Metroid is one of Nintendo’s longest-running, beloved franchises. The earlier installments helped pioneer a subgenre of action-adventure games that emphasize exploration and collecting power-ups to allow access to new areas. This subgenre is known in gaming circles as the Metroidvania. The latter half of the portmanteau was derived from Konami’s Castlevania franchise, for the later installments largely abandoned their pure platforming roots starting with Symphony of the Night, codifying the style in the public eye.
Three years after the release of the 1994 SNES classic, Super Metroid, the man responsible for producing the series, Gunpei Yokoi, died in a tragic roadside accident. Coupled with the fact that Yoshio Sakamoto, the game’s director, was not interested in continuing the series on the Nintendo 64, citing issues with its controller, enthusiasts wondered if Super Metroid was to be the final installment. This all changed in 2002 with the announcement and subsequent release of two games: Metroid Fusion and Metroid Prime. The former was a title for Nintendo’s newest handheld console at the time, keeping true to the series’ 2D roots. The latter saw the series transition into the third dimension as well as the debut of Retro Studios, a gaming company based in Austin, Texas. Though many were skeptical about the idea of Metroid becoming a first-person shooter, these voices were immediately hushed when it received widespread critical acclaim with many fans rightly considering one of the pinnacles of the 2000s.
Retro Studios then followed up this triumph with two sequels, Echoes and Corruption, released in 2004 and 2007 respectively. Though fans may debate on how they compare to the original Metroid Prime, they were welcome additions to the franchise, and are essential experiences in their own right. The latter was especially noteworthy for being one of earliest first-person shooters to feature motion controls, employing the Nintendo Wii’s famous remote to elevate the gameplay to a new level.
In 2009, an entirely new project was unveiled during the annual trade fair, E3: Metroid: Other M. Yoshio Sakamoto had directed Metroid Fusion as well as Zero Mission, an enhanced remake of the original NES game, but this was to mark his return to the home console after an absence that lasted a little over fifteen years. For Metroid: Other M, Mr. Sakamoto promised fans a return to a style of gameplay comparable to the original installments along with a story that delved deeper into the backstory of Samus Aran, the series’ central protagonist. To this end, Nintendo collaborated with Team Ninja, a studio within Koei Tecmo to help develop the engine and combat mechanics. Team Ninja found much success in the 2000s with the reboot of Tecmo’s classic Ninja Gaiden franchise, so enthusiasts were enthralled to see what this dream team could produce. Following three years of production, Metroid: Other M was released in 2010 for the Nintendo Wii, allowing people across the world to learn the history of one of the medium’s oldest female characters.
Playing the Game
Metroid: Other M is an action-adventure game. In a stark contrast to the trilogy of Metroid Prime games developed by Retro Studios, it is played from a third-person perspective. The player has no control over the camera; it follows the protagonist’s movements, usually facing at a fixed angle depending on the room. The protagonist of the Metroid games is known for fighting primarily with ranged weapons – specifically with beams and missiles generated by her power armor. In combat, all one needs to do in order to aim for the enemies is to face them, and the protagonist will automatically lock onto a target in that direction – typically the closest one.
When pointing the remote at the screen, the game shifts to a first-person perspective. When in this mode, your character takes on a stationary stance, but you’re allowed to look around, lock onto enemies, scan important set pieces, and fire missiles – the last of which you cannot do in normal gameplay. If you focus on hatches or other obstacles, you can learn what weapon you need to circumvent them.
There is a greater emphasis on combat and twitch reflexes than in any other game in the series thus far. To accommodate this change, a new mechanic was introduced: Sensemove. When under attack from an enemy’s onslaught, you can push left or right on the control pad right when your character is about to get hit to avoid the attack. If you do this when charging up your character’s beam attack, the meter will be instantly filled, allowing you to perform a swift counterattack. You can also jump on certain enemies to shoot them with a charged shot at point blank range for extra damage – this technique is called Overblast. Furthermore, by running at a stunned enemy while charging your beam, you can perform a Lethal Strike on them, usually guaranteeing the foe’s demise.
