It should come as no surprise by now that I really, really like Metroid. I’ve talked about Super Metroid’s power as a feminist narrative as well as Corruption’s strength as a natural conclusion to the Phazon arc, but there’s just so much about the Metroid series that I could ramble on about. I’ve got at least two of these articles planned, regarding some parts of the series that make for great talking points. As it so happens, there’s one installment in particular that grabbed up the kind of controversy usually reserved for insane politicians and Orwellian scandals, and that is 2010’s Other M.
There are two sides to any discourse about this most controversial entry into the Metroid series: the gameplay and the plot. Both bear talking about, albeit from completely different angles. I’ll approach the plot from a narrativist perspective, and the gameplay as just that – a gamer.
Mommy, what’s subtext?
This has been trod on so many times over that I feel I should just set down the bare bones of the main thematic criticisms before we start to unpack it: essentially, many players feel that Samus’s sudden and total submission to Adam Malkovich, her male former C.O., has serious undertones of sexism, among other unfortunate elements in the writing.
That said, it’s important that we unpack one aspect of Japanese culture to better understand this character choice, and that is the absolute deference to authority, regardless of gender. To demonstrate my point, I’ll use a reverse example: in Sam Dunn’s documentary Global Metal where he looks at the impact of heavy metal music across the world (Enjoy it here and here if you fancy yourself into the genre), Japanese youth profess to turning to this brash, rebellious sound as a way of finding release from the heavily regimented culture of “authority respect” in their lives. So it’s very pervasive in Japanese culture.
Samus’s seemingly out-of-character submission to Adam is very Japanese in nature, so I think that putting it in its place as an Eastern narrative helps to give it some context. That said, you can’t excuse some related elements by the same token: having Samus run through a hot zone without her Varia suit just because Adam hasn’t authorized it isn’t Japanese in nature, it’s just stupid in nature.
Now, let’s say instead of Adam, the name of her C.O. was…I don’t know, Amy. It probably would have fit the feminist aesthetic of the series more, but would it have actually played out any differently? I don’t know. I don’t think so. That’s a good measuring-stick for deciding if a narrative is sexist: ask yourself if it would have gone differently if the genders were moved around.
I think that at the end of the day, the whole Adam thing is just an Eastern cultural trope that, in the way it was incorporated in the game, just happened to overlap with our Western definitions of sexism. For you Simpsons fans, it’s Mr. Sparkle on a cultural scale.
That said, given our globalized world, maybe the writer should have known what was going to happen and how we were going to take it. Mind you, Team Ninja actually disavowed the plot; they didn’t write this stuff. It’s only because the Dead Or Alive guys have publicly sworn they weren’t responsible for this that I’m giving it a chance under a close-reading spotlight, because…
Unfortunately the other part of the narrative that often gets called out as sexist doesn’t fare as well. To put it bluntly, this game handles subtext and subtlety with all the tact of a toddler playing with the nuclear football.
But to back up a bit, let’s just look at something I said about Super Metroid in the first article linked at the top of this one:
“Super Metroid revolves around the kidnapping of a baby metroid (the series’ eponymous alien race), the last of its kind, that Samus saved from death in the previous game, at which point the leader of the antagonistic Space Pirates, who calls herself the Mother Brain (seriously, it’s not even subtext at this point) wishes to clone the hatchling a million times over and nuke it to super-strength with gamma rays. All jokes about how “it’s just like your parents’ custody battle” aside, it’s interesting how this recurring theme of maternity both works against the “traditional” American ideal of the ‘Angel In The House’, while spinning the trope of the Femme Fatale in a noteworthy way. The theme effectively supplants manhood with femininity as the de facto force that drives the wheels of the plot. In fact, Super Metroid doesn’t have a single major male presence in the story other than Ridley, the Mother Brain’s draconic lackey who kidnaps the hatchling in the first place.”
And Super Metroid did all that without a single line of dialogue. In Super Metroid, femininity is strong, empowering. It’s a force that can move mountains. (Or at least Shinespark up the sides of them.)
In Other M, femininity is absolutely obsessed with motherhood. Samus has recurring nightmares about the baby metroid (understandable). She constantly obsesses over “the baby”. The distress signal that leads them to Other M’s main setpiece is named the Baby’s Cry. The station where the game then takes place is the Bottle Ship (spare me). This game focuses more on maternity than a Baby Bjorn catalogue.
It’s not that motherhood is made an aspect of the feminine identity; it is, insomuch as fatherhood is an aspect of the masculine identity. (Chuck Greene in Dead Rising 2 is hardly objectified for his love for his daughter.) The problem is that in Other M (an anagram of “Mother”), a steadfast obsession with motherhood comes to define Samus’s characterization. Combine this with the Japanese custom of deference to authority that really came out wrong in how it translated to this game, and you have a characterization that led some people to speculate there was a hidden Sammich-Making Gun somewhere in the game.
