Metroid: Other M

When I find that my feelings towards a game are ambiguous, I like to look at its design decisions (whether gameplay, technology, art direction, or narrative) and categorize them into “what worked” and “what didn’t work.” In the case of Other M, though, I found that my “what worked” pile was pretty thin.

Other M is a competently made game (though not, obviously, without bugs). As with almost any Nintendo-published game, it has that layer of polish and an overall cohesiveness that make it stand out from the pack. But these are not enough to make a game good – competence and cohesiveness should be the least we demand from our games.

The best thing I can say about Other M is that it is very aware that it is a Metroid game. It’s overall structure (both in narrative and world design) is an obvious homage to Metroid Fusion. Samus’ powers are precisely those she acquired in Super Metroid. The morph-ball sequences show a clear influence from the Prime games. The best enemy designs are those lifted from prior games, and the best boss fights are effectively cameos. Other M even acknowledges some of the more silly aspects of the series mythology (e.g., the “evolved” forms of Metroids) which had been quietly ignored by the Prime games (over the course of which series the story has increasingly been sanitized into generic sci-fi pablum).

Put that kind of pastiche before a dedicated Metroid fan, and they might play through the whole thing on auto-pilot. Samus is a fun character to control; her full suite of abilities allow most situations to be tackled in a variety of ways, and so mastering her moveset lends a sense of fluency to interactions that most characters lack.

Once Other M steps out of these narrow confines of emulation and homage, though, things get rockier. The modifications and extensions to the Metroid formula all serve to compromise the fluency of the interface between the player and Samus. Perhaps this was intentional – calling attention to and disrupting the interface between the player and Samus as avatar to serve the narrative goals of portraying Samus as Other.

I could almost believe that if the storytelling on display wasn’t so painfully clumsy and ham-fisted at every term.

I’m definitely in the crowd that doesn’t feel that the Samus we see in Other M is the same woman we saw in the other games. It isn’t that the other games were laden with characterization, but what was there (even in the story-heavy Fusion) is almost entirely contradictory with Other M.

My wife, for her part, sees the portrayal of Samus in Other M as part of an overall downward trend in Nintendo’s handling of the character, that started with the introduction of the “Zero Suit.” Samus has always stood out as gaming’s first, and for a long time, best, female role-model character; now she is portrayed in-canon as walking around in a skin-tight leotard and desperately seeking male approval. One can’t really expect female gamers to respond any better to this than toward Aya Brea’s revamped in-game portrayal.

(I’ll leave aside the issue of the Justin Bailey code and the uncomfortable strip-tease that has become a hallmark of Metroid endings. Maybe objectification of Samus has been with us from the start, but it was easier to overlook when it was restricted to low-fi graphics in an “easter egg” or special ending.)

I’ve played enough games with embarrassing or poorly translated stories in my time that I might have been able to give Other M a pass if the gameplay had held up. Unofortunately, once you get out of the “auto-pilot” situation I describe above and look at things carefully, it doesn’t hold up.

Moment to moment, playing Other M gives you the sense that a really great 2.5D Metroidvania could be built on this engine. The same could be said of Chair’s Shadow Complex. The problem for both games is that the world map and player progression just don’t live up to the promise of the moment-to-moment gameplay.

Like Metroid Fusion, Other M actively thwarts attempts by the player to explore out of the prescribed sequence. Arbitrary locked doors that only open on storyline triggers (the so-called “broken bridge” trope) are a distinctly un-Metroid concept. While Fusion also succumbed to this problem, it also used the design trick of letting the player think they were going “off the rails” even when they were following the designated path (an approach used to great effect in Portal). In contrast, Other M never really tries to give the player this sense of subversion (with one late-game exception: using the power bomb to break out of a stalled elevator), and as a result the player is left with the impression that the designers are leading them on a short leash from one expository cut-scene to another.

Other M has innumerable other gameplay foibles that further limit the potential for enjoyment:

  • The first-person view is tedious and clumsy to use in battle (leading to many cheap hits from enemies while waiting for the Wii remote sensor to register a perspective change), and leads to the most frustrating and horribly un-Metroid gameplay bottlenecks with the mandatory pixel-hunting sequences. The battle sequences that played out in first-person were a frustrating exercise as the player had no way to avoid damage but to expertly use the clumsy controls. That these unnecessary and unusable first-person elements were used to advertise the game in a world where Metroid Prime had already showed just how well a first-person Metroid could play was unbelievable.
  • The fact that most of the hidden items can only be acquired in the late- or post-game as part of a fetch-quest “cleanup” pass is irritating for fans of the classic Metroid formula (although Zero Mission commits this same sin). Putting the last few power-ups behind power-bomb-able panels that trigger pointless button-mashing QTE-laden fights was also a kick in the teeth.
  • For that matter, all of Other M‘s combat “innovations” were pretty lackluster. The idea of giving Samus more melee options might have sounded good on paper, but the implementation basically boiled down to QTE finishers plus a “mash me to not die” button. An even more egregious sin was that the game would sometimes expect QTE input during what looked to the player like a cutscene (without any on-screen prompt), so that a player would never know which threats Samus faced in a cut-scene needed to be dodged, and which were just scripted choreography.
  • This final point leads to the most important realization that led me to conclude that Other M is not a good game (whether interpreted as a Metroid game or not): Other M sets up a contract with the player and then violates its own rules. I’ll get to how in a second, but let’s talk about the “authorization” system:

