Whether it is seen as an action title with a Metroid twist or as a Samus Aran quest with a focus on shooting, the truth is Metroid Prime Hunters presents a unique take on a rather traditional franchise, and despite its flaws, it can be quite a thrill
When talking about the design decisions involved in the transition of the Metroid franchise to the world of 3-D gaming, most people are likely to point out the choice by Retro Studios and Nintendo to go for a first-person perspective. And rightfully so; after all, by taking players behind the visor of Samus Aran, the team involved in the project was able to highlight two of the key factors that, from the very start, contributed to defining the bounty hunter’s saga: the immersive nature of its alien landscapes as well as the feeling of loneliness and isolation that had permeated all of her quests up to that point. It is no surprise, therefore, that within the overwhelming critical praise received by the original Metroid Prime, that pair of elements was often alluded to.
The adventure’s point of view would not, however, have been as effective as it turned out to be if another very important decision had not been made. When Metroid Prime came out, the market was strongly dominated by first-person shooters like Halo, Battlefield, and Half-Life; and in Samus’ newest quest, Nintendo had an opportunity to use an already recognized series to set their feet in a popular area in which they had no participation. For most, that pull would be too hard to ignore. But swimming against that current, as the company is wont to do, Nintendo did not take the bait, and understanding that turning the new Metroid game into a shooter would strip the saga of its characteristics and make it just another member of the crowd, the franchise’s exploration-based gameplay was preserved. Because of that, as history tells it, a highly immersive first-person adventure was born, adding another classic to Nintendo’s vast collection.
Given this resistance to the temptation of embracing the shooting fad was, in part, responsible for the success of Metroid Prime, it is a bit surprising to think that four years after that initial installment and shortly following a wonderful sequel, the series would succumb to the genre when Hunters came out for the Nintendo DS. And since the game is not exactly shy about its aspiration to actually be a first-person shooting experience, it is not shocking to learn that the Metroid fanbase – justifiably quite proud of the franchise’s dedication to sticking to an exploration-focused format it helped popularize – quickly looked at this portable entry as either a lesser affair or one that was not deserving of attention.
Diving into shooting may have been a divisive decision, but what Metroid Prime Hunters does is far from sinful: it actually makes a lot of sense. Had it tried to emulate what its console peers were doing, the game would have been nothing but a limited version of what was achieved in the original Metroid Prime and in its successor, Echoes. In other words, it would be setting itself up for a comparison it simply could not win on account of the limited hardware it was built on. By taking on a different shape, the title could work within its own parameters; and if that format happened to be the one of a first-person shooter, there were some upsides: it could take advantage of an already established setup; it could provide a unique action-centered entry to the Metroid franchise; and it could bring a solid first-person shooting quest to the Nintendo DS.
Metroid Prime Hunters begins in a familiar way: with Samus receiving a mission straight from the Galactic Federation. This time around, though, the trouble is not caused by Space Pirates. Instead, the quest concerns a mysterious message that was broadcast telepathically. The transmission makes a bold claim, stating the secret to ultimate power resides somewhere in a region of the universe known as the Alimbic Cluster. Deeply concerned with what this power may be used for if it falls in the hands of others, and also obviously quite interested in acquiring it, the Galactic Federation gives Samus two options: first, try to guarantee the power becomes theirs; if that fails, then make sure it is destroyed. As a footnote, they add that other parties are certain to have captured the message as well, and that conflict with them will be inevitable.
It is impossible to talk about Metroid Prime Hunters without dissecting its unique control scheme. The Nintendo DS is a system without a pair of analog sticks; in fact, it has a total of zero of those. Consequently, commonplace notions about how first-person shooters should be controlled do not apply here, to the point it may seem games of the kind would not be viable on the handheld. Such assumption, however, would be incorrect, because not only does Metroid Prime Hunters exist, but its commands are also very simple. With their non-dominant hand, players will hold the system, using the respective shoulder button to fire; meanwhile, the movement of Samus will be assigned to the four reachable face keys (the directional pad for right-handed players and the A, B, X, and Y buttons for left-handed users). All other actions, like aiming, jumping, switching between equipped weapons, performing the signature maneuver of turning the protagonist into a ball, and activating the scan visor are done via the touch screen.
