Big studios usually like to play it safe, particularly with their biggest and most successful franchises. Fortunately for the evolution and health of videogames, Nintendo has unleashed Team Ninja on the Metroid series and given the developer the latitude to push the boundaries of the series. The danger in doing something new or different is that not everyone will approve. “Metroid was fine the way it was,” some will say; “Don’t change it!” But innovations move the industry forward. The troubling thing about taking such risks, though, is that they don’t always pay off. In the case of Metroid Other M, some of the alterations to the formula are innovative and welcome, but some of the changes don’t work at all.

Metroid Other M picks up after the end of Super Metroid. You can be forgiven if you don’t quite recall the ending of a game that came out back when Tonya Harding was shopping for police batons and OJ Simpson was testing the highway performance of the rugged and reliable Ford Bronco. The game opens up with a recap of Super Metroid but unfortunately it’s big on explosions and existential reflection, but short on actual exposition. Fans of the series will be thrilled but newcomers may feel lost.

After this lengthy intro, Samus finally starts her adventure by responding to a distress call from a massive ship inhabited by all kinds of deadly aliens. When she lands, she finds a group of Galactic Federation marines have beat her there. Among the group is Adam Malkovich, Samus’s former commander. He grudgingly agrees to let Samus help out in the investigation, which is a good thing, because without her they wouldn’t even be able to get past the first door. It’s not really clear why Samus is so ready to do what Adam says but there are copious hints dropped through the game’s many flashback cutscenes.

Unfortunately, the subservience kind of breaks her character somewhat as she turns off almost all of her powers and only reactivates them at key points in the narrative when Adam tells her it’s okay. Previous Metroid games gave you a sense of accomplishment in finding new powers but this game has Samus meekly deactivate them until her boyfriend says it’s okay to use them. At one point, she walks through a room of lava before he bothers to tell her she can use her Varia Suit’s anti-flame powers. That’s weak. The story also tells me more than I want to know about Samus’s past. Part of her appeal has always been that she’s a total mystery. It’s like Boba Fett where the mystique of the character is what interests us. Once we start getting some answers, the character is less appealing.

Once the story actually gets going, though, really pick up and you quickly forget all the brooding introspection. The mystery behind the distressed ship and the appearance of the marines develops into a really interesting story, even if it does make use of some standard science fiction clichés like lava and ice levels.

Combat in Metroid Other M relies more on the originality of the enemies and the bright spectacle of weapons fire than on the actual mechanics. The auto-aim function helps greatly to deal with multiple enemies, but you’ll begin to feel almost as if there’s not much challenge in standing on one edge of the screen and just hammering the fire button to take out your enemies. It’s true that certain invulnerabilities of the enemies require some thought, but for the most part combat is more about watching what happens rather than making lots of interesting decisions. The interesting decisions begin to pile up once you during the exploration elements, but even here the solutions are fairly narrow and you have to rely on Adam to give you permission to use your most impressive abilities.

I appreciate the changing perspectives in the game, particularly the seamless and liberating transition from 2D to 3D platformer. Having that back wall open up and give you access to an entirely new dimension of movement is downright invigorating. The way the game handles the movement between these two modes of play is fantastic. I’m less impressed with the first-person aiming system. It’s a promising idea but it doesn’t mesh well with the rest of the game design. You’ll have to use it, of course, because it’s the only way you can advance through certain points of the story and, more importantly, the only way to fire the missiles required to kill certain bosses. The problem is that you can’t move while aiming and, given the speed at which most of the game’s later bosses move and fight, it raises the challenge to an unfriendly level.

Bottom Line: It would be easy to write Metroid Other M off on the basis of the few things it gets wrong but the combat and exploration elements are strong enough to overcome these limitations. The combat is intense, if a bit uneven in terms of the overall challenge, and the exploration elements are enjoyable.

Recommendation: Metroid fans will like the overall direction of most of the new elements, even if the execution is a bit off.

[rating=3]

Like several other women in his life, Steve Butts liked Samus more before he got to know her.

Game: Metroid: Other M
Genre: Action Adventure
Developer: Team Ninja
Publisher: Nintendo
Release Date: August 31, 2010
Platform: Wii
Available from: Amazon

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