    The presentation of authorization is patently ridiculous (which negates its purported benefit of “finally” explaining how Samus loses all her powers between games). It also breaks the important link between exploration and discovery that is the core of the Metroidvania genre. Other M doesn’t reward exploration with new abilities for Samus – at best it awards her with a few more missiles, a longer health bar, or shorter charge times – and so exploration is no longer the driving force behind the player’s progression. Instead, abilities are tied to story progression, and so the player’s first priority is (nominally) to advance the story. Unfortunately, the way that new powers are almost always given out right after they would be useful leads players to feel resentful when a new ability is authorized, rather than excited to try out the new tool.

    This is the opposite of how a traditional Metroidvania works. Usually you’d notice ledges you can’t reach or walls you can’t break through, and upon getting the item that would render those impediments surmountable you’d be excited to go back and see where they lead. In Other M you are just annoyed at Adam; his stinginess has forced you to backtrack again.

    For all its faults, though, the authorization system sets up one important and immutable rule – a contract with the player: a new ability can only be used when the requisite “authorization” cut-scene has played, hilighting the new item in Samus’ inventory. As a player you can count on the fact that any puzzle and any battle that you are expected to tackle along the main story-line can be bested with just those abilities that have been explicitly enabled.

    That is, until the very end of the game, where you are suddenly required to make use of Power Bombs, without any prompting, within a limited timeframe, or else Samus will die. Before this point you have probably already seen Samus die rather than use her Varia suit, so why are players expected to know that Samus should now use her Power Bombs without permission rather than die a pointlessly noble death? Once players do figure out this ridiculous “press X to not die” QTE they are rewarded with a post-facto authorization cut scene, but the damage has already been done: the game has violated its contract with the player.

    And for what?

    This scene was probably meant to be a cathartic one for the player: the culmination of the marriage of story and mechanics that the “authorization” system had represented. Unfortunately, the game designers crafted an ending that relied on players feeling a particular way: they wanted players to think that they had nothing to lose and could thus finally cut loose and use the most destructive weapon in their arsenal without concern – Samus finally acting like the independent and resourceful bounty hunter we had always thought her to be.

    Speaking for myself, though, this wasn’t how the game made me feel. I had spent hours of time with the game, in which Other M struck down my every attempt to break out of the strictures of its narrow world design, and had listened to its plodding narrative tell me that Samus was incapable or unwilling to act on her own. Other M had left me feeling powerless and without direction – it had turned me (and Samus) into the kind of person who would sit patiently in the stomach of a monster, waiting for death, not even thinking to use the one weapon in my arsenal that might have saved my life, because the arbitrary fiat of my commanding officer (or rather, of the game designer, finally revealed once the mask of Adam had been cast aside) had not explicitly sanctioned it.

    So there’s another “positive” thing to say about Other M: it would make a good tool for inculcation of recruits into a regimented military organization or totalitarian regime in which independent thought must be supressed, even to the point of death.

    The Inevitable Fall of Link and Samus

    When I first played through The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker, I felt the nagging sense that something was wrong. Despite the beautiful art style and excellent combat mechanics, the game didn’t seem to live up to the standard set by Ocarina of Time and Majora’s Mask. At the time I dismissed these concerns; nostalgia has a tendency to cloud judgment, and my own nostalgia for the N64 Zelda games is pretty hefty.

    When I had the same reaction to Twilight Princess, I began to worry. Were my expectations for the Zelda series so high that no game could meet them? Or was there something real, something identifiably lacking in these games as compared to their predecessors?

    When I dug into Nintendo’s Metroid Prime Trilogy for the Wii, I noticed a similar pattern. The first Metroid Prime is a brilliant game; carefully blending new mechanics and abilities with homage to Super Metroid (itself as close to perfection as is possible). Playing the Prime sequels, Echoes and Corruption, shortly after the original led to the same sense of hollowness I’d felt with Zelda. Though the gameplay mechanics are the same throughout, the latter two games seem to lack the magic of the first Prime.

    So what is happening?

    The core design of the Zelda games and the entire “Metroidvania” sub-genre are pretty consistent (once you strip away the differences in presentation, perspective, combat, and story – you know, the small stuff). Under the hood, these games are about the interplay between exploration and discovery.

    The player is presented with a large, varied environment to explore, and given an initial set of tools and abilities (I’ll refer to these uniformly as “items”). Invariably, some parts of the world are inaccessible at first; the player might take note of a ledge just out of reach, or a suspicious crack in a wall of stone. The reward for diligent exploration is then discovery – of new items that render those parts of the environment accessible.

