A great game that’s remembered solely for its few missteps.
This is not a series about games you haven’t heard of. This is a series about games EVERYONE has heard of. Games that everyone has an opinion on, regardless of whether they’ve played them or not. Games whose actual qualities have been buried in a narrative, whether good or bad. Games that everyone always makes the exact same comments about. Games that are in desperate need of…a Second Opinion.
This episode of Second Opinion was guest-written by the always lovely Jay Petrequin.
As both of my previous guest entries on Second Opinion involved pointing out the flaws in well-celebrated games, it seemed time to tackle an oft-hated game and defend its strong points. And what better choice than Metroid: Other M? I got neck-deep in the discourse on this one way back when it came out, and sweet Christmas were there a lot of feelings being flung around. People not only hated the narrative of Metroid: Other M; they completely despised it. There was a good amount of controversy over its gameplay and presentation as well, but the huge problem with the conversation behind Other M at its launch back in 2010 was how hyperfocused it was on the game’s narrative. Not only do I feel that the game’s story is actually worth a bit more of its salt than it gets credit for, I also think a lot of people have let narrative lead them away from a deeper look at the game design and mechanic choices that should be what Metroid: Other M is all about. Is Other M a top-tier entry in the series? No. No! Noooooo! But it makes me really sad to see it written off as a failure, when it actually did quite a lot right.
So, let’s start with a perspective check. It’s early 2010, and you’re a cool teen or young adult who thinks that Metroid: Other M game looks pretty badass. That Team Ninja squad, they sure seem to know what they’re doing. You’re sure this’ll be just like the Metroid games that you’ve come to love over the last few years!
Ah, hear that? That’s the sound of us reaching some vital context. The near-decade before Other M‘s release was the era of Metroid Prime. Starting on the Gamecube and making their way to the Wii, this trilogy had been the entirety of Samus’ adventures in 3D space up until this point. The Prime games (four, if you count that weird DS one) are beautifully-crafted games, but make a big paradigm shift mechanically from what Metroid had first become known for. Goodbye, 2D platforming action and exploration of vast ant farm-style networks of passages and rooms. Hello, first-person shooting, puzzle solving in worlds with more complex layout, and play style that could be more easily marketed to kids devouring the early Halo games like a never-ending first-person buffet. It’s no wonder, then, that so many were disappointed when Metroid: Other M came out, because it wasn’t made for them. No, Other M was made far, far more as a love letter and revival to the design sensibilities in Super Metroid and, more importantly, Metroid Fusion for the Game Boy Advance.
Now, I’ll admit a bit of personal bias here, while also trying to bridge it into the conversation. Metroid Fusion is my favorite Metroid game. I think that from a design perspective, it’s pretty much exactly neck-and-neck with Super Metroid, which is ironically the other series entry most closely tied to Other M. What I think gives Fusion an edge is its sense of simultaneous vastness and isolation, as Samus explores a series of biomes in a massive science vessel where something has gone horribly wrong. Funnily enough, this is the same kind of setup Other M attempts. Perhaps more importantly, Fusion is the original point of inception for the character of Commander Adam Malkovich, the man responsible for one of the two main issues people often tend to have with Other M‘s story.
So Samus travels to the Bottle Ship, monologuing about how she can’t stop thinking about the baby Metroid that died for her (and yes, we’re going to get to that, don’t you worry). She meets up with a squad of Galactic Federation soldiers – a veritable Federation Force, if you will – only to find that their commanding officer on-site is the very same Adam Malkovich, the man Samus herself served under during her time in the Federation before deciding to kick it on her own as a cool orange-wearing bounty hunter. She decides to operate by the Federation squad’s rules, including Malkovich’s orders when it comes to what she’s authorized to use in the ol’ Chozo super-arsenal. And don’t get me wrong, I see the argument for this being a straight-up stupid way to limit her powers at the get-go, but when that plot point came up, I was happy, because the decision made total sense based on Samus’ history with Commander Malkovich.
In Metroid Fusion, Samus goes to Biologic Space Laboratories, a space station run through by a parasitic virus taking the form of countless forms of alien life from all across the Metroid series. She is accompanied by a computer system meant to aid in mapping the place and supplying her with any relevant information about what to expect within the facility’s different self-contained biomes. Fusion was one of the few Metroid games pre-Other M to give Samus much in the way of narrative voice, and even then only through bits of monologue in elevators, and in occasional conversation with the computer’s AI as she travels. She comments that it reminds her of her old Commanding Officer, and near the end she learns that that memory isn’t fleeting; the whole game, she’s actually been talking to Adam Malkovich’s consciousness copied into AI form. Samus isn’t written as desperate for a reunion with Malkovich, but we know that he died a sacrificial death that Samus still carries and thinks about. In Other M, a lot of players familiar with Fusion went in assuming (correctly) that we would witness Commander Malkovich’s death firsthand. After having a better idea of Samus’ past with the commander, I was happy to follow his rulings. Samus choosing to only use weapons by his authorization, just like the rest of his squad, is a totally sensible choice given the parts of the Metroid story which Other M draws from.
