Playing the Game, Part 1
Well, that story was Godawful, so let's take a break from it. I've reserved the next two sections specifically for gameplay. Yeah, I know I said I wasn't going to talk about it, but now that I have
played it, I can talk about. So there. Everything outside of these two sections was written prior to playing it, and afterwards, I felt that nothing at all needed to be added, changed, or otherwise modified.
Unlike my coverage of the narrative, I won't be going linearly from front to back, detailing everything I experience. This is going to be more review-style, summarizing my impression of the gameplay of Other M.
This first part is looking at just the core gameplay of Metroid: Other M
. "Core gameplay" is, more or less, what you spend most of your time doing. In this game, that would be running through corridors, killing monsters, and navigating terrain. So let's talk about how this works and feels.
The game is controlled with the Wii-Mote. Just
the Wii-Mote. You hold it horizontally for 3rd person locomotion, and you point it at the "sensor bar" to go into first person. There is quite a bit that needs to be said about this.
First, the Wii-Mote has the absolute worst D-Pad in the history of the world. It's not just tiny; it's thin. It's hard to be precise with it. And yet, this is the controller that is primarily used to move around.
Even worse, while Nintendo did not invent the analog thumb-stick, they sure as hell popularized it. Why? Because controlling 3D games with a D-Pad sucks. They stuck one of these on the N64 stick, and every home console released since then has come with one. It's obviously superior for controlling a character moving on a flat plane in 3D space. If anyone should know not to use a D-Pad in a 3D game, it's Nintendo.
And yet, here we are.
And then there's the pointer controls. From 3rd person, you only have access to your beam, but you have all of your locomotion functions (movement, Morph Ball, jumping, etc). From 1st person, you have access to missiles and the ability to lock onto targets. But you can't move (with one exception).
This is stupid. It's not unforgivable; you do get used to it. But it never stops being annoying. Every time you go to first-person to shoot something with missiles, it's annoying. Every time you want
to shoot something with missiles but can't because you can't afford to stand still, it's more annoying. Plus, I generally dislike the use of Wii-Mote movement stuff for mode-switching. It's way too difficult to not face the Wii-Mote the correct way or something and miss an opportunity to shoot stuff. A game should not be hard purely because of the controls, of the way you tell the game to do something.
The sad part is that the game designers knew
how much their control scheme sucked. They designed encounters around it. They even reversed the power of charge beams vs. missiles. In all prior Metroid games, charge beams are stronger than missiles, at the expense of not firing as fast and/or lacking homing ability. But not here, simply because firing missiles requires a lot more effort.
A lot of enemies will stop being as aggressive when you're in first-person. This is a basic necessity; if it didn't happen, you could almost never use it. In fact, Ridley (pre-boss-fight) cannot hit you with his fire-blasts if you're in first-person. Even going into first-person basically gives you a half-second of bullet-time to get your bearings and aim. Of course, many bosses will howl or otherwise move slowly to make themselves vulnerable to missile attacks at key points. At the same time, this also means that firing missiles at them when you
want to is not allowed; you can only do it when the game lets you.
Being able to do something only when the game gives you permission is a running theme in both the story and gameplay.
One interesting anecdote on the controls. The end of the Metroid Queen boss fight is infamous among players of this game. You grapple into its mouth, go Morph Ball, and you're supposed to lay a Power Bomb.
I died twice trying to do this.
I would like to remind you that I had watched this scene several times
before playing. See, this scene is an infamous death-trap because the game never
tells you that Power Bombs are available. So people would jump into its mouth and die. A lot. And isn't that a giant middle finger to the player: secretly activating some power without letting them know is simply unacceptable gameplay
, especially when the penalty for failure is death.
So why did I die if I knew going in that I had Power Bombs? Because of the damn controls.
OK, you have to point the gun at its mouth, lock on-to it with the B button, and grapple in by pressing A. I don't know if it was my Prime Trilogy reflexes kicking in or what, but it simply did not occur to me to turn the Wii-Mote sideways and hold down 1 to lay a Power Bomb. It just felt really wrong, especially since you've been in first-person for a good 10-15 seconds at this point. I just kept holding A.
I'm still blaming the game for that. Why? Because we have not used Power Bombs since the introductory area.
And that was exactly one time.
Not only does the game not tell you that you can
use Power Bombs, it forgets to remind you how!
It's not like any of the other games in the series have had Power Bombs work via charge like this before.
