Metroid: Other M Playtest: A Double Take

By Ishaan . August 29, 2010 . 6:04pm

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I’m going to be completely honest: for the first hour and a half — and only for that duration — Metroid: Other M felt, to me, like an awful, awful game. Right from the introductory screen — which is about as yawn-inducing as you can get — it feels like something’s off.

 

Both Super Metroid and Metroid: Zero Mission had fantastic title screens, and that’s part of the Metroid legacy. Zero Mission’s in particular is memorable to me for the way the title theme starts out with a fantasy-like enthusiasm before slowing down, stopping, then changing into the creepy Metroid chime. It gave you a real sense of what to expect in how it blended a sense of nostalgia and endearment to the character of Samus and her ongoing story with the sci-fi creepiness of the Metroids themselves.

 

By comparison, Other M’s title screen, which simply loops the game’s version of the Metroid chime over and over again with the logo displaying alongside, has no feeling. There’s no effort to create any sort of anticipation for what comes next.

 

Then again, perhaps this is for the best, because Other M isn’t the Metroid you’re used to. It isn’t intuitive right off the bat, it isn’t paced as well as other games in the series are, and most of all, it’s hard. No really. It’s hard. And I mean repeatedly-smacking-your-Wii-remote-against-your-thigh-in-frustration-before-you-realize-it-really-hurts hard. From this standpoint, Other M comes across as a spectacular disaster, given producer Yoshio Sakamoto’s desire to create an intuitive action game that anyone could pick up and play.

 

We’re all well-aware of Sakamoto-san’s insistence on using only the Wii remote to control the game. This is where the real problem arises. Overall, the control scheme is fantastic, and in general, I love 2D Wii games that have you hold the remote sideways. The problem is, trying to move diagonally in 3D space using the D-pad tends to kill your thumb pretty quicky. What’s more, it isn’t as responsive as one would like either. Ease the pressure off the pad ever so slightly, and Samus won’t move an inch.

 

It’s a real test of thumb endurance and when just the act of moving is difficult, it tends to put a bit of a damper on your experience. After all, Metroid is traditionally known for its butter-smooth controls.

 

But that’s not all that was expected of this game. Aside from intuitive controls, we were also promised “the ultimate Metroid.” Maybe we’ll get that game someday, but Other M is most certainly not it. What it is, is a bold and daring experiment that could very well contribute extremely positively to the series — and to action games in general — going forward. Unfortunately, Metroid: Other M sacrifices some of the series’s trademark elements to accommodate this new direction.

 

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Other M’s level design is nowhere near as impressive as either the 2D games or the Prime games. In this regard, it’s comparable to Metroid Fusion, which was a much more linear experience. In fact, the concept of the Bottle Ship on which the entirety of Other M takes place is very similar to that of the BSL space station from Fusion. The only difference is, the Bottle Ship is designed with 3D movement in mind.

 

None of the areas on the ship are particularly memorable. Like the BSL labs, the ship is divided into sectors. Similar to Zebes, each sector represents a different climatic environment. You have your lush grassy area, reminiscent of the Brinstar jungle. You have the lava-filled area, which is based on Norfair. You have the snowy area, similar in design — but not in function — to the Phendrana Drifts from Prime. And while the artistry isn’t bad, it won’t wow you the way that Prime’s art-direction did. There are no moments like the one in Prime when you first enter Phendrana and find yourself gaping as your eyes adjust from the scorching red claustrophobia of Magmoor to the wide-open, pure-white snowscape above it.

 

Artistry isn’t entirely to blame, however. The main reason the Bottle Ship’s sectors don’t really make an impact is due to a lack of any sort of memorable music to associate with them. Kuniaki Haishima is a talented composer, as the game — and his resumé for that matter — demonstrates on rare occasion. However, a large portion of Other M’s areas are deprived of music altogether or suffer from out-of-place low-key compositions, leaving you with no “feel” to remember them by.

 

This tends to rob the game of any sort of mood — and the mood is the one cornerstone of Metroid’s appeal that has never been done away with in any game before this one. It makes a much greater difference than you would expect, and it’s a reminder of just how important appropriate music is to any form of entertainment.

 

Before we move on, let’s re-visit the controls for a moment.

 

Movement aside, Other M features two very neat tricks called the “sense move” and “lethal strike” (or the “overblast,” depending on the enemy). The sense move works as advertised. You wait for an enemy to fire a projectile at you or try to attack you physically, and press any direction on the D-pad, and Samus performs a slick dodge that puts her out of harm’s way.

