Welcome to 2010. Since the inception of Super Metroid in 1994, we've been witness to two further games set in the classic Metroid universe plus the entire Metroid Prime saga. It's time for a new change. Nintendo and Yoshio Sakamoto - director of Super Metroid and long-time Metroid designer - took a gamble with the next chapter of Samus' adventures by teaming with Ninja Gaiden developer Team Ninja. Their product would become known as Metroid: Other M for the Nintendo Wii.
Of course, whenever a sequel is developed for a long-running gaming franchise, the developers are faced with a unique predicament - do they play it safe and create a "more-of-the-same" experience or do they try something new? This time Nintendo took that risk and crafted something fresh, and the result is quite an achievement.
The changes and differences are numerous - Samus has an actual voice, other human characters are introduced and fleshed-out, and we find out much more about Samus' past, her human side and her relationship with Adam Malkovich (first mentioned in Metroid Fusion as Samus' former commanding officer). With Team Ninja on board to help produce the game engine itself, Other M was already destined to stand apart from the classic series. Honouring the established theme, atmosphere and mythology of Metroid while creating a new experience for gamers was nothing short of an epic challenge.
The final product can draw mixed opinions and is difficult to succinctly rate. Some fans will enjoy the change and fresh new experience, while others will no doubt find the changes too derivative and lacking the special touch that gave us all such great memories from titles like Super Metroid and Metroid Prime. But I still believe that Nintendo have performed admirably and given us a fantastic new chapter of Samus' life, and presented it in a tense, exciting and cinematic package.
Let's start with the control scheme. The game is very combat-heavy, so the controls need to work. Sakamoto insisted that players use only the Wii Remote - no Nunchuk attachment for this adventure. While that initially sounds Super Mario Galaxy-defying, the control system very rarely fails. Samus is quick and nimble, extremely responsive and - with practice - never lets players down when facing whatever the game can throw at you. Nintendo wanted to create a style of play reminiscent of the classic NES Metroid, and the Wii Remote turned on its side gave them a perfect fit. You simply move Samus with the D-Pad (which while in theory doesn't sound so good in a 3D space, it works out fine), the A button enters Morph Ball mode, and 1 and 2 are used to shoot and jump respectively.
We finally have a 3D Metroid game played out in third-person, something originally attempted at in Metroid Prime before the shift to first-person. It works great and the auto-aim to score hits on enemies is usually quite faithful. I actually made a double-take when first playing with the Morph Ball - for a split second upon returning Samus to a standing position I expected the camera to zip back into her head...
But the real genius of this system comes in the use of the Wii Remote's pointer and some context-sensitive actions. By pointing the Wii Remote at the display, the view instantly switches to a first-person view inside Samus' helmet. It's a brilliant homage to the Metroid Prime saga and gives players the ability to intricately search their surroundings and use ballistic weaponry. Normally the game's camera automatically follows Samus as players guide her around and works surprisingly well for an uncontrolled camera. Objects become transparent if they move between Samus and the camera, and I never even noticed the auto-camera most of the time - a very big thumbs up in this department.
The first-person view works much like the first-person perspectives of the recent Zelda console titles. You can't move around in this mode, and while that sounds like a recipe for disaster in a game filled with quick-moving enemies, it brings us to the amazing context-sensitive actions. Team Ninja have incorporated the "Sensemove" - essentially a quick dodge maneuver for Samus to leap out of harm's way. The enemies in this game mean business and there's no health pickups left behind from defeated foes, so evasion is emphasised.
Players simply press any direction on the D-Pad as an attack is closing in to automatically send Samus leaping to safety - in first-person view you simply aim the pointer at the very edge of either side of the screen to leap away.
Timing and mastering this technique is much easier than a precision-critical action like Guard Impacting in Soul Calibur, and is very satisfying in both looks and sound (I love the hefty boosting sound from Samus' thrusters as she takes a dive).
The context actions extend to offensive combat as well with Overblasts and Lethal Strikes. With practice, they're great to perform effortlessly and give the game a good variety of options in combat - especially when combat is so central to the experience. Team Ninja have injected their ninja-esque fighting style in the game - albeit without swords - in that often you may find mini-bosses and incidental encounters harder to clear than major bosses.
Make no mistake, Team Ninja's Ninja Gaiden series has always been known for its ridiculously hard games. While that same hyper-difficulty thankfully hasn't made the jump to Metroid, the game's combat and health system has left it in a league of its own. This is probably one of the toughest games in the series - if Nintendo were trying to make the game more accessible with simpler controls, they missed out on making the difficulty level accessible along with it. You'll be seeing the Game Over screen very often. Thankfully there is a checkpoint system, so often you'll be sent back only a short distance rather than the previous save point.
