A few short years ago, Retro Studios wrapped up its GameCube and Nintendo Wii Metroid Prime trilogy, a three-part adventure that led up to the original NES classic. But there's far more to be told about this intergalactic bounty hunter, and Metroid: Other M is the official continuation of the Metroid series that continues the story that wrapped in 1994 with Super Metroid on the Super Nintendo Entertainment System. After experiencing the game from start to finish multiple times, I walk away from Metroid: Other M with the feeling that it was greenlit to flesh out Samus as a character more than it was created to advance the classic Metroid gameplay. Its focus on story and action makes Metroid: Other M one hell of a ride and a wholly recommended experience: it's an emotional tale and a fun adventure wrapped up in a surprisingly ambitious package.
This Wii sequel, developed in collaboration between Nintendo and Tecmo's Team Ninja (best known for its work on Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden series), is sort of a hybrid of a retro remake and a contemporary sequel: classic and familiar gameplay elements repurposed in a current generation experience. Metroid: Other M has been designed to utilize the Wii remote exclusively as its only way to play. This, along with a return to the third-person scrolling camera -- brings back the feeling of the old-school Metroid experience, and ultimately Nintendo and Team Ninja succeed in that effort.
Metroid: Other M is not a retro throwback in the same way New Super Mario Bros. Wii is. With a few exceptions, Nintendo's Mario remake could have been done on a previous Nintendo console. But not so with Metroid: Other M. The feeling of the old-school design is here, but it's been developed with current generation standards in mind--dynamic 3D camera, first person perspective, and an incredible focus on cinema-style storytelling. Its straightforward controls certainly have been made to build the design to be more accessible than, say, the first-person shooter style that Retro devised for the Metroid Prime franchise, but don't mistake this approach to be anything less than a hardcore gamer's experience.
The game starts out, almost literally, with a massive bang: the opening scene is an amazing recreation of the climax of Super Metroid, with Samus battling with Mother Brain and the baby Metroid sacrificing itself to save the bounty hunter – and help her defeat the massive beast. While this is fantastic fan service for anyone who's played through Super Metroid, this elaborate sequence is also meant to introduce Samus to an audience that might not understand just how independent and bad-ass this intergalactic bounty hunter truly is. It also shows just how story focused Metroid: Other M will be when the game actually starts.
Incredible attention went into building up the Other M story, and it's really the first time that Nintendo's produced a game on such an epic scale. Samus, a character who's been in Nintendo's arsenal since pretty much the company's videogame beginning, gets a voice for the first time. In the past, Nintendo's been hesitant in establishing a voice for its franchise characters beyond basic sound bites, but here, Samus is a full, fleshed out character with personality and emotion, and is someone you can connect with almost from the first line she speaks.
Metroid: Other M revolves around a mysterious distress call aboard a space station called the "Bottle Ship." When Samus whisks off to investigate, she's met with familiar faces: soldiers of the Galactic Federation. Without getting too deep and run the risk of spoiling the story, Metroid: Other M spends a lot of time delving into Samus's past and exploring her relationship with Adam Malkovich, the commanding officer who's taken charge on the Bottle Ship.
It's fantastic to see Nintendo finally embrace contemporary storytelling with motion-captured acting and voice-over. Even when the script falls on heavy-handed, symbolism-focused Japanese-style storytelling that can -- and does -- border on the absurd, it's hard not to get sucked into Samus' life and feel her emotions throughout the ten-plus hour adventure.
While a good portion of those ten hours will be spent watching cutscenes, it's still a small fraction compared to the amount of gameplay in Metroid: Other M. As much attention as Nintendo and Team Ninja put into the cinematic experience, it's still a videogame and needs to fall back upon the core gameplay and ultimate question: is it fun? The answer to that is a big fat "yes!" with a nagging "but..."