But no, I’m not going to pretend he doesn’t wait too long to authorize most of them. That stuff still sucks (especially through the lengthy lava-soaked portion of the game) and I’m not going to defend it. Mister Malkovich, I’ve had my armor melted to my god damn skin from how long I’ve been in here, can I PLEASE turn my VARIA ON before I LIQUEFY? That would be NICE! This is a POWER SUIT, not a SOUP KETTLE!
But no, even though Malkovich possesses some strangely sloth-like qualities with his authorizations, Samus’ choices surrounding them aren’t actually out of place at all, but slide into the bigger narrative connection Other M and Fusion maintain. The same is true in many other places. Hell, the iconic Nightmare boss from Fusion even shows up, not once but twice in Other M‘s third act. The game’s overall story, while a bit goofy and with some loose threads, is at its core a well-fitting part of a core Metroid tenant. It’s story, over the course of things, is largely about genetic experimentation, playing god with mysterious science, and creating things that go berserk and eventually slaughter everyone. The story it weaves in that vein has more characters running around than usual, but creates some cool science-fiction conspiracy all the same.
Something else I really like about Other M, and Fusion, is that their tones are similar to that of the original Alien film. The alien threat in the film is initially seen as something it can be assumed all of humanity wants killed, only for the central characters to eventually discover that the company they work for sent them there to capture the xenomorph all along, caring about it more than them. Like Fusion before it, Other M draws heavily from these films, and it works. I’ll argue that the eventual reveal of MB as an antagonist-via-Mother-Brain-vessel is a clever twist that doesn’t stand as out of place with anything else going on at that point in the lore. Hell, this is a series whose entire narrative is pinned on different races using the Metroids as bio-weapons, and going to any lengths to get their hands on more. So is the late-game twist of Other M really so shocking?
It can’t be ignored, though, that Other M has some horrendous writing problems when it comes to Samus’ personal narrative. They make the inexcusably lazy, narrow-minded and sexist choice to turn most of her presence in the story into a blithering dialogue about motherhood, and feeling a connection to the baby Metroid that died to protect her at the end of Super Metroid. To make it worse, the American voice actress they chose has all the emotional range of a dead Space Pirate. From her general poor writing to the famously abysmal Ridley cutscene, where Samus is so paralyzed with fear from facing an enemy she’s killed about four damn times that she indirectly causes another character’s death. It’s true that all of that is point blank bad writing, but it doesn’t mean that the rest of what’s there is likewise. Other M‘s overarching story is solid, but is infected by a horribly-written protagonist.
Now, let’s do something real dang novel here and talk about the actual gameplay of this dang video game. Other M is built closer to its 2D brethren, mostly, and combines third-person platforming action with the magical and futuristic addition of the third dimension. And it works! As someone who grew up playing the older 2D Metroid games long before I entered the Gamecube world of Metroid Prime, I firmly feel that the way Other M was designed is the perfect next step in developing a new series entry which, again, tries harder to keep the spirit of older games alive more than it does its contemporaries.
But ah, you say, what of the first-person mechanic? The first-person switch for using missiles and other arsenal components feels awkward at first, but is actually a genius use of the limited scope the team chose to work with in the form of the ol’ hold-the-wii-remote-sideways method. The action of Other M is really impressive in this regard. Metroid has always been known for using atmosphere to add tension to larger battles, and while Otehr M does this through presentation, it also does so with manipulation of cognitive flow. Having to halt in movement to use certain higher-calibur weapons creates a repeated two-part rhythm in combat. The player knows they have to use rockets to shoot Nightmare’s face mask off to reveal the slimy Shrek leavings within, but doing so fills them with a little more panic and tension because they know they’re leaving themselves more vulnerable, even just for a moment, in order to take advantage of the equal vulnerabilities in front of them. A pretty out-there example of something else like this is 2015’s Splatoon, which maintains a two-step flow of blasting ink everywhere until the well runs dry, and then sinking down into the colored mess and hoping an opponent doesn’t smear over it and splat your day up. A lot of other games do stuff like this, but Other M doesn’t get enough credit for pulling it off.
So, again, I’m not going to try to claim that Metroid: Other M is anywhere near the best Metroid game, nor even in the upper half, if we were to make a good ol’ arbitrary list. But I will absolutely state that despite Other M‘s faults, despite the sexism and laziness in its writing of Samus, and despite how alien it understandably felt to players only familiar with the series-reinvigorating Prime games; despite all of that, Metroid Other M has ambitious ideas that pay off far more than the game will probably ever get credit for.
No other Metroid game plays like it, before or since. No other Metroid game combines more old-school level design with perspective play the way that it does. And no other Metroid game puts such a frankly fascinating amount of effort into paying a very genuine and spirited homage to what is probably one of the less widely-played previous games. They don’t just make this a prequel to Fusion, they put love into making it thus. Team Ninja made mistakes when they made Other M, but they also made one undeniably bold choice. They could have capitalized on the Metroid Prime name. They could have seen what a defibrillator those games were to the Metroid name and tried to replicate it. But they didn’t. They made a gamble. Did it pay off? Not for their image, maybe. But for the game itself? Absolutely.
Godspeed, Captain Malkovich, you glorious prick.