In late 2004, Nintendo released their double-screened handheld to controversy and speculation. The Game Boy Advance was getting on in age by console standards, and the Sony PSP was a looming, glossy, jet-black shadow on the horizon. How could Nintendo hope to catch the attention of the already fickle gaming community, with a bizarre, homely little portable that had two screens and was admittedly underpowered compared to Sony’s sexified juggernaut? Why, by bundling their new machine with a demo that blew people’s doors off.
Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt was the proof of concept Nintendo needed to show that the DS meant business. First and foremost, it was visually spectacular. It came to the table proving that first-generation software on the DS could hold its own in the eye-candy centric market, even when the PSP was truly leaps and bounds ahead in graphical muscle. First Hunt made people look at the DS, and thus, notice titles like Mario Kart, Nintendogs and Meteos. Second, it made the stylus control work, and almost comparable to the untouchable keyboard-mouse perfection that PC gamers swear by.
Time passed, and Nintendo promised that their new NST development house, in conjunction with Nintendo of Japan and Retro studios, were hard at work on the final release of Hunters. A delay from late ’05 to early ’06 raised several eyebrows in doubt, but the extra wait turned out to be crucial to Hunters’ final success. Because of their patience, DS owners now have a visually polished, artistically crafted, bug-tested and Wifi compatible monster to carry around in their pockets. Metroid Prime Hunters is here.
The question on everyone’s mind: is this real Metroid? There was considerable resistance to the first-person switch, back when Metroid Prime was released in ’02. Hardcore fans felt that their beloved franchise was being turned into a Quake clone, and the news of a multiplayer-based title with FPS controls made the fans even angrier. Metroid faithful, you can relax. If you liked Prime and its stellar sequel Echoes, you have much to look forward to in Hunters.
Nintendo Software Technologies has in no way neglected what Metroid is traditionally about: the single player adventure, the exploration. The lock-on feature is gone, replaced by pixel-precise touch screen aiming, but Hunters’ solo quest is still a meaty ordeal in its own right. I admit it isn’t as deep or immersive as the GameCube masterpieces, but remember we’re dealing with a portable, and there are some space limitations. Considering those restrictions, NST has pulled off an impressive adventure, graphically and in terms of gameplay.
The visuals are the first thing that will catch your eye, as they mimic Metroid Prime’s art direction and detail to the letter. Everything, from Samus’s starship, to the way the missile launcher opens, to the enemies, bring a comfort and familiarity to a stalwart Metroid vet like myself. The care and love that went into this game are present in the innumerable little touches—the morphball’s polished surface, the workings of Samus’s blaster, the crawling geemer bugs that have infested Metroid caverns since the original in 1986. This isn’t simply the most graphically impressive DS game, it is a work of art, much like Metroid Prime and its sequel.
All of these little bits of nostalgia, these faithfully preserved hallmarks of the beloved Metroid series will draw you in and reassure you that you are indeed playing Metroid. And once you’re in, you’ll be treated to a rich, painstakingly crafted adventure that holds itself high amid its revered brethren. Metroid Prime Hunters stays true to its roots, but also takes the series in a bold new direction. Samus’s universe has been expanded six-fold—there is a sextuplet of fearsome bounty hunters after the same prize that Samus is pursuing. What is that prize, exactly? Oh, only the promise of unlimited power, hidden within a figurative ghost town of a solar system. A long dead civilization called the Alimbics (not unlike the Chozo that raised Samus, or the Luminoth of the dimensionally split planet Aether) have secreted a massive power source within their star system. A telepathic message beamed to the home galaxy has made it clear that this power is up for grabs to whoever proves worthy.
Needless to say, the Galactic Federation has once again called upon Samus Aran, their power-suited savior with a knack for completing impossible missions. The other six hunters span a number of motives and abilities, and the Federation isn’t taking any chances. Samus is ordered to retrieve this mysterious power before anyone else can, and failing that, destroy it to keep it out of enemy hands. Those enemy hands are quite capable, too. A deranged super soldier, a religious zealot, a cybernetic space pirate and three other galactic bruisers are fixing to take Samus out, and they all have alternate forms comparable to Samus’s morphball. This impressive rogues gallery makes for perfect multiplayer material, but in order to unlock all six hunters in multi, you’ll have to face them in the solo adventure.
Rooting them out amid the four sprawling planets isn’t that tough; they’re gunning for you anyway, and they happen to show up at the worst possible times. Getting to the ultimate power requires eight keys, called Octoliths, and the hunters can literally beat you into submission and steal your hard-won artifacts. The Octoliths are initially acquired after staple Metroid boss fights, which in turn start a staple Metroid escape countdown, where you must get to your ship in a matter of minutes. As you escape, the hunters will appear randomly to block your getaway, and these frantic timed battles are some of the game’s most memorable moments. It’s just a shame that the main boss battles aren’t as creative. The Octolith guardians are simply a continuing variation on two gigantic security robots, and fighting the same laser-shooting eyeball four times gets old. Thankfully, the hunters show up throughout the game to challenge you, and they get progressively smarter. One of the more hectic highlights involved the sharpshooter Sylux assaulting you with the help of his ship, which provided cover-fire as Sylux laid mines, sapped your energy with his shock-coil, and was a general pain in the ass.