Then there are the combat maneuvers. For example, what the game calls "sense move". When an attack is approaching you, you can instantly dodge it by tapping any direction on the D-Pad. Even more, if you're charging a beam while doing it, you'll instantly get a full charge, which you can immediately fire at whatever attacked you.
This is bad on a number of levels. First, it looks dumb. Notice that I said "any direction." You can "dodge"through
the attack you were dodging. The developers made no actual effort to penalize you for dodging into attacks, or avoiding different attacks with your dodge or anything.
Second, I kinda hate these mechanics. Why can't Samus do sense moves when she isn't
being attacked? Other Metroid games don't require enemies being around for you to do stuff. The closest thing to this is the quick-strafe move in the Primes that requires you to be locked on. And even then, you don't have to be locked on to an enemy. Metroid games are ultimately about movement and such; it seems incredibly forced to take a movement-based ability and slave it to combat.
Third, sense move utterly murders any challenge in the game. Completely. Once you get used to the rhythm of doing it, you can sense move constantly, becoming effectively invulnerable. There are some enemy attacks that hit through sense move, but those are mostly boss attacks which are dodgeable in some other way. After a while, you find yourself tapping the D-Pad when you predict an incoming attack just to start your sense move fest. Metroid games aren't supposed to be all about combat, but I would like some
challenge, thank you.
Then there's concentration. By pointing the Wii-Mote up and holding A, you can completely rejuvenate your missiles. If you have less than 30 or so health, you can hold down A for longer and gain a full bar of health (or more with certain pickups). All you have to do is stand still.
Great, so now we get the regenerating health from Call of Duty in Metroid. Joy. Indeed, its rather worse than that because you get missiles back too. Because of this, there are no ammo pickups. This means the tension of scrounging for loot during a tough boss fight is replaced with the tension of finding time to stand still. No thanks; I prefer less binary mechanics, especially ones that don't sacrifice control.
It isn't a terrible mechanic. But I can't say I care much for it.
Then, there is overblast/lethal strike
. The first is very simple: you can jump on top of many enemies. If you do this while holding a charged shot, and release the button on top of them, then you get to presumably do more damage than a regular charge shot. I find this one inoffensive because I can choose not to do it with little repercussion to the gameplay; sense-move-shoot is a far more effective tactic later in the game. And you can often just run past enemies.
The real problem is the latter. Lethal strike is a flashy way of killing creatures. If you attack something with relatively high HP, you may knock it into a "downed" state. Once down, if you have a charge and run towards it, you can tackle it and kill it in one charge shot. It certainly looks cool; doing these moves makes Samus look aggressive and intimidating (unlike almost every element of the story). But here's the problem. I don't care how it looks; I care about how it feels
Metroid games are supposed to have atomic, immediate controls: you press X, and Y happens. By "atomic," I mean that small, well-understood things happen. Y is always a simple action: jump, shoot, Morph Ball, Space Jump, etc. And by "immediate," I mean that there is no lag or latency between X and Y; you press the button and the action happens right then. It also means that the actions themselves are quick. You can jump, shoot, and go into Morph Ball before you land, all very quickly and smoothly.
Lethal strike is neither atomic nor immediate. It takes a good two seconds or so to execute, during which time you're watching a cutscene. Samus gets to do cool stuff, yes, but the player
does not. If you want the player to be able to tackle a monster, put their foot on its neck, and shoot it in the face, then the game should provide a tackle ability, a foot-to-neck (or other body part) ability, and a shoot target location ability. Each of these would be atomic and immediate.
Doing what I would suggest creates an intimate connection between the player and the avatar in the game space. The controller in this case becomes an extension of the body; once you're used to the controls, you can put together awesome sequences of moves like that. You envision a cool thing you can do, then make it manifest through your "body."
Lethal strike and its ilk completely break intimacy. You just press a button and a pre-scripted cutscene takes place. Again, the player doesn't get to be cool here; just the player character. You get the visual stimulus, but without having to do any real work for it, without having to master the controls.
Yes, this is a personal thing. But Metroid games have always had intimate controls before. Indeed, mastery of the controls is at the very heart of why Metroid games are common targets for speed runs
. If you master the controls of many Metroid games, you can do some damn impressive stuff.
The other problem with things like overblast and lethal strike is that they slow down the combat. Yes, you often can just walk by, but I shouldn't have to
just to avoid boredom. And sometimes you get locked in a room and have to kill everything. At these times, the game just bogs down into slowly whittling their HP away until you can do the lethal strike.
Metroid Prime: Echoes
got away with longer battles too, but it had one major advantage: it was hard.
