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Missing the Point in 'Metroid: Other M'

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Thursday, Aug 9, 2012
Metroid: Other M captures the look of other Metroid games, but it fails to capture their spirit.

I’m spending some time going through my video game backlog this summer, which is why I’ve been playing Metroid: Other M.  I understand why it wasn’t particularly well-received.  I think the game’s systems are actually pretty interesting, but I can definitely see why the third/first-person view switching and motion controls would irritate some people.  I’m much more sympathetic to criticisms of the game’s story and writing.  Abbie Heppe’s review sums up my feelings on it.  Other M is marred by a hackneyed, unimaginative script and a portrayal of Samus that characterizes her as scared and subservient.  It’s truly disheartening to see one of video games’s most competent female protagonists reduced to a child-like state of obedience.


I actually think these weaknesses are symptoms of a larger problem with the game, though.  Other M suffers because it tries to emulate some of the series’s traditions without understanding why they are important (or even if they are important at all).  The blind devotion to the accumulated lore of the Metroid saga stifles the game.
  
The Point of Wall Jumps


Wall jumps were special in Super Metroid because they were secret and they required skill.  You either stumbled upon the technique yourself or had to observe NPCs to learn the technique.  Pulling the move off required precise timing and the dexterity to shift Samus’s momentum quickly.  It encapsulates the exploratory and mysterious nature of the game.  It is right in front of you from the beginning of the game, but it doesn’t become apparent until you investigate further.


Other M treats the wall jump as a franchise symbol but removes its spontaneity and skill requirements.  The moment that you’re in need of the move, a text bubble pops up and tells you specifically how to do it, making sure to alert you that you actually shouldn’t press left and right on the d-pad in order to spring off walls; the game will do that for you.  The move effectively becomes busy work that you use in very specific areas.  It has the trappings of the original, but it lacks the soul.


Gaining Abilities


The Metroid series is well known for its use of the “abilitease.”  Through some string of events, Samus loses some of her suit’s technology at some point between or during her adventures and must piece it back together over the course of the game.  Doing so serves a mechanical purpose by helping guide players through the game and allowing them to perfect skills before adding more.  It’s a well-worn technique across many different games—one that often feels contrived.  Still, it can be a useful teaching tool that also serves a story function, as Samus’s acquisition of new skills mirrors the player’s while also representing her personal progress. 


Other M’s approach to ability progression asks the player for a ridiculous suspension of disbelief.  Instead of explaining Samus’s loss of power with an injury or technological flaw, we’re asked to accept that Samus willingly refuses to use her entire arsenal in order to curry the favor of Adam, her former commanding officer.  The result is a character who is constantly asking permission to use her own property and accepting the orders of someone who isn’t even her boss.  In practice, Other M’s ability restrictions feel like they exist simply because prior games set the precedent.  Samus following orders is simply a contrivance for a dynamic that does not fit in the game, yet was included anyway.


Scanning


Metroid Prime introduced the scanning visor to the series and used it to communicate information about enemies, the environment, and story elements.  It was an elegant way to convey tactical information and optional plot information for those interested in Metroid lore.  It took advantage of the then-novel first-person perspective, but it was largely optional.


Other M uses the first-person perspective, but removes the freedom found in the Prime series.  At scripted points, all the on-screen action stops and you’re forced to go into first person mode and pixel hunt until you find the one object that needs scanning.  This makes the world feel fake and misses the point of what made first-person scanning interesting.  Without multiple options or player agency, scanning in Other M is compulsory busy work rather than an exercise in exploration.  Its obligatory inclusion misses the point—it’s used to force the players down a linear path rather than to encourage them to explore an intricate world.


Other M is full of these types of missteps.  Whether it is reading too far into small details from Metroid lore (such as Samus’ use of the “thumbs-up” signal) or pointlessly incorporating aspects from past games (like when Samus needlessly endangers her life by shedding her Power Suit in favor of the skimpy Zero Suit), Other M continually fails to understand the elements that made people love the previous games. 


All this brings us back to the game’s demeaning, incompetent portrayal of Samus.  How does a hero go from being a galactic hero to the scared child that we see in this cutscene:




Looking for an answer, I did some digging and found that there is Metroid manga in which Ridley terrorizes a young Samus and then kills her family.  This ill-advised investment in obscure lore is the game’s undoing.  Other M seems intent on cramming every aspect of the convoluted expanded universe into the game, regardless of whether it fits or captures the ethos of past games.  I’m sure there are folks out there that love the convoluted backstory, but that lore was made possible by games that focused on polished mechanics, exploration, and a protagonist defined by quiet strength.  Other M loses sight of all of these things.

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