Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Metroid: Other M

The Metroid series may have shot itself in the foot by insisting that all its titles conform to the same unified chronology.  For a comparison, look at Nintendo's two other massive flagship franchises, and let's start by talking about Mario.

Does anyone ever debate whether Super Mario 64 or Super Mario Sunshine comes later in the timeline?  Is there any intrigue over the degree to which the universes of Galaxy and Galaxy 2 overlap?  No, because it does not matter.  We don't even know if any Mario game is a sequel, a remake, or a reboot of the game preceding it--all we know is that Bowser has done something dastardly again (often involving the Princess), and it is up to Mario to stop him.  In Mario games, we're not looking for a great deal of character development or series interconnectivity; we're looking to jump on platforms, throw Koopa shells at Goombas, and kick Bowser's ass.

Zelda functions in basically the same way.  There actually is a prescribed Zelda timeline, but nobody outside of a few dozen Zelda geeks and a handful of Nintendo employees knows it, because again, it does not matter.  The vast majority of fans are content to treat every Zelda game as a reboot of the series, accepting that it's a new retelling of the hero Link fighting the great enemy Ganon with the power of the Triforce.  In Zelda games, all we're looking to do is solve some tricky dungeon puzzles, bust out some fancy swordplay, and kick Ganon's ass.

Why can't Metroid do the same thing?  Metroid fans are looking to explore every nook and cranny of an alien planet, establish a massive arsenal by finding weapon pickups, and kick Ridley's ass.  It sounds awfully similar to Mario and Zelda... but for whatever reason, unlike those two, Metroid can't leave good enough alone.  The first three games (Metroid, Metroid II, and Super Metroid) form a logical trilogy--though Super Metroid played enough like the original Metroid that nobody would have cried foul if it had simply been presented as a remake.

The Prime games clearly formed another logical trilogy, but these games' story and style were so distinct from the original trilogy that they seemed more like a reboot than a prequel trilogy.  They didn't need to be prequels to make them fun, and them being prequels didn't enhance the series' earlier games.  In fact, they set the precedent that seemingly unrelated Metroid games need to exist in the same continuum, which rather than establishing a universal and coherent story, has led to a frustrating amount of shoehorning in every other Metroid game.

It's most apparent in Other M, which tries incredibly (at times desperately) hard to be both a sequel to Super Metroid and a prequel to Metroid Fusion.  Combine that with the Wii's fervor to be one giant logroll of a console for everything good that Nintendo has ever done.  The result is a game chock-full of references to the earliest parts of the series, with Metroid II remake bosses taking center stage, and Super Metroid enduring an almost amusing number of namedrops, from the ubiquitous Mother Brain and Zebes to the lowly Tourian, just to provide longtime fans of the series with a wink and a nudge.

The ultimate irony of Other M, then, is the vast amount of criticism leveled at it that it is "not a Metroid game".  Here's a game that's practically built on fanservice to the most beloved title in the series, and the fans are turning on it?  But speaking as a fifteen-year veteran of the series, it's easy to understand the complaint.  It has nothing to do with the combat, the graphics, the story, or even the (miserably bad) characterization.  Instead, Other M institutes a handful of gameplay mechanics that unfortunately rob Other M of seeming like a classic Metroid title.

The most egregious (and most universally lambasted) of these is the "item authorization" mechanic.  In earlier Metroid titles, one of the highlights of the game was finding new and awesome things on the alien planet or spaceship that made your character, Samus, better.  Sometimes they made you tougher, sometimes they enabled you to explore new places, and sometimes they augmented your weaponry.  So much of the joy of playing Super Metroid came from figuring out exactly what your new item let you do and where you could go that you couldn't before because you had it.

All that is out the window in Other M.  In an attempt to reconcile the need for progressive improvements to your character with the inconvenient reality that Samus is pretty damn formidable after she's been through Super Metroid, the game arrives on what was undoubtedly seen as quite the clever solution: Samus already has all the items she'll ever need (minus a few that are mostly conveniences anyway), but she can only use them after certain pre-determined points in the plot, when she is authorized to do so by a superior officer.

It's given a great deal of plot justification, with some back story about how Samus is doing this out of respect to her father figure and to prove to her squadmates that she can follow orders.  But Adam Malkovich's voice saying "huh, looks like you need some deus ex machina to complete this puzzle" is just nowhere near as satisfying as thinking "grapple beam?  Does that mean I can go back to that one room and get across it now?".  Worse, much of it doesn't even make sense.  Adam is worried about authorizing Samus to use too much firepower, which I can almost halfway buy.  Explain how that translates into barring the use of the totally non-threatening Varia Suit (which serves the sole purpose of making you not die in a hot environment).

