In any series that’s already been through one bold reinvention, you have to admire those creators who elect to go through it all again. Yanking Metroid away from the Texas based Retro Studios and handing the property over to the very Japanese Team Ninja is about as dramatic a change of direction as you could expect. And, as a result, certain sectors of the Metroid fanbase have had to go through exactly the same fearful anticipation process as they did for Prime. An increased focus on combat and a predilection toward CG cut-scenes threatened to turn Metroid into something quite unlike the classic games of its youth. But, under the guiding hand of series co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto, Nintendo and Team Ninja have once again proven that Metroid can dramatically evolve without abandoning its core strengths.
For those looking to have their fears assuaged as quickly as possible, allow us to get to the point. Other M is a proper Metroid game in every sense. The focus is very much on the isolation of Samus Aran as she explores an abandoned, labyrinthine complex, accompanied by little else than a few power-ups and a foreboding, John Carpenter-esque score. Combat plays a part, especially in some jaw-dropping boss battle set-pieces, but such fights are really there to punctuate the otherwise sombre mood. And just like Super Metroid, you spend most of your time exploiting Samus’s various special abilities, often in less than obvious ways, in order to make your way through a rather puzzling environment.
The feeling you get from playing Other M is eerily similar to the sense of wonder and discovery that came when first playing Super Metroid all those years ago. But Metroid: Other M is no retro remake, simply spruced up with modern visuals. It adds a lot of new elements to the mix, and mostly to great effect. Most obvious of these is the series of CG cut-scenes that now run through the course of the game. A risky addition for a series that has either shunned or clumsily struggled with dialogue in the past, the cut-scenes could have gone very wrong indeed. Yet Team Ninja has pulled them off well. The voice acting is of a reasonably high quality, running time is generally kept sensible and the story actually enriches the experience.
With Samus working alongside a Galactic Federation military squad throughout the game, many of the cut-scenes delve back into the character’s past in order to flesh out her relationship with the extended cast. The script works quickly to establish a connection between Samus and a handful of other characters, so that when things start to go wrong later in the story, the emotional impact hits precisely the right note. Moreover, we’re offered a deeper insight into the thoughts and feelings of Samus herself, thanks to an occasional internal monologue that further develops the maternal themes of the franchise, as well as the parallels with a certain Sigourney Weaver film series.
Much like the original Resident Evil, however, Samus rarely comes into contact with other people, the corridors she explores most often occupied by just herself and a handful of monsters. Which is where the new combat system comes into play. Shooting is still the order of the day, but now with an intelligent auto-aim mechanic that removes any fiddiliness that sometimes occurs in 3D worlds with fixed camera positions. In fact, the auto-aim mechanic makes the game even more fun as you later upgrade Samus’s plasma beam. Running through a corridor at high-speed, blasting every enemy without stopping to pause, is a thrill that is only made possible by such a concession.
With enemies attacking from all sides, combat is in danger of becoming a tad overwhelming at times, but a smart dodge mechanic – Team Ninja’s most obvious influence over the game design – sorts that out nicely. Tap the D-pad just as Samus is about to be struck and she’ll nimbly dodge in that direction. Do it while holding down the fire button and her plasma beam will instantly charge to full power, enabling you to blast off a devastating shot of retaliation in a second.
Using auto aim and the dodge mechanic in combination, combat becomes a fast and fluid distraction from the exploration and is never anything less than exhilarating. And while it may sound a little on the easy side, the fact that each enemy has its own distinct attack pattern and weakness assures that you have to think carefully about the way you tackle them and change up your strategies often. Some concessions are made to struggling players, meanwhile, in the form of a neat recharge mechanic. Tilting the Wii Remote upward and holding the A-button for a few seconds replenishes Samus’s stock of missiles, and will also giver her an energy boost if she happens to be dangerously close to death. This, again, might sound like a concession too far, but it balances out through the risk of holding the Wii Remote upward, making it virtually impossible to move around, dodge or attack while recharging. Similarly, enemies no longer drop pick-ups when they die, as they did in the Prime games, so there’s little option to top up health beyond the recharge ability.