 

The problem with the dodge, though, is that it’s overused. Throughout the majority of the game, your primary tactic for dealing with enemies is going to be charging up your arm cannon, dodging all over the place like a maniac while they wail on you, and letting loose with your charged beam as soon as their attack ends. At the start of the game, especially, this is infuriating, because you aren’t entirely used to dodging and enemies like to lunge at you in groups of three or more. Constantly.

 

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It feels horribly unfair during your introduction to the game, and the fact that the enemies are unrelenting means it can be hard to learn on the go. If you’re expecting a Nintendo-like learning curve, my single word of advice would be: “don’t.” Other M, from start to finish, can be a brutal game. I don’t care to count how many times I died in the first few hours alone during my first playthrough.

 

The other move (there are all sorts of “Other Ms” in this game) is the lethal strike, or the overblast depending on the enemy. This is performed by weakening an enemy to the point that they’re either stunned or temporarily disabled, and it gives you an opportunity to perform an impressive melee attack to do big damage, either by running up close or jumping onto them.

 

These moves are the polar opposite of the dodge. During the game’s opening hours, you won’t have the slightest clue how to use them, even though the game keeps recommending that you do so. Every enemy has a different telling sign that the melee moves can be used, and it takes time to get used to looking for it. To assist in this regard, in the heat of battle in early areas, a well-meaning prompt will appear, signalling to you when you can perform the lethal strike. Only, this “prompt” is a square box in the corner of the screen with multiple lines of text telling you how to perform the move. Trying to actually read this prompt will often be your undoing. There had to have been a better way.

 

Regardless, as unintuitive as the lethal strike and overblast initially are, once you get the hang of it, they’re a tremendous amount of fun to perform on the various enemies. They really do add something very special to the combat and I’m glad they were included.

 

But wait! No praise yet. We’re still talking about the game’s shortcomings. Just a little more until we get to the good stuff. I promise it’ll be worth it.

 

Let’s talk pacing. Metroid games are known for their fantastic pacing. Some attribute this to there being no story. But to those people, I say, “Hey, Prime 3 and Fusion both had stories and they’re both paced superbly.” No, Metroid’s pacing is built upon “changes” in the games. Changes in music. Changes in area design. Changes in your own abilities. The act of constantly moving from one place to another, never stopping, always witnessing some sort of change.

 

Other M’s pacing, however, sometimes dies by the hand of odd design decisions.

 

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Every now and then — and thankfully, not often — the game will switch to an over-the-shoulder perspective, a la Resident Evil 4. I’m not quite sure what the point of this really was, as, if it were meant to somehow feel immersive or invoke a feeling of anticipation, it fails remarkably. Again, D-pad controls get in the way and Samus moves (or plods, rather) like her Power Suit is crafted from the heaviest allow known to man. It doesn’t feel good in the least and it makes sections that you need to “walk” through feel horribly slow and frustrating. Turning, too, is a pain.

 

One would understand if there were some sort of change in the mood to accompany this shift in perspective, but there isn’t. No creepy music (aside from a single instance); no ominous growls from an invisible enemy; no subtle cues to make you feel like something bad is going to happen and the game wants you to experience it up close. It really is quite puzzling as to why this was implemented at all with none of the finer details that would have made it effective present.

 

What I don’t understand, as is the case with a lot of Other M’s design, is how this was allowed to make it into the final product. You don’t need to be a critic or a longtime gamer to immediately recognize that the over-the-shoulder sequences are atrocious. Or how they could be fixed — ie; by either allowing for analog stick control, removing the over-the-shoulder bits entirely, or at least making them more meaningful in the context of the game’s events.

 

The same goes for odd choices like locked doors that you can’t open because Adam, who at various points in the game will “authorize” the use of different equipment, won’t let you use that super missile early on. And while I was willing to let that one pass, I shook my head in disbelief when I spent about 20 minutes gunning my way through a large portion of Sector 3’s lava-filled caverns, constantly taking damage from simply being there, only to have Adam authorize use of the Varia Suit after I had gotten halfway through the area.

 

Another offender in the pacing category is the concept of instant deaths. I won’t fixate on this for too long. Suffice it to say, instant deaths are in the game at certain points, and they suck. To Other M’s credit, checkpoints and savepoints are handled very responsibly, so you’ll never find yourself replaying a large portion of the game due to an untimely death, but it does kill the pace.

 

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And last, but not least, are the moments where the game forces you into first-person mode and requires that you point the cursor very accurately at “something” on the screen that Samus is supposed to be looking for. At one point, I spent 45 minutes scanning a room before I finally locked on to what it was that the game wanted Samus to “see”.