But I just started to think about this: maybe one thing the game also focuses on is childhood. After all, we see frequent flashbacks to Samus’s younger years, back when her hair made her look more like an anime character (with a dose of from-a-distance androgyny that, let’s be honest, fits her character well) and less like a Barbie doll. (Seriously, why did they have to let go of the “weathered, but strong” look she had in the first Metroid Prime? It fit the character’s aesthetic and history far better than the Mattel look she sports from Echoes onward. Alas, I digress)
We also see what Ridley looked like as a hatchling, as an awkward adolescent, and finally as the station-destroying, people-eating murder-dragon we know him as. The series had never really attempted that before, but it makes sense, right? Ripley didn’t just spring out of a hole in the ground with a twenty-foot wingspan. No, he was cute once too in an ugly way.
The problem is that the narrative doesn’t really make an attempt to directly chain the themes of motherhood and childhood, two things that would seem to be intrinsically connected. If it had, then a stronger case could be made against the notion of Other M being…less than equipped to write the female gender.
Speaking of Ridley, let’s just get this out of the way. I was very surprised back in 2010 to find that one of the most hated moments of Other M was…Samus having a PTSD moment when she encountered Ridley. After some digging, I found out the reason this is so controversial: Ridley basically ate her parents in front of her when she was a kid, hence the PTSD. Wonderful. Thing is, she’s fought Ridley in four separate Metroid adventures before the events of Other M, and didn’t have that reaction then.
I’m going to go ahead and call the most vitriolic responses to this scene misguided. On one level, this scene is illogical because of its placement in the timeline. On the other level, I think that even characters as stoic as Samus should have the freedom to properly emote when the situation is right…this just wasn’t the right situation.
That said, there are defenders of this scene, and they have far more doctorates than I do (IE more than zero). Dare I say it, but I think the doctor of psychology and the Iraq veteran in this article have more ground to stand on than the people raging from their keyboards that the depiction of PTSD turned Samus into an “emo b*tch”.
I guess to sum up my feelings on it – I said the scene is illogical, but at the end of the day, PTSD, much like OCD (a condition which incidentally is not very accurately depicted by popular media), can make people act in ways that even they would see as illogical if they took a step back from it. That’s why it’s called a Disorder. For all we know, being back in the company of Adam and his men, coupled with Ridley, is what triggered the PTSD episode where she went without it in Zero Mission, Prime, Corruption and Super. Looks like it just might not be as simple as ‘all that’.
To see off this section, I think something I touched on in an earlier article bears repeating: to me, this massive backlash against Samus’s characterization in Other M inversely proves the character’s strength as an icon in gaming, a woman who is not defined by the ‘Smurfette Principle’, nor is she forcibly shifted to the right to make room for the ‘normalized’ male, nor who has to succumb to ‘traditional’ feminine visual identifiers (hence why players of the original Metroid had no idea she was even female until the ending). It speaks to her power for women characters in gaming that this even became a prevalent issue amongst the fanbase.
And then there’s Adam himself. We were first introduced to Adam Malkovich via Metroid Fusion, where Samus names a computer on board the BSL Station after Adam out of ironic respect. It later turns out that the Federation has been uploading the minds of its best and brightest into mainframes, and – you guessed it – all this time in Fusion, Samus has been guided by Adam once more, in a way.
Now, Fusion was released in 2002 alongside Metroid Prime. While that’s unfortunate for Fusion in the same way as the kid who shows up to a school science fair with a cool volcano diorama arrives at the same time as the kid who just built a freaking aircraft harrier from the ground up, Adam was one thing that set Fusion apart from the other games in the series. There was an emotional catharsis there that you don’t usually get in Metroid (sans the hatchling’s sacrifice in Super). While the Prime trilogy and its Phazon saga take place after the events of the first Metroid game, Fusion is to date the chronologically-latest game in the series.
Mind you, all we knew of Adam at this point was what Samus spoke of in her elevator logs. We knew that he was strict, stern, but ultimately had a good heart, and a “perfect military mind” (Aran, S. “Ending speech.” Metroid Fusion, 2002). With that as all we had to go on, I’m sure we all built up a certain image of him in our minds. For a creator, that can be dangerous: you allow fan-theories to grow and expand, and all of a sudden nothing you do can live up to the fantasy. Just look at the Wachowski siblings, who were so excellent at fostering fan-theories online for The Matrix Revolutions that their mere been-done Christ allegory just couldn’t hope to measure up.