It is a strange setup and it can cause a few to have cramps since only one hand holds the system and the other spends most of the time pressing the stylus against the screen, but ultimately it clicks despite its oddity. Aiming by sliding the pen across the bottom screen makes blasts very precise, which is just about the most important part of a first-person shooting experience; in addition, the fact the screens used for aiming and seeing the action are not the same means one’s view of what is happening is never blocked by a moving hand. Finally, while common tasks like equipping missiles, going into morph ball mode, changing weapons, and activating the scan visor are just a click of an icon away, jumping is done by a quick double tap that is surprisingly intuitive.
Even though it is better labeled as a first-person shooter than as a first-person adventure, it goes without saying that there is plenty of overlap between Hunters and the other Metroid Prime games. For starters, the title’s story is not handed to players on a silver plate: it has, instead, to be acquired from the environment by using the scan visor to analyze certain elements of the scenario that will reveal pieces of lore. It is true that besides being thinner, the plot of Hunters is – in general lines – way too close to the tales of the two Metroid Prime titles that preceded it. Nevertheless, it is undeniable that in addition to pushing players towards exploring scenarios for more information about the Alimbic Cluster and the ultimate power it holds, the storytelling format plays into the hands of the game’s immersive atmosphere and into the concept Samus is a lonely hunter on a solo mission in which she has nobody to rely on but herself.
Other staples of the franchise as a whole, not just of the Metroid Prime series specifically, are present too. Maps are littered with optional boosts to the bounty hunter’s arsenal, such as extra energy tanks and expansions to either the missile compartment of her suit or to the ammo limitations of other weapons she will acquire. Although corridors and smaller spaces are plentiful, the game also has a handful of wider rooms that will demand that players explore their surroundings in order to proceed. And, at last, backtracking to previously visited locations with new skills in order to access originally blocked off areas is recurrent.
With these pieces in place, one would think there is not much that distances Metroid Prime Hunters from its brothers. But the twist, here, is present in the details that fill up that framework. To put it simply, Samus’ journey into the Alimbic Cluster qualifies as a first-person shooter for two basic reasons. Firstly, its progression and structure may be more complex than those of other titles of the genre, but they are certainly far less tricky than the ones usually observed in classics like Super Metroid and Metroid Prime; in a way, one could say Hunters offers a greatly streamlined look at the property’s gameplay. Secondly, while the average Metroid game embraces both shooting and exploring, the spotlight is often firmly set on the latter; in Hunters, the same mixture exists, but the focus is put on blasting bad guys.
Nowhere is that shift towards action clearer than in the structure of the game itself. Mostly, Metroid efforts do not have a stiff progression, since they are all about slowly opening up a vast interconnected world that unfolds little by little and in non-linear fashion. Metroid Prime Hunters, on the contrary, follows a very defined recipe. To get to the bottom of what exactly this ultimate power is, Samus will have to acquire Octoliths; and as their name evidences, there is a total of eight of them. Given the Alimbic Cluster is made up of an array of four locations (two space stations and two planets), one would then be correct in assuming each place holds a pair of Octoliths. And since, in true Metroid fashion, the areas will not be fully explorable on Samus’ first visit thanks to doors requiring weapons that will only be acquired later on, a structure emerges.
Therefore, in Metroid Prime Hunters, Samus will go into an area, advance until a boss, defeat it, obtain an Octolith, get back to her ship, and then go to the next place that will show up on her vessel’s dashboard. After doing that process four times, once for every location of the Alimbic Cluster, she will then proceed to revisit each one with her newly acquired powers so she can go through doors that were previously impossible to unlock. And then, the same exact routine will unfold, culminating on the heroine beating a boss, grabbing an Octolith, and walking out.
