Five minutes into Metroid: Other M, Samus Aran already has a new skill. She’s talking, and as is often the case when introducing a new mechanic, Team Ninja – the series’ latest custodian – has gone a little bit overboard with it.
After years of near-muteness, Samus suddenly won’t shut up, blathering away in cut-scenes to whoever will listen. Often it’s the deep-space scientist, looking just like Woody Allen, who’s trying to give her a basic tutorial.
Otherwise it’s continuously mumbling about her feelings in voiceover, as if filling out a slightly melancholic postcard home. “Having a great time on Zebes, I guess. Hotel’s lovely. Bit of a problem with a huge screen-filling lizard down at reception the other day, but live and let live eh? PS: I’m still turning into a ball fairly regularly.”
Part of the idea behind Other M is getting to know Samus better, although you could argue that such a notion seems to fundamentally miss the point of a character audiences already relate to through her moves rather than her monologues.
Luckily, when it comes to the action, things are shaping up extremely nicely too: Team Ninja’s take on Metroid is a bit like seeing the series’ genome mutating in front of your eyes, at times, but it’s a very likable process. As with Retro Studios, the developers of Ninja Gaiden have brought their own quirks and sensibilities to bear on Nintendo’s classic franchise, but the result is a fascinating and very playable blend of old and new.
Metroid: Other M was announced at last year’s E3 in a glossy blur of over-saturated colour. In amidst The Women’s Murder Club and the sight of good sport Satoru Iwata with his finger stuck inside the Wii Vitality Sensor (his steely gaze suggesting that, not only had he found the future of digital entertainment, but it had been in the back of an ambulance all these years), Other M looked shiny and vivid and genuinely alive: a muddle of rich oranges and deep purples that seemed to blur game styles together without ever settling down.
Having a chance to play it at Nintendo’s European press summit this week, it’s clear that the plot settles down fairly quickly, however. Kicking off with a CG rewiring of the end of Super Metroid, in which Samus is saved from defeat by Mother Brain when a baby Metroid sits on her head for a vital few seconds, Other M takes place immediately after the events of the SNES classic, putting it before the Prime trilogy in the series timeline.
After a debriefing with a kind of galactic parliament, in which Samus informs the universe that the Metroid threat has been eradicated – all the while, pondering the fate of that poor baby who sacrificed herself for him, and generally feeling a bit motherly – the bounty hunter is off into the cosmos once more, answering a distress call that leads her to a decommissioned “bottle ship” space station where the real action begins.
Even before things get going, Team Ninja is making its presence felt. Samus spends a lot of time wandering around in her glossy, skin-tight Zero Suit in the opening moments, and the camera never misses a chance to linger on her backside.
On top of that, the cut-scenes themselves stretch off into the distance, filled with charmingly terrible dialogue and some brilliantly uncharismatic performances. Samus, in particular, sounds like she gets through the daily grind of being a mercenary by snacking on Diazepam at every available opportunity: based on her unwavering monotone delivery, you almost expect to see her walking into doors.
The story barrage is probably restrained by the team’s usual standards, but it’s still something of a departure for a series that generally left players to their own devices, plonking them down into the clammy darkness, and letting them explore. An early introduction to the combat, however, suggests that the developer may actually be an inspired match, despite its wilful eccentricities.
Moving around and killing things in Other M is, frankly, a bit brilliant. Most of the action is viewed from a controlled-perspective third-person viewpoint. As with something like Shadow Complex, Team Ninja frames the action as it sees best, often turning the game into a side-scroller, albeit a three dimensional one with no fixed plane of movement – but the developer’s just as willing to have the camera spin round, seeing you running into or out of the screen.
From these angles, moving through the flickering hallways of the bottle ship while the mini-map steadily takes shape in the top-left corner, it feels just like 1994 again, particularly since the game has bravely ditched the nunchuk and relies on the remote alone, held in classic controller formation.
There’s a handy auto-targeting whenever the regular slithery, spiny, spiky monsters make their appearances, clinging to the walls and ceilings or popping from vents, and the controls snap nicely from one nasty to the next. Early on, a spray of disco flies erupts from a nearby pipe, and while they flap around you in a bewildering manner, it’s a pleasure to pick them off one at a time before moving on.
For bigger baddies, you’ll need rockets, which are handled slightly differently. Pointing the remote towards the screen switches you to first-person, allowing you to lock on to targets before blasting away at them with the big guns.
The same mode is used for scanning, incidentally, and while you can’t move around when in first-person, it’s a simple business to snap back to the standard perspective, and Team Ninja, being Team Ninja, has given Samus a handful of nice kung-fu melee moves, performed with simple button presses, to take down any fools who get in close. There’s even a dodge roll and some simple counters.
And it’s not all combat, thankfully. Even in the game’s early stages there’s plenty of exploration to be done amidst creepy, derelict environments, with dozens of dead ends that will presumably only be traversable at a later date. Within minutes of loading up, in fact, I was pleasantly lost, wall-jumping this way and that, morph-balling through little gaps to see if I could find any secrets, and meeting up with a few new friends.
This, perhaps, is the element of Other M that is hardest to judge at the moment. In its commitment to telling a deeper, more involving story on this outing, Team Ninja has thrown Samus together with a gaggle of futuristic soldiers who have come to investigate the same distress call. One of them, their leader by the looks of it, is someone that Samus once had a bit of a thing with back when she was in the army, too. Crikey.
That doesn’t mean you’re suddenly controlling a squad, but it does indicate that the lonely exploration which makes the series so satisfying is likely to be broken up with fairly regular moments when you huddle with the gang and try to work out what to do next – an early cut-scene even has the soldiers dispatched all around the space station, suggesting they’re the girders in a far more rigid level system.
Often, it has to be said, it works – the game’s first real boss battle, against a writhing purple beast built from hundreds of tiny bugs, sees your allies freezing chunks of his body while you then blast them apart with rockets – but it’s going to be interesting to see how much your new chums change the essence of the game.
Your old boyfriend, for starters, replaces the time-honoured system of finding your own kit upgrades as you go, by telling you instead, often rather curtly, when you’re authorised to use each of your existing weapons.
While it leads to classic character-revealing lines like, “We currently have no plans to authorise the use of Power Bombs,” – that one’s straight out of the West Wing – and it’s actually little more than a new coat of paint for the same old mechanic, it feels slightly less fulfilling. Instead of heading out on your own and stumbling across useful gadgets, you’re being told when and where you can play with your own toys. Samus is being kept down by The Man.
For the most part, though, the kinks in the ancient template are characterful and interesting, while to see a game returning to its roots with so many new ideas is extremely exciting. Glossy and glittering, Metroid: Other M is one of the prettiest Wii games you’ll probably ever see; from what Nintendo’s revealed so far, it looks like it could be one of the most satisfying – and, in its clash of design cultures, the most fascinating – as well.
Metroid: Other M is due out on Wii in Q3 2010.