened, because all of the plot in this game is stupid, and none of it provides even a decent in-universe justification for the arbitrary character advancement system the game is saddled with. You may as well know that there's also a little moment later on in the game where you run up against a brick wall (metaphorically - though you'd be forgiven for needing clarification on that at this point) - once again, you need a specific item to proceed but you lack it. The solution to this is to backtrack a fair distance, and then be ambushed by some enemies. During this encounter, you will be "authorized" to use the necessary item. You must then un-backtrack to the first place that called for this item. Needless to say, the obvious question goes unmentioned by Samus or her CO.

It's a real shame that the first attempt at authoritatively writing Samus' character ended in such a trainwreck, because the version that had existed up to this point - the one Sakamoto was so intent on one-upping that he completely and pointedly ignored - was great! Take Metroid Prime; the player controls everything Samus does at all times, but the game is full of these little signs that the thing you are controlling is a person - when in bright light, you can see the reflection of Samus' eyes on the inside of her visor, and when using the X-Ray Visor, you can see her hand inside her arm cannon, operating its controls. In one of the sparse (but always short) cutscenes, Samus encounters a metroid - thought extinct - and hesitates for just a moment. For most of the game, though, they player is not just seeing through Samus' eyes but is sharing her mind as well: Samus' curiosity concerning how to get to a point is your curiosity, Samus' fear of an opponent is your fear. It goes deeper; when you read an enemy message detailing how they're both afraid and in awe of Samus, you feel a little bit proud. Your instinctive response is not "hey, they're talking about Samus!" but "hey, they're talking about me!" Metroid Prime's Samus was a bundle of potential, a pitch perfect player surrogate. Her characterization was done entirely (and completely subconsciously) by the player.

Metroid: Other M's Samus is having none of that - her mind is entirely her own, though that won't stop her from narrating everything she's thinking.

The "plot" part is about as bad. Samus, her former CO, and his squad of statistically-evenly-spread soldier stereotypes are to investigate the Bottle Ship and ascertain what went wrong. Shockingly, "went" turns out to be the incorrect tense of the verb "to go" to have used in the briefing and is summarily amended to "is going". Soldiers start turning up dead, and signs point to a traitor among their ranks. Samus comments, in one of her many monotone narrations, "I decided to call the traitor 'The Deleter'". As opposed to, say, "The Traitor". This plot thread continues for a while, but is forgotten by the end of the game. Instead, Other M eventually becomes a competition to see which cutscene can feature the most lines which remind the player of things that happened in Super Metroid, with spot prizes for any cutscene in which the same thing is repeated three times with slightly different words each time. It also tries, badly, to be a survival horror game, but only in places. But mostly, it's a nostalgia parade, and the last remaining pretense of mystery vanishes the first time someone utters the phrase "bioweapons" and your subconscious mind immediately responds, "Metroids. It's going to be metroids."

Frequently, the plot, mechanics, and level design all collide in glorious trainwrecks that come in two varieties. The first are these sequences in which Samus slows to a walking pace and lowers her weapons, and the camera moves to an over the shoulder perspective. These moments resemble those mercifully short bits of Gears of War where your dudes have to slow down because they're talking on their headsets, only without the relaying of useful information to the player or the guarantee that full speed will be restored when everyone stops talking. If you don't know where to go, you can be stuck walking like this for agonizing minutes on end. The second locks you in first person mode (thus unable to move) and tasks you with pointing your little cursor at something. This thing may or may not be visible, and you may or may not even be told what to look for. Official literature describes these moments as "pixel hunts". The name certainly captures the experience.

Let's go back to talking about Metroid Prime again for just a second. In Metroid Prime, there was this world you must explore. It's full of stuff. Some of this stuff is vitally important to your mission. Some of it is interesting but unimportant. Some of it is neither interesting nor important, but is there anyway because worlds contain things. There are creatures that will try to kill you because they are predators and that's what predators do, there are creatures that will try to kill you only if you try to kill them, and there are creatures that ignore you completely, though you can kill them anyway if that's the kind of person you are. You have this wonderful tool called the Scan Visor. You can point it around, and it will tag everything in the environment about which it has something to say. "This bioluminescent fungus does not match any known flora." "This wall hanging appears to be decorative." "The walls of this room appear to have been constructed extremely delicately around these tree branches." "Numerous stress fractures are present in this grate." "This creature is extremely dangerous. Recommend extreme caution and maximum firepower." Again, some of this information is useful, some of it is merely noteworthy. You can read as much or as little of it as you want, and you can read into it as much or as little as you want. It doesn't matter. But it's there, and it's proof that the world you are exploring is actually a world, whose inhabitants do things quite independently of the player character's presence. Even the sentient inhabitants of the world show signs of having an actual agenda - for every computer terminal on which some researcher has logged an iteration of an experiment, there's one where a disillusioned worker is complaining about management. Sometimes, groups of them will abandon old areas and occupy new ones. Eventually, you'll see memos they've written about things that happened since you arrived, things that you, the player, have just done. There's traces of an ancient civilization whose function in the plot is little more than "ancient civilization" (and part of Samus' backstory) but they have a history. You can find out how they came to the world, about their lives and beliefs, about their civilization, and how they came to be reduced to a bunch of writings left behind in the ruins of their former home. All of these things, from the pure flavour to the pure devices, no matter how deeply they were rooted in the process of designing a videogame, are nevertheless coherent. Things make sense. Some game elements are more thinly disguised than others - like each new powerup being suited to destroying one specific type of material or some such - but at least they're all justified on some level other than "thing in a videogame".