It wouldn’t be a Metroid game without an array of collectables to find, and this installment is no exception. Scattered throughout the game world are Energy Tanks, Missile Tanks, Accel Charges, and E-Recovery Tanks. Your character begins the game with 99 units of energy. Each energy tank will increase the maximum by 100 units. There are also items known as energy parts to find. They function similarly to Heart Pieces from the Legend of Zelda franchise in that collecting four of them will add up to a single energy tank. Intuitively, missile expansions increase the amount you can carry at once. Accel power-ups increase the speed at which the meter for Samus’s charge beam fills.
E-Recovery Tanks play into another mechanic unique to Metroid: Other M: Concentration. Regular enemies no longer drop health, missiles, or any other items upon defeat. Instead, when your character is low on health, you can point the remote up and hold the A button. If the process is successful, she will recover 99 units of health – an additional 100 for each E-Recovery Tank in your possession. You can also do this to regain missiles, though unlike with health, you can do this at any time.
Although it was released four years after the debut of the Wii, Metroid: Other M is played solely with a remote. The Wii Remote by itself lacks a control stick, meaning that character movements are carried out with the directional pad. Keeping this in mind, the question those unfamiliar with Metroid: Other M are doubtlessly wondering how Nintendo and Team Ninja were able to successfully create a 3D experience controlled solely with what amounts to a fancy NES controller with a few extra buttons and built-in Zapper. The answer to this hypothetical inquiry is: they didn’t really. I have to admit that being able to create a playable game with such severe restrictions is impressive, but it’s not a feat worth celebrating. Mr. Sakamoto stated in interviews that he wished to hark back to the NES days by introducing a simple control scheme with the intent of creating a stronger bond between the player and the protagonist. This caused a lot of problems not only in the development process, but with the final product as well.
First of all, the proposed control scheme only realistically works for 2D games where character movement is usually limited to the four cardinal directions. It’s less effective for 3D games because the directional pad doesn’t account for a third axis as effectively as a control stick, which can register more precise directions as well as allowing players to switch between walking and running in an intuitive manner. In other words, there are typically two modes for directional pads: depressed or not depressed. This is why there is a run button in most 2D platforming games.
Secondly, aiming at enemies takes a lot of time to get used to. When playing games like this, I like to finish off enemies one-by-one whenever possible, which is difficult to accomplish with this game’s propensity of automatically shooting at the closest enemy in the direction Samus is facing. This became especially annoying when I was trying to defeat a specific enemy but couldn’t because the one I was trying to shoot was just a little further away. This is why most games with heavy amounts of ranged combat feature a way to reliably lock onto opponents, and Metroid: Other M demonstrates what happens when this ability is plagued by an awkward control scheme; it leads to a lot of frustration.
Because you’re expected to control Samus in a three-dimensional space with a pad that effectively has four buttons, you can only move in eight directions. This led to many instances where I failed to make a jump onto another platform when it was slightly to the side of the one Samus was standing on. I do give some credit to the developers for adding invisible edges to most platforms, but again, this is an answer to a problem that could have been completely avoided had Team Ninja been allowed to use the nunchaku attachment for the Wii Remote, as it features a control stick and extra buttons, making it well-suited for 3D experiences. Owing to this self-imposed limitation and the lack of control over the camera, the few times that platforms lacked these edges invariably resulted in my character falling straight through because I was unable to properly judge how close to the edge she was or the distance she needed to overcome.
This weirdly backwards-looking design philosophy even extends to how the in-game maps are presented. In the Metroid Prime trilogy, maps accounted for the gameplay’s newfound z-axis by allowing players to rotate them, making it easy to determine how many entrances and exits each room has and where they all lead. Metroid: Other M, on the other hand, features entirely 2D maps that don’t account for multiple levels. In other words, if there’s a room directly above another one, you would have a difficult time telling that from the map screen.
One could argue that the linearity of Metroid: Other M obviates the need for elaborate maps. This is true, but this itself is a problem. Metroid games are usually about exploration and having the world open up gradually as you collect power-ups that allow you to reach places you couldn’t before. I maintain that a game’s linearity has absolutely nothing to do with how good it is, but this game goes too far in this regard. Every time you’re given a new mission, expect to go down several one-way paths and have doors lock behind you until you complete it. This means that if you missed any collectables along the way, there’s a good chance you won’t be able to go back and get them until the very end of the game.
