Samus Goes Emo And Action
"Why am I still alive?"
These are the first words spoken by Samus in the intro cinematic to Metroid: Other M, and they set the tone perfectly for the first hour of gameplay that I got to check out at Nintendo's Q1 Media Summit. Taken out of context, it's a pretty goofy line – most of the dialogue in the game so far is – but in context, it's an interesting callback to the Metroid series' past.
Since it takes place directly after the end of Super Metroid, Other M begins with an intense CG re-envisioning of the climactic scene from that 16-bit classic. Spoiler alert for those who haven't played it yet – but seriously, what are you doing not playing Super Metroid if you haven't already? Samus's life is narrowly saved by a now-fully-grown Metroid who she had rescued in its infant form. The deadly creature drains Mother Brain's energy and transfers it to Samus.
Other M's plot, at least initially, seems to revolve around the mystery of how exactly the Metroid gave Samus that energy and how it has affected Samus. If these questions strike you as resting at a midichlorian-esque level of being unnecessary, you're not alone, but the high concept also serves the gameplay, leaving everyone's favorite lady bounty hunter more powerful than ever.
Though she uses all the of the missiles, power bombs, and morph ball transformations that we've all come to know and love, Samus's biggest change comes in the form of "Concentration." By lifting the Wii remote upright and holding the 'A' button, Samus can recharge her missiles or even regain lost energy if her health is particularly low. As far as I played, there was no limit to these abilities at all; Samus is clearly supposed to be a *** from the start this time around.
That's not to say her powers won't be somewhat controlled, though. Beginning as all good Metroid games must, Samus answers a distress call from an abandoned space station. This time, though, she is not alone. Shortly after landing, she runs into a crew of Galactic Federation soldiers, including two men she knows from her past as part of the Federation.
The squad's leader, Adam Malkovich, tells Samus that if she stays to help explore the station, she needs to follow his orders. Here's where the power limitation comes in. Samus won't be able to use missiles, bombs, or any other special weapons beyond her regular gun until Malkovich authorizes it. Though it makes some minimal amount of sense in the story, it's not very satisfying to come across a secret passage that could be opened up with missiles only to be told that using that weapon hasn't been authorized yet. It's almost enough to make me wish Samus had just been de-powered again.
The gameplay itself is a fascinating, sometimes-awesome, sometimes-awkward amalgam of almost every style the series has explored in the past. Though the entire game is in full 3D, many sections will find Samus crawling through tight corridors with the camera pulled back in a way that makes it look like a classic 2D sidescroller. Some rooms open up into larger 3D combat arenas that are more reminiscent of Team Ninja's Ninja Gaiden, complete with brutal, fast-paced combat and lightning-quick dodging. Most surprisingly, if you point the Wii remote at the screen, you go into a Metroid Prime-esque first-person mode that allows you to scan your surroundings and shoot missiles.
This mixed-up gameplay is definitely a unique approach, but it's made slightly more complicated by the fact that Other M only uses a Wii remote for control. No classic controller, no nunchuk – just a single Wii remote held sideways. 3D exploration with the remote's d-pad works shockingly well, but there's no doubt that an analog stick would provide a more responsive experience. This fault becomes much clearer in the first-person segments. Whenever you need to shoot a missile at an enemy, you need to stop moving, point the Wii remote at the screen, aim at the enemy, lock on, and then shoot. It's process that slows down the otherwise fast gameplay and often leads to taking damage.
Then again, maybe Samus is slowed down to make up for the fact that she's actually got some serious back-up this time. In the first boss battle in the game, the Galactic Federation troops join you in taking down a tentacled cyclops monster (pictured above). The soldiers attack the creature with freeze guns, and as they freeze each limb, Samus can shoot a missile to destroy it entirely. It's a bit strange knowing you're not alone this time, but it also sets the game up for some interesting encounters that Samus has never experienced before.
Of course, the added cast members also prepare Other M for what's likely to be the game's least successful element: the story. While it's totally possible that Team Ninja and Nintendo could turn things around and whip out an engrossing narrative, what I've seen so far has more in common with mediocre sci-fi anime than anything else. Samus has a heavy-handed inner monologue that narrates each scene, even when it's blatantly unneeded, filling the game with depressing descriptions of the "finality" of the Metroid species' extinction -- as though they won't be back somehow – and how another character's response "pierced my heart." Recalling the effortlessly subtle storytelling of Super Metroid in the first few minutes raised my hopes, but that game's quiet heartbreak has been replaced with the equivalent of angst-filled LiveJournal posts.
If there's one thing I'm comfortable saying about Metroid: Other M at this point, it's that the game is full of surprising twists on the regular Metroid formula. For the group of gamers who complain about how Nintendo games constantly repeat the same few formulas over and over (see: my Super Mario Galaxy 2 preview), the risks Nintendo is taking here should garner some respect. Whether or not it will actually make for a game on par with the best the series has offered remains in question.