Review: Metroid – Other M

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Samus Aran isn’t supposed to need anyone. Ever since she let her hair down decades ago in one of gaming’s watershed moments (“what? Samus is a girl?”), she has been the quiet and revered standard-bearer for strong, female lead characters. She needed no rescuing and wasn’t prone to inner monologues about stars, life or making people happy. She didn’t wish for love or try to counter her femininity by acting macho.

Basically, she was just damn good in that awesome, alien-killing armor of hers.

At least, that’s what I and others want to believe — some of this imagery, in a way, is our fault. With other female lead characters grunting, bouncing their chests and splattering bits of sex appeal on everyone’s screens, many fans who’ve known Samus since the original Metroid have crafted a mental ideal around her minimalist nature. With her cloudy past, abundance of weapons and gadgets and her reputation as a bonafide ass kicker, she’s almost like an intergalactic Batman.

And this is where Metroid: Other M becomes both a satisfying and confusing experience. The gameplay says one thing about this legendary heroine, while the storytelling says something completely different — and sad. Team Ninja succeeds in taking Samus to new action heights, but I can’t shake the feeling that the mystique that made Samus so appealing in the past has been damaged.

From a pure gameplay standpoint, Other M turns Samus into a multifaceted action superhero. It feels different from her earlier side-scrolling adventures, which felt somber and isolated compared to heavier action games — while there were plenty of things to shoot, they seemed secondary to the exploration of alien bases and caverns. The first-person iterations of Samus added more dynamism and visual life — we were able to see what she sees, shoot it if necessary, and still be able to poke around for weapons and gadgets.

If you’re familiar with Team Ninja’s work (Ninja Gaiden, Dead or Alive), you’re not going to be shocked that Samus, in many ways, is the quickest she’s ever been on screen. She gets “ninja-fied” for the most part, deftly wiping out hordes upon hordes of aliens she encounters inside a massive bioweapons facility floating in space. She comes fully equipped with her weapons, but isn’t “authorized” to use all of them after running into a team of space soldiers and their leader, Adam. Therefore, certain things like her grapple beam or the most powerful version of her laser cannon remain dormant until Adam sees fit to give her the green light (more on this later).

Despite those early limitations, Samus has plenty to work with. She can still roll into a ball and access tight spaces, still power up her primary weapon and unleash charged plasma hell on any enemies in her crosshairs. Actually, such crosshairs can also be accessed by pointing the Wii Remote at the screen, switching the action perspective into first-person shooter mode. This view is also used to search for clues and find the weak spots of some of the epic boss characters you encounter. The transition from third to first-person can be disorienting and a little annoying, especially in mid-battle. Thankfully, major enemies have just enough pause moments in their attack patterns to allow you to try and get your bearings. But in true Team Ninja fashion, if you don’t capitalize on the openings quickly enough, you’ll witness Samus being mercilessly pounded into oblivion.

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Two of Samus’ fancier moves are the “kill shot” and a very sweet-looking dodge that enables her to set up counterattacks as well as elude groups of swarming foes. The “kill shot” is simply done by attacking a weakened enemy, and against larger creatures, it gives Samus an almost Kratos-like quality as a closer in battle. One kill shot chance features her running up a giant creature’s extended tentacle, while others usually end with her climbing onto a beast and shooting it, full power, in the face. I won’t spoil some of the more intricate shots for those who haven’t played it, but I enjoyed all of them and saw this as a reaffirmation of Samus Aran as an even more powerful action star.

But sprinkled in all the wild action, the weapons and the exploration of this very intricate bio facility are moments when Samus starts talking. A lot. When that happens, she reveals in all her years of saving the galaxy on her own, she’s also picked up a few mental problems.

Samus Aran comes across as an overly introspective, melancholy dreamer with severe co-dependency issues, especially when it comes to Adam, the leader of the small military team. Adam used to be Samus’ commanding officer in the military, and she bogs down an already pedestrian story with inner monologues about all kinds of stuff, most notably what the act giving a “thumbs down” really meant between the two of them. I’m serious … she really spends a few minutes talking about this apparently multilayered act. They are not lovers, but you’d have your doubts after hearing Samus drone on in detached monotone about Adam’s qualities as a leader and supposed father figure. The voicework and dialogue, sadly, don’t really do anything to indicate any connection or chemistry between the two. I just saw Adam as a guy who flatly gave orders, while Samus painfully seems to see a lot more.

This also leads to a strange submissiveness on Samus’ part that’s probably going to irritate a lot of the fans who saw her as a powerful female character. For instance, she has to wait for Adam to OK use of a lot of her weapons, even though given the circumstances, she’s probably the most well-qualified person to handle any of the problems her and this team would face. Adam’s reasoning is that he doesn’t want to risk accidental destruction to parts of the ship, but after years of intergalactic bounty hunting and alien killing, you’re telling me Samus Aran can’t make that call on her own? You have to shut off some of her weapons? Really? This is maddening from a design standpoint when Samus run into doors that could easily be opened with the right weapon … but only if Adam would say yes! It makes you wonder how Samus has even lived this long.

I don’t have a problem with flawed characters. The gaming landscape is full of people with problems. But could understand how they are built. I can buy Kratos being an overly enraged a-hole at the expense of all others. I can buy Snake’s odd relationship with The Boss in “Snake Eater.” I don’t buy Samus Aran in Metroid: Other M, at all — not because she doesn’t fit what I thought she’d be, but it just doesn’t fit, period. Someone who’s spent most of her life putting foot to alien ass with little or no help shouldn’t turn into jelly when her old boss shows up. She doesn’t immediately become nicknamed “princess” or treated like a little sister. Samus is an alpha dog, and the game’s storytelling comes across, painstakingly, as a way to define her as something less. Instead of being a vintage heroine, she’s now, in some ways, just like any other dreamy, curvy anime-style character. She is, dare I say, almost cute … as if she stole her big sister’s power suit and has been running with it ever since.

While I’ve enjoyed everything the game brings from a gameplay standpoint, the ball was dropped in terms of truly defining the personality of one of gaming’s oldest heroes. I love fighting as Samus Aran, yet I feel sorry for her. I thought she was better than that.