The secret weapon in Samus’s new arsenal, of course, is the ability to switch to a first-person perspective with a flick of the Wii Remote. Rather than turn the experience into a full-on FPS, you’re rooted to the spot, using the Pointer to look around the world and target various objects. As well as offering the opportunity to soak up the stunning visual design of the environments, this enables you to scan the area using Samus’s visor and take free, precise aim of her firearms. Those players put off by the time-consuming scanning of the Prime series will be pleased to hear that such activity is kept to a minimum here, the scanner used either to locate a weak spot on an enemy, an interactive point in the architecture, or simply to direct Samus’s attention toward something that may move the story along. In terms of combat, first-person mode is the only way to fire a missile, introducing some risk to the act as you stand still to aim.
Metroid: Other M makes very minimal use of the Wii Remote’s capabilities, but regularly switching between the first and third-person perspective does lend a curious satisfaction to the gameplay. You soon learn to fall back on the closer examination offered by the scanner when stuck in a seemingly impassable room, and there’s nothing quite like whipping the remote around, like a quick draw handgun, to deliver a killing missile shot to a fallen foe.
Combat is a very small part of the Metroid experience, of course, and if you’re a longtime fan of the series then you’ll be expecting exploration, platforming and puzzles too. In those areas Other M does not disappoint. Though streamlined through the use of regular objective updates and a helpful mini-map, exploration is far from a walk in the park. You’ll know where you need to get to. But how to get there? That’s the real trick, and you’ll have to put all of Samus’s abilities to good use to pull it off. Wall-jumping returns, as do the Space Jump, Grapple Beam, bomb jump and speed boost, while a new type of beam allows Samus to shoot through clear walls to hit previously unreachable switches. The level design is cleverly built around all of these power-ups in a way that ensures you’re regularly stumped just enough to feel like a smartarse when you eventually overcome each puzzle, without it ever feeling unfair or illogical. Which is where Nintendo’s experienced touch is most felt, actually. Underwater sections with Zelda-style depth-switching, Mario Galaxy-style gravity tricks and classic-Metroid Morph Ball tunnels all conspire to come between you and the end credits.
And they’re not the only thing. Other M might excel at providing thoughtfully paced exploration and creating a haunting sense of isolation, but it also knows how to rack up the excitement factor with a well-timed set-piece. We wouldn’t like to spoil all of them, but there are certain moments (especially boss battles) that make for the most jaw-dropping moments in Metroid history. One has you hanging from a moving conveyor platform as you fire off missiles at a giant monstrosity; another boss pins you down and forces you to struggle in first-person; one brilliantly imaginative boss has the power to control the force of gravity, messing with your weapons; and another set-piece asks you to lock on to and fire at a precise target from across a crowded room full of warring, savage beasts.
Such moments inject Other M with all the big-budget action movie moments you’d expect from a console’s tentpole release but, crucially, they do so in a way that retains the core gameplay mechanics, encouraging you to draw upon your accumulated experience with the game rather than abstract it through disconnecting quick-time events or context sensitive actions. They feel part of a whole, comprising equal parts explosive action, contemplative storytelling, thrilling combat and brain teasing level design that mesh together seamlessly rather than feel like unconnected elements shoehorned into one product.
So where does Other M fall short? In very few places, actually. Instead of discovering and collecting new power-ups throughout her adventure, Samus now starts with a full complement of equipment but is limited by the authorizations given by the Galactic Federation. This ensures that you still get the feeling of gradually increasing in power and ability, but it also feels a little contrived and diffuses the illusion of a non-linear structure. A slightly disappointing ending, meanwhile, opts to conclude the game with a lengthy CG cut-scene rather than one last epic boss battle or puzzle. It’s the sort of sequence you sit through, certain that you’ll be treated to a big finale afterwards, only to be let down by the inevitable roll of the credits.
Except, of course, that in Nintendo’s new tradition of saving the hardcore content for last, the end credits of Metroid: Other M should actually be considered a new beginning, as you’re dropped back into the world with new explorative abilities, new enemies to fight, secrets to find and a 100 per cent completion rating to aim for. After finishing the story in under eight hours with only 22 per cent of items found, we were certainly pleased to see that one of the greatest, most thoughtfully designed Metroid games we’ve ever had the pleasure of playing still had much more to offer.