It actually challenged you, forcing you to react quickly and really fight hard. In Other M, you can just sense-move-shoot
forever and take virtually no damage. Once they go down, jump in for a lethal strike and move on. It just gets boring.
Speaking of boring, let's talk about the weapons of Other M. The Primes brought a certain depth to the combat system, Echoes more than the others. In those games, new gear materially affected combat. You often had to pick specific attacks for specific enemies and so forth.
With Other M, we've gone back to the 2D style, where combat can be broken down into two phases: before you get the Screw Attack and after. Before the Screw Attack, you just run around and shoot stuff where you can, avoiding combat where possible. With the Screw Attack, you just screw most stuff. The stuff you can't screw, you try to avoid. And if you can't do either, then sense-move-shoot it to death.
What this means is that the game doesn't gain any strategic depth to its combat. Even the ice beam barely affects combat; charged shots cause certain enemy body parts to freeze, disabling some attacks from that entity for a time. That's about it for strategic depth. The wave beam does nothing for most combat, and the plasma beam does even less. Yes, they make your gun hurt more, but that's not strategy.
In short: what you're doing at the beginning of the game combat-wise is exactly what you're doing at the end.
Speaking of loot, let's look at some of the available gear that can be collected. While most of your suit functions are "authorizations," the Diffusion Beam and the Seeker Missiles are actual pickups.
Really, Nintendo? You looked at all of what the Prime games added to the Metroid series, and this
was what you picked (besides stealing the charge beam sound and beam combo Super Missiles)? This was the element you felt most needed to be incorporated into a new game? This is easily the most worthless powerup in the Primes and a top contender for worst powerup in the entire series. But you felt that this needed to be in this game.
And how many times do you use it? Four times. And two of them are just the same puzzle repeated one right after the other.
But that's not all the bad ideas Nintendo stole for this game. Ever since Zelda 3, the Zelda series has been infested with pieces of heart: ostensibly useful loot that lacks the immediate utility of virtually every other collectable in the game. Other M adopted this cancer with "Energy Parts," one-fourth of an Energy Tank. Because they needed an extra 12 items to round out the collection to a full 100 and they didn't want to go the Metroid: Fusion route of just have a lot of energy tanks and enemies doing lots of damage in return.
Now, having said all that, there is something good about the game's core gameplay: basic locomotion. Moving around feels quite good and smooth (except when the game puts you in "ass slow mode" for those I-can't-believe-it's-not-a-cutscene moments). Indeed, there's quite a bit of control here. Once, in Morph Ball, I was rolling out of a pipe, and I decided to try something. I wanted to roll out, de-morph in mid-air, start spinning, and then Space Jump, so that I didn't touch the ground.
And it worked. It felt very natural and responsive. Indeed, this is probably the first Metroid game where I didn't hate the Space Jump/Prime Screw Attack rhythm. I wouldn't mind these basic locomotion being transplanted into an actual Metroid game (more on that next time).
This is damaged by one really annoying flaw: charge shots stop all forward momentum. If you fire a charge shot in midair, you basically fall straight down. If you fire one while trying to Speed Boost, it'll stop it instantly. This takes the smoothness out of locomotion and combat; it really, really
sucks. It's just so arbitrary and antithetical to how every other game works, and it really clashes with the otherwise very smooth and tight locomotion of this game.
I will say one thing for the control scheme. If you limited a designer to only using the Wii-Mote (perhaps under the assumption that either every Wii sold did not come with the Nunchuck attachment
and/or that Wii owners ate their Nunchucks
at some point) then this is a good control scheme. Hell, it's an absolute marvel. Indeed, I might go so far as to say that this is opt:
the one, perfect, optimal solution to the problem. The Platonic Ideal of Wii-Mote-based control of a character in a game like this. Kudos, Nintendo; you did the impossible.
Now go make a real fucking control scheme!
As a bit of Metroid trivia, I have heard
(so freely consider this rumor) that Retro Studios was involved in making the Nunchuck. That they actually convinced Nintendo how important it was for the attachment to be packaged into every Wii sold. And here's Other M, with full access to the blessings of Retro Studios... and yet ignoring it. Indeed, the game practically thumbs its nose at it.
But then, is ignoring Retro's contributions really a surprise at this point? Well, when they aren't taking their bad ideas...
This is technically not gameplay, but it is significant. Elements of spectacle, the non-gameplay elements, are important to the feel of a game.
