Could Nintendo make a bad Metroid game? Would they? What if they worked with a team that never made a Metroid game before? What if my first minute of playing Metroid Other M sprouted the thought: This is not good?
Thirteen months after I heard that Nintendo was working with the creators of Ninja Gaiden on a new Wii Metroid game, 13 months after I had a reassuring chat with the game's creators, a month since I read Kotaku chief Brian Crecente's positive impressions of the game, I went to a rooftop party at Nintendo's New York offices last night and finally played Metroid: Other M.
It felt, at first, like a mess and, worse, a misunderstanding.
I grew up playing Metroid games, first with the side-scrolling original on the Nintendo Entertainment System, then Super Metroid on the SNES. I played the Game Boy Advance games and I learned to adapt to Metroid as a first person series on the GameCube and Wii. I loved the game's mysteries and the series' quiet.
I enjoyed how lonely heroine Samus' adventures felt. She was a bounty hunter but she was also a space detective, traveling through abandoned worlds, scanning every inch of rock for clues, dealing with wildlife pests with a freeze shot, then a missile, words rarely spoken, my breath often held.
As a side scroller and as a first-person game, Metroid adventures exhibited a balance between the vagueness of mysterious worlds filled with hidden clues and the specificity of Samus' abilities to find them. Once you knew the measurement of her jump, the height of her ball form, the timing of her double bomb blast, the speed of her freeze beam and the count of her missiles, her surroundings felt less murky and more like a series of locks to be connected with your ring of keys.
Plus, Samus could kick alien butt, like Sigourney Weaver's Ripley from one of Metroid's thematic cousins, the Alien films.
Metroid: Other M is immediately not a lonely game. Samus is on a space station called the Bottle Ship, teaming up with some space marines including her former commanding officer.
Samus does not move and explore with rigid specificity. She is starring in a third-person game shot with fixed cameras, though she is controlled with a directional-pad. Her adventure sometimes looks like a side-scroller, but she can explore spatial depth. She can also be switched at any time to a first-person view. In theory, she's got the best moves and angles of her series available to her, but in the hands of someone playing for the first time, her maneuvers feel too loose and too disorienting and result in unintentional perspective shifts. This space detective felt, in my hands, like a space bumbler. Early on as I played this near-final version of the game, I tried to have her look one way at an enemy but snapped to a view the wrong way, gun aimed at a wall while an enemy stabbing at her back.
Samus is, surely, still a butt kicker in Other M — and cranium blaster. She can now jump on enemy aliens' heads, which slows the action, then, once her charge shot automatically fills, can blast them where they think. Unfortunately, in the many non-interactive flashbacks early in this game, she is shown less as Ripley but more as Newt, that other Aliens character, a young, emotional wreck. The analogy is imperfect. She is older enough than Newt to be a military recruit, but she is young enough to sass authority by extending a thumbs down to her commanding officer while her military chums give him a thumbs up. Commander was like a dad to her; she was showing her spunk. We know this because, in voice-over, she tells us this — tells us a whole lot about when, how and why she would give a thumbs down to her commander.
We Metroid players may have expected to worry about a new Metroid game's controls. We had, after all, weathered and warmed to that shift almost a decade ago into first-person Samus adventures. But were any of us worried that a Metroid game might be cheesy? Were we concerned that a Metroid might be a cut-scene-driven game about a young person and their parent figures, that it would include voice-acted self-analysis, that it would be so touchy feely and that its official website would be scored with soft, sad piano?
The best I can say about the first few minutes I played of Metroid: Other M is that they were not a complete catastrophe. The best thing I can say about the 20 minutes that followed those is that the game began to get a lot better — as did I.
From the start, the controls are confusing, the perspective shifts disorienting. Samus is put in a training room and given orders to try a succession of moves. Rolling into a ball — a Metroid trademark — feels good. Dropping bomb feels right. When Samus is in third-person mode, her blaster does a good job auto-seeking the nearest enemy that is in the general direction she is pointing.
The player-triggered shift to first-person is not an easy fit. Swinging the remote from a sideways orientation to a forward-pointing one switches the view of the action. But only after many tries did it click for me that Samus' first-person perspective would always focus in the direction she was last looking when in third-person. In print this feels logical, but in play, it is not an obvious expectation. For example, I made Samus walk into a room, the camera fixed behind her. Enemies flew at her. As I tried to move her out of the way and tapped the button to make her shoot at them, I then switched to first-person — only to wonder why I was staring at the door. It's because just as I was switching perspectives, I had run her toward the door. I hadn't been thinking about which way she faced. I had been thinking about the enemies flying at Samus. The act of pointing the Wii Remote at the TV felt like the act of pointing at them. But that's not what you are doing. You are not turning the Remote to point at a target; you are turning the Remote to get into Samus' head, nothing more than that.
A Nintendo representative who was watching me play the game cautioned me that Other M has a learning curve. It also has an un-learning curve. Shed some of your knowledge of how a Metroid game might control. Laser blasts and missiles are mapped to the same button and are fired based on how fast you tap the shooting button and whether or not you are locked onto an enemy (thus,missiles are first-person only because only in first-person can you lock on). Extra missiles aren't dropped by enemies. You replenish missiles by stepping away from a skirmish, holding the Wii Remote vertically, pressing a button and "concentrating." That concentration will also refill some of Samus energy if she is low on her last tank of power. These are definitely not the controls of older Metroid games. They are a new scheme with a new balance that needs to be learned.
As I played deeper into the game's demo, I became comfortable with the controls. I learned to switch to first-person and wind up looking where I intended.
I learned how to smoothly run to the sidelines and replenish health and missiles. I learned how to use first-person mode to scan for hidden objects, because, yes, hidden objects are back.
I was mixing in laser blasts and missile shots on purpose, knowing which tap would make which thing fire.
I was becoming less Newt and more Ripley. I was still confused by some things: Why is the game in 3D but my map is in 2D? How can I tell if the blip on my map that indicates the presence of a hidden item corresponds to the catwalk I am on or the floor below it? How can I jump on an enemy's head the first time, instead of turning Samus' effort to land a killing blow into the awkward swings of a hammer that can't find its nail?
By the end of the early section of Metroid Other M that I played — maybe 30 minutes of total playtime — I was happy with the controls. I'm still worried about the storytelling.
Yesterday was the day I was the most uncertain about a future Metroid game. But a half hour later, my impressions improved. Could this be a bad Metroid game? This close to release, it's got the most to prove of any in the series. Let's hope the problem was the learning curve and that Samus is still a heroine we can respect, not roll our eyes at when she talks.
Metroid: Other M will be out on the Wii at the end of August.