Samus Aran, as a character, means a lot of things to a lot of people. To the feminist gaming community, she is a symbol of strength. To the children of the 80s, she was a shocking surprise. And major portions of the gaming community view her as one of the few female protagonists to stand on equal ground with the many men of video games.
But she is none of these things to Nintendo.
Prior to the release of Metroid Fusion, Samus Aran had no voice, no dialogue. She would have intermittent bits of plot exposition in games, but most of the plot was told through other characters or non-voiced cutscenes. Even in the Prime games, where she was voiced by Jennifer Hale, she didn’t say a word. Samus was always the voiceless heroine, and this made it easy to imprint a character onto her.
When the majority of the gameplay in a given Metroid game is dedicated to exploring a hostile environment without a clear path laid out, it’s not hard to imagine Samus as a badass who doesn’t take shit from anybody and paves her own path, lined with the bodies of her enemies. For many, this was the Samus they imagined in their heads, and the Samus who they held up on a pedestal. And why not? The games didn’t do much to suggest otherwise.
When Metroid Fusion came out, however, it painted a very different depiction of Samus. Metroid Fusion featured Samus taking commands from an AI commander, spending long stretches of time contemplating her past and talking to herself, and not straying from the path laid out before her. It was a stark contrast from the image of Samus people had built up in their heads, and caused many to voice their distaste for the game and its story.
But Metroid Fusion did not necessarily disprove the version of Samus fans had imagined. Samus did set out on her own later on in the game, she did disobey orders, and she did act like a total badass. In addition, Metroid Fusion depicts Samus as an older, more mature woman than the bounty hunter depicted in the original games. So while Samus didn’t act like fans expected her to, she was still largely the same character.
Then Metroid: Other M happened.
Metroid: Other M was largely advertised as a “return to form” for the Metroid Franchise. It was to be a 3rd person action game that was written, directed, and produced by Yoshio Sakamoto, the director for the original Metroid and Super Metroid. The plot would bridge the gap between Super Metroid and Metroid Fusion, and would explain the circumstances behind the death of Samus’ former commander, Adam Malkovitch. But most important of all, it would be the first game to feature Samus speaking, with full voice-acting.
This announcement sparked many different reactions, and guaranteed that the game would come in hot. People were hesitant and wondering about how Samus would sound, or what the plot would be like, or how the action would work. And when the game came out, it confirmed many people’s worst fears:
Nintendo had no idea why people liked Samus.
In Metroid Other M, Samus is totally beholden to Adam Malkovitch, her former commander. She accepts and follows every order given to her by him, despite having no reason to do so. And this is reflected in the gameplay. Areas in the game are shockingly linear, and players are locked out of exploring anywhere that they haven’t been told to explore. To make matters worse, Samus refuses to use the vast majority of her powers until Adam gives her authorization to do so. Rather than finding items and power-ups through exploration, the game unlocks powers at set points, giving the player no free agency to search for items.
Other M is not a game about Samus. It is about Adam. Samus spends the game taking orders from a man who sits in the control room and watches. He decides when Samus is allowed to use her powers, and what she can and cannot do. Major sections of the plot focus around Adam, his role in the story, and his sacrifice. Samus is merely a vehicle for the game to convey his story, and she spends most of the game talking about Adam and what a great guy he was.
Other M verified the idea that Nintendo did not see Samus as a feminist icon or a powerful badass that stood on her own. To them, she is a submissive character to be ordered around by men. The Samus that fans knew was thrown out, in favor of a Samus that better suited Nintendo’s vision of the character. And with it, Nintendo threw out a powerful icon for women in the gaming community.