One of the strengths of Nintendo's enviable character roster is that its heroes have always been ready for new styles and new interpretations. Mario is as comfortable in 3D as he was in 2D, and as at home in an RPG or golf game as in a straightforward platformer. Link, the hero of Legend of Zelda, can be a chirpy cartoon kid or troubled teen warrior, and we love him all the same. Why shouldn't the same be true of Metroid heroine, Samus Aran?
She's moved on from her 2D arcade adventure origins and found a place in the more deliberately paced, first-person Metroid Prime trilogy, yet she's never lost her mystique or her ability to thrill and surprise. And now she's back, with a new developer, Ninja Gaiden/Dead or Alive creator Team Ninja, and a whole new style. Surely it's time for another glorious chapter in the Metroid saga?
Well, Metroid: Other M has a way of surprising you. The first surprise is that Team Ninja has kept some of its worst excesses in check. Enormous bouncy breasts are conspicuous by their absence, and the grotesque gore and sadistic difficulty level that made the last two Ninja Gaiden games so frustrating has gone too. Other M shows sighting signs of a sensitive, contemplative nature not previously visible in Team Ninja's work. It even has a reasonably coherent plot!
Another surprise: from the early shots we had Other M down as a 2D retro exercise in the vein of New Super Mario Bros or Shadow Complex. In fact, it's more of a weird hybrid, switching at will between side-on 2D sections and more conventional third person 3D, all controlled, rather bizarrely, by the digital D pad and face buttons on the Wii remote. To make things even more confusing, pointing the remote towards the screen puts you in a Metroid Prime style first-person view from which you can aim missiles and scan the local area for clues (though with your feet seemingly stuck to the floor).
The biggest surprise, however, is that Team Ninja has been able to create a Metroid game with its own distinctive, action-focused feel, but that still looks and feels like a Metroid. The combat is more frequent and faster paced than it was in Metroid Prime, and the platforming elements are more demanding, and yet you’re regularly left in doubt that you're playing a descendent of Super Metroid and Metroid: Prime. There's that same sense of exploration, the same weird environments and even weirder creatures. Despite taking placed inside a giant abandoned starship, Other M gives you a strange, beautiful and deeply alien world to explore.
Of course, Team Ninja has still excelled in the areas you would expect it to. Other M can boast some of the slickest graphics you've seen on the Wii, with some monsters and environments that wouldn't look out of place on the Xbox 360. The boss battles, meanwhile, come thick, fast and gruesome, punctuating the game with regular big set-pieces. Frankly, there are plenty of reasons why any self-respecting Metroid fan should love Metroid: Other M to death.
Unfortunately, the game falls flat in other ways that drag it down a notch or two. The first is storytelling. For some bizarre reason, Samus has now been given a spectacularly ropey back story and - worse - an annoying voice with which to tell you all about it, leaving you hankering for that mysterious, silent heroine of old. At times the combination of dialogue and delivery made us wince with horror - suddenly the worst bits of Final Fantasy XIII seem like high art.
More seriously, the gameplay doesn’t always hang together. The sudden shifts between 2D and 3D; the need to point the remote to get the first-person view; the fact that you can’t move while aiming in it; all of these things serve to get in the way between you and the game, and jolt you out of the experience. Other M also insists on making you scan the area for vital bits or hidden clues, but there’s no mechanism for alerting you to which bits of the screen might be important. As a result, you can find yourself spending hours wandering around, scanning various areas, in a desperate search for the one thing that will help you get on to the next area. It’s not big, clever, or fun, and the fact that Metroid Prime did this so much more successfully just makes it pretty much inexcusable.
And one final niggle. While you’re wandering around trying to find the bit that will open up the next area, you’ll regularly come across portals and switches that can only be opened with specific weapons. Amazingly, you’re already carrying these weapons or, say, the armour upgrade needed to cross glowing lava, but you can’t and won’t use them unless authorised by your superior commander, out of respect for him. We know we were all getting tired of the "Samus loses all her suit abilities" routine, but couldn’t someone have come up with something vaguely more credible than this?
Metroid: Other M is a decent Wii action game, and Metroid fans with the persistence to get past its fiddly controls, poor dialogue and "pin the tail on the donkey" scanning will love the way it can still capture that old Super Metroid feel. All the same, this feels like a big step backwards from the mighty Metroid Prime trilogy, and a game that will probably go down in history as an oddball curio rather than a bona-fide Metroid classic.