In Metroid: Other M, however, things are a tad blunter. You have a scan visor, but the only things you can actually scan with it are destroyable objects, and even then all you get for your pointing is the name and icon of the thing that can destroy whatever you're pointing at. Unless, of course, you reach a "pixel hunt" section, in which case you can do nothing but scan for the one thing in the room that the developers need you to know about before they can justify another cutscene. There are creatures, but every single one of them is an enemy that will sense your presence the moment you enter a room, and none of them serve any purpose other than being an opponent for Samus. There is no exploration, no discovery, only direct exposition. In cutscenes. Nothing in Other M's collection of shooting galleries exists for any purpose other than to be used by Samus at some point. You don't explore, you are given a destination upfront and everywhere other than your current objective is either inaccessible due to being behind a Super Missile Wall at such time as you are not authorized to use Super Missiles, or just happens to be behind a locked door that can only be unlocked by a plot trigger.

Topping it all off is this overarching sense of in-your-face-ness that encompasses everything in the game. All previous Metroid games allowed the player to step into Samus' Power Suit, but Other M shoves it down your throat. All previous Metroid games (sort-of-but-not-really-excepting Fusion) had a plot that just… happened… to Samus, but Other M, all she does is talk about things, never actually experiencing them. To reiterate a previous point, in past games, Samus' fear when confronted with an immensely powerful foe was exactly equal to that of the player, and was mastered accordingly as things progressed. In Other M, Samus' emotions seem to sway wildly based on whether or not the player is in control; no amount of complete mastery of split-second-dodging and precise, lethal counterattacks can prevent Samus from being completely paralyzed with fear as and when the current cutscene demands. Finally, previous Metroid games, even (to an extent) Metroid Prime 3: Corruption, were all about discovering the way forward. Other M, though, tells you at all times where to go and how to get there.

The whole game is a mind-numbing combination of monotony and terrible design decisions, start to finish, right up to the very final encounter, which culminates in three bad ideas in rapid succession. The first is when, in order to defeat a rather powerful monster, you are required to use an item you're not even informed that you're now able to use. The second comes when the game's antagonist throws a large number of extremely powerful opponents at you - ideal final boss material whose defeat requires a good amount of actual skill… and then, without warning, locks you in first person mode, unable to move, just shooting missiles at them. The third comes either a) when you die during this encounter, retry (possibly multiple times), realize that these enemies are undefeatable under these conditions, and start looking for another way to win, or b) completely out of nowhere - are you ready? - when you realize that the final boss fight is a god-damned pixel hunt. There's no warning or anything, you just happen to wave your cursor over the correct part of the room, and bam, final cutscene.

What an incredible way to end an incredible game.

Well, actually, no, that's not really the end. The end comes when, after loading up your clear-file, you wander around the ship a bit more, fight a bonus boss (a cameo from (of course) Super Metroid), and pick up a thing that Samus wanted to collect. Then, for no adequately explained reason, Samus loses all of her upgrades and must escape the (now arbitrarily) self-destructing Bottle Ship wearing only her Zero Suit and armed only with a stun gun. Hey, didn't this happen in another game? It bears repeating that there is no reason or justification for this happening.

Hang on - there is one reason; it's because Sakamoto just would not let the game end without one more reminder of whose Metroid game was the best, the one that should be remembered, the only real Metroid.

If Final Fantasy VI is an opera, and if Mother 3 is a play, and if Metal Gear Solid 2 is a joke, then Metroid: Other M is a temper tantrum, thrown by a guy upset because some other guys' videogame is better than his.

Metroid: Other M had one aim: to siphon attention away from Metroid Prime and onto itself and, to a lesser extent, Super Metroid. Frankly, though, Super Metroid can speak for itself, and you know what? After sitting through Other M, one and only one thing comes to mind:

"Metroid Prime was awesome. I'm gonna go play it again."

Rating: 4/10

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Community review by Fedule (December 30, 2010)

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