Sunday, September 12, 2010

I'm sorry, Samus. I'm afraid I can't let you do that.

So, Metroid: Other M has had some time to simmer in the public, giving us a chance to see if the panic over it's initial critical response was a little too hasty - or too forgiving, depending on who you ask. There's no denying that changes were made to the formula, whether for the better or not, I guess that depends on what exactly you wanted to get out of it, but for the most-part, things are just sort of different, but in a way that suits the kind of game Other M turned out to be.

One point that seems to have taken a great deal of criticism is that, in contrast to other Metroid games, where you start off fairly underpowered and find new weapons and abilities as you go, this time around, you start the game off with all your cool upgrades already equipped, but are not allowed to use any of them until you're given authorization to do so by a man named Adam Malkovich, your former commanding officer, and the guy who's actually in charge of the rescue mission around which the game revolves. I don't want to go into too many details, for fear of spoiling some of the events, but I will say that, at best, it's no less ridiculous than introducing some random plot contrivance to have Samus lose all her gear yet again, at worst, it's fairly clumsy and introduces some strange holes into the already shaky plot, potentially calling into question whether or not Malkovich is fit to lead a dance, let alone a rescue, but the points where any of this matter are few and far between, and the majority of the game is spent running around in different environments teeming with otherworldly atmosphere, exploring, shooting space bugs, finding hidden trinkets, and making mental notes of places you'd probably like to re-visit once you're authorized to use this thing or that, things that should all feel pretty familiar to fans of the series.

In the name of full disclosure, I will admit that, as of writing this, I've not yet completed Other M. These impressions are based on the first seven hours of the game, give or take, so any if any major event happens in the late game that contradicts this post, I haven't seen it yet, but I feel I'm far enough into the game to at least say with confidence that, in the moment to moment action, at least, Other M does play a lot like a proper Metroid game, perhaps with more hand-holding than usual, but not enough to ruin it.

Now, I don't want to end up being one of those guys, the ones who speak of games only from mechanical terms, and treat everything else as if it were mere window dressing, nor am I here to imply that it's somehow shallow to complain about Malkovich. I can relate, there's a blatant disconnect that happens in the course of playing the game where you are, at times, encumbered by circumstance, and it'd be a whole lot easier if only you were able to equip, for instance, the Varia Suit, and simply being told you're not allowed. This pill is a little easier to swallow in most other Metroid games because, simply put, you don't yet have the Varia Suit to equip. In Other M, you do, you have all your equipment right at the start, you just need permission to use it, and it's frustrating to think that, in the moment, your life is actively being made more difficult than need be because some guy, sitting in the relative safety of the comm room, doesn't see fit to give you the green light just yet, no real explanation why. It's like dealing with a district manager who just won't listen to reason.

The other problem is that it's taking a sense of agency away from the player, and it does this pretty much right from the get-go. This rescue mission you've become mixed up with... this is not Samus' mission, it's Adam's, Samus just happened upon a distress call and wound up tagging along. As such, Adam barks the orders, and you're expected to follow them, which is in sharp contrast to what Metroid fans are used to. Metroid games are most known for letting you have the run of the place, hampered only by the fact that most areas are not accessible until you've picked up some new power that let's you jump higher, for instance, or blast through a particular type of wall. By leaving these powers lying around, and letting the player freely stumble through the world and happen upon them, the games in this series were able to make the players feel in control of their environments in a way they not many other console games at the time would allow.

I say, "feel in control" mind you, because at least part of it was an elaborate trick.

Super Metroid, one of the most lauded games of it's generation, gets a great deal of praise for "dropping you in the world and letting you find your way through." While I certainly agree that the game deserves a great deal of praise, I'd like to examine this a little further. Anyone familiar with the game will recall, once the prologue ends and you land on Zebes, you immediately have the "choice" to go either to the left or to the right... except that the path to the right is a dead end. You can hang around as long as you like, but eventually, in order for the game to progress, your only real choice is to go to the left, where you hit another dead end and the only way is down. As you go down, you pass a series of doors and passages that you are free to examine, but are ultimately inaccessible until you've collected either the morph ball or the missiles. After you enter the room where you'd fought Mother Brain in the first game - and this is improtant - the door behind you locks, and won't open again until you've fought cleared the room of space pirates, and said pirates won't show up until you've collected both the morph ball and at least one missile tank. Once you're back out, you can now reach another handful of rooms, but hit another brick wall until you collect the bomb powerup.

