So, a ways back, as part of my Kotaku TAY "Game of the Week" series, I replayed Metroid II on Game Boy.
It's a classic, like every Metroid game out there. Er, um, that is, except one. That one anomaly being Metroid: Other M, a game developed not internally by Nintendo, but by Team Ninja, developers of Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden.
It looks like this.
Metroid: Other M got mentioned a couple of times in the comments of that Metroid II article; I pointed out, "It's not too bad!"
It's a comment that made me think, and so I revisited Other M, as I hadn't finished it the first time. And now, I'm a little older and not too much wiser, but the Other M I found is…quite a bit different from the one I remember. And it's not even that old.
Other M is a study in contrasts; in opposites and contradictions. It turns your brain in knots thinking about it; I can't even reconcile my "It's not too bad!" comment. It starts from the moment I press start (or "+" or whatever).
Because, hey, Samus is talking. A lot.
Also, we see what Samus looks like more often.
That was the biggest, most controversial change to the Metroid formula that Team Ninja brought to the table with Other M. Samus would be a fully voiced character, which is more or less new ground for Nintendo. See Mario, Link, etc. Who communicate through yelps and woohoos, sure, but by facial expressions and body language as well. Samus mostly followed this trend, although she did in fact communicate by text logs throughout later Metroid games.
But the point is, these characters don't really need to talk; we can understand them regardless. More to the point, we can easily imprint ourselves onto them. You can be Link, or Mario, or, in Metroid's case, Samus Aran.
Not in Other M, though. In Other M, Samus is voiced and has a personality, and she is simultaneously a more interesting character (in theory) while also being closed off from us. Presumably, we should be able to relate to her, but we'll never be her now.
Presumably. That brings me to my main point.
Remember how, in Metroid 2, when Samus encountered the Queen Metroid, a fearsome beast that seemed to be made of terror? And Samus stood her ground and kicked its ass?
How about Super Metroid, when, after you beat Mother Brain, Samus blew up all of Planet Zebes entirely, giving zero fucks in the process?
But now we're here, playing Other M. A game which, despite Team Ninja's best efforts, turns Samus into kind of a walking stereotype.
Other M turns Samus into a damsel in distress in her own game. Her every move in the game is presided over by men who seem lifted from some other game about military space heroes. Whereas Samus would typically land on a planet to investigate and render virtually every species on said planet extinct, here she follows the orders of Adam Malkovich-a typical soldier bro who actually calls her "Lady."
Which Samus accepts.
The rest of the soldiers treat her with little respect, as she's been considered a deserter. Look at it this way: they don't respect Samus despite her proving herself, oh, six times before this game. Super Metroid, in fact, takes place right before this game. Remember? She killed Mother Brain-again-and destroyed Zebes, making a daring escape in the process.
And they don't respect her. The only logical conclusion is because she's a woman. She seems like the only woman of consequence in the universe here, in fact.
Note that Samus is the shortest one here. Despite being equipped in a suit of death.
Again, this is interplanetary bounty hunter extraordinaire Samus Aran, being reduced to a stereotypical damsel-in-distress in a game she stars in. That's like playing the original Super Mario Bros. as Princess Peach, standing in that square room waiting for Mario to show up.
There's a scene in Other M that everyone zeroes in on, and for the right reasons. It's this scene, where Samus encounters Ridley.
Skip to about 3:00.
As you can see, Samus is scared stiff at first sight of Ridley.
This reaction makes absolutely zero sense, considering what we know about Samus, and the fact that she's faced down Ridley a few times before with no problem. But it's more about making Samus into a tired trope-that of the weak, helpless female, except here, she's in a mighty battle suit. Which makes the submissive Samus even more baffling.
There's an interview with Nate Bihldorff, who was in charge of the localization of Other M. He had a different interpretation:
"Bear in mind, we're dealing with a beloved series that's almost 25 years old, and since Metroid has traditionally been extremely light on exposition, fans have filled in a lot of the blanks with their own imaginations. Samus' story—her voice, her motivations, everything about her—has largely been a matter of individual perception, especially in the US, where people haven't read any of the official manga related to her childhood. Mr. Sakamoto is the only one who knows who she really is, and his vision for her and her voice was always going to be different than the character people had built in their heads.
