How Metroid: Other M could have worked
Hoo boy. Metroid: Other M. I could easily do a rage post on this game, as it is one of the two main reasons I consider 2010 my most disappointing year in gaming. And the reception to the game effectively made Nintendo put the franchise back on ice for the foreseeable future (unless you count the minigame in Nintendo Land). And honestly I can’t exactly blame them.
While it is tempting to blame Team Ninja for the entire thing, please keep in mind that the people behind the writing were led by one of the original creators of Metroid: Yoshio Sakamoto. So maybe this was how they envisioned Samus to be all along? And one of the more frustrating things to note is how close they actually came to making it work. I feel like I can see what they were going for, and with a few tweaks it could have easily worked. So let’s go into my take on the whole debacle.
With SPOILERS galore.
To avoid any confusion I will state right off the bat that I personally refer to the game as MOther, because of the heavy theme of motherhood, and the feeling that it was their intention all along.
Warning: This is basically fanfiction.
Now the idea behind MOther was fairly simple, I believe. They had given the Metroid franchise over to the previously unknown Retro Studios who created the Prime series, and people loved that. So it might be logical to assume that handing it over to a known developer would create something even better. Especially if they let one of the original creators work with them. It might have seemed like guaranteed success, but it was not to be.
Where to start. The setting is a big, fat target. A story showing a more vulnerable and insecure side of Samus could work. Just don’t set it at the end of her adventures. She has already been through so much, experienced so much and accomplished so much. While you could make an argument as to how the baby Metroid had awakened something in her, or just that the pressure had finally gotten to her; it is a little hard to swallow.
I propose instead setting such a game straight after the first one. As I established here, she was already known as the best in the business at the start of the first game. Things have however taken a new turn now as she’s asked to return to the planet where she was raised to adulthood, and gets to see what the space pirates have done to the place. She has to face off against Ridley; the pirate boss who had her parents and everyone she knew killed on the colony she was born; and finally found Mother Brain itself: The computer created by the Chozo has clearly betrayed them and is working with the people who rendered her an orphan. This would likely remind her of both her original family and her Chozo family, and how they’re both gone now. That could be a good setup for a game showing Samus working through her insecurities and doubt.
It could also explain how she might attach herself to her old commander Adam, as she might feel in need of some guidance. They should maybe tone down the dependency-factor a tad though. It doesn’t really come off well, especially not as far into her career as MOther is set. It’s what Campster would call ludo-narrative dissonance, I believe.
This segues nicely into talking about the power-up system. See, she has all the powers from the very beginning. She just has them all turned off until Adam authorises their use (come to think of it, how does he know everything she has installed?). There are still power tanks and missile upgrades, but you don’t hunt down the upgrades; you simply wait until Adam says it’s okay to use them. The most infamous point being where you run through a hazardous environment, but Samus doesn’t turn on her Varia environmental protection until you reach the boss and Adam tells her to do so. This doesn’t really reflect well on our heroine.
It would only have taken a few changes to make it make more sense though. Samus is a walking one-woman army: A miniature (and highly mobile) tank. Her weapons have been demonstrated to devastate a vast range of materials. So I could buy that out of respect for Adam and their history together; and also a reasonable desire to not damage the spaceship unduly; she would agree to restrict her weapon deployment until he deemed the situation to be grave enough to warrant a higher grade of weaponry. It’s not perfect, but I think it works better than what they did.
As for the utility-based suit upgrades like Varia, Grapple Beam, Speed Booster and so on; just add some line about how Samus generally have those turned off to conserve suit energy usage. And whenever she’s faced with a scenario where she can’t proceed without an upgrade she would simply turn it on of her own volition as she deemed it necessary. Basically when it makes sense. She is the greatest bounty hunter in the galaxy, so I have to believe she has the judgment to make such calls, or she’d have been dead long ago.
I don’t recommend it actually draining in-game suit energy though. They could do that if they implemented a system like Super Metroid had where you could activate and deactivate upgrades as needed/desired, but even that would be fiddly in the longterm.
While we’re on the topic of the suit, let me just say how dumb I think the redesign of how it works is. Perhaps this has always been the canon explanation, but it really hasn’t been explored much in the games before this. Her suit now basically seems to exist in its own dimension which it phases in and out of as Samus needs it. Not an idea entirely without merit, but the implementation is just daft. There is of course the scene with Ridley where she panics and the suit flickers on and off, but I’ll get back to that later.