Saying it is formulaic would be a correct evaluation. And so would be stating the paths to the eight Octoliths feel a bit like the individual levels of an action game. This notion is further enhanced by the nature of the quests themselves: they are usually linear in progression; they involve a lot of rooms from which Samus can only advance if she shoots down all enemies or collects an item; and opening the portal that leads to the boss always requires that she gather three artifacts that will pop up as a natural consequence of her exploits. Furthermore, even though the traditional optional collectibles are there, they appear in a very reduced number, meaning there are not as many nicely hidden corners in the scenarios as usual.
To anyone expecting Metroid Prime Hunters to be totally faithful to the franchise, all of that is very despairing news. But truthfully, as an action game, this Nintendo DS effort is not bad; in fact, it can be very good. Yes, as a whole, its structure is formulaic, but the Metroid spirit is still visible. There are rooms that will leave players stumped for a while. There are moments when a good look at the map or some exploration will be necessary to determine where to go next. Branching paths might not be common, but they do show up from time to time. And although the order in which the locations of the Alimbic Cluster have to be visited is pretty much set in stone the first time around, Samus’ second trip through them to obtain the remaining four Octoliths is somewhat loose, even going as far as allowing the sequence of the trips to be changed.
Moreover, the manners with which Metroid Prime Hunters toys with core aspects of the franchise in order to make it more action-focused are very productive. Instead of featuring the signature, and somewhat tired, upgrades to Samus’ abilities, the title bets instead on six elemental weapons, each opening color-coded doors; as such, even if some will be disappointed there is no Spider Ball, no Super Missiles, no Power Bombs, no Screw Attack, and so forth, it is – at the very least – intriguing to see the Metroid saga use another approach to that matter. Another example of that kind emerges in the countdown sequences: Metroid Prime Hunters has a whopping eight of them, with one being triggered whenever Samus gets an Octolith. Consequently, there are simply a lot of heart-pumping thrills to be found in segments when players are forced to eliminate all foes in a series of rooms as fast as possible so they can get to the heroine’s ship before time runs out.
The most blatant illustration of that action tendency, though, is found in the titular hunters: the other parties that, according to the Galactic Federation, picked up the mysterious transmission. Looking for the ultimate power for different reasons, these six rivals will attack Samus multiple times during her quest and although battles against them – with one exception – are not hard, they do provide a special kind of one-on-one shooting duel that has rarely appeared in the saga, since the targets will move freely around arena-shaped rooms. As an interesting twist, even though encounters against hunters are scripted the first time around through the Alimbic Cluster, on the second trip they are randomized both in terms of location and of the bad guy that will appear. Besides, if Samus falls to them, the hunter will actually steal one of the Octoliths, forcing players to find the assailant again so they can engage in another duel to recover the artifact. It might sound a bit frustrating, but it is not, since it is possible to see in which area all hunters are straight from Samus’ ship, hence making the chase somewhat simpler and devoid of excessive aimless wandering.
The final aspects in which the main quest of Metroid Prime Hunters excels are graphics and sound. To put it plainly, the game is a notable technical achievement. As good as the hardware of the Nintendo DS was, putting together 3-D visuals of the scale seen in the game with such a level of quality was a feat. It is true that there is little here of the alien natural splendor as seen in Metroid Prime and Echoes, as the game intentionally avoids more complex environments of the kind both due to the hardships that would come with rendering them and its action-centered spirit. Yet, it is hard not to be impressed by what was achieved here. When it comes to sound, the title is a nearly perfect recreation of the console experience of playing Metroid Prime: its minimalistic approach to music and effects creates palpable tension, but the game is not shy to occasionally play techno-based tunes that are simultaneously extraterrestrial and catchy.
