When I started playing Metroid: Other M, I didn't know what to make of it. Basic movement felt nothing like the previous games. The story was front and center. Samus talked a lot. The cutscenes were unskippable and initially intolerable.
As I became acclimated, I began to realize that the game wasn't that much of a departure for the series at all. In fact, the elements that make this feel like a Metroid game gave me a better idea of what it means to be a Metroid game.
Nintendo sort of split the Metroid universe in 2002 (no, not in terms of alternate timelines -- put your flowcharts away). Metroid Prime took the exploration elements of the first games and expanded them, creating a giant world full of secrets to be found, without prodding you too much from one area to the next. Metroid Fusion, released the same day, delivered a linear, more dramatic experience. In this regard, Other M feels like a sequel (or prequel, as it were) to Fusion, even taking place in a similar setting -- a research outpost with areas designed to simulate the climates of Planet Zebes.
We pick up the story of Adam Malkovich, Samus's commanding officer from her pre-bounty hunter days, and a person who only appears in these two games (albeit as an AI in Fusion). His role is remarkably similar in both: to guide Samus from one objective to the next. The presence of this character, combined with the other similarities, suggests that Fusion wasn't an odd one-off, but rather a direction for the series Nintendo wanted to explore.
Samus finds herself on a research vessel called the "Bottle Ship," where she responds to a distress call only to find that her old Galactic Federation colleagues have responded to the same plea. Samus agrees to join up with them on the mission, begrudgingly taking orders from Malkovich.
What danger to the squad came from Samus not dying in lava?
An important aside: one of the most seemingly clever parts of the game turns into one of the dumbest early on. Samus's abilities are limited out of respect and consideration for the team of marines. In order to avoid freezing or Power Bombing her companions, she only uses each ability once Malkovich has authorized it. It seemed like a great way to get around that game design issue -- until he authorized her use of the Varia Suit. Why would he have prohibited her from using armor? What danger to the squad came from Samus not dying in lava?
Over the course of the game we learn about Samus's life in the military and why she left, mostly through cutscenes. The first couple of hours of the game are heavy on these, and they're melodramatic to the point of silliness. Luckily, they grow less frequent and focus less on Samus's past and more on the mysteries of the Bottle Ship, at which point the story actually becomes a worthwhile Aliens-style adventure -- before diving spectacularly off the deep end in the climax.
A fleshed out story is not, however, the only evolution on offer from Team Ninja and Nintendo. Other M also magnifies the excitement one felt in Fusion when encountering new enemies, turning even normal encounters into set pieces. Make no mistake: Metroid: Other M is an action game. Samus can roll-dodge, which instantly powers her charge beam; she can vault onto enemies' shoulders and blast them point-blank; she can grab a downed enemy and finish it off with a flourish. These skills aren't just for flavor -- many non-boss enemies are dangerous enough to kill Samus by themselves, even when she has full health. That's how you know it's a Team Ninja game!
The downside is that it often felt impossible to fight in first-person mode (by pointing the Wii Remote at the screen), especially when I was forced to stand stationary as I fired a missile. The controls work fine -- it's simply a frustrating matter of making enough time for yourself to shoot off a missile.
What absolutely didn't work in first person, though, was the occasional forced scanning sequence. When the game wants you to see something, it'll drop you into first-person and let you look around, only advancing when you've found and scanned the object it wants you to see. However, the system doesn't always highlight the object correctly. I know I passed right over the target in a few cases, only to have the cursor inform me of its presence several passes later. These frustrating moments hurt the pacing, but they were mercifully infrequent.
At first, I wasn't sure that Metroid: Other M would be a proper Metroid game or even a fun one, but as its action intensified over the course of the adventure, it didn't take me long to dismiss the second concern. As for whether or not it's Metroid ... I finished the game with a 45-percent completion rate, and I'm currently going back through the map looking for hidden Energy and Missile Tanks. You tell me.
This review is based on the Wii retail version of Metroid: Other M provided by Nintendo. The game will be released in North America on August 31.