The scene that most springs to mind beyond that is the one where Adam sneaks up on Samus and basically tases a spot on the lower part of her back while she has the suit on, and it stuns her and causes the suit to phase off. See, what this implicates is that her suit basically has an off switch located on her lower back. So that any time she’s shot in the back with an energy weapon there’s a chance that her suit could be turned off. I shouldn’t even have to explain what a dumb design decision that is. That, combined with the idea that a sufficient mental shock is enough to cause the suit to fade away really raises some big questions about how she has survived this long, and how stupid the Chozo were when creating the most advanced suit of power armour in the galaxy. The game doesn’t even use it particularly tastefully, rather having it go away every so often to remind us that she has these big tits and firm arse to go with all her space-badarseness. And the Zero Suit; which is basically a skin-tight layer of armour in itself; works like a push-up bra rather than a sports bra, but I’ll concede that that’s a pretty common trope in most forms of media. I’m disappointed that they went for it, but I can’t blame them for its existence, only its use.
This is not the only time the armour has been depicted in a similar way, I will hesitantly admit. Even the after-credits scenes for the 2D games had Samus’s armour magically disappear to reveal what she looked like underneath if you did well enough. I will however say that I always imagined that was just a shortcut as they didn’t want to animate her actually undressing, and not the canon explanation for how the armour actually works. And then there is of course Super Smash Bros. Brawl where using her ultimate attack apparently drains all of her energy and reverts her to the Zero Suit form, but I can’t say I ever imagined Smash Bros. to be canon. Perhaps I was wrong.
Oh, and something I noticed while looking through images for this post. The MOther Zero Suit has fucking high heels! Just no. No no no. Even Brawl didn’t go that far. Fuck you, Team Ninja.
But if you look at Metroid Fusion it seems to state the suit works quite differently. When the X infects her and eventually knocks her out, her suit doesn’t just vanish, it rather fuses to her skin. I don’t off the top of my head remember if that was because of the parasite, or because she needs to be conscious to take off the suit normally though. Either way they had to surgically remove enough of the suit to be able to access her skin and treat her, which does rather establish the suit as an actual entity. So the idea that it would simply fade away if she was knocked out doesn’t really make sense. Power armour should not be made so that it goes away and exposes its wearer to danger whenever something particularly bad happens.
Ultimately it might have been better to just accept the suit as being space magic and leaving it at that, since it was created by a race so advanced that their tech essentially was magic for other races. Going too far into how it actually works just opens it up to the kind of scrutiny it might not hold up to.
Okay then, Ridley is the big bugbear in the room. You run into him three times across the game, although it’s not revealed to be him until the final encounter. The first time he’s a little fuzzy bird-/bunny-like thing that just hops away after staring at you for a bit. The second time he’s gone through a metamorphosis and become a large fuzzy lizard-like creature with a stinger tail, a rather crazy tongue and sharp claws and teeth. He jumps on Samus and pins her to the ground which leads to a rather frustrating first-person sequence where you have to keep blasting the tail until your space marine buddies remember they should probably help and save you by driving the proto-Ridley off. I have absolutely no idea why I couldn’t just roll into morph ball form, drop a cluster of bombs and roll out from under him before morphing and shoving my gun-arm into that large open stupid mouth of his and cooking his insides. Or deep-freezing them maybe. I can’t recall if freeze beam was available at that point.
The dumbest bit is yet to come though. You come across a room where you find the shell of the lizard-thing stuck to the wall outside and head inside to find out what it has become now, and surprise surprise! It’s Ridley reborn! And Samus freezes, so Ridley does his regular shtick of grabbing her and flying her around. He’s seriously done this in every game he appeared in except the first Metroid Prime. Samus completely freaks out and her suit starts flickering on and off while she panics in Ridley’s grip, completely helpless. So the big, strong space marine friend she came along with has to step up and save the helpless damsel. Ridley drops Samus and knocks the space marine over the edge of the arena in the room. Then, and only then, does the game give you control and let you kick Ridley’s arse so hard that he runs away like a beaten dog. Admittedly that felt really good, partially because it felt like I was showing the game how Samus is supposed to be. He doesn’t get to make a comeback though, because the place he slinks off to also contains a rather large Metroid who murders him for lunch. Thus explaining the remains we found in Metroid Fusion.