In fact, the game doesn’t completely open up until the final boss has been defeated, meaning that there are some upgrades which can’t be found until then. Most games allow players to achieve 100% completion before facing the final boss. The ones that don’t either have post-credits content that expands on the story in some way or transport you to before you fought the final boss, allowing you to go back and complete all the optional sidequests. It seems as though Metroid: Other M tries to do both, but it succeeds at neither. After the credits have rolled, the story is mostly over, and any cutscenes that play during these sequences fail to add anything of substance. Moreover, finding the rest of the upgrades is mostly pointless because there’s only a single bonus boss fight to use them on, and it doesn’t provide a significant enough challenge to necessitate finding them all. In other words, the only time you can get a large portion of these collectables is past the point where they actually matter. This flies not only in the face of Metroid, but practically the entire medium of video games.
Analyzing the Story
WARNING: This section will contain unmarked spoilers. Skip to the conclusion if you are at all interested in playing Metroid: Other M.
Although Samus Aran was unable to recover the infant Metroid stolen by the Space Pirates of Planet Zebes, she was able to put an end to their machinations when she destroyed their leader, the mechanical lifeform known as Mother Brain. This act resulted in the planet’s destruction, and the galaxy was at peace once more. Some time after this fateful mission, she intercepts a distress signal from a derelict space station called the BOTTLE SHIP. Following a hunch, she decides to investigate.
Shortly after landing on the seemingly deserted station, she encounters the Galactic Federation 07th Platoon. One of its members is an old friend from her days in the Federation Army: Anthony Higgs. Their leader is Adam Malkovich, a former CO of Samus’s. Although Adam initially refuses to divulge information regarding their objective, she feels compelled to follow them. After helping the squad fight off a powerful threat, Adam relents and allows Samus to assist under the condition that she obeys his orders and holds off on using her more destructive weapons. Samus accepts these terms, determined to get to the bottom of the mysteries behind the BOTTLE SHIP and rescue any survivors.
With Metroid: Other M, Yoshio Sakamoto focused a lot of his effort on its story, seeking to flesh out Samus and make her into a well-rounded, sympathetic character. To this end, he was allotted a generous budget and given complete artistic control of the project, overseeing nearly every aspect of development. Special attention was given to the cinematic cutscenes, and many of his fellow staff members have stated in interviews that he was moved to tears upon seeing them for the first time. The marketing campaign was impressive as well; everyone was looking forward to this game. At long last, people were going to learn more about one of the medium’s most beloved, yet enigmatic female characters. So those who somehow missed on the hype or have just picked up video games as a hobby recently can only imagine the sheer disappointment heard around the world when this title hit shelves in 2010.
Why was there such a big backlash against this game? Ironically, the story that Mr. Sakamoto was so emotionally invested in was mercilessly torn apart by critics. After playing the game for myself, I can say beyond any reasonable doubt that they were absolutely in the right for doing so because the writing in this game is appalling. It’s rife with themes one would expect from a high school student who just discovered what symbolism is. Notice the subtitle of the game, the name of the space station, and the fact that the distress signal Samus picks up is referred to as a “Baby’s Cry” (just in case you didn’t get it the first two times around). This heavy-handedness extends to the narrative as well; through her internal monologues, Samus has the annoying habit of insulting the intelligence of the audience on an infuriatingly regular basis.
I feel the best way to truly begin an analysis of this game’s story is to expound upon the universally reviled authorization mechanic. It’s common for Metroid games to feature some sort of sequence wherein Samus loses all of the equipment she procured in her previous adventure. I do yield that it’s one of the more tiring aspects of the series, but it’s a necessary one. After all, Metroid features the same protagonist for every scenario along with one coherent timeline; it’s not like Metal Gear where most missions in the series rely on its agents obtaining everything they need onsite or The Legend of Zelda in which the viewpoint character frequently changes between installments. The only reason I find myself tolerating this is because I wouldn’t be able to drum up an adequate solution for this dilemma, nor would I even make the attempt in the first place.
