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The Forgotten, the Maligned: Metroid: Other M

Thanks to Cart Boy and PushDustIn for edits.

In 1986, Nintendo’s R&D1 studio, inspired by Ridley Scott’s classic Alien, released Metroid, a NES action game which soon became a classic in its own right. Its labyrinth of alien caverns offered a side-scrolling counterpart to The Legend of Zelda’s nonlinear overworld. Those caverns were dark, central to a spooky and ominous atmosphere few console games were able to present. And those who completed the game in a short enough time discovered that the armored, imposing space warrior they’d been playing as was actually a woman, a rarity in the 1980s gaming scene. Samus Aran became an icon of gaming heroes, while Metroid itself birthed a trailblazing series that inspired and influenced level design, nonlinearity, visual and audio direction, mood, and quiet storytelling throughout the industry.

For a long running series with comparatively few games, Metroid has more than its fair share of indisputable classics. Super Metroid from 1994 is one of the most acclaimed games of all time due to an impeccable level design that popularized the act of speedrunning, and a presentation that pushed how creators could tell stories without writing. The series’ 2002 revival Metroid Prime did the impossible and became an American made first-person shooter that not merely retained but furthered and explored Super’s quality, values, and philosophy. And Metroid Fusion, released the very next day, stuck to the 2D but cut some of the series’ staples in the name of furthering a sense of horror and dread. Alongside Castlevania, Samus’ adventures built the beloved “Metroidvania” genre of nonlinear, exploratory games.

Prime ended an eight year drought for the series and made it more popular and recognizable than ever, but it also ended up indirectly anchoring the series with the American studio that made it, Retro Studios. Part of that was simply due to quality; while Prime’s two sequels were never quite as good as the first, they all were impeccably designed, with a focus on environmental storytelling that really wasn’t being explored in shooters then. But it was probably just that they were bigger and flashier than the two 2D Metroids of the time; Fusion and the 2004 Metroid 1 remake Zero Mission. Perhaps those games, great as they were, seemed outdated to players? Certainly Prime at certain points felt like the future.

Prime used its perspective and tight-knit rooms to make Tallon IV feel real and steeped in history.

One side effect of this was the unintentional sidelining of Yoshio Sakamoto. A longtime Nintendo leader, Sakamoto has had a long, brilliant career as a director and especially a producer, being involved in WarioWare, Kid Icarus, Donkey Kong Jr., Tomodachi Life, and Rhythm Heaven. But he’s really known for Metroid: a character designer for the first game, and both the writer and director for Super Metroid, Fusion, and Zero Mission. But despite being “the” Metroid guy, he was almost entirely uninvolved with Prime or its sequels. Over the past several years, Nintendo fans have retroactively theorized a resentment on Sakamoto’s part, and a desire to take back the franchise to which he’s devoted so much of his professional life. Unsurprisingly, that’s not something we can plausibly expect to discern from interviews, but it’s also easy to buy into the theory, going by his last directorial work and our subject for today, Metroid: Other M.

So after Metroid Prime 3 put a tidy bow on the trilogy in 2007, Retro went to work on a Donkey Kong Country sequel while Sakamoto decided to team with publisher Koei Tecmo’s Team Ninja. While they’ve gone on to make Nioh and Hyrule Warriors, by then they were only known for the mid-2000s Ninja Gaiden reboot and the fighting game series Dead or Alive. It was a bizarre choice; Gaiden games were brutally, often inaccessibly difficult, and a juvenile attitude best represented by the hypersexualized DoA spinoff Xtreme Beach Volleyball seemed a poor choice for Metroid’s more somber, subtle tones. It also didn’t much matter. This was Sakamoto’s show by his own admission; he was not just the writer and director, but the main creative director for seemingly all the game’s ideas. Games are, by design, made by a team, but this is a fairly notorious example of an auteurist work in this medium.