Other infringements on the free-exploration extravaganza that ought to be Metroid include a baffling preponderance of locked doors.  It's always been standard Metroid fare to lock doors until you've met a certain condition, like killing all the monsters in a room.  Other M takes this miles further and locks doors simply because it doesn't want you going that way yet.  A third frustration in this vein is the restriction on free movement that some rooms unnecessarily impose.  If I'm in a massive cavern-style room, and I see a far-off ledge, I should be able to jump to it.  Getting halfway there and slamming into an unseen wall is incredibly disheartening.  Finally, there's the third-person over-the-shoulder style rooms, which serve no apparent purpose other than to make you handle like Bowser from the original Mario Kart.  In an oil slick.

Other M's other great failure is in its characters.  Ordinarily, it would be patently unfair to a Metroid game to judge it on its characters with the same intensity as its gameplay, but Other M makes no bones about putting its characters at its forefront.  Look no further than the menu screen: right next to the map and the list of awesome things you've found are "story" and "characters".  In the past, Samus has had very little definition to her character, so any contribution that Other M could make would be an improvement, right?  Not when it's to make Samus fraught with both mommy and daddy issues.  On top of that, she's clearly regressed in the feminist department--she's gone from a strong and capable fighter who happens to be a woman to a whiny, insecure girl.

The only characters who have any shred of humanity are Malkovich, the scientist Madeline Bergman, and (ironically) the android virtual intelligence MB.  Even they are flat: two-dimensional and static.  Anthony Higgs, who could have been far more interesting, exists only to provide Samus with a hint of sexual tension.  His squadmates, though, perform a remarkable feat in character-building: if Anthony is one-dimensional, these other characters are actually zero-dimensional, possessing no distinguishing characteristics whatsoever.

Earlier Metroid games have made use of voice acting, but Other M uses by far the most of any title in the series--and it's by far the worst.  Samus's lines in particular are horrid, scripted by someone who seems to have no idea how people actually talk, in the style of a somewhat-precocious fifteen-year-old who is intelligent enough to have a reasonable vocabulary but not wise enough to use it responsibly.  They're melodramatic, cringeworthy--and delivered in a detached style so wooden it makes the Trojan horse animated in comparison.

Does that mean Other M is a big pile of failure?  Thankfully, no.  The story, which seems overbearing and forced at first, actually unfolds into something decent, and it becomes worth caring about more as the game progresses.  The game splits up its difficulty oddly: in other Metroid games, boss fights were the only parts of the game where you were in real danger of dying, and the difficulty came in the often grueling treks between save points.  If you did die, you were in big trouble.

Now, you can expect to die on every boss, and you're in mortal danger from almost every mini-boss and some normal fights as well.  But you can continue much more easily.  Apparently this is a very Ninja Gaiden mechanic--fight the same impossibly hard fight half a dozen times before you finally figure out how the heck to beat it, and move on to the next one--and that makes sense, given that "Team Ninja" developed Other M.  But this redistribution of difficulty isn't necessarily bad, it's just different.

Rest assured that there are plenty of things about Other M that are legitimately good.  I'll be the first to speak in favor of the more combat-oriented Metroid.  Tough battles in the original trilogy pretty much followed the script of "fire missiles at it until it dies."  In the Prime trilogy, this became "fire a whole lot of missiles at it until it takes on its next form and throws some more hideous attacks at you."  But in Other M, there's a bit more strategy--and a whole lot more style--involved in a lot of the fights.  And it's much less satisfying to "fire three missiles at it" than to "fire two missiles at it, run toward it, grab its neck, and slam it into the ground."

(Overblast and Lethal Strike, the two cinematic combat elements that Other M introduces, are a bit tough to use at first, especially to Metroid veterans.  "Let me get this straight, I'm supposed to tap buttons to dodge rather than run the hell away, and then run toward it and jump on it rather than blast it from a distance?"  Yep.  Once you're over it, it becomes doable... then it becomes a whole lot of fun.)

The switch between first- and third-person control works much better than it has any right to, though like most of the control scheme, it can be a little awkward at first.  Other simplifications to the controls work very well, like making wall jumping actually possible and eliminating the need to ever do needlessly complex Morph Ball bomb jumping puzzles.

And it would be a shame to overlook the greatest strength that Other M has: it looks really pretty.  It's obviously the best-looking Metroid game to date, and it probably has some of the best graphics of any Wii game.  Samus finally looks like she should have twenty-five years ago (now that shoulder pads have been firmly out of style for ten or fifteen of those years), and Ridley looks downright scary... in a way that makes you completely respect him and the rest of the game.

Other M is not an instant classic in the same way that Super Metroid was.  It's probably not even as good as the Metroid Prime trilogy; in fact, it may even be among the worst of the Metroid games.  However, that's as much a praise of the rest of the series as it is an indictment of Other M.  It's not a long game--roughly 8 to 12 hours, depending on how good you are at it and how much effort you want to put into being a completionist (but remember that Super Metroid's ultimate goal is to finish in 3 hours).  The questionable voice acting and shallow characterization are not going to win any awards or even much praise.  If you're a Metroid purist, you will balk at parts of the game.

But the game is fun, and that's what counts.  As long as you can get over "this isn't a Metroid game," you will enjoy playing Other M.

Currently listening: "Knights", Minus the Bear

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