The reason for my stance is that this game demonstrates what happens when the solution only makes things worse. This is where the authorization mechanic comes into play. Rather than taking away all of Samus’s upgrades from her previous adventure, it’s explained that she still has them all, but she won’t use any of them until she has been given permission to do so. A major factor which drives the plot of this game is that Samus is following orders from Adam. He justifies this by reminding Samus that her Power Bombs (and, implicitly, some of her stronger beams as well) can instantly vaporize a human being; therefore, using them would be too dangerous when searching for survivors.
By itself, this isn’t strange or untoward, but it has three fatal flaws. To begin with, it doesn’t account for the energy and missile tanks Samus found on her last adventure. Naturally, this game wouldn’t be very challenging if she had ten energy tanks from the onset, but I find it odd how Mr. Sakamoto was willing to come up with this alternate explanation, yet on this particular subject, he goes back to the classic solution of simply making them disappear between installments. Secondly, there are two new power-ups found throughout the course of the game: the Diffusion Beam and the Seeker Missile. When she finds them, Samus simply picks them up and activates them immediately without a second thought. Considering Adam shouldn’t know the extent of the damage she can do with them, it’s weird that he would have no objections to this. Finally, and most damningly, the authorization mechanic fails to account for why Samus isn’t allowed to use her suit’s defensive features. This culminates an infamous moment where Samus goes through a superheated area of the BOTTLE SHIP without her suit’s Varia feature (which protects her from extreme temperatures), taking constant damage the entire way, and Adam only thinks to authorize it once she makes it to the end and is about to fight a giant lava monster. This is where the narrative and the game mechanics crash headfirst into each other, and it has the unintended effect of painting both Samus and Adam as miserably incompetent when taken at face value.
This isn’t even the only time the authorization mechanic creates this dissonance. I remember several instances where you get trapped in a room and get ambushed by monsters only to quickly discover that you have no way of harming them. Whenever this happens, you have to futilely shoot at them for a few seconds before Adam allows you to use whatever weapon will allow you to advance. Most Metroid games would introduce significant upgrades by giving it you and presenting you with an obstacle that it’s capable of circumventing. Metroid: Other M shows that reversing the process doesn’t work nearly so well.
Samus’s awful characterization doesn’t stop here, however. Late in the game, Samus finds herself face-to-face with Ridley, a member of the Space Pirates who resembles a skeletal pterosaur. He is considered Samus’s archenemy and has proven throughout the series to be a resilient foe, having survived many encounters with her despite apparently being killed off each time. Considering that she was able to vanquish him every time they fought, logically, she should have no reason to cower in front of him and metaphorically be reduced to a crying child onscreen. Mr. Sakamoto didn’t share this sentiment because that is exactly what she does. The worst part about this scene is that Anthony, easily the best character in this game, has to step in and save her while she’s in the middle of having this episode, and he’s rewarded for his bravery by getting knocked off the platform they’re standing on to his apparent death.
Believe it or not, I don’t think that this scene was an inherently terrible idea. When Samus was only a small child, Ridley killed and possibly devoured her parents, so it makes sense that she would be afraid of him. This may sound like a serviceable explanation, but there are two aspects that prevent it from working within the context of this game. While it is somewhat unclear as to how canonical Mr. Sakamoto considers the Prime trilogy, Samus has still encountered Ridley at least three times without suffering from a breakdown at any point (as more astute fans have noted, a similar reaction in those situations would have gotten her killed). The more obvious reason this scene falls flat is because the narrative itself offers no explanation for why she reacts the way she does. Both problems could have been averted by having Other M take place before the original Metroid and providing an in-game explanation of her history. As it stands, the only source they’re explained in is an obscure 2004 manga that, despite Metroid historically having far more success in the West, was never localized, so even fans were left utterly bewildered.
Anyone reading this review may have already deduced exactly how inconsistent the writing is. The narrative has a strange tendency to point out the obvious while suddenly quieting down whenever something would actually require an explanation. There’s a subplot where it’s revealed that there’s a traitor in Adam’s squad, and you even fight him in a boss battle in which he drives a loading vehicle. By the end of the game, his identity is never explicitly revealed. Though you can piece together who it was using circumstantial evidence, it is nonetheless an example of a plot ruined by style discordance.