Released in 2010, Other M takes place in an odd point in the series’ timeline: it’s after Super Metroid, in which the villainous Space Pirates have all been killed, but a prequel to Fusion, in which Samus works with an AI program containing the consciousness of her dead colleague, Adam Malkovich. It’s meant to set up sequels to Fusion, fill in a gap for fans by showing Samus and Adam’ surrogate parental relationship, and present the series’ traditionally silent action hero as a more well rounded character. The game cribs from a number of science fiction stories, but like the series as a whole, this is an Alien joint above all. The plot is straight from Aliens, with Samus accompanying Adam’s small platoon of doomed space marines to search a derelict space station crawling with monsters. There’s a clandestine plot to harness the Metroids, the series’ iconic super-parasite; there’s a young woman for Samus to (sort of) support as an impromptu maternal figure; there’s a Metroid Queen menacing said woman who serves as the final boss; there’s even a traitor who gets done in by the very monster he hoped to control and a morally ambiguous machine.

The story also comes with long FMV cutscenes, and even a theater mode after finishing the story. If it wasn’t the biggest focus of the game, it was certainly up there.

The intent to stand away from Prime and be a “truer” 3D expression of Metroid is obvious. The music draws from Super and Fusion (albeit with more forgettable results than their powerful audio), the art style eschews Prime’s naturalistic color palette for a more garish scheme that poorly mimics the 2D games, and most notably, even the game’s controls are designed for that purpose. Ostensibly, using the single Wii Remote sans Nunchuck or Classic Controller – done at Sakamoto’s insistence – was to make it simpler for newcomers, but the confusing mechanics and his own claim that the game was meant as an “NES game with the latest technology” makes it easier to conclude it was done more to mimic an original NES controller. So while Samus moves about a 3D space, you control her via the D-Pad, which feels ungainly and loose. She (usually) locks onto targets automatically, but any firing strategy usually just devolves into indiscriminate shooting. Early in the adventure, I felt this could work; the experience was shallow, but it worked decently as a sort of arcade brawler. But every time it asked me to wall jump or navigate a room that isn’t a straight corridor, the momentum seized up.

The controls also lead to a particularly frustrating mechanic in which the player must turn the Remote to the screen and put Samus in an unmoving first-person perspective to fire missiles or attack specific targets. It puts you in danger in hectic fights (they’re always hectic), it feels unsatisfying and unreliable, and the second or two it takes to change position breaks the immersion. Though in some ways, the mechanic betrays how indebted the project kind of is to the Prime games, different as it wants to be. It feels like a dunderheaded version of their brilliant Scan Visor, with Samus able to lock onto certain targets but not learn anything other than “can this target be shot” and “what do you need to break it.” I had the same feeling from its Morph Ball tunnels, which are the same as in Retro’s trilogy but just slightly less imaginative, and Other M even brings back those games’ worst weapon, the Seeker Missile. As independent as it wants to be, it really can’t – or doesn’t quite know how to – get there, so it struggles to fix problems Prime gracefully solved almost a decade prior.

There are a number of other small issues. There’s a mechanic for recharging health and missiles that’s more confusing and dangerous than the pickups it replaces; you can’t heal above a certain threshold of damage, you can only heal a fraction of your health, and the upgrades to improve it are rare and easily missable (to say nothing of how the game repeatedly blocks off previous areas for a time). Series staples like the Speed Booster and Grapple Beam are clumsily implemented, implying they’re only there to make it a “real” Metroid game. Just as awkward are context sensitive melee attacks that are almost required but unreliable to activate. Mandatory first-person “Search View” sequences that mimic classic adventure games are terrible, killing the pacing to force Samus to figure out which barely perceptible object in her view is supposed to be important. Ultimately, though, it’s not the bad and poorly conceived gameplay that makes this infamous but its storytelling, writing, and characterization of its hero.

