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What’s in a game? Would Samus Aran in any other genre still be as sweet?

I liked Metroid: Other M, but it isn’t a Metroid game. It’s a pretty good action game starring Samus Aran.

To explain what that statement could possibly mean, I’ll have to break down what makes a game a “Metroid” game. It’s more complicated than you, or Team Ninja, might think. Upon first glance, Other M seems to have many of the functional elements of Metroid in place. These include:

  • Samus Aran in her battle armor, morphing into a ball
  • Upgrades for weapons and equipment
  • Shooting energy beams and missiles at space monsters (many from past games in the series)
  • Secret passages and other basic environmental puzzles

On the third point above, Other M really shines: I would argue that Team Ninja elevated the combat, traditionally on the easy side, to the same level of challenge and engrossment as other modern, “hardcore” action games. On the other points, Other M seems be going through the motions without any real enthusiasm or clarity of purpose. I wouldn’t be surprised if, somewhere early in development, someone wrote a variant of the above list on a whiteboard somewhere, and the developers dedicated themselves to checking off every item before shipping a game.

But Metroid, like many Nintendo properties, is more than the sum of its parts.

Imagine that someone who had never played Super Metroid was given the task of watching a speed run of the game on YouTube and taking meticulous notes to figure out what made the game such a beloved classic of the 16-bit era. Their final analysis might be a more detailed version of the above list, including such elements as:

  • Different suits for resisting heat and the effects of water
  • An ice beam that will freeze enemies in place and allow you to touch them unharmed
  • A wave beam that passes through walls
  • A speed booster that lets you run faster and break through certain barriers
  • A grappling beam that allows you to swing from special hooks

And so on, ad nauseum, until they had cataloged every functional element of the gameplay and design. They would still be missing the point. As I mentioned earlier, Team Ninja faithfully reproduced all these elements, but they still ended up with a poor Metroid game. This paint-by-numbers approach to game design is an attempt to gloss over a fundamental failure to understand what makes Metroid fun.

fuck yes

It’s exploration, idiots.

Metroid games have always featured twitch-reflex gunplay and big, over-the-top boss encounters, but it’s no more “about” this combat than oil painting is about covering the white part of the canvas with colors. You do it, sure, but it’s not an end in itself — it’s in the pursuit of an auxiliary goal. In Metroid, the space critters that get in my way aren’t there because they’re fun to kill (although they often are). They’re there to impede my progress through the vast alien wilderness I’m mapping, and my reward for becoming better at fighting them (and for collecting power ups) is that they impede me less.

Super Metroid is my favorite game, even all these many years later, because of the clarity of its design around the theme of exploration. Every other functional element of the game is subservient to this dominant theme: the penalty for dying is lost progress; the responsive and flexible movement controls encourage experimentation to get around the environment more efficiently; collecting power-ups grants access to new, unexplored regions (often through ingenious mechanisms); hidden power-ups encourage prying into every nook and cranny. All these elements reinforce one another, and all of them reward the player’s skill with new places to explore.

I should give team Ninja a little more credit — they do seem to understand the importance of exploration, but rather than designing a game around it they tried to staple it onto a quick-paced, linear action game. The net result is lots of locked hatches that the player knows they can’t get into until later, once they’ve collected an upgrade. Behind these hatches there are no new regions of the ship to explore, only a little cubby hole containing a feel-good missile expansion. Even worse, the game has an obnoxious tendency to corral the player toward their next linear goal by conveniently locking doors that aren’t on the current main path, reducing the player’s freedom whenever it becomes inconvenient to the story progression. Call it Metroid on Rails — just don’t call it a Metroid game.

I have some other gripes about Other M, but they’re minor compared to its basic design flaw. For example, Samus starts the game with all the power-ups she earned by the end of Super Metroid, but then disables all of them out of respect for her ex military commander. She re-enables them at key points in the story, as he orders her to do so. Besides being out of character (and vaguely misogynist), this tactic robs the player of the satisfaction of having discovered these upgrades on their own in some twisted, labyrinthine passage.

Maybe I’m too old; maybe today’s player needs their hand held or they quit in frustration, and any game that dares to buck this trend, offering the player an entire world to explore at their leisure, is begging for bad reviews and poor sales. But I still hold out hope for a new generation of action-exploration games, beautiful modern creations that learn from the mistakes of their ancestors but retain the respect those old games had for the player, their skill, and their curiosity. Shadow Complex was a bright, shining promise of what the genre could be, but Other M is a big step backwards. I’m waiting.

Posted in Games.

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