In this case…I don’t think it went so well. Like I hinted at before, a part of the way the upgrade system works is that Samus already has all her upgrades, but out of respect for Adam and his team, she only uses her arsenal once the individual weapons have been “authorized” by Adam. Ostensibly, it’s because her suit’s payload is enough to take the entire squadron out at once if she yawns the wrong way, which I suppose is reasonable. But then you have, again, the scene where Samus has to run through a hot-zone while Adam is doing everything but authorizing the Varia suit.
It seems the gaming community had certain difficulties getting over how dumb this was on every level. Not only is there no way the Varia could harm anything by its “unauthorized” use, but it makes Samus look like she has no mind of her own (why on earth would she take this? Surely there are exceptions to her self-imposed rules here?), and it makes Adam look like a terrible Commanding Officer. Even Nintendo Power called this out as ridiculous, and this is the same magazine that only gave Superman on N64 a mediocre review as opposed to scathing.
Okay…maybe they were doing some kind of meta commentary on how illogical it would be from an in-universe perspective to do one of these low-% runs the Metroid community is so fond of. But I doubt it. Keep in mind, the writer ignored the entire Phazon saga for reasons that are beyond me (Prime is considered one of the most respected games of the series and of the generation, I’d want to be associated with that, wouldn’t you?), as well as Samus’s (offscreen, but canonical) relationship with Old Bird when he had her refer to Adam as her only father figure, so I don’t think he was going for anything that cerebral.
A lot of us, myself included, were waiting for “the big moment” when Adam sacrifices himself to save Samus. He’s been doomed by canon, as it were, so we all knew it was coming. As for the fact that you don’t actually see the moment? I originally rejected that decision, but the more I think about it, the more I think maybe it’s for the best. It lets us in on the narrative of what actually happened to Adam without tearing down the fantasy, as it were.
Did I just academically cite Samus Aran? I’ve spent too much time on this.
Being played for a fool
When you sift through the confused, misguided and most of all awkward subtext, there’s still a game to be had here. This part of the article will likely play out more like a traditional game review, but before I get into the infamous game mechanics, I want to talk a bit about the design of the Bottle Ship.
I’m no video game creator. I’d love to be one day, but as it stands, I’m not. But I tell stories, and I like to think I’m a little bit qualified to say that they should not have designed the Bottle Ship in this way. What we’ve got here is a setup that seems to borrow heavily from Metroid Fusion’s BSL Station, an installment later in the timeline. The environments are largely similar, there’s just…less of them. (As in, no analogue to NOC, for example)
Let’s take a moment to think about this. The Bottle Ship and the BSL are uncannily similar, so that means that Other M cribs from Fusion…but Fusion comes after Other M in the timeline, so that means that Other M causes Fusion to retroactively appear re-tready if we’re looking at the canon as a logical, continuous progression (as you would)? It’s strange.
Yeah, I guess you could make the argument that both stations are simply similar because of regulations and architectural conventions in the Metroid universe, but from an experiential point of view as a gamer trying to be immersed in the story and the environment, it’s similar to how the first Mass Effect’s sidequests used the same rotating template of land base, starship, rocky land surface, et cetera…thank goodness the later titles revamped the sidequests in a big way, because no matter how you slice it, in-universe convention or not, I found the first Mass Effect’s sidequests boring after not long.
And on that note, I understand their reasoning behind wanting to put the Nightmare in Other M. It was one of the most iconic boss fights of Fusion, hard as hell and a key factor in one of Fusion’s core themes that I’ll discuss in a later article. To have a 3D version of that fight – great! Right?
Unfortunately, placing the Nightmare here, one installment in the timeline before Fusion, takes away from the monster’s reveal in Fusion. At first, Samus in Fusion only sees the creature’s shadow moving behind a wall of glass, huge and fast. Then on return to the region, the entire area has been thoroughly thrashed. You still haven’t seen the monster. And when you finally confront the Nightmare, it’s a battle to remember. (Personally I think the creature’s face looks a little bit derpy when you do finally see it, but the intensity of the battle makes up for it)
Repeat after me: good writing does not retroactively open plot holes in previously-made installments. Why wouldn’t Samus now recognize the Nightmare in Fusion?
I’m hesitant to rant too much about the overall plot of this game because it would just be overlap with my next article, but suffice it to say that the same issue as Nightmare dogs the plot as a whole: this game cribs so much of its plot elements from Fusion, plus and minus some things, that it actually takes the impact out of the big twist in Fusion. Because I could get into such detail about that, I’ll save it for next time.