Remember all the little floating health and missile refills enemies used to drop in all the other Metroid titles? All gone. This time Samus can only regain her health at a save station. Team Ninja have given us a lifeline however in the "Concentrate" move, allowing Samus to automatically recharge her missile payload at any time and recover health - the only catch is that you must remain still for a few seconds and can't take a hit from enemies.
Health recovery via the Concentrate move can only be recovered when Samus is critically low - something that arises usually during heated enemy encounters - and said enemies tend to not give you enough time to recharge so it's often a hit-and-miss technique.
The only real gripes I have with the combat and gameplay are the instant-death scenarios. Without revealing any of the details, there are certain areas where one wrong move means instant death - much like the infamous Piston Cave in Metroid Prime Hunters. Along with some silly obscure moments in the game where the answer isn't clear of what to do next, these two issues can slow the pace down and damage the experience. Of course, once you've conquered those segments they'll never give you grief again...
The game initially plays out very similarly to Metroid Fusion; you'll be directed where to go and are slowly given authorization to use your items along the way (this time Samus already has all of her abilities and must first be given permission to use them by Adam). There are still plenty of items to find and the linearity didn't really bother me thanks to the driving plot.
Nintendo have outdone themselves on this outing - the story is intricate and full of shock and suspense - much like when you can't put a good book down, I couldn't stop playing the game for the sake of finding out what happens next. The plot development is great - you start out the game completely oblivious as to what's going on and slowly piece everything together. It's definitely a change of pace - in just about every other Metroid game we'd always feel like we were Samus, while this time we accompany her along the way as more of a companion (but that's not necessarily a bad thing). The entire mystery of the Bottle Ship and the motivations behind the characters is a welcome addition to the franchise.
Seeing as the game takes place on yet another space station (it's called a ship but the game world is huge!) we're treated to some unique environments much like the diverse range found in Metroid Fusion's B.S.L. research station. Lush jungles, icy caves and fiery mountains inhabit the ship - a great moment is the first time you step through a door into an open-air environment and question whether you're still on board a ship or not. Running around and exploring the game world is just as much fun as it's always been.
The atmosphere of the station has taken on a life of its own. The musical score is fully orchestrated (composed by Kuniaki Haishima and performed by Tokyo's Arigat Orchestra and Bejing's Asian Philharmonic Orchestra), and it's unlike anything we've heard in Metroid before. This is a new cinematic-like experience and the music has been taken to a new level of ambience. The audio fits the mood perfectly - as you travel through the seemingly-abandoned hallways the music is eerily quiet, yet hair-raisingly jumps to life as soon as a combat sequence or tense plot point arrives. It's not what you would normally expect from a Metroid game, so it needs to be taken with an open mind to fully appreciate. But it's great when the remixed tunes turn up.
Augmenting the story is full voice acting and incredibly detailed CGI cutscenes. The cutscenes are magnificent - data size restrictions would have labeled them out on the GameCube, so it's brilliant to see them on the Wii. Nintendo brought a company called D-Rockets on board to handle the cutscenes and their efforts are consistently commendable - a top class effort.
Introducing voice acting and giving Samus a voice for the first time was sure to shake up the fandom - but I honestly didn't have an issue with it. The voice suits Samus' personality and way of life, and I didn't find her too whiny at all, even in the flashbacks to her time under Adam's command.
Graphically, Team Ninja have recreated Samus' Power Suit with a distinct Japanese style in 3D and the results are quite pleasing to the eye. The sheen and reflectivity of her armour is great to see coming from the little white box. Thankfully this extends to the rest of the game with colourful and vibrant environments and characters. The transitions between CGI cutscenes and rendered gameplay are masterful and really show a strong grasp of the Wii's capabilities. There's very few loading transitions too - and no more shooting doors to open them. The Metroid Prime saga's game environments are still king of the hill for minute attention-to-detail (and it's sad not to have some sort of Logbook), but the style of Other M still suits it just right.
Ultimately, I'm glad that Nintendo chose the Metroid franchise to take in a risky new direction. Here we have a fantastic experience paying homage to the series while introducing brilliant new assets and production values. The story is rich, engrossing and evokes numerous emotions, and the cinematography of the cutscenes is a joy to watch - no matter how long or intrusive they are.
The control system is also fun and easy to pick up; it feels intuitive and natural at the same time. Fans of the series will enjoy the surprising and literally jaw-dropping moments. I'm glad we've finally been given the chance to see Samus as a person and how the world of Metroid makes her think. With these efforts, I can only imagine good things if Nintendo decide to give Team Ninja another two tries, just like they did with Retro Studios and the Metroid Prime Trilogy.
Written by Falcon Zero on 9 September 2010.