Metroid Prime Pinball

Review

posted 1/13/2006 by Sean Colleli
other articles by Sean Colleli
One Page Platforms: DS
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.
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