Now, it's obviously not true to say that there was no freedom of movement in Super Metroid, because there were tons of optional side paths that frequently yielded useful items, but as far as the ones that were necessary to get from the start of the game to the end, they were spread out in a very deliberate fashion, each one giving you only a little more access to the world; just enough to reach the next upgrade, which gives you a little more access still, and so it goes. By crafting the game in this manner, the designers were able ensure that the player ends up having a fairly guided experience, stumbling from one set piece to the next at exactly the point in the narrative that the developers had planned for you to do so; but at the same time, you feel as though you're in complete control of the experience.

(That is, unless you're sequence breaking, but that's a consequence of people deliberately outsmarting the game design, and not very likely to happen by accident just from exploring. Either way, it's a whole other discussion.)

The point I want to make is this: In Super Metroid, you gain each new ability at exactly the point in the narrative when the designers wanted you to have it, and you're always as free to move about or as trapped as they'd planned for you in that particular instance. Other M works more or less the same way; you make your way through the world, and gain access to each new ability and weapon upgrade at exactly the moment when you're meant to have it. The only real difference is that there isn't some out of the way room at the end of a hallway just after a boss fight, where sits a Chozo statue holding powerup in an orb. Instead, you'll just get a message informing you that you're authorized to switch it on.

The difference is far from trivial, there's an agency that's being taken away, and even if that agency was an illusion to begin with, there's something psychologically powerful about it. When you walk up to that Chozo stature, technically speaking, you're being granted permission by the developers to use that new ability, but the actual act of picking up the orb is left in your control, and theoretically, you can choose to leave it there, if you want. By taking that simple agency out of the formula, you end up feeling slightly less in control of what's going on, which makes you feel that much less powerful. Also, you don't feel as self-sufficient. You now need to rely on this outside force to provide you with the tools that you need to survive, when you need them. You might get to decide where Samus goes from one moment to the next, but Adam remains the gatekeeper.

But it's worth remembering, this is a video game, it was designed to be challenging, but also to be entirely surmountable. Adam Malkovich's failure to stay on the ball might make the game more difficult from time to time, but if you just trust that he, and by extension, the designers, will never deliberately put you in an unwinnable situation, I think you'll find that the game still feels very much like a proper Metroid game.


  1. I've heard so much about Other M's progression, and I almost never hear anything about the game's quality on a moment-to-moment basis. I agree that the difference between having an item and being allowed to use an item is superficial, so I'm surprised so many people complain about not being allowed to use in-game items at certain times when they should actually be complaining about not being able to use an analog stick and not being allowed to aim and move at the same time. I've heard people say the story feels like it's from 1996, but I think many more important elements of the game feel that dated as well. I've only played through the first hour, but it was the worst first hour of any game I've played this year. In that time I've encountered areas where I could not tell which platforms I could stand on, areas where I couldn't tell which computers were usable and which were just background, enemies that I had to jump on to kill but I died from jumping incorrectly too many times, and rooms where I could stand in one place shooting all of the enemies without aiming, but every time I switched to first-person mode I got hit. There seem to be a lot more pressing issues than the in-story reason behind Samus's ability progression, mainly that the 2D controls don't fit the 3D action, and it just makes me think about how much I'd rather be playing an actual 2D Metroid game.

  2. So far I'm pretty disappointed by Other M. It doesn't feel like a Metroid game to me. The controls are horrible and are a step backwards. I find myself being annoyed by this game rather than actually enjoying the challenge. I might move onto something else.

  3. I think an important difference is the sense of exploration -- if you're playing Super Metroid for the first time you don't always know where to go, you have to find your way around. Even if there's only one "right" answer in the end, you still have to work it out through trial and error.

    I haven't played the current game, but from what I've heard it sounds a lot like Metroid Fusion -- linear missions, not exploration and discovery.

    That said, it would be awesome if at some point in the game Samus told her CO to stuff it and just starting using her hyper-powerful equipment.

    - JRL

  4. Besides feel of control, I'd also assume that the method of giving new powers to you in Other M also takes away from the feel of accomplishment of finding all those new items, because you "technically" already have them all, anyway ... How do Other M players feel about that?

