When developer Fuse Games coughed out its first tabletop attempt, Mario Pinball Land
, most gamers hardly took notice. The GBA title was pretty to look at, but was awkward, mediocre and just plain confusing. What was the point of squashing Mario into a roughly spherical shape, and then swatting him around a series of Mushroom Kingdom themed tables? Needless to say, Mario Pinball was quickly forgotten. When the announcement came that Fuse would be turning their pinball guns on the venerable Metroid series, fans of Nintendo’s sci-fi franchise collectively groaned. Prime Pinball
was expected to be another flop, but it seems that Fuse just needed some warm up time to get the silver ball rolling. Metroid’s venture into the world of tilting tables fares much better than Mario’s.
For starters, a Metroid pinball game just makes more sense. Interplanetary bounty hunter Samus Aran already spends half of her time rolled into an armored sphere, and the morphball puzzles played a big part in Metroid Prime
and its sequel, Echoes. Samus fans need not worry—our heroine hasn’t been sloppily dumped into an incongruous genre with no point of reference. Prime Pinball is wholly and thoroughly Metroid.
The stand out that really grabbed me is the appearance of the game. I’m a die-hard Metroid lover, so any transgressions on my favorite Nintendo franchise are met with instant fury, but with Prime Pinball I had nothing to worry about. From the get go a Metroid fan is completely at home, greeted first by the stylish and creepy menus. They resemble the setup for the Metroid Hunters
demo, First Hunt, which came packaged with the DS when it was released. The x-ray scans, suit specs and creature images make up the backgrounds, with computerized text overlays. It all has Retro studio’s distinct art style, which gives a solid sense of continuity and uniformity to the series.
Retro’s influence doesn’t end there, but trickles down into the tables and every other element of the graphical presentation. Fuse paid a lot of attention to the source material and took very few liberties in regards to the visuals. One design choice was somewhat unexpected, though: everything, and I mean everything, is pre-rendered. Samus in both of her forms, her enemies, the tables, the backgrounds, are all sprite-based. Have no fear, this is not the chunky, claymation rendering of Rare SNES games. Great care has been taken to make everything crisp and detailed, and it all animates fluidly with no skipping.
This no-polygon approach may be a shock to younger gamers who cut their teeth on GameCube’s Metroid Prime titles, but it has a technological advantage. The DS hardware, free of polygon constraints, can easily handle Prime Pinball. Thus, no framerate slowdown whatsoever. I also find it a little ironic that Samus has returned to the 2D sprite form in which she was born.
If the first thing a Metroid veteran recognizes is the graphical flair, the second will be the unmistakable music. Kenji Yamamoto, the man behind the Metroid series’ haunting techno tunes, didn’t necessarily score any new music for Prime Pinball, but many of his previous themes have been remixed. The music is pretty Prime-centric, coming predominantly from the two ‘Cube Metroids, but there are some nostalgic reworks of tracks from Super Metroid and the old NES original. Music accompanies the appropriately themed tables, from Phendrana Drifts and Tallon Overworld to Magmoor Caverns and Phazon Mines. There’s also familiar incidental work to go with the Space Pirates and other assorted monsters.
The rest of the sound work is taken almost bit-for-bit from Metroid Prime. Effects for the various creatures, environments and machinery haven’t changed at all, and several of the sounds have been attached to the functions of the pinball tables. Personally I don’t mind the lack of original sound effects; Retro’s sound designers did a great job the first time around in Prime, and Fuse was smart not to futz around with something that already worked.
Hands down, the presentation of Prime Pinball
is unmistakably Metroid, through and through. Fuse stuck to the solid foundation they had to work with, and made something nostalgic and memorable at the same time. But...how does it play? Mario Pinball had finicky mechanics and the whole pinball concept was poorly implemented. How does it work with Samus? Simply put, it feels like...well, pinball in the Metroid universe. Rather, like pinball tables cleverly disguised as Morphball puzzles and boss battles.