"I've seen the same comments you have, and while I understand where they come from, I definitely don't agree with most of them. For me, Samus's detached monologue speaks to the reticence of a wounded character, one scarred by the tragic events of her childhood. The glimpse of the pain and fear she carries—shown in the flashback scene when she sees Ridley—is not a sign of weakness, but of strength. People who call out that scene as anything but empowering are kind of missing the point, in my opinion—she does end up torching Ridley, after all. There is no courage without fear, in my mind, and knowing that Samus overcomes that repressed terror makes her all the more heroic than someone who plods forward without a hint of humanity."
Here's my problem: Other M doesn't mesh with the arguments Mr. Bihldorff sets forth. Firstly, regarding this Metroid manga: I haven't read it, and I'll bet most of you haven't either. But let's assume Samus is petrified of Ridley in the manga, which covers her childhood. Why have we not seen any indication of this before? She wasn't afraid of him in the original Metroid.
Nor was she scared of him in Super Metroid. One can argue, "okay, but the technology at the time wasn't conducive to story telling." And, to some degree, you're right: NES and SNES games had trouble telling big, elaborate, film-like stories unless said game was an RPG.
But what about Metroid Prime 1 and 3? Those games still look good today and are more than capable of telling complex stories. Here, now, was an opportunity to establish Samus as an insecure, dependent wreck terrified of Ridley.
Here's "Meta Ridley" from Metroid Prime. About to get his ass kicked, without Samus turning into a quivering mess.
They didn't go that way, because of course they didn't. Instead, Samus is the same character we know from our childhoods. We've built that interpretation of Samus in our heads, because that's how Nintendo portrayed her. Anything put forth in the manga is irrelevant when you consider Samus' actions in the games so far.
Secondly, regarding the claim of Samus' fear as "not a sign of weakness, but of strength." Of course it's a sign of weakness. Samus ends up so petrified she allows Ridley to grab her and her suit deactivates. Keep in mind, this is Ridley, who she has dispatched time and again without hesitation or fear.
Oh, and play that clip again. She's rescued by a man. Again. Y'know, this stuff happens only in Other M. His lines make me cringe. While, yes, she "does end up torching Ridley in the end," she's only able to do so with help from male soldiers. Oh, and because Adam told her to use her plasma gun.
Regardless of your stance on feminism or equality or whatever, this fails not only from a stereotypical angle, but from a basic story angle as well, because this isn't the Samus we know.
And yet the game plays like Metroid, at least. That's why I call it an exercise in contrast: when I say "it's not too bad!", I mean I enjoy the act of playing it while simultaneously groaning at the half-baked plot and tired, tropey characters. I think it sort of resembles classic Metroid. I like the simple control scheme; you hold the Wii Remote sideways, and it's almost like you're playing the NES game again.
The game has good ideas, from a pure gameplay standpoint. And yet it buries those ideas in a plot that doesn't feel like Metroid. I don't recognize Samus here; it's not even the fact that she's dependent on men, though that in itself is lame. It's that she's dependent on anyone at all. This is Samus Aran, for Pete's sake!
Side note: I have nothing against Jessica Martin's voice acting here. She does a remarkable job. Samus is just written poorly here.
Said plot meshes poorly with the gameplay as well; you return to playing ass-kicking Samus for a while, then you watch a cutscene of simpering, dependent, somewhat-offensive Samus. Gameplay-story dissonance is nothing new, but it's pretty harsh here. Team Ninja could have made Samus a strong, independent character in Other M. I'm not sure how the decision process worked, but they could have given Samus a voice while still retaining the personality we envisioned for her over these many years.
But her characterization here doesn't fit with her actions over those years.
I'm hoping Nintendo can make a Metroid that returns Samus to her glory; they have a flawless track record regarding Metroid, after all. Seeing as how Other M was developed by Team Ninja, I guess we don't have to count this one. Every Metroid has been great, save for this one, so we'll see the real Samus again. I hope. Because I don't know who this is supposed to be.
Brian White, who goes by WingZero351 sometimes, is kicking off his new series, Re: Gaming, an in depth, critical look at games, gaming culture, and how that all relates to life. You can find him on Twitter, and check out his just-launched Patreon if you want to support more essays like this one.