There's been a good deal of detailing regarding the premise of Other M, and while I'm glad to see that everyone's pretty jazzed about seeing the series pulled in a new direction by a new developing team (Team Ninja of Dead or Alive and Ninja Gaiden fame), the new details raised a few questions for me. I thought I'd go ahead and get some thoughts and examinations down regarding where the series has been and where it looks to be going.
I suppose I should preface this by saying straight out that it's impossible for me to pass judgment on Other M, given that we haven't seen much of it, as well as the obvious fact that I haven't played it yet, so please don't think I'm throwing a Sonic 4-sized bitch fit about something I clearly have no knowledge about. One thing that hands-on reviewers have had to say, in practically a unanimous chorus, is that Other M is going to focus quite a lot on Samus and her history, and to a much greater degree than previous titles have. Keep in mind, there are nine previous titles (if you include Zero Mission, which you should). Of these titles, Zero Mission seems to detail Samus' history the most, but still never outright declares a full life story for the heroine. Instead, we get ideas and insinuations regarding her history with the Chozo, the race of bird-people that have supplied her with her powersuit. Other M, on the other hand, seems poised to give us Samus' history with the Federation, as well as her reasons for eventually going freelance. Those seem like Big Important Ideas, and while I think everyone who has played the Metroid games has wondered about Samus' past, I'm not convinced that everyone has wanted to actually have it told to them, let alone in her own words with the aid of a voice actor. Maybe everyone HAS wanted to actually have it told to them! I don't know! But I do know that I have not had that desire, like, ever, and I'm apprehensive to have Samus, in all her full-motion-video-voice-acted-cutscene glory, sit down and give me the tell-all autobiography.
"But James!" You may say. "Clearly you have a double standard here! Just because Samus has never been voice acted before doesn't mean we've never had talk in previous games!" And you'd be right about that! That's a really important thing to note, actually! Samus does have a little bit to say in the introduction of Super Metroid, but it's all for the purposes of exposition. It's very matter-of-fact, and really only is in there to set up the premise of the game and bring those who hadn't played its predecessors up to speed. The other obvious example is Metroid Fusion, in which we're given a great deal more immediate story than is present in other M titles (har har see what I did there?). While Fusion received universally positive reviews, have you ever heard anybody say that it was their favorite of the series? I'm willing to bet that the answer is "no;" for me, it honestly ranks somewhere near the bottom, and initially it seemed hard to figure out why.
After all, Fusion generally plays like a Metroid game. You have what feels like nonlinear exploration guided by semi-linear upgrades, small enemies dotting the landscapes between boss encounters, and a dramatic escape before the base you're on explodes. The truth is that the game is actually much, much more linear than the other games that came before it, specifically because of how much more story plays into the title. Generally, story is pretty important, but it's not been important enough in this franchise that it should outweigh the mechanics of the gameplay, and this is generally what separates Fusion from other Metroid titles. You're telling me too much, and in doing so you're also limiting my ability to play this game the way it should be played. This is a good starting point when it comes to talking about my fears about Team Ninja's effort.
What makes me worry about the concept of Other M is that Metroid isn't just about Samus going into the Space Pirate base, blowing some shit up, and bailing in her sweet ass starship as the world explodes into a million little pieces. It's about those things, yes, but it's not just about those things. A lot of what makes Metroid Metroid is the tone in which the story is (or isn't) told. Take the first game of the series as an example:
DEFEAT THE METROID OF
THE PLANET ZEBES AND
DESTROY THE MOTHER BRAIN
THE MECHANICAL LIFE VEIN
GALAXY FEDERAL POLICE
That's your story. That's IT. "But James!" You may say. "Clearly, as an 8-bit title, the available technology wouldn't allow for the sprawling narratives with which we've recently been so spoiled!" And for the most part, you'd be right about that! But Metroid was able to make up for those shortcomings by setting a distinct tone and environment in which this mission would unfold. Basically, it's you, your gun, and a whole world of corridors which, if not empty and lonely, were filled with things that would attempt to kill you. The music is brilliant, going from the adventurous theme of Brinstar to the mystery and suspense of Ridley and Kraid, down into the terrifying depths of Tourian where you face the Metroids and the Mother Brain. Everything supports the same conclusions: you're all alone here.
What makes this significant isn't just that it can scare the crap out of you while you're playing, it's that game mechanics and storytelling methods are inextricably linked to one another. The way the story unfolds helps set the tone and ambience for the game environments, but it also ensures that you need very little restriction in terms of progression, which enables you to do a lot of exploring and progress outside of a standard and expected sequence. It is impossible for me to stress this singular point enough, because if you have never played a Metroid game before, I have essentially summed up the secret of its success to you. Low on details, high on exploration, through the roof on the overall experience.
That feeling of isolation and loneliness was what made Metroid 2 and Super Metroid all the more incredible; the next two games in the series recognized their predecessor's tone, and used it to make the story that much better. Samus is bounty hunter. She's clearly a good guy, but we all know "sci fi bounty hunter" might as well have replaced "fucking bad ass" in colloquial terminology. Face it, when you watch a science fiction film and there's a bounty hunter, you know that that character is a bad ass; people don't cosplay as Boba Fett because he was a pansy. You know everything you need to know straight away: this individual is a lone wolf who hunts people for money. So if that badass goes through hell to eradicate an entire race of aliens (say...Metroids?) only to have one hatch from an egg and imprint her as its mother, isn't that a pretty great shift? Even better is what happens when that Metroid turns into a huge killing machine but can still remember its mommy.
What I'm getting at is that great things can be done in a universe where history is in limited quantities, sometimes even better than the things a history lesson can give. Ambiguities are okay as long as they're not there for the simple purpose of vexing you, and I don't feel that that's something that the Metroid series is guilty of; we still get to learn a lot about Samus simply because of the types of missions she accepts and the degree to which she completes them, but the sense of allure remains because of the shrouded history and lone wolf image, aided by the degree to which a player can and should explore in any given title.
It's entirely possible Nintendo has always had some elaborate backstory drafted up and never really had the know how to implement it. It seems equally possible that they never really focused much on elaborating Samus' backstory beyond her upbringing by the Chozo, and instead focused on the game mechanics and the tone set by the environments she traversed. The latter seems much more likely to me, but that's really what makes the franchise what it is. Isolation, loneliness, and a distinct lack of information, which reduces the need for an entirely linear experience and increases emergent gameplay or sequence breaking. From the sound of it, Other M has the intention of making story a much more critical factor, which will have to have an impact on gameplay that drives it towards linearity. I feel like a whiny bitch for saying so, but really, isn't that the polar opposite of what makes Metroid...Metroid?