There was one boss fight in Prime 2 Echoes
that was played entirely in the Morphball, and while some gamers found it irritating and out of place, I thought it was pure genius. It offered a refreshing change of pace from the jump-lock-shoot routine and explored Samus’ potential in ball form. Prime Pinball
takes that idea to the extreme.
The gameplay is structured much like the ball puzzles in the Prime games; Samus has a set amount of energy and can be damaged by the hazards scattered throughout the tables. A first for a pinball game is the inclusion of weapons—Samus is the only pinball that can lay bombs, and for the occasional minigame she actually unrolls for some blaster play. The ubiquitous bomb sockets from the Prime games make an appearance, and activate a slot machine interface that rewards certain bonus items, such as extra balls or a safety force field.
In addition, Samus isn’t the only player on the table, with a variety of enemies swarming in randomly. These include the humble parasite and the fearsome Space Pirates, and of course some (gasp!) Metroids float down from time to time. Then there are the bosses. A few of Samus’ most memorable adversaries return from Prime in their respective levels, such as Thardus and the Omega Pirate. The strategies for defeating them this time are admittedly different (and not as original) but just as challenging.
To enhance the gameplay, Nintendo included the DS rumble pak with Prime Pinball
—it’s the first game to use the peripheral. It’s incredibly small, literally the size of a GBA cartridge, but it generates enough vibration to convey bumps and rattles. IGN complained rather vocally about the noise the pak makes, but to be honest I didn’t find it all that distracting. It produces a faint thrumming sound whenever it rumbles, but the sounds of the game drown most of it out. The pak adds a drain to the battery but you’ll still get about six hours with it (assuming you play six hours of Prime Pinball
without swapping another game in). Overall it’s a worthwhile portable, and it comes free with the game, another plus to an already attractive package.
The icing on the cake is the touch functionality. By nudging either side of the bottom screen you can “tilt” the table, sometimes saving your Morphball from a nasty fall between the flippers. It’s nothing huge, but the game doesn’t suffer from it and it adds a touch of realism.
With all the gameplay elements and the inclusion of the rumble feature, the whole experience is quite a rush and is truly a clever fusion of Metroid and pinball. But, it is not without a few flaws. Players must unlock the tables by playing through the mission mode, which spans a series of objective based locations across Tallon IV. There is no way to save between the levels, and dying means starting from the beginning. So, you’ll have to dig deep into the missions and even beat the game in one sitting to open up all the tables in arcade mode. Thankfully, the mission mode isn’t that long, but it’s challenging enough that frustration sets in after the third or fourth “game over”.
My only other complaint is the multiplayer. True, it was nice for Fuse to throw a multi option in at all, but the actual mode is so slim on content it seems almost like an afterthought. It consists of only one table where up to eight players compete for a high score. Each competitor plays individually with no other balls on the screen besides their own, but there is a marker that indicates the score position of the other players. DS download play is supported, and with eight players that’s pretty impressive, I just wish there was a wider variety of tables. Prime Pinball
’s multiplayer will keep pinball enthusiasts battling their friends for the highest score, but with Wifi online masterpieces like Mario Kart DS
, it won’t be getting any huge attention.
It’s a rare game that surprises me with its quality, but Prime Pinball caught me off guard. Metroid fans will love the attention to detail and how their favorite universe has been recreated faithfully and respectfully. Pinball wizards can’t hope for a more intriguing or unique challenge; what other game sends alien monsters after your pinball? Casual players might be put off by the initially steep difficulty, but with a little practice Metroid Prime Pinball is very enjoyable.
After their flub with the Mario franchise, Fuse surprised us all with a pinball version of Metroid. The more logical subject matter and double the screen room resulted in a solid game, filled with Metroid homage and tight pinball mechanics. The difficulty is a tad severe for newcomers and the multiplayer is light on content, but the overall package is a must have for Metroid and pinball fans alike.