So I guess it’s time to get around to talking about the game mechanics, and why they swiftly became so universally reviled. Once again, I’m not a game designer, but I’ve been gaming longer than not, and I like to think that I know when something simply doesn’t work. You don’t need to be Gordon Ramsay to know when the dish is undercooked.
I guess we should just dive right in to talking about the Concentration mechanic, and why it’s one of the most ill-advised things I’ve ever personally experienced in a game.
In most Metroid games, you pick up health along the way in the form of purple orbs from fallen enemies. But in Other M, there are no free-standing health powerups. The only way to regain your health is by this new technique called Concentration: you hold the Wiimote vertical and press some specific buttons, and after a few seconds, your health replenishes. This can only be done when you’re low on health. It gets more lenient when you pick up power-ups specifically designed for it, but when you’re first starting out, you cannot use Concentration until you’re a few hits from death.
Now, what’s the most likely scenario in which you’re only a few hits from death? Why, in the midst of a heated battle against enemies, of course. Enemies who aren’t going to stand around and just let you heal with Concentration.
It’s a joke and a mockery of fair play. This is the sort of thing that you see the Angry Video Game Nerd raging about. Developer Team Ninja has come under fire for this sort of thing before, as the Dead Or Alive series is rife with complaints that the CPU straight-up cheats even on the easiest difficulty setting.
As a tradeoff, save stations replenish your health in Other M, but they find other ways to make sure you’re hurting for health much of the time. Like the fact that you cannot use missiles without turning the Wiimote to the screen and leaving Samus completely immobile. You can use ‘sense-move’ by waving the remote when you’re about to be hit, but it’s unintuitive and hardly a substitute for free-form movement. Hence, expect to get hit a great deal.
There are a whole lot of things about Other M’s gameplay that seem tailored to give the player a hard time rather than increase their enjoyment through fair challenge, and Team Ninja has traditionally been rather poor at balancing this. In an era when companies like Nintendo go way too far to the lenient route and offer to give you invincibility or literally play the game for you if you’re having a tough go of it (Donkey Kong Country Returns), Team Ninja takes this way too far in the opposite direction. They seem to be under the impression that the gamer is their enemy, someone whom they must stymie, rather than someone for whom they are trying to entertain and craft an adventure for. Of course, any good adventure will challenge the heroes, but Team Ninja are well-storied for failing to see the difference between “challenge” and “cheating”.
Plenty of fantastic games can fall into ‘fake difficulty’ now and again. Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night is one of the best games ever made, but the customary ‘mercy invincibility’ you have after getting hit is worthlessly short. If you get surrounded by enemies, then depending on your equipment, you will die and fast.
But Other M is a game that weaves fundamentally dumb mechanics into its design in a seeming attempt to disadvantage the player. Who thought this was a good idea? The same guy at Team Ninja who compared people who play Ninja Gaiden on Easy mode to mongrel dogs?
(I refrained from going for the low-hanging fruit and putting an image of a bunch of businessmen committing hara-kiri. You’re welcome.)
It’s such a fundamentally confrontational approach to game design and player-developer interaction that the experience as a whole seems to suffer. These are the two biggest issues that enraged people about the gameplay because they’re fundamental mechanics that carry through the entire game, but there are other niggling things that set people off like the pixel hunts (having to scope for a tiny splotch of green blood in green grass, for example, or turning the final encounter in the game into a pixel hunt that you’re not even told is a pixel hunt) and the final boss which, in addition to the first phase being a complete clusterBLEEP, forces you in the final phase to use a technique (within about five seconds or you die) that you haven’t been allowed to use since the tutorial and have probably forgotten how to do.
So that’s about all I have to really say about Metroid: Other M. It’s a game with troubled subtext and wields its themes with all the subtlety of a jet engine being shoved into one’s ear, and unfortunately those themes seem to pit it against other titles in the series. Its plot feels somewhat like a redundancy in the context of the series and its setpieces crib from Fusion a little too much to gel with me.
On the gameplay front, it’s a question of philosophies in design. Maybe Team Ninja just wasn’t the right developer to be handed the keys to the series. To you prospective game designers out there, think about your intentions in making a game. Even a game like Dark Souls lays itself out in a way that the player can adapt and evolve. As it stands, let Other M stand as a lesson in design: maybe these missteps can turn up a positive if they inspire developers to better their own games as a result.
You know what I found clever on their part, though? You know what kicks a certain old Western narrative trope in the head? It’s one of the most flagrantly racist conventions that still seems to be accepted in Western culture, and it’s nice to see a game that turns it on its head, so in light of everything else…I found it nice on their part that the sole survivor of Adam’s squad is the black guy.