Those familiar with Metroid: Other M, and even some who aren’t, know that no critique of this game would be complete without highlighting the controversial Adam Malkovich. His name is not unfamiliar to anyone who followed the series up until this point, for he had originally been mentioned in Metroid Fusion, the installment set chronologically after Other M. He is described in that game as sharing a professional relationship with Samus built upon a foundation of mutual respect. She also mentions that he sacrificed his life in order to save hers, further cementing his importance to the series’ mythos.
One of the many draws of this game was that gaming fans would finally get to see this mysterious man for themselves. In the span of a relatively short game, a character lost his mystique, and pure contempt appeared in its stead. Throughout the game in her various monologues, Samus can never seem to go more than a few minutes without mentioning him and what a strong relationship the two of them share. I never got this impression from the way it’s presented in this game; in fact, half the time, he barely acknowledges her existence. Whenever he does speak with her, it always seems to be in a condescending tone that minimizes her accomplishments and prowess. They have a two-way radio link, yet they never decide to make small talk at any point.
There was one scene that stuck out to me involving Adam which really made me dislike his character. Around the halfway point, we learn of the incident that spurred Samus into leaving Adam’s command. Their unit was in the middle of a rescue operation while a soldier, Adam’s younger brother, Ian, was repairing a faulty drive unit. It didn’t take long for the situation to become critical, and Adam promptly made the utilitarian decision to detach the unit with Ian still onboard. Samus protests and volunteers to save him, but her pleas fall on deaf ears. Ian dies in the explosion, but hundreds of lives were saved. Although Adam probably made the right choice, certain aspects about the way it’s presented make this moment more chilling than admirable. Even in fiction, the decision to sacrifice a family member is one not to be made lightly, yet his voice inflections never suggest that he is at all impacted by this, nor does his body language impart the emotional scars such a choice would leave on a person. This makes him seem less like a cool, collected military leader and more of a full-on sociopath. Sadly, this wasn’t even his worst moment.
Nearing the end of the game, Samus encounters one of the titular Metroids in a secret sector of the ship, but before she can act, Adam sneaks up behind her and shoots her. This scene is incredible in that it somehow manages to make even less sense in context. Why Adam doesn’t think to simply call out to Samus and warn her of the impending threat is a mystery. Supposedly, members of the Galactic Federation commissioned scientists onboard the BOTTLE SHIP to breed Metroids with the goal of utilizing them as bioweapons. In order make them a viable threat, they sought to eliminate their weakness to cold. This bit of exposition completely fails to explain why he had to shoot her in the back – especially because he was able to freeze the Metroid himself with one of his own weapons.
The sector is programmed to detach itself from the rest of the ship and self-destruct once it has taken enough damage. Realizing that these Metroids would doom civilization, Adam makes the decision to sacrifice his life by entering the sector they reside in and engaging the protocol himself. This scene was supposed to be Adam’s defining moment – the one in which we’re shown just what a great, selfless man he is. Samus is once again reluctant to follow Adam’s orders, but once she realizes what he has done for her, she thanks him posthumously.
His death scene is practically impossible to shed tears over because not five minutes ago, he shot Samus without warning – juxtaposed with her gratitude creates the unfortunate implication that she was thanking him for attacking her. With little touches like this, it’s no wonder people of varying backgrounds consider this game sexist. At this point, Samus has proven that she can overcome any powerful threat, so the narrative had to jump through hoops to justify Adam saving her life without making his sacrifice seem senseless, and it still doesn’t work. Again, if Other M was set chronologically earlier, the writers could have been a lot more flexible about coming up with a believable reason for Adam needing to sacrifice his life to save Samus’s. As it stands, it’s a scenario that goes well beyond any sane person’s suspension of disbelief.