Of course, the former does impact the game in one particularly poor way. At the start, Adam demands Samus block out all her classic weapons and upgrades to not potentially endanger his crew. Functionally, it’s no different from how previous Metroid games would cause Samus to accidentally lose her upgrades, just presumably more “plausible.” He cites Samus’ destructive Power Bombs as an example, and sure, those certainly shouldn’t be used on a whim. But this order covers things from weapons both dangerous (Speed Booster, Super Missiles) and not (the Morph Ball bombs, which are deliberately very weak), to tools that aren’t even weapons (the Grapple Beam), to even her armor. During one of three especially infamous moments in the game, Samus is forced to run through a volcanic environment without her heat-resistant Varia Suit; Adam only relents after a fifteen minute gauntlet that eats away at her health, despite the fact that he even “allowed” her to use her Ice Beam during a rest stop along this trip.

Done well, a mechanic close to this could have actually been interesting. Perhaps Samus could start with most of her tools and steadily lose them before slowly getting them back, or have to deal with situations where upgrades might not be reliable. Even just losing and regaining her more defensive suits alone could even be a cool way to explore difficulty. But this isn’t that; it nakedly only exists to stave off criticism of her losing her gear at the start. That you only regain powers at specific situations and never lose them again (presumably they’re still just as dangerous as before?) shows how slapdash the system is. Then again, it’s the least of the game’s narrative problems.

Just on a prose level, the writing is abysmal. Perhaps to compensate for her silence in the series (or to follow her frequent, somewhat overwritten narration in Fusion), Samus’ inner monologue does not merely narrate the story but explain the subtext, obvious plot points, and every errant thought of hers. There is an embarrassingly maudlin three or four minute cutscene to explain her history with the thumbs-up sign, which is barely even used afterwards. After discovering a brutally mutilated corpse, she lets us know that “it was obvious there was some pervasive danger throughout the facility;” later, she clarifies that a second was the victim of “some dark intelligence.” The writing tries to come across as clinical and thoughtful, but it makes its protagonist seem ignorant and unengaged. The acting doesn’t help; while Jessica Erin Martin is perfectly serviceable when Samus is talking to other characters – something true for the rest of the cast – she speaks in a robotic, miserable monotone for the narration as stilted as the lines themselves. This is something I’m blaming on the acting direction, because it’s pretty much limited to her inner monologue, though that has to make up around ninety percent of the writing.

It would be wrong to claim that the majority of Samus’ time isn’t spent shooting monsters, but the tsunami of narration can make you think otherwise.

The thing with subtext is it’s just that, information underneath the text. Unsubtle storytelling can be dearly fun, but what makes unsaid themes satisfying is that they reward engaging with the material. Instead of showing Samus struggle with her thoughts, she only tells us, “my recent thoughts started to frustrate me.” And her just telling us that broken spaceship she’s about to spend ten hours in is called the “Bottle Ship,” and then putting even more emphasis on the baby and motherhood symbolism by explaining in multiple sentences how its distress beacon is like a “baby’s cry,” is frustrating. We can figure that out ourselves!

That motherhood symbolism isn’t limited to the ship and the pun in the title; it’s central to a game attempting – poorly – to tell a story about womanhood, with an ostensibly emotionally complex Samus fighting through a world of monsters and men trying to keep her down. But despite this, Other M has trouble figuring its protagonist out, and she comes across as far lesser despite the greater attention. The plot has her working with six soldiers, though only two have personalities: Anthony Higgs, Samus’ estranged friend and the only likeable character, and Adam, nursing a grudge against her for leaving his command years ago. There’s also a traitor and a couple survivors, but it’s impossible to care about any of them. Outside of Samus and Higgs’ friendship (which isn’t bad and really could’ve been expanded), almost all the character interaction comes from her and Adam. The latter’s resentment molds into being insulting and dismissive, and the narrative is about her trying to get his approval again while dealing with various traumas. Curiously, though, she never actually overcomes or works through any of these. It makes me unsure what the actual theme of her arc is supposed to be, other than that one 30 Rock joke about how “boy, women who try to do things sure get killed a lot.”