Now Samus has faced down Ridley in the original game, in Metroid Prime, in Metroid Prime 3 and also Super Metroid. Four encounters, three of which where he apparently returned from the dead. And yet somehow this fifth encounter, the fourth resurrection, is the one that causes her to freak out? I really don’t buy it. I really, really don’t. Another argument for setting the game directly after the first and before Prime. I can easily imagine the first time he comes back from the dead might be a shock, especially so shortly after she had her past dredged up. Still doesn’t excuse the flickering suit, of course.
Why not mention the Metroids as well. See, Samus discovers that a section of the ship has been used as a cloning and breeding area for Metroids by the Federation (which kinda undercuts her reaction in Fusion). She is determined to go in there and end the threat, but then that stun scene I mentioned where Adam hits her off switch happens. Though not before Samus gets transfixed by the first Metroid she runs into and practically lets it attack her. Anyways, after stunning her, Adam explains that he found out about the Metroids as well, and intends to go into the section of the ship, detach it, then trigger the self-destruct and end the threat, thus sparing Samus the work. Considering the final boss fight is against a Queen Metroid anyway (I don’t really consider the MB encounter at the end to be a proper boss fight, even though I failed it multiple times) that was pretty much pointless, wasn’t it? Not to mention the point Yahtzee raised about why the controls to detach and destroy the section with the incredibly dangerous living weapons would only be located inside the section itself. That seems like the worst crisis planning.
And what about the murder mystery? Yes, I’ve asked that myself as well. A little bit into the game it’s revealed that one of the space marines is a mole who’s there to silence the entire project, and starts by killing off his ‘mates’ one by one. We never get to see his face, even when we have a boss-fight with him as he tries to kill MB; believing her to be a scientist based on the ship. See, MB looks like a human woman, but she’s really Mother Brain given humanoid form. So when the murderer finally tries to sneak up on her and assassinate her later on, she turns the tables and breaks him instead. Which made me assume that the corpse you find up in that room when you get there yourself is supposed to be our killer, but I wouldn’t really call that a good resolution. There’s really no way Samus can know he’s the killer, only the gamer, and I’ve noticed a lot of gamers didn’t catch that either. Not the best way to treat what was pretty much the only interesting bit of your story for most of the game, especially considering the amount of build-up they had for it. Some sort of epic reveal would have been nice.
This may come as a shock, but there were actually parts of the game I liked. The gameplay had some nice sides to it. The parts of the game where you were just exploring the deserted ship and fought monsters and looked for goodies and information had a tendency of putting me in the old Metroid atmosphere of isolation and wonder. And I did really like how Samus felt for the most part. She was quick, agile, capable and lethal. I even liked the auto-aim, as I felt it emphasised just how much of a badarse Samus is. And the execution moves on the bigger enemies had a certain “Oh yeah!” factor to them. And going into first-person mode to explore your surroundings and scan certain objects was a nice call-back to Metroid Prime, although I wish they’d done more with it.
The problem with the first-person mode was that you were locked into place, and you needed to be in first-person to fire missiles. So in a combat system that relied on fast reflexes, dodging and sending off a couple of quick shots at the first sign of opportunity would suddenly require you stand perfectly still, aim and fire. Which was especially obnoxious in certain boss fights. I think the gameplay would have benefited from using the nunchuk to move around, and letting you do that in first-person mode too. Going for the Wiimote-only controls was a novel idea, but it didn’t really pan out. While a lot of the game is 2D-ish, there’s still a fair deal of 3D movement, especially where bosses are concerned, so an analog-stick would have been superior to the D-pad.
And the over-the-shoulder 3rd-person sections could probably have been safely dropped. They were slow and tedious, and since you can’t use your weapons I quickly learned that a 3rd-person section meant “nothing threatening is going to happen for a little while”. So it felt more like a chore than the “ooo eerie” thing it seemed they were going for. And please don’t repeat those first-person locked-in-place pixel-hunt sections. They could be obnoxiously hard to find.
So yeah, it was actually kinda fun when it just let you play the game. Whenever the cutscenes came along and the plot intruded it tended to drain the fun away. Not at all helped by Samus’s wooden delivery, the rather sloppy writing or how the gameplay and cutscenes tended to feel entirely divorced from eachother. The person you played as did not feel like the one you were forced to watch.
I could write out an entire story of how I think it should have gone, but I think I’ve strayed enough into fanfiction territory already. Suffice to say this game could have been a lot better, and it doesn’t feel like it would have taken that much work to get there. A few different decisions early on, some more quality control (the game actually shipped with a game-breaking bug), a few proof readers and a bit more polish and it could have really been something.
Have I missed something? Do you disagree? Feel free to let me know.