Despite getting to good or at least interesting results on multiple fronts, Metroid Prime Hunters does have a few problems that hold back the experience, especially since none of them are negligible. The bosses that guard the Octoliths are rather lackluster; to make matters worse, there are actually only two of them, and they are fought repeatedly – four times each – in versions that are not all that different from one another. For a series that, in that regard, has always performed with excellence, the flaw becomes quite glaring, and the low quality also seen in the final boss of the game shows there was a serious creative problem designing these encounters. The six hunters that chase Samus could have worked towards compensating that issue a little bit, but even though they do bring a distinct type of duel to the franchise, their design is not very noteworthy either.
On a separate yet slightly related area, for a game that is very focused on shooting, Metroid Prime Hunters sure has problems coming up with unique enemies. The set of foes presented by the game is very limited, which means the same creatures are used over and over again every time players get locked inside a room and are forced to fight. Because of that, even if these moments have their thrills and can offer plenty of challenges, they can also get repetitive pretty fast. On a related note, the game’s habit of not letting Samus walk out of many rooms until all enemies are defeated makes sense from an action standpoint, but clashes against the exploration gameplay of the franchise, which may be diminished in Hunters but that is still present to a degree. Therefore, walking around the place to have a good look at the protagonist’s surroundings, which should be an enjoyable experience in a Metroid game, can turn into frustration because of the constant forced battles that take place thanks to how bad guys respawn as soon as Samus leaves the room.
At last, remaining in the topic of frustration, there are little details of the level design seen in Metroid Prime Hunters that can get on players’ nerves. Especially, the game has an abundance of platforms and tight jumps that are not a very good fit for the first-person perspective. Although the original Metroid Prime had those as well, they were usually kept to a minimum. Here, they appear more frequently, and when these demanding jumps meet the races against the clock that often occur, results can be painful.
Featuring a quest that will probably demand about ten hours out of most players, Metroid Prime Hunters may not – due to its simplicity – have the same amount of secrets its peers offer. However, as the final gem it extracts out of its nature as a first-person shooter, the game complements its solo adventure with a very respectable multiplayer option that supports four users but can also be tackled alone with CPUs replacing the other three combatants. In total, the mode has a whopping twenty-six arenas, seven distinct rule sets (including a traditional battle, capture the flag, survival, and a couple of skirmishes inspired in the king of the hill format), and seven playable characters (Samus plus her six rivals). As it happens with the lean Hunters has towards action, it is not something one would expect out of the Metroid franchise. Still, to those willing to give it a try, it is a solid mode that can last for quite a while.
Whether it is seen as an action title with a Metroid twist or as a Samus Aran quest with a focus on shooting, the truth is Metroid Prime Hunters presents a very unique take on a rather traditional franchise. Fans of the saga who see backtracking and exploration as being essential elements to their enjoyment of the experience will likely be disappointed by the design choices made by the game, which severely cut down on these particular aspects. However, those whose curiosity is enticed by the idea of an adventure that essentially plays like a first-person shooter but retains – even if lightly – signature Metroid ideas such as revisiting previously explored locations with new skills to access new areas should most definitely give Metroid Prime Hunters a chance.
Much of the incredible success of the Metroid Prime franchise can be attributed to its decision to embrace a first-person perspective while keeping true to the saga’s roots, therefore ignoring the shooting tendencies that dominated the market at the time. As a game that jumps on that initially undesirable action bandwagon, it is easy to look down on Metroid Prime Hunters like a quest that abandons the series’ idiosyncrasies in favor of more straightforward gameplay. Making that judgment too quickly, though, could be a mistake, because although it is undeniable the title presents that transition, it does not shun the Metroid aura completely. Certainly, it has much more blasting foes than exploring and backtracking; it can be too formulaic; and it has key flaws that most of the top shooting games would not have. However, the thrill it produces cannot be overlooked, and by creating a Metroid experience that obviously favors shooting but that does not forget the value of eventually making players question where they need to go to, Metroid Prime Hunters is a smart detour with respectable quality. It could not possibly compete with its console peers, so it chose to build a niche of its own. And even though the operation is not perfect, it is good enough not to be dismissed.