  5. I played 5 & 1/2 hours, only for a game bug to stop a door from opening, ruining my game.
    The game play wasn't as good as any previous metroid game by a long shot. Storyline bad. sections where you have to tediously find something in your field of view: terrible! Areas where you have to walk really slowly through a scene: unnecessary. As someone who's played every Metroid game, I was supremely disappointed. Watch the trailer, and stop there.

  6. Other M is basicly what a Metroid game would've been like had it been developed for the Xbox.

    But it could've been worse, in one of the intaviews they say one of the Team Ninja guys kept asking if they could have Zero suit samus in every scene... I'm guessing that's that same guy who turned Dead or Alive into a softcore porn game.

    But all in all, Other M is still a good game if you judge it as a single game and not part of the series (IE, its a good game, but not a good metroid game)

  7. @ John Lombard:

    You bring up a good point. One of the advantages of just having a big world that gradually opens up as you gain new abilities is that they can leave you try it out in all the places you'd been where you couldn't reach this place or that, without having to explicitly telly you where to go next.

    So far, Other M feels to me like a cross between Fusion and Zero Mission, though certainly leaning closer to the former, in that you hit save points, a little more of the map is revealed, and you're pointed in the direction of the next save point. Sometimes, you're free to move about, and other times, the door locks behind you.

    @ Struat & Senekis:

    Well, at least you plated the game and formed your own opinion.

    Personally, I have to confess that I never completely adjusted to analogue sticks for some reason, so the primitive control setup has been a comfort for me, thought I think the point-to-aim stuff would have been fine if they'd delegated it to just the slower paced moments, but to use it they way they did was a mistake for the reasons you describe.

  8. @ Derboo:

    You might already know from my forum posts how I feel about the whole sense of accomplishment thing, but I'll say this:

    There are still some weapon upgrades that you find in hidden nooks and whatnot. Besides the usual missile and energy tanks, theres items that allow your charge beam to charge faster, and at least one other upgrade that I recall picking up after fighting a boss and being allowed to equip it right away without needing clearance.

    Even though these things are pinged on the map, it's not aways obvious where they are, and you do feel clever for figuring out how to reach them. I've run into a few rooms that are, it's maybe too generous to call them "puzzle rooms" per se, but you definitely need to use your brain to get through them.

    It's a different kind of satisfaction, but I think that's what they're using to fill the void.

  9. I've finished the game, and while some of the quibbles are valid, it in no way keeps the game from being good. It's still unabashedly Metroid, with a extra degree of fun ninja-ness put in for good measure.

    I believe the first-person view was left in to create more tension in battles. Much like the Resident Evil games hamstring your capability to blast zombies to kingdom-come, the "crap, I'm gonna die" moments are increased through this mechanic. We could argue all day on whether it was necessary, but the feeling is definitely there, and adds a tenseness to encounters that utilize it, as well as the concentration move to save yourself from the brink of death.

    Anyway, great game. It's substantially better than I ever imagined it turning out.

  10. Man, nobody better say Fusion at all in any Metroid conversation...that game was literally three hours of gameplay. Three hours!! I beat that game in a couple days, tops! Now, I know that I might like Ninja Gaiden more than the next person and everything, but...I think any game tops Metroid: Other M in every conceivable way.

    And what...computers that work and computers that don't work?! Welcome to every game since 2003. Play Splinter Cell? Try to get any of the story pieces in Halo 3? Yes, that's right, you have to interact with COMPUTERS that blend into the gameplay to use it.

    Personally, I'm glad that Nintendo went out on a limb and licensed Team Ninja to attempt to give the Metroid license a change. Could they have maybe given Team Ninja one of their also-runs instead, such as a sequel to Geist or a reinvented Fire Emblem (oooh, imagine Fire Emblem as a balls-to-the-wall actioner with light RPG elements...*drool*) instead of a storied franchise with such a devoted fanbase and distinguished pedigree? Sure. But that's not enough to compete with Halo, which Nintendo always positioned Metroid to kinda/sorta flirted with competing against (see,,, et al).

    I just love that there's ten comments about a Wii game. That's 10 more than Sketcz whole feature on Boku no Natsuyasumi 3.

