When the rumors about a Metroid-themed pinball game first hit, many fans responded with disbelief. It must have been a joke! Sure, Nintendo liked spin-offs and extending their brands, but, come on, NO WAY would Nintendo so blatantly pimp out one of its beloved franchises like this.
Apparently, it wasn't a rumor, as Metroid Prime Pinball quickly became a reality, in spite of many outraged protests. Surprisingly, Nintendo also turned to Fuse Games to program the title. Fuse had developed the GBA's Mario Pinball Land, which was considered serviceable but overall an average game, at best. Because of this, a lot of gamers, even some DS owners, might look at Metroid Prime Pinball and be instantly repulsed. Too bad for them--they're missing out on a great game.
All the graphics in Metroid Prime Pinball are pre-rendered. This makes sense, as visuals look better in this fashion than they would have utilizing the DS's somewhat low polygon count. Also, a two-dimensional game such as pinball hardly needs to be rendered in true 3D, in any case.
The graphics look pretty sharp on the DS, where they might not have on a larger screens. Samus is generally shown in her Morph Ball form, except for occasional glimpses, but animation is smooth and fits the fast pace of the game.
Several Metroid locations have been turned into pinball tables, some of them so well that you begin to think that pinball might have been in the developers' minds all along. Okay, well, maybe not THAT seamlessly, but they're pretty thoughtful designs. Pinball standards such as bumpers, flippers, and colored lights litter the space-based landscapes, and several tracks and pinball paths are seemingly constructed out of metal chutes, girders, and mining pathways. Enemies are also crisp and well-animated.
The use of two screens means that all tables can be rendered in their entirety, without scrolling or segmentation. This enhances the game experience quite a bit. The screens are actually NOT integrated seamlessly, though--the system acts as if there is a section of the table between the DS's two screens which is not visible, and Samus and some enemies will disappear from view momentarily when crossing the region. However, this works in the game's favor, rather than otherwise, as it gives the eyes an instant to adjust themselves to the changing situation.
The game really shines in the sound department. Each table has its own theme song, with a few other tunes taking the forefront during boss encounters and other fights. Some classic Metroid songs are remixed wonderfully, the most notable being the distorted-guitar arrangement of the Brinstar Theme featured in the Pirate Frigate table.
Fuse Games also managed to mingle the sounds of traditional pinball with appropriate Metroid effects and have it all make sense. Bumpers click and Metroids screech as Samus careens off of them, and the small amount of voice sampling that has been added is a nice touch.
Okay, seriously, though--how can a Metroid game based on pinball play?
The answer is: beautifully.
Pinball gameplay is about as simple as it gets, despite several different control schemes. The L and R buttons can be used as the left and right flippers, or left on the Control Pad and the A button, much like Pinball for the NES. Right on the d-pad also works as the right flipper, although this doesn't work as easily as using a separate thumb for each. These controls are basically all that is needed, save for a couple of power-ups like missiles and the Power Bomb. The touch screen can also be used for a tilt function, although this is somewhat hard to use, as the thumb must be placed on the screen and then pushed in one direction smoothly, which is hard to do during a fast game, and is generally unnecessary, anyway.
Multi-Mission mode functions as the game's story mode, sending Samus throughout several different tables, while Single Mission mode puts Samus in the confines of one table, going for high score or time attack on bosses. Only two tables are selectable at first; the others must be unlocked through Multi Mission.
Unlike most pinball games or real-life tables, Samus is instantly thrown into action. There is no pull-spring to determine the rate of her launch. Aside from this, though, the pinball physics are in classic form. Some tables feature only two flippers, while other feature three or even four. Samus can collect power-ups from some features on each table, while others will send her into a mini-mission, such as Metroid Mania, in which she must defeat a certain number of Metroids by knocking into them or with bombs, which are usuable at any time with the B button. Old pinball stand-bys such as multi-ball also make an appearance.
At certain times, Samus is forced into Combat Mode, where she stands up and fires at oncoming enemies. After four hits, she will be forced back into her Morph Ball shape, but defeating all the oncoming monsters before this will earn her a reward. Some bosses can also be faced in Combat Mode for a limited time, but most are vulnerable only to missiles and not regular shots.
Perhaps the most insane table of the game is the Artifact Temple, featuring six separate pinballs at once, and all must be utilized in order to finish the mission. While everything in the game is themed around pinball, there are several different methods of play to enjoy. In fact, the only major gripe with the game is that the amount of tables feels a little light--a couple more stages would have been nice.
The new DS Rumble Pak is also included with the game. The Rumble Pak is identical in size and shape to a GBA game, although the plastic casing is midnight black and proudly states "Nintendo DS Rumble Pak" on the front, so that no one confuses it for an actual game. The rumbling seems to work effectively in tandem with the game's directions, but it is very loud, which takes a bit of getting used to. This is a bit unusual, as WarioWare Twisted managed to pull off similar effects with far less noise. Other games will likely use the Rumble Pak in the future, and Mario and Luigi:Partners in Time is already confirmed to have rumble support.
Metroid Prime Pinball allows up to eight players to connect wirelessly from a single Game Card. A separate table, Magmoor Caverns, is procurable only for multiplayer play, and the competitors race to see who can achieve the targeted score first. Each player can see his or her score only, though, and has no idea of the progress of the rest of the group. While it may not be as expansive as other DS multiplayer games, compared to the standard turn-taking two-player action of normal pinball machines, some of which simply have NO multiplayer component, it's pretty expansive.
Metroid Prime Pinball may be the surprise sleeper of the fall, and although the "Prime" moniker may be out of place, it certainly embodies the fun and sense of addiction that other Metroid titles have shown. Kudos to Fuse for not trying to include an actual story in the manual, as the game's concept is just too surreal for any kind of narrative to not feel tacked-on.
While a quest mode is available, the real challenge of pinball is not in story but in continued play. Eventually, the player WILL lose. There are no exceptions to this, so every new attempt at the game is in essence, a contest against one's self. High scores numbered in the tens or hundreds of thousands will soon be replaced by scores in the high millions, and possibly even further. To this end, there is a lot of replay value in Metroid Prime Pinball.
Metroid Prime Pinball also has the distinction of being the first Metroid game on the DS, not including the Hunters demo. The offbeat nature of the game may turn some potential buyers off, but those who see past the peculiar nature of the mish-mashed concept will find one of the most interesting pieces of DS software yet to grace the handheld.