Many people are often quick to forget just how fast and loose Nintendo are willing to play with some of their own intellectual property. When their deeply beloved Metroid series was farmed out to second-party newbie team Retro Studios back in 2000, nobody could have anticipated a game as seminal as 2003’s wondrous Metroid Prime. So it seemed somewhat odd that, just as Retro released arguably their finest Metroid game to date with Corruption in 2007, Nintendo decided to stand back yet again and impose development duties upon a hybrid team featuring a few staff from their own stock, and members of the esteemed Team Ninja.
Team Ninja are primarily known for hardcore action games like Ninja Gaiden and Dead Or Alive, so Metroid: Other M’s emphasis on fast-paced, balletic action shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. What is surprising is the steadfast allegiance to the classic Metroid formula. The level design, art style and structure of your primary mission is instantly familiar, and one of the quintessential ingredients – the fact that all Metroid games begin with Samus having to search for her weapons one by one – takes the form of an agreement with a superior officer not to fire specific weapons until authorised to do so.
But the shift away from the first person perspective that was perfected in Metroid Prime 3: Corruption does seems very strange, largely because the control scheme that powered it was (perhaps aside from Ubisoft’s vastly underrated Red Steel 2) absolutely the best of its kind. At the time, awestruck players were quick to describe it as the finest FPS control style outside of a mouse and keyboard, and although you can still utilise it whenever you like (it’s activated simply by pointing the Wii remote at the screen) it instantly pins you to the ground, and you’re only forced to use it when a scripted event tasks you with investigating your environment.
So the bulk of the action is viewed from a third-person view, with tight spaces triggering a shift into a tight over-the-shoulder camera, and this makes much of the bountiful 2D platforming stuff feel exactly like the timeless SNES classic Super Metroid. The combat is robust and lightning-quick, with a highly competent auto-aim system in place. You can choose to dispatch the weaker enemies from the first person perspective at any time if you wish, but for the majority of the time you’ll be viewing it from the same vantage point as something like Sega’s Bayonetta.
Speaking of Bayonetta, one of the most joyful combat techniques from that game is also present here – a dodge move that’s all about perfect timing. Hitting the appropriate button just as a projectile is about to hit you initiates a brief moment of slow-motion, as Samus briskly leaps to one side in order to avoid it. You can also pull off context-sensitive melee attacks by jumping upon the heads of downed enemies, and unlike in earlier Metroid games, you can only replenish your entire health bar at designated save points, although you are able to refill a small amount by reloading your rockets. This means that you’ll probably play through many of the game’s later boss battles from the edge of your seat.
But what is perhaps most unusual about Metroid: Other M is that Samus herself narrates the story throughout. In some ways, this is almost as unorthodox as if Mario started narrating his own game, but the way in which Samus is drawn, as a punkish, cynical and deadpan maverick, is both plausible and very skilfully conveyed. Some of the cutscenes are perhaps a little lengthier than they need to be, but there are a whole host of enjoyable references featured in them (to things like Star Trek and James Cameron’s Aliens) that hardened sci-fi fans are going to absolutely adore.
So Nintendo have once again shaken one of their most admired franchises to its very core, and have ended up with something that feels entirely new, and yet still forms a very solid piece of the series’ universe and timeline. It’s an endlessly inventive action adventure that comes straight out of the top drawer, and although it doesn’t quite scale the dizzy heights of Retro Studio’s Prime trilogy, it’s both unmistakably Metroid, and tantalisingly unusual. If you own a Wii, you really shouldn’t miss it.
Watch the Metroid: Other M trailer here…