  11. One of my biggest issues, after watching it for a bit, was that Adam seems a damn sight too much like a fanfic self-insert character, and that is retarded.

  12. It would have been nice to at least have that satisfying "item grab" music when an ability was switched on or Samus grabbed an upgrade. What happened to that Nintendo? :(

  13. Every game should have Metroid's item grab music in it somewhere. I don't care how inappropriate it might be.

  14. It's interesting you bring up Super Metroid's linear nature, because Zero Mission was designed to be a compromise between that and the freer exploration of Metroid. If you treat the game like Super Metroid then it plays just like Super Metroid, an elaborate series of expanded exploration zones, each of which containing a powerup at one end of it that unlocks the next zone.

    More experienced players (mostly those who have finished the game once) will be able to find well-hidden secret passages that actually allow the player to bypass many of the powerup-requiring roadblocks without the needed powerup. The passages are well-hidden but, and this is important, the game doesn't rely on a New Game+ style feature to unlock them. The secret passages are in the game every playthrough, the player just isn't usually good enough to find or take advantage of them. It's possible to win with 15% of fewer of the game's items, and the developers included extra ending pictures as a reward for players who accomplish this feat.

    I've raved about this many times on a number of websites to date. I'm surprised this fact of the game doesn't get mentioned more often (by other people). It's really an amazing design, and increases the replayability of the game considerably.

  15. Wildcat from the forums here. You've done a marvelous job explaining this, Jave - from what I've gathered, this shift in item procurement has been a major bother for some people. I haven't played it yet, so I've got nothing to really add as of this point, but I felt that your piece here was an excellent one. Well done!

  16. I can tolerate a lukewarm sequel.

    What annoys me is how gamers love to preen their feathers and 'decontruct' the myth of freedom. Let's debunk this whole deluded nonsense of Super Metroid being free roaming. "You never HAD any "freedom" to begin with, you plebe!"

    Shine a light on the player's shackles, will you? I'm so tired of the deconstruction argument being used to win any debate. As a famous Roman once said, "What is truth?"

    It's a shame, because I love the new Samus design. Her lips have just the right amount of anti-authoritarian contempt in their expression.

  17. @ johnnyfog

    I'm not trying to win any debates, I was unaware that a debate were going on. The point I was trying to make was, simply, that changing the way Samus gains her powerups from finding them lying around to being given authorization to use them does not in any way ruin the game or make it any less Metroid, as was the complaint I was hearing from multiple sources at the time.

  18. This article does succeed in justifying the progression mechanic to me, which is a sight more than any other article on it has done.

    The question is, can you do the same for Samus' newfound boots-quivering towards Ridley that requires a burly man to bail her out?

  19. In short Sid Menon, Ridley had been set up to be a fairly nasty monster towards Samus. An official manga released somewhere around Fusion/Zero Mission showed the nasty bugger eating her parents in front of her, bragging about it and then terrorizing her 5-yearold self.
    When Other M starts Ridley is presumed dead as can be as his body was destroyed completely when Zebes went boom. No chance for the Space Pirates to re-build him or anything. Not that the Space Pirates are around or anything as Samus also mentions that there is a gap in time between when she leaves the med-lab after Super and before she gets the distress call from the bottle ship. She comments that "Metroids and Space Pirates became a thing of the past, no longer a concern for the Galactic Federation."

    When she finally meets up with Ridley in the chamber, he's been stalking her already through the game and then shows up, out o blue in a rather evil manor. Her reaction was a combination of shock, surprise and ,yes also, fear. This thing was supposed to be dead and gone with for a time now. She has a flash back to her 5-year old self witch lets Ridley get the drop on her. Anthony helps her out of his grasp and then killed by Ridley for doing as much. Samus then kicks Ridley ass so hard he plays dead and then flees for his life rather then hang around anymore and Samus goes after him in hot pursuit.

    Considering that she had just saved Anthony and a couple others not a short while before the complaints about this scene have been puzzling to me.

  20. @ Sid Menon:

    I'll defend the gameplay up and down as I very much enjoyed playing it and didn't find any of the common complaints to be much of an issue.

    But there's no getting around it... the writing is bad - really bad - and right up to the end, it never gets better. If you go in knowing and accepting this, it might soften the blow a little. That's the best I can offer.