Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Risk/Reward in Metroid: Other M

Image via GiantBomb.com
After bashing Metroid: Other M on our last podcast, I thought I should write out some more coherent thoughts on the game. The game has problems, but the more I thought about it, the more I decided that they were almost all tied to the game's plot and characters. I'll try to explain the downright insulting nature of the game's story in a future post (plot holes, nonsensical dialog, sexism; it's really a piece of work). For now, I think it bears mentioning that, on a basic mechanical level, Metroid: Other M has an interesting risk reward system that lures players into taking risks during battle.

Like most Metroid games, you can hold down the firing button for a more powerful charged attack. Doing so takes time and leaves you without any offensive capabilities. However, you also have access to a dodge maneuver that both allows you to avoid attacks at the last second. Successfully dodging while holding down the firing button grants you a fully-charged blaster without having to wait for the meter to fill up. Performing this move is a calculated risk: there's always the chance you'll dodge too late or miss an attack from a secondary enemy, but being able to fire consecutive charged blasts with almost no lag time is extremely effective against even the strongest enemies.

Metroid: Other M gives you a reason to make combat more exciting and dynamic. You could keep your distance and pepper most enemies to death with weak shots, but that soon becomes slow and dull. Things get even more hectic when you start incorporating melee and finishing attacks, both of which require a fully charged meter and close proximity to enemies. Racing towards a stunned enemy or jumping on top of one is pretty much the most dangerous thing you can do in terms of inviting injury, but it's also the way to quickly deal out large amounts of damage. This leads to situations where you might actually get more aggressive when you are low in health because you want to end the battle before you making a mistake or getting tagged by an errant shot from a far-away enemy.

Other M's first-person mode offers a similar mixture of benefits and drawbacks. The game is usually played with the Wii Remote in the horizontal, NES-style position, but pointing the remote at the screen activates a first-person perspective that gives you access to missiles and lock-on targeting. Both of these things are highly useful against enemies, but they come at a price: your field of vision is much more limited, you have to manually find targets rather than rely on the third-person aim assist, and you can't dodge. Like the dodge/charge dynamic, going into first person offers benefits that must be balanced against ever-present risks.

On a side note, first-person mode is interesting from a physical perspective, as it puts you int he unique position of having to quickly change the way you hold the controller. While awkward at times, it's a novel way to simulate the feeling of having to quickly draw and aim a weapon under pressure. The game slows the action for a brief moment when you switch, but you still need to get your bearings quickly and go in with a specific plan.

Unfortunately, all these risk/reward systems require a herculean suspension of disbelief in order to reconcile them with the game's story and fiction. How does dodging a projectile possibly recharge an energy weapon? Samus flawlessly target enemies in third-person mode, but routinely misses in first person mode. Thanks to my input, she alternates from being the best shot in the galaxy to being unable to hit the broad side of a barn. Missiles are in endless supply and cause no splash damage, so why does she only use them in first-person mode?

There are plenty of interesting systems at work in Metroid: Other M, it's just a shame that you have to ignore the story, disregard its characters, and forgo any hope of technological plausibility to find them. Ultimately, the game's biggest risk is its focus on its plot and character development and it's a risk that doesn't pay off.


  1. It makes me feel unconfortable how you insist on the poor and dumb story in Metroid M while it's a default that is present in about 99% of games published nowadays. What is easily forgiven for Gears of wars for instance and might almost become some kind of welcomed bad taste humor, becomes a serious problem for Metroid other M?

  2. You raise a good point: most video game stories are (at best) nothing special. I single out Metroid: Other M as particularly bad because I see it as actively doing damage to a previously established character. It takes place along the same continuum as Metroid, Metroid 2, and Super Metroid, but throws away much of what makes Samus admirable:

    (The following points are probably spoilers, so be warned if you care about the story and haven't finished the game)

    - Instead of an independent, deadly bounty hunter who is willing to get the job done using all the tools at her disposal, she mindlessly takes orders from a superior officer to the point where she refuses to use life-saving technology until explicitly giving permission.

    - Samus is traditionally a character of few words, but in Other M she rambles to the point of inanity. Most of the cutscenes are her repeating and describing what just happened on screen without any further insight, which is just lazy writing. Also, referring to the mystery enemy as the "Deleter" seems overly nonsensical. Why use a cheesy, made-up term that no one would ever use when you have words like traitor, saboteur, spy, assassin, etc.? It's jargon for the sake of jargon and it's coming from a character who was traditionally a "no-nonsense" kind of person.

    - During the Ridley fight, Samus (the consummate professional, the galaxy's savior, the one-woman army) is frozen with fear. The game literally describes her "panic-stricken." It's a weird, sad choice seeing as how Samus has seen plenty of other crazy things and never been fazed by them. Instead of taking action, she is portrayed as a helpless child.

    There are other examples, but the point is that every time Other M has the chance to flesh out the story and characters, it chooses a convoluted route that does a disservice to Samus. Gears of War is no storytelling masterpiece, but the games at least try to do well by their big dumb lugs (the Cole Train's story is actually kind of poignant). The bigger point is that they start off crude and crass and basically stay that way throughout the series, whereas it feels like Metroid Other M is an active step backwards. The Gears dudes crass in the game and in the cutscenes, whereas Samus is meek and indecisive in the cutscenes and a bad-ass in the game.

    That being said, I haven't read all the Metroid expanded universe stuff, so maybe the "strong, silent type" Samus is the exception rather than the rule? If so, that's a bummer.