The auditory accompaniment to the solo quest is what Metroid fans have come to expect: atmospheric, pulse-pounding at times, and always high quality. The NST sound designers have given the music a harder edge, a deeper, grittier sound than the other games in the series. The score isn’t as epic or sweeping as say, Super Metroid’s, but it adds another element of creepiness to an already ominous environment. Samus truly is alone this time and very far from home and backup, and her only company are the ruthless hunters who want her dead. The music selection does a very good job of reinforcing this ambiance, especially how it is tailored to the confrontations with the hunters. Each hunter has their own signature theme, but Metroid veterans will recognize familiar homage to Kenji Yamamoto’s older scores from previous titles. The item acquisition fanfare is probably the most nostalgic, along with a few snippets from the GameCube titles. Sound effects are lifted mostly from Prime and Echoes, but they too carry a signature edginess, a darker modification that makes Hunters stand out as “different.”
All in all, the adventure mode takes a cleaner balance of exploration, puzzle-solving and shooting to complete, although the shooting is a little more prevalent this time. The boss fights, morphball sequences, scanning and hunting about stack up to a solid ten hours of gameplay, at least the first time through. While Metroid Prime and Echoes offer a meatier experience, Metroid Prime Hunters is still a worthy, involving affair that proves challenging enough. You’ll still have to search for missile expansions, energy tanks and scan logs, hidden in secret locations off the beaten path. It’s certainly longer and more difficult than Metroid Fusion or Zero Mission on the GBA, which were good but sadly short romps.
I have only one small complaint: this game contains no Metroids. When “Metroid” is a part of the game’s name, the titular energy-suckers should make at least some small appearance in the game. More confusing is their presence in the First Hunt demo. NST did a great job recreating the little buggers for the demo, in fact they were almost identical to Retro’s version on the GameCube, but they are oddly absent from the final game. It’s a small gripe from an old school fan, but I can’t believe they couldn’t have fit them in somewhere.
Upon completing the solo campaign, you owe it to yourself to delve into Hunters’ expansive multiplayer component. Let me say that I dislike it when people compare Metroid and Halo. They are two completely different animals—Metroid is based on exploration and deductive reasoning, and it’s more like Zelda than anything else. Halo is a straight-up shooter, with some vehicular action thrown in for variety, but it has much more in common with Half-Life than it does with Samus’s games. That said, the best analogy I can make is that Metroid Prime Hunters is the Halo of the DS, at least in respect to the multiplayer. The multi aspect of Hunters does retain the classic Metroid look and feel, but it will create a community the way Halo did. It is simply that good.
I’m still amazed that the developers were able to cram this much depth into a handheld game. There are seven modes, most of which we’ve seen before in other competitive shooters, but there’s no shame in revisiting the classics. Deathmatch, capture the flag, zones, life-based elimination, gladiator, they’re all here and reworked with a Metroid flavor. I’ve played games where these modes have simply been included for the sake of variety, but the dev team actually made them all work in Hunters; that is, they all feel balanced and fun.
Selecting the mode of play is only the beginning, as there are scads of options to configure. A quick, easy game is optional, but for a truly customized experience, you want to fiddle with the bells and whistles a while. You want to turn off radar? You got it. Friendly fire? A screen-tap away. You can even adjust how much damage the weapons inflict. Team play can be switched on in most modes, and it is enabled by default in modes that require it, like capture the flag. Each mode has its own settings, so there’s no lack of variety.
The next step is choosing an arena—of a whopping twenty-five possible maps. Some levels are restricted to a certain mode, i.e. capture the flag can’t be played in the super small maps where it wouldn’t make much sense, but the sheer number of levels is still incredible. A healthy balance has been struck in regard to size; the selection of maps is divided roughly into thirds, with small, medium, and large getting equal representation. Small levels are good for quick, brutal confrontations and duels, and have a few weapons and scarce health scattered around. Medium maps are best suited for casual deathmatch, although there is some ingenious architecture that makes for unique battles. The big arenas, and I mean BIG, are excellent for sniping, stalking, and the team-based modes. One of my favorite levels is actually called “headshot,” and has plentiful sniper pickups, platforms and hideout positions.
The levels themselves are pretty interestingly crafted, but the really innovative thing about them is that they’ve been created around the multiplayer characters. Each map has tunnels, nooks and crannies that play to each character’s strengths and abilities, and most importantly, their unique secondary forms. It may be easier to move Samus’s morphball across a narrow ledge, while Trace fits particularly well into a sniping crevice.
This is also possibly where Prime Hunters innovates the most in the realm of multiplayer FPS. Instead of dozens of throwaway characters or a couple bland, tasteless models, you have seven players and a surprising level of variation. It really does matter who you choose to play as, and how you master your favorite character’s powers. The closest thing I can compare it to is Super Smash Bros, but even that’s a stretch. Suffice it to say, who you choose changes what weapons work best, how you take advantage of the current level, and how you handle the current mode of play.