    It is this cyclic relationship – exploration leads to discovery, discovery enables exploration – that drives the experience. Clever designers can gently guide players towards the right discoveries in the right order, all while giving them the impression that they are in control; that the discoveries are theirs.

    But the converse is also true, and this is the crux of the problem: careless design gives the player a strong sense of being led on a leash. If every attempt to explore out of the proscribed sequence is impeded by artificial barriers, then exploration ceases to be fun. If each discovered item serves only to lower the next designer-imposed barrier, then discovery ceases to be rewarding.

    Once I came to understand these things, I was able to identify the issues that had troubled me in the most recent Zelda and Metroid games. As a service to any game designers listening, I will provide a handy list of things not to include in your games.

    Proceeding from least to most egregious:

    Items that only work where the designer intends

    The hookshot in Ocarina of Time could latch on to almost anything with a wood material applied, whether the designer had consciously planned for it or not. Starting with Wind Waker, however, the hookshot can only latch onto specific designer-placed targets.

    Limiting the applicability of an item in this way dumbs down gameplay. The player never has to think about when to use the item; whenever they see the telltale marker, they respond. The rest of the time, the item goes unused. With this kind of design every challenge admits only one solution – the one the designer intended.

    Of course, this is precisely why designers employ this approach. When you are planning an elaborate puzzle, you don’t want to think about how it could be approached with every possible combination of items. It is much simpler to just rule out whatever items you don’t want the player to use.

    In the limit, though, you end up with:

    Items that are only useful for a limited time

    This has unfortunately become one of the hallmarks of the Zelda series. Upon receiving a new dungeon item, you can expect to see several brilliant set-piece puzzles using the new item, along with a boss battle in which the item will be critical to success. But once you leave the dungeon, your shiny new toy finds itself relegated to the inventory with the other trinkets.

    If you are lucky, the designers might throw you a bone, making the item useful for unlocking a few upgrades, or opening the way to a new area of the world. But because the item can only be used where the designer intends, it eventually loses all utility and just sits in your inventory wasting space.

    Twilight Princess is chock full of items like this. The Spinner only works on special “rails,” and there are almost none of these outside of the dungeon where it is found. The horse whistle gets special mention for being useless from the instant it is given to the player. The Dominion Rod is particularly reviled – it’s only post-dungeon utility is for a late-game fetch quest.

    Speaking of the Dominion Rod, lets talk about:

    Items that only work as keys

    Getting a new item is supposed to be exciting. It might make your player character more effective in combat. It might be used to destroy obstructions or pass obstacles. It might speed up navigation, or enable the use of new shortcuts. The best items do all these things.

    Alternatively, you could just make your item a stupid key, uninteresting to use and with no other functions.

    The modern Zelda and Metroid games all have their fair share of late-game fetch quests for meaningless MacGuffins. The older Zelda games may have had the standard “collect the 8 Bafmodads to kill the evil Foozle” plot, but at least along with each Bafmodad you got a fun new dungeon item.

    The Metroid Prime sequels are the worst offenders here. The primary player task in each region of Echoes is to collect three keys – really, the designers just call them “keys” and move on. Corruption, tries to dress up its keys in the form of the “Hyper-Mode” abilities. With few exceptions, though, these abilities are only useful at painfully obvious choke points. Both games feature a missile “upgrade” that locks on to targets and fires a five missile burst. Of course, the only time players every use this ability, is to open a handful of locked doors.

    The most brazen, nonsensical example of this has to be the “Translators” in Echoes. After the defeat of each main boss, the guide NPC gives the player a new Translator which allows the player to read certain messages and open certain doors. Each translator has a color, and can only work with like-colored messages/doors.

    Take a second to think about that.

    How does it make sense that you need new translation software to read messages in different colors? And even then, what possible reason does this NPC have for teaching you his language in this piecemeal fashion? The only purpose it serves it to corral the player, and that brings us to:

    Artificially controlling access to the world

    Exploration-based games work best when the player can actually, you know, explore. Unfortunately, some designers have decided that their carefully crafted narrative would be ruined if the player were allowed to access regions of the world even a little bit earlier than intended.

    This is of course patently ridiculous, but it doesn’t stop the Zelda games from holding the player’s hand and carefully leading them through the first 10 or more hours of the narrative. In Metroid Fusion and the Metroid Prime sequels, Samus can only explore in those places that her orders have explicitly unlocked.

    What are these designers afraid of? Sure, a small number of die-hard players are going to look for opportunities to “sequence break” the game. But the dedication of players like these is a sign of just how much they enjoy a game (look at speed runs for Super Metroid or Castlevania: SOTN and tell me those aren’t labors of love), and their antics do nothing to diminish the enjoyment of less hardcore players.

    Wrapping up

    What’s happening here is simple – by limiting the options available to the player, you can produce a more streamlined game, at the expense of its depth. While these newer games may superficially resemble the classics from which they are derived, they have sacrificed some of the core design principles in order to make the production easier (and one assumes, cheaper).

    Nintendo still produces some of the best games out there, and the recent Zelda and Metroid games are still a lot of fun. I’ll just have to learn to live with that sense of hollowness when I play them.