I haven't spent a great deal of time thinking about Metroid: Other M since it was announced back at E3 last year. It was a neat-looking trailer, but I think I had already started to slowly write it off as "an easier Ninja Gaiden with some Remote and Nunchuk shaking thrown in," or some other sort of, as it turns out, completely incorrect assumption. It's not at all what I thought it was going to be.
That exact sentence, or at least some form of it, seemed to be echoing around Nintendo's press event earlier today, as people were ushered into a dark room in waves to spend a little over an hour with an unfinished version of Metroid: Other M. As a wave exited, they'd start to talk a bit about what they saw and played, but most of the people I spoke to before my number was up were at a loss to describe it. That's not to say that Other M is a mystical experience that absolutely defies description. But it's... well... it's not the game I thought it was going to be, right?
My time with the demo started with the initial shock of sitting down in front of a TV and seeing that there was nothing hooked up to the Wii Remote. No Nunchuk. No Classic Controller, no MotionPlus... and yeah, no steering wheel, either, thanks for asking. You primarily play Other M by holding the Wii Remote sideways, like an NES controller. This is the part where you start to think "oh, hey, they're making New Super Metroid Bros. Wii" or something like that. But no, the game is fully polygonal and fully rendered. Some areas may look like you're trapped in a side-scroller, but others offer full depth and movement along three axes. The camera will change perspective to give you different views of the action, depending on where you are.
Of course, those also means that you can only really move in eight directions, thanks to the Wii's digital pad, and you don't have direct speed control like you'd have with an analog stick. That really took some getting used to and it's probably the most interesting design decision in the entire game. I say "interesting" because I haven't been able to decide if I like it or not. When was the last time you assumed control of a character in 3D space without an analog stick? At the very least, it didn't take much to get used to it. The 1 and 2 buttons let you shoot and jump, respectively. The A button will flip you into and out of your morph ball stance. Well-timed presses of the D pad serve as a dodge system, causing Samus to automatically flip out of the way if you tap a direction right before an attack lands on her. I was sort of able to exploit this a bit by repeatedly tapping the D pad during a boss fight instead of actually holding it down, which caused Samus to dodge almost every incoming attack.
But it isn't just some 8-bit throwback control scheme that only uses a few buttons. By tilting the Wii Remote up and hitting A, Samus enters a state referred to as concentration. By concentrating, you'll replenish your missile supply and, if you're low on health, you'll recharge some of that, as well. You can further blow your own mind by pointing the Wii Remote directly at the screen, which takes you into a first-person visor view so you can lock onto specific things and fire missiles. Firing missiles came into play when opening some doors, as well as during a boss fight against a large, one-eyed creature that, as luck would have it, needed to get some missiles in his eye. Flipping the Remote around to point it at the screen felt a little cumbersome, and it also leaves you as something of a sitting duck--while you can certainly aim around and fire from this perspective, you can't actually move.
All of these moves are taught to you via an in-game tutorial, in which an Otacon-esque scientist sits behind glass and tells you about your different moves. He even tells you that if you charge up your fire button while in morph ball form, you'll drop a devastating power bomb. But let's talk about that later.
Samus Aran is incredibly hung up on that baby Metroid from the end of Super Metroid. You remember, right? The one that saved her life during the fight with Mother Brain? The events of the game are set between Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion. At the opening o the game, she's reliving the baby's demise at the hands of Mother Brain in an extravagant cinematic. I have to be honest here, between me only playing Super Metroid once, right when it was originally released, and the way this cinematic kept showing a young Samus being "born" in space like some kind of weird 2010 space baby, it became a little tough to tell what was real and what was a dream. Perhaps that's the intent, but it didn't take long for Samus to wake up, move through her tutorial, and set off into space.
Samus Aran is very talkative in Other M, at least in the early parts that I saw. There's a lot of exposition, both as she's dreaming and as she's talking about the events that put her back out into space. After picking up a distress signal (conveniently known as "Codename: Baby's Cry"), she sets off for a decommissioned ship. There, she encounters Adam Malkovich and his team of Galactic Federation Army soldiers, who are also hunting around on the ship. This is how the game sets up the abilitease that helps define the franchise. You'll team up with the Galactic Federation forces, but that means following their rules, and only using weapons that Adam has deemed appropriate. Before too long, he'll authorize the use of bombs... but not the Power Bomb. The game practically grinds to a halt long enough to tell you that Adam has "no plans to authorize the use of power bombs" because they are TOOOOO DESTRUCTIVE! Even back in the tutorial, your scientist associate raises big metal shutters before you test them out. Though I wasn't able to play long enough to find out, I'm going to take that as pretty obvious foreshadowing that, at some point later in the game, you're going to do something big and bad with power bombs.
Combat in Other M is as simple as rattling off shots of your standard weapon with the 1 button. Samus will automatically fire at anything that's even relatively close to being in front of her. This makes most combat feel almost automatic, though there's no way to know how much trickier later enemies will get. The areas you're navigating may stretch in all directions, but they're good at feeling like Metroid, including long shafts with platforms you can flip up to ascend and the occasional ventilation shaft that can only be traversed if you're rolled up into a ball. In one of those ducts I found an energy tank, and in another, a missile tank. So expect to see at least some of the typical Metroid power-ups to appear in Other M.
There was a cold, desolate feel to the early Metroid games. They nailed that feeling of being alone against the world. Other M, with all of its voice work and the other humans that you'll encounter early on in the game, doesn't feel quite as empty. But Samus' internal monologue, which is written as if she's looking back on the events of the game after the fact, is delivered cold and flat. On one hand, it had me wondering if the voicework needs a better performer or two delivering the lines. On the other, Samus' cold detachment from the game's events--at least in the brief sequence I was able to play--somehow fits. If nothing else, it certainly made me anxious to hear more about Samus. With the game's developers making Samus' depth as a character something of a priority, I have a feeling we'll learn a lot more about Samus' pre-Metroid past as we go.
It's been around six hours or so since I finished the demo and left Nintendo's dark demo room. It still has me thinking. A lot of things seem uncertain. Will players long for full analog control over movement, or will the levels be designed in such a way that we never even notice once the first hour or so has passed? Will transitioning into first-person and losing movement control be a liability, causing players to fumble around with the controls each time they have to shoot a missile at something? Will I blow up this so-called "Bottle Ship" with a huge-ass power bomb at the end of the game? And what of the dead baby Metroid, which Samus addresses by saying "never again would I encounter the baby?" I'm certainly left with more questions than answers, and at the same time, it's a lot cooler than I was initially expecting. I can't say if it'll "please series fans" or if it'll resonate with people who played and loved the Prime trilogy. The demo just wasn't long enough to come to any conclusions like that. But it certainly left me wanting to know more.