To clarify, let me break down a few of the characters. Samus is probably who you’ll start with, as she’s been your best friend in the solo adventure. Samus can effectively use any of the six weapons, but she can charge her missiles and make them track; any other character can simply fire dummy missiles that travel in a straight line. Samus’s morphball is useful for escaping dicey situations, as it has a boost feature and bombs for pursuit-minded opponents. Trace, on the other hand, is better suited to stealth. When standing still in his alt form, he becomes invisible. He can also vanish when the Imperialist sniper rifle is equipped, making him the perfect long-range attacker. Weavel, a cyborg space pirate, is good at multi-tasking; his body can separate into two halves, one a scythe-wielding biped, the other a stationary gun turret. Spire, a rock-based life form, can charge the Magmual grenade launcher and set enemies on fire, a difficult skill to master but lethal in the right hands. Noxus is the only character who can freeze enemies solid with the Judicator rifle, Sylux can restore his own health by sapping it from others with the Shock Coil, and beastly Kanden can disrupt a victim’s display with a charged shot from the Volt Driver.
Add to that the versatile alt forms of each character, and you have one colorful multiplayer game on your hands. Multiplayer is the only place to experience the character-based affinity powers of the solo weapons, and developing strategies on how to use them is half the battle. In a way, the deeper, cerebral aspect of Metroid has been carried over to the multiplayer, in the purely tactical aspect of playing the guns and maps against your opponents, based on your character’s strengths and weaknesses.
The best part of the multiplayer, far and away, is that it’s completely playable over the Nintendo Wifi Connection. Every mode, map, option and character is available online, and NWC is free, connects to a wide array of compatible hotspots and is generally free of lag. Wifi also allows for one of the coolest features: voice chat before and after matches. Trash talking or general hanging out is accomplished through a walkie-talkie like format, as long as all players consent to send their friend codes.
To cap it all off, there is an insane amount of stat-tracking. It’s apparent the NST team has some hardcore shooter fans, because just about every record and variable a shooter player could want is saved to the game card after each match. Headshots, alt form kills, time playing, favored character, favorite map, win streak, accuracy, everything is stored on your “Hunter’s License,” a stat card that is broadcast to your opponents before a game starts. Probably the most useful stat is “connection history,” or as most players have come to call it, the “chump meter.” This shows how many games you’ve suckered out on, the ones where you’ve been in trouble and cut off the connection by shutting down the DS to avoid losing a game. Valid lost connections, due to interference or a bad Wifi link, do not affect the chump meter rating, making it all the more telling and useful.
NST has also taken a page from Nintendogs’ book, and implemented “Rival Radar.” Similar to the puppy simulator’s “Bark Mode,” this allows you to keep your DS in a scanning sleep mode. When it detects another player on the street who has their radar active, it’ll download their hunter’s license info and simultaneously transmit yours. After a battle, you have the choice to add an opponent to a friends list or a rivals list, letting you keep tabs on all your nemeses and possible clan mates. NST has crafted the deepest, most engaging portable multi-player experience to date. Their work is an example and blueprint for other developers; hopefully, it will help companies realize that shooters are not only possible on the DS, they also work incredibly well.
Such a masterpiece is not without a few flaws, however. In the adventure mode I encountered a few framerate drops. They were not substantial and didn’t hamper the gameplay in any major way, and to be honest they are understandable in such a graphically demanding game. For less experienced players, the game’s lack of save stations may prove frustrating. Teleport pads provide a way back to Samus’s gunship, for saving data and reloading your arsenal, but there are only two teleporters per planet. This means one must travel back to the pad each time they want to save. Not the most efficient setup, but it works in the long run. Possibly the biggest hurdle in this game is the control scheme. It works brilliantly one you have it down, but the stylus aiming has a high learning curve. Expect a few mild cramps and some frustration as you adjust to the keyboard-mouse facsimile. Enough practice, and the rewards are abundant in both the adventure and on the multiplayer battlefield.
What more is there to say of Metroid Prime Hunters? It is, as of now, the most elaborate game available for the Nintendo DS. The sheer number of things to do and modes to play is epic, an honor previously reserved only for top-tier console titles and never even considered on a handheld. If you own a DS, buy this game. Shooter fans and Metroid fans alike will be thoroughly absorbed, and even casual gamers will find a lot to like, if they put the time into learning the rather unconventional controls. As a gamer, you owe it to yourself to experience this game. As far as portables are concerned, it changes all the rules.
Metroid Prime Hunters explodes onto the DS, at long last. The wait was well worth itâ€”this game is the indisputable killer-app of the handheld, and one of the most involving games on the market today. As a game it defies classification, as both a solid first-person adventure and a hardcore multiplayer shooter. An almost bottomless supply of features, modes and options, not to mention true artistic crafting and dazzling visuals put Metroid Prime Hunters at the top of the DSâ€™s â€œmust haveâ€ list.