I have made it no secret that I do not suffer weak endings lightly, for I believe it’s one of the few aspects capable of retroactively lowering the quality of a work. Playing games such as Metroid: Other M only reinforces this opinion because I believe it to have one of the worst endings in the medium’s history. It’s a bit different than most cases in that the reason it’s so bad is because, similar to the gameplay, it defies basic storytelling conventions, and not in an avant-garde way. When the credits rolled, I wondered exactly what was accomplished. Adam swoops in and steals the sector containing the Metroids, a Queen Metroid finishes Ridley off before Samus gets a chance to avenge Anthony, she never formally unmasks the traitor, and when confronting the main antagonist, an android programmed to function similarly to Mother Brain, the Galactic Federation arrives out of nowhere to take away that too. Even in some of the most ineptly crafted stories, the protagonist has made some sort of impact on the world. Talented writers can create narratives where the main character fails to do so, but this doesn’t work with someone like Samus Aran, a woman who has saved the galaxy on several occasions. When you’ve made a character with that much presence into a little more than an ineffectual NPC, you’ve really messed up.
Drawing a Conclusion
With the endless amount of hype surrounding its marketing campaign, indulging in auteurism, and ultimate disappointment upon release, Metroid: Other M became the Daikatana for a new generation of video game hobbyists. What I find fascinating is how both games manage to be bad in entirely different ways. While Daikatana was a barely functional mess upon its initial release, Metroid: Other M is a rare instance of a game achieving its dubious reputation purely through its abysmal storytelling. Indeed, I can safely say Metroid: Other M is one of the worst story-heavy games of all time. I also often compare this game to Yoshi’s Story in that while it’s not Nintendo’s worst game from a purely objective standpoint, it was made at a time when they should have known better. To wit, mere months before the release of Other M, Nintendo got the decade off to a strong start by giving us Super Mario Galaxy 2, which is easily the pinnacle of their most famous franchise. Needless to say, comparing these two titles would be a one-sided battle.
In addition to the various flaws I touched upon in my analysis, it’s a textbook example of a story being wholly unfit for the medium in which it was crafted. Mr. Sakamoto doesn’t seem to realize just how jarring it is to have a scene where the main character cowers before a powerful foe and following it up with a gameplay sequence in which she jumps several feet in the air while performing acrobatic flips to dodge his attacks. To put it another way, it’s yet another case of a work that is guilty of telling two contradictory stories: one through the narrative and the other through gameplay.
This game also showcases some of the darker aspects of giving someone complete artistic control over a project of this magnitude. Mr. Sakamoto’s influence was such that his fellow developers have gone on record describing just how obsessed he ended up being with the project. There are stories of him requesting a piano-playing member of the staff to create a piece in one day, ignoring his peers’ suggestion to use the Wii Remote’s nunchaku attachment, and even directing the English voice actors despite not being versed in the language. Samus’s voice actress felt like an especially large waste of talent considering that she was told to forget her training for the sake of the creator’s vision. Not that a better performance would have helped because I don’t think the best voice actors in the world could have made this material compelling. Mr. Sakamoto was much better when he was telling stories with the environment, and this switch to a more dialogue-heavy narrative proved that he had no business writing in such a fashion. It has been suggested that this decision was made to get more Japanese gaming fans to pick up the series. In an ironic twist, what few fans Metroid had in its native homeland were unimpressed as well, for they wanted another 2D installment similar to Super Metroid.
What I dislike about this game more than anything was how it treated its main character. To me, one of the best things about Samus Aran was how she is a female protagonist in an industry known for its inexhaustible supply of male leads, yet no one ever drew attention to it because she is just as capable as her peers – probably more so taking into account her impressive reputation of infiltrating and taking down enemy strongholds on her own. This game not only makes her gender explicit, but the fact that the narrative has to make a big deal about it by saddling her with possible daddy issues and other stereotypical female emotions completely misses the point of her appeal. It doesn’t even succeed in its intended goal of making her a three-dimensional character; if anything, she had more of a personality in the games where she remained silent – actions speak louder than words, after all.
At the end of the day, I cannot recommend playing Metroid: Other M to anyone. Hardcore fans of the franchise will likely be disappointed, and newcomers might get the wrong impression if this is their first exposure to it. Those looking for a story-heavy experience will find the writing insipid while action game enthusiasts will have no choice but to slog through it to get to the interactive portions. That it took seventeen months for this game to sell one million units says it all – if you can’t appeal to anyone, it’s just as good as if you created absolutely nothing.
Final Score: 2/10