Metroid: Other M clearly has had design compromises to get the game to be functional and fun in the Wii remote-exclusive gameplay. It's great that Samus has been pulled from the side-scrolling "rail" from previous Metroid adventures -- Metroid Prime excluded, of course -- and now has freedom of movement in the environments she explores. It still forces restrictive elements to keep that "old school" feel. The camera, for example, is pre-programmed and can never be changed by the player outside of the first-person through-the-visor perspective that players can jump into at any time (but you can't move in this mode). The fixed camera gets a little awkward when you have to do a bit of backtracking through environments, since the cameras don't change direction when Samus does. That means players will be blasting at off-camera enemies a lot of time, but since Samus has an auto-aiming blaster it's not a problem to zap at unseen creatures. The "auto aiming" feature removes a lot of the action that was a standard part of the Metroid experience. Simply pointing in a direction and hammering down on the fire button isn't really capturing what made Metroid such a challenging action game in the first place.
There will be times you'll need to jump into first-person mode to target enemies, and even here it's needlessly clunky. It's definitely great to experience a way to quickly jump back and forth from third-person perspective to an "in the visor" view by using the Wii's pointer function, but the fact that you can't even move beyond a 360 pivot makes things feel a little disconnected. There's a split-second moment where you'll be able to dodge an incoming attack in first-person mode, but since you're usually hammering down on the action button in this mode this dodge move feels automatic and almost unintentional.
All of the other traditional Metroid elements are introduced in this 3D environment and work extremely well. There are a handful of puzzle elements that require getting a grasp on the powers that Samus obtains along the way. If a destroyed passage gets in the way of progress you'll have to figure out which of your many powers – morph ball to roll through tight spaces, booster jets to smash through doors, jump jets to go rocketing vertically – is needed to get past the blockage. There will definitely be times where you'll get stuck, but there will always be a subtle hint on what needs to be done to advance further in the adventure.
But it's in the way the classic Metroid element of acquiring powers has been implemented in Other M that nags at me. In pretty much every Metroid game developed since its creation, players earn abilities as they go along – item pick-ups give Samus capabilities that enable players the opportunity to access areas that were once blocked off. The way it's written in Metroid: Other M is that Samus has all these features from the start. She decides, out of respect to the commanding officer Adam Malkovich, to deactivate everything and only reactivate them when he gives the OK. While the writers were probably patting themselves on the back for coming up with this plot device, it does not work in the context of the gameplay. You'll frequently encounter doors that can only be opened with a Super Missile, but Samus respects Adam too much to fire one to open up a chamber? Puh-lease. And when you wander into the dangerous and hot lava chambers, you wonder why it's taking Adam so long to give you the thumbs up to activate your Varia Suit function so that you don't take damage from the heat.
There is a a story payoff towards the end for Samus' subserviency but it doesn't make up for the absurdity of Samus being somewhat of a mindless drone and refusing to activate her normal functions simply because Adam didn't say it was OK. It also muddies what used to be a big event in a Metroid game. Acquiring skills always felt like a huge prize, but in Metroid: Other M it just feels like a casual occurrence.
Ultimately, though, Metroid: Other M ends up an incredibly intense and rewarding experience despite the small hang-ups. And it gets even when you've gone through the game and get the credit scroll, there's more to be found -- the story continues and makes additional references to classic Metroid experiences. And when you complete it a second time, there's the incentive to keep going with all of the hidden items that you skipped over -- these extra pick-ups were clearly not needed to finish the game, but the skill required in getting them almost makes them as gratifying to score as the green stars were in Super Mario Galaxy 2.
Team Ninja is known for its graphical prowess and the studio continues to show its visual design know-how in with Metroid: Other M. While I wouldn't put it above Retro Studios' efforts in Metroid Prime 3, I will say that I marvel at some of the incredible creature designs, environmental effects, and character animations in this adventure. Everything runs fast and smooth and stays true to the legacy of the franchise.
The development team also stays true to the atmospheric audio design of the Metroid series. The game's soundtrack is appropriately moody when it needs to be, and equally intense when the action cranks up. The orchestral pieces that set the tone in the cutscenes are wonderfully emotion-filled, and while the voice acting can get a little stilted in places, more often than not the dialogue – and Samus's frequent monologues – are professionally acted.