The second of those three notorious moments comes out of this. Throughout the first half of the plot, Samus repeatedly encounters this “mysterious creature” – first a furry chicken thing, then a lizard beast – that turns out to be the awkward teenage period of her archenemy, the beastly dragon Ridley. And when he finally appears in full, she freezes in terror, so traumatized by his reappearance that she flashes back to being a child and has to be rescued by Higgs. This sequence was inscrutable to most players, because despite Other M being so fearful of leaving things to interpretation that Samus literally says lines like “[Adam’s] amused expression suggested he wanted to say something,” it never explains why her traumatic episode happened in any way. The reason is that he horrifically murdered her parents in front of her, but the event and its effects on her were exclusive to a mediocre 2004 Metroid manga that was only released in Japan and never reprinted (there was a vague reference to it in Super Smash Bros. Brawl, but it provided little context). To western players especially, it was incomprehensible, especially since she’d previously defeated Ridley five times prior in the series’ timeline.

It’s pretty much impossible to treat Edgy Pre-Teen Ridley as anything but ridiculous, but I can’t say I wasn’t at least a little charmed.

This isn’t to say a plot about Samus dealing with trauma is wrong. Hell, it’s not even to say it’s wrong to have that moment come up in Ridley’s inevitable reappearance (it’s not uncommon for trauma survivors to feel its effects even in familiar situations) or that Samus should never be rescued or aided. But neither the sequence nor the game are actually about that; nothing comes of it other than to just be a situation where Samus is overwhelmed and must be saved. Most of the game’s attempts at challenging her in any realm beyond the physical go the same way: Samus is hurt or weak, and that’s kind of it. She doesn’t overcome any of these struggles, but the game doesn’t explore them either, so it’s hard not to infer that Other M views “complexity” as simply how much trauma you can shovel onto your protagonist. This is a poor method of storytelling, and it’s compounded by the problem that Samus is only nominally the main character. She kills some monsters to be sure, but almost all the principal actions of the story are done by the other characters. It’s primarily Adam who gets to play the hero, and Samus more often than not comes across as a supporting character, following his idiotic orders so dutifully that it’s a shock when she actually turns on her Screw Attack without waiting for his authorization. Even that noxious narration rarely seems to give us her perspective, mostly just her interpretation of Adam’s.

It saves the worst moment of this for the end of the story, when – in the last of those three infamous moments – Adam sneaks behind Samus to shoot her in the back so she won’t stop him from entering and blowing up the ship’s secret Metroid lab, despite her being confronted by one of the parasites right then. Throughout the story, Samus argues or recounts arguing with Adam, all of which play out the exact same way and end with the latter being right. Their final interaction in the game doesn’t even do this; his “getting rough” with her (his words) ensures she can’t have the opportunity to challenge him one last time. Though I have no illusions that it wouldn’t have gone any differently, considering how frequently the game tries to show the man as the strong leader who, unlike Samus, is willing to make the hard sacrifices to do the job.

But Adam isn’t good or laudable in any way. He’s just an unpleasant, sexist jerk who spends the game being demeaning to Samus, putting her in unnecessary danger, and showing the kind of brilliant leadership that leads to his squad being almost entirely murdered and him dying in a flashy sacrifice that doesn’t even seem to accomplish anything. Some of the writing at its worst even makes their relationship come across as implicitly abusive, with Samus repeatedly verbally hurting herself each time she supposedly gets in Adam’s way or explicitly lauding their relationship as “paternalistic.” This characterization of him in this doesn’t just kneecap Other M, it also retroactively makes Fusion worse; why should we actually want to see him?

Then again, going off the narration, maybe a lot of these problems really did start in Fusion…?

That kind of effect can be felt from most of the game as a whole. It’s certainly still possible to view Samus as the same tough as nails bounty hunters players have fallen in love with for the past three decades, but it is somewhat depressing associating that character with the person whose internal monologue takes three sentences to explain how a cage works. Even something silly like the game’s pronunciation of Zebes makes Metroid’s most iconic location seem a bit less magical. More broadly, it’s genuinely sad accepting that Sakamoto – who has had (and will hopefully continue to have) a truly brilliant career as a producer and director – was fully responsible for this mess. The Metroid fan in me would like to blame Team Ninja, and I’m certain they didn’t help, but this is on him.