 

It was during one of these moments that I nodded to myself in comprehension of Other M’s design. It seemed to me that the Metroid: Other M in the designers’ minds and the Metroid: Other M that’s on a disc are slightly different products. I can’t help but feel that the theory and the execution behind this game are farther apart than they should be. Many of the game’s shortcomings are the direct result of an attempt to make you feel closer to Samus as a player, and to make the game accessible. And while those are certainly worthwhile goals, the way they’re handled here is a bit of a mis-step.

 

Now, you’ll notice I haven’t mentioned anything about the story yet. Wait, wait…we’ve been talking about Other M’s negative aspects all this while, and there’s been no mention of story?

 

Truth be told, that’s because the story isn’t all that bad! I quite like it. I didn’t feel like the story got in the way of the game, and I actually looked forward to viewing the cutscenes and FMVs, both of which look drop-dead gorgeous. Hands, faces, eyes…everything is animated so beautifully and so perfectly. Other M, in its own unique way, is a fantastic exhibit of just how good a game can look when you put a little effort into it, regardless of hardware specs.

 

The story itself isn’t particularly inspired. In fact, any Metroid fan with a lick of imagination has probably brought it up in a “wouldn’t it be cool if…” conversation with a friend. I’m sure there’s even a Metroid fan-fic or two out there with more or less the same plot as Other M. The voice-acting, as we already know, isn’t stellar. And the Galactic Federation troopers, for all the stress the trailers placed on them, are little more than foils — save for Anthony and Adam.

 

Here’s the catch though. Despite these flaws, Other M throws you an awesome curveball at some point in the game, and this alone makes the story worth experiencing. To say when or what would be a spoiler, so that’s about all I’m going to mention on this front. Additionally, a certain scene in the game — you can probably guess which, even if you haven’t played it — truly did move me, and it caught me completely off guard. The interactions with the Galactic Federation troopers, too, were moments that I looked forward to constantly, and the portions of the game where you learn just what Other M’s plot is really about were a welcome change from the scant story of past Metroids.

 

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By the end of the experience, I found myself admitting that I probably wouldn’t like Samus to go back to her silent ways now that she had a voice. On some level…somehow…Nintendo and their FMV partner, D-Rockets, succeeded in making me like the way Metroid: Other M approaches Samus as a character. The monologues can get a little cheesy, as can the complete lack of subtlety in places. I also questioned some of the liberties the game took with Samus’s “fragile” side in places.

 

Overall, however, I love the game’s approach to story, and I feel like it contributed positively not only to Samus, but that it has the potential to contribute positively to Metroid as a whole, going forward.

 

And really, this is what Metroid: Other M is all about, and why, despite all its flaws, it’s well worth experiencing. This is the sort of thing that Zelda fans have been asking for, for ages, and that they’ve never gotten. A game that, while far from perfect, dares to do something radically different. A game that makes you feel like the series you love so much is far from being out of creative steam, and gives you a glimpse of the immense potential available for tapping in the future.

 

While Other M feels less like a Nintendo game and more like a Team Ninja one, it’s hard to deny that this has its own pros. Several of them, in fact. What Other M loses in terms of the Metroid vibe you’re used to, and the fantastic sense of 3D space that Retro Studios pioneered with the Prime games, it makes up for with its combat.

 

A couple hours into the game, once you’re past the initial mediocrity, accustomed to the controls, and getting into the groove of the combat; something changes, ever so slightly. You notice that the scales have started to tip in your favour, if only just a little. All of a sudden, the game isn’t kicking your ass the entire time. Instead, it starts to feel more like a tug-of-war. The game pulls and you pull back. Taken by surprise, the game pulls harder, and you’re forced to do the same.

 

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Play a little further and, all of a sudden, everything just “works.” You find yourself charging through areas at full speed, pulling off the most remarkable-looking moves with ease, and the same enemies that were a major pain in your rear until just an hour ago are far more manageable. This is the one thing that Other M does better than any other Metroid game — yes, even the Primes. It makes you feel like you’re really learning and powering up the more you play, not just in terms of upgrades but also in terms of skill.

 

I mentioned earlier that part of the reason the opening hour of the game is so brutal is because the enemies tend to feel relentless and cheap. The other part is that you’re essentially stripped of all the Power Suit’s functions by Adam, and each one really does feel like a significant addition to your strategic options once you start to reactivate them.

