In space, no-one can hear you swoon...
The next instalment of the Metroid series is here and this time you’re playing as Samus Aran. Who is Samus Aran? That's what the adverts ask. Slightly worrying that Nintendo don't know. Thankfully, we have the answers.
Samus is an executioner. Female role model? She rolls, yes, but pray you never meet a girl inspired by this brute. Mario and Link kill; Samus executes.
The bloodied fingerprints of Team Ninja (working with Nintendo under the moniker of Project M) are all over this bold, brutal Samus. They take a character never properly seen in 3D - not outside of Prime's cutscenes - and imagine how she would work.
Uniquely blending grace and grunt, she floats as light as a feather only to crash like a falling piano on anything silly enough to squat below.
Metroid: Other M: Controls
Tapping the D-pad before an attack vaults her away in a spurt of slow motion. Holding shoot as you perform 'Sense Moves' instantly charges the arm cannon. Dodging and firing gives Other M a distinct combat rhythm of its own. It looks flashy, too. As beam types stack up, the resulting explosions grow more flamboyant. By the game's end her arm is practically firing London's New Year's Eve fireworks display.
Focusing combat around timing, as opposed to positioning, helps sell D-pad movement. On paper, navigating 3D space with a digital D-pad is perverse. Nintendo invented the analogue stick to get around it. At some point you have to accept that Other M's scheme works.
D-pad oddness has nothing on first-person play. Pointing at the screen puts you inside Samus' visor to let you spot routes, identify firepower needed to open doors, scout out hidden switches and fire missiles for strategic takedowns.
Despite a smooth technical transition, the change is too disorientating to offer a spontaneous combat option. Swivel the remote, get your bearings, aim, lock on... the process is far removed from Metroid: Other M's otherwise instinctive style. Luckily, bar a few bosses that demand missiles/ grapple beam to defeat, Other M can be conquered visor free.
Metroid: Other M: Movement
Built for reasons we won't spoil here, the ship houses artificial ecosystems allowing Samus to gambol through forests, desert canyons, snow drifts and more. Their artificiality births surreal sights that would never have gelled in Prime.
Exiting a lift to discover a fully functioning volcano in the ship's belly is an eye opener, as are holographic swamps flickering between damp menace and the sterile warehouses beneath. Exploring often uncovers switches or morph ball opportunities that turn entire spaces on their head. Morph ball tracks whisk Samus hundreds of metres above a sea of sinking lava platforms navigated earlier. Plop into another hole and she finds herself rolling about the Bottle Ship's expansive attic space.
Prime had a head for heights; here Samus can practically power bomb the Pearly Gates. The Bottle Ship is packed with cinematic happenings, harking back to Super Metroid and Fusion.
However, with objective markers and regular map updates, Other M feels more hand-holdy than its forebears. Indeed, we never felt the helpless isolation that defines Samus' best adventures. Too eventful to be lonely, this doesn't mean Project M can't find elbow room for powerup hide-and-seek.
Nintendoifying Team Ninja gives us a daring new kind of game. So it's no surprise that it's a little wobbly on its feet. But Metroid fundamentals are protected. The stomach butterflies as you unlock a new skill and realise the new access you have. The satisfaction of finally grabbing the missile powerup that's seemingly out of reach. The goosebumps from hearing classic 8-bit and 16-bit ditties given to an orchestra to play with. The sense of empowerment in the final hour - when a whole game's worth of stacked beam upgrades flood the screen with every flavour of pain imaginable - belongs to Metroid and Metroid alone.
Metroid: Other M: The cut scenes
Other M likes cutscenes. Regressive, old fashioned cutscenes. Two hours of them, all told; a mix of D-Rockets' glorious CG and slightly lumpier in-engine offerings. Packed with lumpy exposition and back story these asides sit uncomfortably. Their tone is melancholic, their pace ponderous. It doesn't help that dialogue is of the George Lucas ilk: say what you feel rather than emoting.
Unusually for Nintendo localisation, dialogue is stiff and repetitive, bearing the hallmarks of its Japanese roots. Occasionally action and cutscene merge into unholy hybrids. In some, the camera locks in visor view until you scan a relevant item. Intended to draw us into Samus' helmet during key narrative moments it comes off as a duff quick-time event. Other times the camera locks over Samus' shoulder as she investigates mysterious facilities.
Slowly clomping through eerie corridors is spooky and lonely in that recognisably Metroid manner, but it does feel like two minutes of Resident Evil in a ten-hour Metroid game. Neither technique offends as such, but in Other M's brash and confident whole they feel noticeably less surefooted.
Metroid: Other M: Conclusion
Who is Samus Aran? Other M paints a picture of a girl with a knotted history and daddy issues. This isn't our Samus Aran. Our Samus is the action icon who bounds across lava, rolls through a space station's guts and dispatches enemies with a flip, a kick and a laser between the eyes.
Like its heroine, Other M comes with unneeded baggage - but it doesn't change how she fires a cannon, melts a door or obliterates anything with a pulse. It's the execution that counts. And there's nothing Samus does better.
Out now on Nintendo Wii, originally posted on CVG