Son of Samus.
We've waited, and doubted. The mere promise of Metroid Prime: Hunters
was enough to sell a lot of stateside DS units, but then they all came with that unimpressive Hunters
demo. Fortunately, much has changed since we first cramped our hands trying to control Samus with a stylus. Although it still features a demanding control scheme, Hunters
is a very good Metroid
game, and a great shooter for the Nintendo DS.
The plot introduces several rival bounty hunters and a quest to find what may be a source of ultimate power. It's not much of a story, but the Metroid games have never been known for involved plots, and this setup provides the perfect context for Hunters' awesome multiplayer content. Before wrapping your mind around the adventures of your favorite bounty hunter though, you'll have to figure out how to get your hands around the game itself.
The keyword in Hunters is control, and there are four available options: two each for right and left-handed players. The default, right-handed setup uses the stylus to aim and jump (a quick double tap of the stylus), the L button to fire, and the d-pad to move forward, backward and strafe. The alternate mode forgoes the stylus in favor of using the face buttons to aim. In that case, the left shoulder button jumps, while the right fires.
Both schemes have drawbacks. The alt settings may seem more attractive at first, since they replicate the old PSX Syphon Filter setup, and don't lead to hand cramps. Then again, aiming is much more precise with the stylus, and some controls which are linked to the touch screen – entering morph ball mode, weapon switching and scan vision – are much easier to activate with the stylus rather than a flick of the thumb.
Despite the fact that you'll want to lobby Nintendo for a Bionic Hands peripheral, the extra precision and flexibility of the stylus turns out to be worth it, especially when battling other players. Even double-tapping to jump, which sounds awkward, quickly becomes natural. A big problem with the stylus is that it's far too easy to drag over the 'weapon change' or 'scan vision' icons at the very worst of times. When a rival bounty hunter is bearing down, the last thing you want is to meet him with a scan visor full of attitude.
With the controls well in hand, Hunters surprisingly plays more like a conventional FPS than even the console Metroid Prime titles. While there is some of the multi-tiered exploration and backtracking of the first Metroid Prime, Hunters' story mode is disappointingly more linear and pattern-based than anything we've seen from Metroid before. You find a planet, look for some artifacts, encounter another bounty hunter, then race back to your ship before a timer runs out.
Despite the streamlining, all the Metroid ingredients are in place. There are loads of goodies to scan with the visor, rooms that stay locked until the enemies within are defeated, exploration puzzles and great extra weapons to unlock. And that most irritating Metroid convention – having to begin the game without even missiles or morph ball – has been dumped. Small favors, people.
While it's true that most of the level design is too corridor-based and linear, the boss battles and encounters with other bounty hunters make up for it. The bosses are varied, large and imaginative, and while the bounty hunter AI frequently relies on the same patterns, it's smart enough to steal all your octoliths (keys to the ultimate power) if it wins. In a cool touch, you must then doggedly pursue that hunter to get them back. It's actually worth losing once just to see Samus get her payback.
Sooner or later you'll be tempted to take all that alien bounty-hunter shooty fun online, at which point you will be thoroughly pwned. With a control scheme as new as this one, a little practice makes a big difference. You may want to ease yourself in with some of the other multiplayer options before hitting the internets. The good news is that it's possible to host a game and populate it with three bots, creating your own personal practice field. Hey, even Dog had to start somewhere.
Once you've honed your skills a little, you can mercilessly whip your DS toting friends by hosting a simple four-player deathmatch with just your single card. Get four Hunters owners together and the modes expand to include variants on capture the flag, territory control, tag, and team-based assault. Suddenly the DS feels like a real shooter platform as the games connect and play with silky smooth precision, so long as you've figured out how to aim.
There is a downside: only the basic deathmatch game is available online for quick match play. Jumping into the other cool modes is only possible if you have people in your friends or rivals list. Friends have to be added through the same ridiculous friend code system used in Mario Kart, while rivals can be added if you and another person add each other as rivals after being randomly paired in an online deathmatch session. Confused yet?
If not, you're about to be. The one nod to better internet matchmaking is the Rival Radar, a function that can be left running while the DS is closed. By carrying the DS around and hopefully coming across other people that also have the radar activated, those users' codes will automatically be added to your rivals list. In practice this has proved pretty useless, though anyone with a ticket to E3 or PAX could instantly fill a rivals list with thousands. On second thought, maybe that's not such a good idea.
With so much playable content online and off, you'd think Nintendo would have to make major visual concessions just to keep your DS from choking to death on all the information, but Hunters maintains a visual appeal totally consistent with the Metroid line. The DS doesn't boast much resolution, so distant enemies can get pretty grainy, but up close the new bounty hunters are as distinct and well-drawn as Samus. The same goes for all the creatures, and as good as the game looks, it sounds even better. The instantly recognizable themes and sound effects of the console Metroid Prime games aren't diminished a bit by the step down to the DS hardware.
It's silly to judge a game's content against the size of its cartridge, but all the same it's hard not to be impressed that Metroid Prime: Hunters packs so much into its little sliver of plastic. It's high-quality work all the way, from the production design to the responsive (if crushing) controls and utterly smooth online play. There's nothing like it on the DS or any handheld console and for that, we'll gladly pay its bounty.