This post originally appeared on Matt Weise's blog Outside Your Heaven.
Metroid Other M has problems, mostly revolving around its badly-conceived integration of narrative and its dopey gender politics. But one thing I do like is its unorthodox take on 3D game design, which is conceptually very good. The game offers a fresh take on what it means to navigate and interact in 3D space, hearkening back to the days before developers had 3D "figured out", when it was common for every game to experiment with 3D differently.
I like how Other M takes place in 3D space but "pretends" to take place in 2D space. At a glance it looks like a "2.5D" game, the sort where the world is 3D but the player is confined to a 2D plane. Last year's Shadow Complex, which was an unabashed (and quite decent) Metroid clone, was basically a 2.5D game, though it did offer limited ability to shoot into the background. This is where Shadow Complex ran into problems however, since its manual aiming system was fidgity when it came to deciding whether "up" meant "up" in 2D space or "back" in 3D space.
Other M solves this problem by providing a genuine 3D world, with full three-axises of movement, but retaining a 2D-like level design and camera system. Movement into the background or forground is constrained not by some invisible wall but by actual level architecture, which is made up of long narrow corridors and sharp right-angles. The camera always remains at an orthogonal angle to Samus, with obscuring structures becoming transparent as the player runs behind them. The effect is somewhat like being trapped in an ant farm, but a slightly wider ant farm than normal, giving the player some limited room to move laterally.
This is an interesting idea for a 3D navigation system. It seems designed to utilize the simplicity and clarity of 2D controls while boasting actual 3D gameplay. Other M controls with the d-pad, which might seem limiting but makes perfect sense given the strong orthogonal logic of its spaces. You don't miss analog movement simply because the level design doesn't require it, and the problem of aiming at enemies--which can come from any direction--is solved by an extremely good auto-aiming system.
In some ways the ballsiest thing Other M does is take aiming almost entirely away from the player and hand it over to Samus. All the player has to do is tap the button and Samus will automatically blast left, right, up, down, or where ever enemies happen to be. The only thing she won't do is turn to blast enemies directly behind her, so it is up to the player to position Samus so that she has a clear shot. This mostly consists of moving her to one side of an enemy swarm so the autoaim can do its trick.
What I like about this is it turns combat into more of a navigation problem than an marksmanship problem. In a sense the player is the driver and Samus is the gunner, which reinforces Other M's navigation-focused design philosophy. Combat is not a trivial element (even with Samus's smooth moves it still requires some player skill) but primarily Other M is a game about moving through space, not fighting things. This is why, in spite of whatever other problems it has, it still feels like a proper Metroid game, because at its core the ratio of combat-to-exploration is similar to classic 2D Metroid.
I find this approach pretty clever, especially in how it solves the problems so many other 3D Metroid clones run into, most notably Castlevania. That series' big mistake, I feel, was to become more combat focused in the switch to 3D. Those games also kept the orthogonal level design of their 2D counterparts, but they went with traditional 3D cameras and analog movement, presumably because it would be difficult to fight enemies otherwise. What this did, however, was turn Castlevania into almost a straight brawler, in which exploration felt like a tedious afterthought.
What 3D Castlevania seemed to misunderstand about its 2D predecessors (and the Metroid games that inspired them) was that combat was never the center of the experience. It was merely something you did along the way, something which--in games like Symphony of the Night--seemed to exist primarily to make you feel cool as you glided elegantly through space. Alucard remains one of the most absurdly overpowered protagonists in videogames, and the sense that he could do incredible (and beautiful) things easily--i.e. with minimal input from you--was part of the appeal.
Samus in Other M is similar. It is slightly thrilling the way she responds in a complex fashion to minimal input, like when she appears to catch a glimpse of an enemy out of the corner of her eye and twist her body like some combination ninja/ballerina/gunslinger to blast it just before it gets her. I like moving Samus around just to see how she'll "handle" the situation. It's this sense of surprise that makes a player/protagonist relationship interesting, a fruitfully ambiguous fusion of self and other. When Samus does something cool, I feel cool, even if it was primarily her doing it.
Other M's design is refreshing ultimately because it demonstrates a willingness to re-think 3D as a problem. In this way it reminds me a lot of early 3D games like Fade 2 Black, Mega Man Legends, and Metal Gear Solid--all sequels to 2D games that deliberately preserved the orthogonal logic of 2D game design. Other M, however, benefits from a decade of 3D gaming, which allows it to mix-and-match 3D techniques that weren't around during the heyday of 3D experimentation. My favorite is how it switches to an off-set, over-the-shoulder camera (similar to Resident Evil 4) in certain rooms. In these rooms Samus slows to a walk and Other M suddenly controls like a conventional 3D game, but if you walk out of the room the camera and the controls switch back to orthogonal.
Other M uses this primarily to create suspense, or when the player enters a room too small for running. It feels nice and logical, like Samus has "decided" to have a closer look at a space. Unfortunately Other M doesn't really capitalize on these moments to build itself into a rich fictional world. Not that it has to to be a good game, but environmental narrative depth was one of the things Metroid Prime--Other M's single 3D predecessor--did exceedingly well. Other M borrows certain elements from Prime, like its 1st person camera with a "scanning" function, but it doesn't seem interested in using it to impart narrative information to the player, only gameplay information.
The only scannable objects in Other M are game items, whereas in Prime virtually everything in the environment--gameplay-related or not--was scannable, and would yield information that fleshed out the gameworld as a coherent fictional space. Other M has nicely detailed environments that easily could have supported a deeper scan function, but the team chose not to tell the story this way, instead opting for absurdly overblown, unskippable cut-scenes and a fairly linear game progression. When things like the over-the-shoulder camera and first-person scan function are used for narrative effect, it is always in highly controlled (and highly frustrating) ways that quickly degenerate into "find the pixel".
Other M doesn't really follow through on the rich possibilities suggested by its fresh 3D paradigm, but I want to stress that the paradigm is very good, and I feel the game deserves credit for showcasing it. With better narrative design the game's elegant combination of first-person, over-the-shoulder, and orthogonal 3D schemes could have been shaped into a dense and rich experience on par with Metroid Prime, while simultaneously recapturing the fast-paced acrobatics of classic Metroid that the Prime series played down. The fact that it's crippled by bad narrative design, unnecessary linearity, and (towards the end) an over-reliance on combat makes it a less-compelling final product but not a less useful experiment. It's willingness to rethink 3D as a problem gives it a freshness many better games lack, and in many ways it generates the sort of experimental excitement 3D games haven't in over a decade.