Adam’s absurd sacrifice is, aside from the moment that most severely excises Samus’ agency, the beginning of a short final act that spins completely out of control. The identity of the traitor is indirectly shown, but the lack of personality to the cast makes the subplot entirely forgotten by that point. Ridley gets killed off screen, ensuring Samus can’t overcome any of her thematic struggles. One of the worst final boss fights I’ve ever encountered leads her to meet an entirely new character who only exists to expose another minor supporting character as the main villain the whole time, leading to five minutes or so of cutscenes solely explaining both the narrative and its subtext. It’s an impressive cavalcade of plot points stumbling over each other with such efficiency it almost manages to make the preceding hours more satisfying.

A mixed critical reception was quickly overshadowed by a vitriolic fan response. Primarily western Metroid aficionados utterly despised Other M for everything Sakamoto saw as its strengths: its gameplay, writing, and especially plot. Infantilizing Samus to the extent the game did was seen as “character assassination,” and while I dislike the term, it gets at both how severely the story undercut one of the gaming world’s most beloved heroines and how hated the game is for doing just that. Despite being a sequel to a popular series on one of the best selling consoles in history, it sold poorly and became a near instant pariah. I’m not sure if that’s why we didn’t get a Metroid game for six years – when the also terribly received Prime spinoff Federation Force came out – or if there just wasn’t internal interest (development suggests that; Force was made by Nintendo’s Next Level Games, and last year’s Samus Returns by third party Mercury Steam). Probably a mixture of both, really, with Nintendo spending the months after release trying to figure out why it flopped. It should be noted that Other M received possibly the greatest marketing push in the franchise’s history; it was a big deal, and its collapse in the face of terrible word of mouth was entirely out of the blue.

For as little dialogue as Super Metroid has, it’s impeccable at environmental storytelling, and creating a sense of place. You feel the depth and weight of the caves, the tension of what’s behind the next corner, without Samus needing to make that stated.

This discussion isn’t about whether or not Other M is bad (it is), or sexist (it is), or whether taking a risk like this is inherently bad (it isn’t) or whether the game’s ideas were worthless from the start (they were not). It’s more about how a project can be misguided, and how following one man’s singular vision can be as much a peril as it is an avenue. Sakamoto and his Super Metroid team in 1994 managed to make a game that told stories subtly, that rewarded exploration and self-direction, and that respected the intelligence of its audience; he was just as important an agent of its triumph as he was of Other M’s shame. It also shows that what makes a game good isn’t just mechanics and controls, but context and consideration. Other M brought in a visual style and enemies and weapons from that SNES classic, but it ignored its values; ultimately it felt more like someone trying fitfully to play with Super Metroid toys than anything else, while the very different Metroid Prime retained and considered that philosophy to create something great. And finally, I think it shows how important it is to let go of the player’s hand, and let them explore and learn and come to conclusions themselves. This is a game with a very specific idea of the story it wants to tell, and it refuses to let things like player agency or expression get in its way. And all of this focus, all of these limitations, was done in the service of a story people hated. Games demand space for individual expression, but that’s also true with stories of all kinds needing space for interpretation, and Other M‘s unwillingness to recognize either is probably what destroyed it more than anything.

3 comments
  1. It’s cathartic seeing someone trash Other M; that game is a dumpster fire. I’m just glad that the Metroid series is putting Other M behind it and letting the Prime series be canon again.

    Nintendrone on May 24 |
  2. Agree with this article, Other M really belongs to the trash. Its been almost eight years since the game got released, I wonder if Sakamoto has any kind of regrets now looking back but I’m not holding my breath.

    GreatMeat on May 25 |
  3. Great writeup! I wonder if Super Metroid’s storytelling is just an accidental byproduct of the technical limitations at the time. Perhaps we would’ve been tortured with labored monologues about her wishing to be a surrogate mother to this kidnapped baby Metroid and the planet would be overrun with men telling her what to do.

    Blargg on May 25 |