Compared to most of the previous titles in the Metroid series, Metroid: Other M is a different beast. A third-person action and exploration game like its side-scrolling predecessors, it allows movement in 3D space rather than restrict the action to a 2D plane. The player is often restricted to exploring a specific area, even if they have the equipment to take on the challenges within an area that's been sealed off. And the story is given more priority than ever before, with extensive cutscenes and gameplay sequences that purely exist to drive the narrative forward.
Yet, for everything that's different, the game is still Metroid. Cast in the role of series protagonist Samus Aran, the player must traverse the halls and environments of a mysterious research vessel housing dangerous creatures in order to investigate the cause of the disturbances on board and locate any survivors. And as is standard for the Metroid series, over the course of the game, she'll gain access to abilities that will give her a greater edge in combat as well as the ability to explore otherwise inaccessible regions of the ship.
So what makes the gameplay so different? Well, to start with, the game is predominantly controlled using only the Wii Remote held on its side like an NES controller. Samus is moved using the D-pad, and there are buttons that allow her to jump, shoot, and enter her morph ball form. The key difference here is that Samus, now able to move in 3D space, can run in eight directions, though in many of the game's hallways and corridors, the direction of her movement is guided so that she'll always move along the proper path without having to constantly adjust for a curve. She can also dodge incoming attacks via well-timed taps of the D-pad and perform special context-sensitive finishers. As for her basic attacks, her arm cannon uses an auto-aim function in which she will automatically target enemies within her general line of sight.
What does this all mean? In the grand scheme of things, while this may seem like it makes the game easy, all it really does it make it simple to play. Despite the 3D spatial movement, the flow of combat feels very much like it does in the more traditional side-scrolling entries, in which the standard enemies are generally treated as cannon fodder, particularly as Samus's arsenal improves. The game's many boss fights are a good deal more challenging, but are in essence the 3D equivalents of old-school 2D boss fights, in which pattern recognition and the effective targeting of weak points are the keys to success. Other M also does away with the need to farm enemies for health and missiles by introducing a “concentration” mechanic. By holding the Wii Remote upright and holding a button for a few moments, Samus will regenerate health and restore her missile supply, though she’s a sitting duck while doing so.
A Metroid Prime-esque twist on the gameplay comes in the way a first-person viewpoint is implemented. At any time, the player may point the Wii Remote at the screen, and the camera will shift to a view from Samus's visor. While in first-person, Samus can't run, but she can turn in a circle and look in all directions, and she can perform a dodge move to avoid attacks. It is only from this viewpoint that Samus attacks with missiles.
There are also times when the game will force the player into first-person until a specific objective is complete, whether it be searching for an item in the environment or fending off an attacker. The item hunts can sometimes become tedious, as what needs to be found is not always obvious and sometimes very difficult to spot. These moments are thankfully few and far between.
As far as game progression is concerned, Other M has more in common with Metroid Fusion than other games in the series. Rather than be allowed to freely explore the environment with only an incomplete arsenal as the obstructing factor, Samus's path is guided for the majority of the game by the necessity of the story. This restraint does ease up as the game progresses, however, and once the credits have rolled, an epilogue chapter becomes available in which Samus has free reign to explore the entire ship, including regions that were previously inaccessible.
Above all else, the biggest departure that Other M takes is the emphasis on narrative. Set in the aftermath of Super Metroid, the story is told in a manner most unusual for a Nintendo title; with extensive cinematics and full voice acting for all of the game's characters, including Samus. Over the years, there’s been a lot of contention over the quality of the game's voice acting; Samus's in particular. However, I will count myself among those that like the way she speaks and the way she sounds. Though her narration may come off as flat and dry, there's a matter-of-fact tone to it. One that feels natural for a character who is recounting the game's events with the detachment of the passage of time. Her character dialogue in the cutscenes themselves displays a great deal more emotion.
There are two primary stories being told in Other M. One is a recounting of certain events in Samus's past and an exploration of who she is as a person. The other is the investigation of the Bottle Ship, in which Samus provides aid to a squad of Galactic Federation soldiers led by her own former commanding officer, Adam Malkovich; a name that should be familiar to anyone that played Metroid Fusion. Despite the number of NPCs present, the game's sense of isolation is never particularly threatened. Samus is on her own for the vast majority of the game, and the other characters primarily only come into play during major story events.
Though the game places a great deal of emphasis on the story, that’s not to say that the storytelling in the game is flawless. The script, written by Metroid co-creator Yoshio Sakamoto, places too much emphasis on the story being told through Samus’s narration, and violates the old rule of “show, don’t tell” repeatedly. The story also expects players to know key events of Samus’s life and childhood that had only ever been explicitly depicted in media external to the games, such as a Metroid manga that had never been published outside of Japan. This in particular undermines a key moment in the story when Samus is made to recall a traumatic moment from her childhood and is temporarily overcome by PTSD.
But while the script is poorly written, that’s not to say that the story itself is bad, nor are ideas and concepts that it puts forth. In particular, Other M gives Samus more definition to her personality than ever before. Though her character was explored to an extent through her dialogue in Metroid Fusion, and other games have depicted hints of her personality through her actions, Other M takes everything a step further. Samus’s thoughts, memories and emotions are all treated with importance; an effort is made to depict her not as an invincible space warrior, but as a three-dimensional human being with flaws and weaknesses as well as strengths. Though some criticize Samus’s portrayal in Other M as sexist, particularly due to the way she dutifully follows Adam’s orders and refuses to use components of her arsenal that he hasn’t authorized, it is also a bold attempt at turning Samus into a truly strong character; someone three-dimensional, and recognizably human. There are moments where the game misses the mark, but at the same time I admire it for its aspirations, its successes, and the ideas of the story, if not the manner in which it’s told.
I could go on and on about Samus’s portrayal in Other M to great lengths. (And actually, I already did a while back.) But despite its more controversial elements, I still recommend Metroid: Other M without hesitation. Its gameplay holds up as a well-done translation of the series’s classic 2D gameplay into three dimensions, and its story, flawed as its telling is, is one I appreciate.