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.