Metroid games are well-known for visual storytelling. Super Metroid was able to tell a (rather simplistic) story entirely visually, though it did require some explicit gameplay programming. The Primes did a good job of presenting us with interesting, diverse, and dynamic worlds to look at. For the most part*
So how does Other M stack up? Poorly. Yes, this is a ship rather than natural terrain, but much of the landscape is just repetitive and boring. Prime excelled at having visually distinctive areas. Each of the Prime games has something in it visually that sticks in your mind. Prime had this great Chozo architecture going on. Echoes had the Sanctuary Fortress. Corruption had a planet that had bits of it literally chained
to the world. By contrast, Other M really doesn't have anything that stands out or is otherwise remarkable visually.
This lack of visual distinctiveness hurts the game in other ways. In general, people navigate by recognizing landmarks; this requires different rooms, even adjacent rooms, to have something unique and distinct about them. And Other M doesn't really. One forested area doesn't look much different from another. The Cryosphere is a bit better, but there are still a lot of samey areas in that place. Granted, since Other M is composed of almost completely linear loops, navigating isn't that important.
Fusion was able to present a space-station environment where each area was visually distinct. They did this by giving each Sector a different palette. And even then, they divided the areas into "natural" and "station" areas. Each Sector had its own "station" look that, while unnatural, was still distinct from other Sector's unnatural areas.
In Other M, if you're looking at a metal room, it's difficult to tell if it's a metal room in the Biosphere or the Cryosphere. The metal areas in the Pyrosphere tend to use a lot more red lighting, making them more distinct. Even so, the difference is generally one of subtle colors, not the broader differences that Fusion brought.
Now compare this to Sky Town in Corruption. That place is composed almost entirely of nearly identical pre-fabricated buildings. And yet, Retro managed to give each pod enough visual distinctiveness to recognize individual areas once you got used to them.
The visuals in Other M never tell a story of any kind. This is a ship where Space Pirates and other nasties were unleashed to exact their vengeance upon all who dwelt within. So... where are the signs of carnage? Oh, there are a couple, but if this were a place that has been violently cleansed of all human life, you wouldn't be able to tell from the scenery. All of two corpses are found in the entire game.
In a well-designed BOTTLE SHIP, you would be able to see where the attack actually began. Yes, there's Melissa's flashback scene that takes place in a room we did see. But that's just one room; I seriously doubt the carnage began
in that room. You should be able to trace it back to wherever the Space Pirate commandos were stored originally. When you find the hotel-like crew quarters, everything looks absolutely pristine. Why? Shouldn't there be bodies or at least damage?
That would show that people were attacked in their homes by the Space Pirates.
That having been said, the game is very attractive, in terms of artistry. What it renders may not be too memorable, but the presentation itself is quite well done. The game looks good, even though there's not much to look at.
Another weak element of spectacle is Samus suit. In the first Metroid game, the power suit has changed with certain power-ups. Even if it's just the Varia changing the suit's color, it was still something. Metroid II introduced physical changes in the suit, introducing the now iconic look with the large round shoulders. Every game in the series has kept this concept, adding physical changes at various points in the game. The Primes really
ran with it, introducing radical changes to her appearance throughout the course of Echoes and Corruption. The suit's changes functioned as a measure of progress through the game.
This game regresses back to Metroid 1. The suit only changes when you activate the Varia. And even then, the change is just color, and it is so slight that it's almost impossible to even tell that it has happened. This despite the game showing it on-screen; I never didn't even notice until it was explicitly pointed out. The physical changes, present in every Metroid game after the first, simply don't happen.
One might think that this is due to Other M being the first in the series to have pre-rendered cutscenes. Except this game is linear; you can't
get the items out of order. So it's not like they don't know which items she would have when. She gets a purple glow when the Gravity suit comes around, but even that only shows up when the Gravity suite is actively doing something. I'm not expecting them to go to the level of Echoes, where several powerups are clearly visible on the armor. But having her suit change form is something of a tradition, one that is ignored in this one.
The music is similarly forgettable. Metroid games are kinda hit-and-miss with their music. For every instance of music like SM's Brinstar theme, you get easily uninspired junk like Maridia's music. Other M is almost all miss when it comes to music. It has three modes: loud and orchestral, forgettable mood music, and "Adam's sacrifice". That's pretty much it. The individual pieces themselves again lack distinctiveness. The loud and orchestral parts are just loud and orchestral, without any real melodic line or anything memorable. It just blares. The only exceptions are the pieces it steals from other Metroid games, such as the now iconic Ridley music.