Metroid: Other M is a lot of things. It's the second translation of the series into 3D, one that ditches the first-person mould that the Metroid Prime trilogy used to cast such acclaimed titles in favour of a new hybrid of 2D and 3D gameplay.
It's a game whose co-developer, Team Ninja, both excited and worried long-time fans over whether they'd be able to capture the feel of Samus Aran's adventures and not turn the series into Ninja Gaiden.
It's a historical footnote as the first time that Nintendo has given voice to one of their core cast members beyond sound bytes and yahoos to make an earnest stab at emphasising story, letting them graduate Samus from sketch to character.
Most importantly, it's the bold reinvention of a series that you didn't know needed one. Producer Yoshio Sakamoto and Team Ninja's new direction for Metroid is a remarkable evolution of the classic 2D games, leaning strongly on Metroid Fusion as a template in design and storytelling, adding a healthy dose of action and tinkering with many of the fundamentals in a way that makes sense while feeling fresh and new.
Other M begins right where Super Metroid ends, with a dramatic depiction of the final battle against Mother Brain and the destruction of the last metroid in a gorgeous pre-rendered cinematic that asserts the game's heavy focus on story. After reporting back to the Galactic Federation that the metroids, Space Pirates and the planet Zebes have been destroyed, Samus sets off into space.
Her voyage is interrupted, however, by a distress signal that redirects her to a research station called the Bottle Ship. Upon arriving, she finds a Federation rescue squad led by Commander Adam Malkovich, the closest thing to a father figure that Samus has ever had. Suspecting that all is not as it seems aboard the craft and fearing for the safety of the squad, she volunteers to join them in their mission. Malkovich reluctantly agrees, but only on the conditions that Samus obey his orders and only use the equipment that he authorises.
The pre-rendered cinematics and in-engine cutscenes fit organically and don't feel out of place or forced, barring their occasional hokey storytelling techniques. And, in a first for the Metroid series, the voice acting is natural and fitting, with Samus in particular sounding cold and detached with a hint of remorse befitting a lone bounty hunter with an at-times bumpy past. Having her speak instead of just being spoken to eases connecting with her and as a result makes her a much more interesting character. While not every silent protagonist needs this, Samus, and in turn Other M, benefits greatly from the newfound expression.
Many of the zags that Other M takes where past games zigged add to its appeal, and the return of certain tropes will surely please long-time fans; for example, out are Prime's visors and scanning, and instead of selecting what beam to use, stacking returns so that you use them all at once. Locking Samus' equipment behind the barrier of Adam's authorisation is one of the new tweaks to the classic formula that Metroid veterans may balk at, but these are made to cut the fat and fundamentally change how a Metroid is played. The new method of unlocking equipment both suits the fiction and enables certain set pieces — being placed in a situation you can't yet conquer, only to midway be given the means to, is both tense and gratifying.
Similarly tense is the lack of health and missile drops by downed enemies; restoring the former is mostly done at save points. Missiles, and occasionally health if it gets low enough, can be regenerated through “concentration," removing what now feels like an archaic munitions limitation from the series. This new ability is accomplished by tilting the Remote upwards and holding the A button until a meter fills up. You're locked into place when concentrating and is thus difficult to pull off in combat, making a successful regeneration more tactical than picking up a stray missile. This does change how you approach battles, since if you just went through a particularly vicious one you'll have to reconsider how to tackle the next one. And vicious battles are aplenty, as Team Ninja's signature difficulty has seeped into the enemies and multitude of bosses; you will die, adding to the immense satisfaction of taking down a big bad.
Another Team Ninja signature is gratifying combat, which Other M delivers in spades over its 10-12 hours (more than that if you choose to explore the Bottle Ship and obtain items after the credits roll). It's quick, brutal and a joy to pull off, much more so than any other Metroid title to date. This is accomplished in large part thanks to the extremely simple control scheme. It's quite a feat what three buttons and a pointer can accomplish, and while it may at first seem cramped condensing the multitude of abilities, dodges and special moves into so few buttons, it turns out to be very streamlined and easy once you're used to navigating in a 3D space with the decidedly 2D input of the D-Pad. Most of the game is spent holding the Remote horizontally, but a quick point towards the screen puts you in a first-person view, which is the only way to fire missiles and freely survey the environment. Switching between the two could easily have been awkward but is instead very quick and snappy; restricting your movement to only a dodge in this mode also demands reconsidering how you use missiles in combat as you can't just blanket a room with them anymore.
This is indicative of the slight shift towards technique and away from blunt firepower. Pulling off a successful dodge move rewards you with a fully charged beam, jumping on top of certain enemies allows a devastating kill shot, and rushing weakened enemies enables finishing moves. It's fast-paced and joyously explosive if you play your cards right, providing some of the best-looking combat sequences on the console.
The Prime series may have the upper hand on environments with its handcrafted, organic locations compared to many of the Bottle Ship's corridors and somewhat plainer natural habitation sections, but Other M is a visual stunner through its speed, vivid colours and intrepid enemy designs. It's distinctly Metroid and a successful translation of the 2D art style the series is known for, sitting pretty right up there with Super Mario Galaxy 2 as a system showcase. The sound design sticks with series tradition, with familiar jingles, low-key ambient exploration tunes and suitably fierce arrangements during battle.
It seems that Samus Aran is unwilling to stand still and get too comfortable, successfully reinventing her adventures in 3D for a second time with Other M. It's an excellent shake-up to the series, one that will satisfy long-time fans with an open mind while also able to ease newcomers into the series with a bang of bangs. It may not be the Citizen Kane of gaming, but it's still essential playing.