 

Not only does every single new beam upgrade make you feel significantly stronger, they also help speed up the pace of the action. This works out incredibly well, as, where most games tend to get slower toward the end, Other M keeps getting faster and better the more you play. At her best, Samus moves like greased lightning. Even more so once you acquire the Speed Booster, which is my favourite item in the entire game. There’s a real sense here that the development team knew exactly what they wanted to do with the combat, and they’ve pulled it off beautifully.

 

This is made clearer by the switching mechanic from third to first-person, which you’ll rely on a lot once you’ve got the basics of the game down. It works remarkably, and learning to find and make use of opportunities to fire your missiles in first-person mode (you can only use them in first-person) is one of the best aspects of the game. It’s a real gamble and adds a layer of strategic depth that no other Metroid has had. Nearly every single enemy encounter in the game feels meaningful, and that alone is no mean feat.

 

In general, the spectacle of Other M’s combat is something you need to experience to understand. Little things like the animation contribute much more to the experience than you would think. I was very impressed by the fantastic job Team Ninja’s animators did with Samus’s body language. Not once did even the subtlest action in combat look out of place. She has a plethora of different animations and reactions to every enemy in the game, and they all look stunningly convincing and stylish.

 

Charging up an Ice Beam and freezing an enemy’s feet to the ground looks and feels great, but what feels even better is following up by vaulting onto its back, shoving another beam down its throat, and flipping off of its dying corpse onto the back of another enemy to administer the same treatment. And you’ll find yourself presented with the opportunity to pull these tricks off over and over again. Without a doubt, Other M has the best combat of the entire series, and that’s saying a lot.

 

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Boss encounters, too, are fascinating experiences. While you make use of the same arsenal of moves and weapons to deal with each one — missiles, sense move, lethal strike and your beam — the way you implement each of these into your approach makes a great deal of difference. At one point, I spent about eight tries trying to take a boss down using charged beams and super missiles, only to eventually discover that sticking to poke attacks with the regular beam was the best tactic for taking him out. Thanks to the variety of moves and the remote-switching mechanic, Other M’s bosses can be very, very unique.

 

Truth be told, there was no single event or feature or level that ultimately made me decide I liked the game. What led to that decision was the overall experience, pros and cons included. Following this, one last test remained — I wanted to see how the game felt on a second playthrough. This is because the strength of Metroid games lies in the fact that they get better each time you replay them.

 

In Metroid games, your first playthrough tends to serve as a tutorial of sorts. It helps you accustom yourself to the game. During the second playthrough, once you know the ins and outs of the underlying design and the enemies and the extent of Samus’s own abilities, you can start to experiment. But more importantly, you feel like you’ve actually learnt something and that you’re significantly better at the game, and this is the greatest reward of all.

 

And so, I hopped right back in and replayed the game to see how it held up. The results were fascinating. No longer did the first two hours feel frustrating or cheap. No longer was I dying over and over as I struggled with the controls. I was also prepared for the instant death sequences, so they didn’t constantly catch me off guard. My run through Sector 1 — the Jungle — looked far more stylish and graceful than it had the first time around, and I was actually enjoying it immensely.

 

What’s more, the game allows you skip cutscenes once you’ve completed it, so you won’t have to deal with those again if they bother you (although I chose to rewatch them). I was very pleased.

 

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One last point before we wrap this up: I mentioned earlier that the sense of 3D space from the Prime trilogy is absent in Other M. So are the puzzles. What is present, however, are the hidden items. Lots of them. In my first playthrough, I was shocked to learn I only completed the game with 42% of the items. That’s a lot of leftover missile and energy tank upgrades and Accel Charges (these make your beam charge faster — very handy).

 

Metroid: Other M was never advertised as “Metroid 5” and it’s just as well. It doesn’t feel like a mainline Metroid game; more like a “gaiden,” which is rather apt given who Nintendo partnered with to develop it. The story feels like a slice out of Samus’s life rather than another urgent mission that requires her to save an entire planet (or three).

 

Would I call Other M the “ultimate Metroid game”? No, certainly not. All things considered, it isn’t as good as any of the Prime games in overall execution. However, if one were to look at it with an open mind and evaluate it based on its own merits, it’s a fascinating beast of an experiment. The blend of ranged and melee combat and the ability to switch between first and third-person are something that the industry is probably going to learn from and refine for years to come.

 

The insight into Samus’s character, despite presentation flaws, is most welcome, and hopefully, Nintendo will build upon this further in the future. If Other M is the basis of a yet another new direction for Metroid, we’re off to a great start. All that remains now is to figure out how to preserve the atmosphere of the series while building upon the framework established in this game.


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