Last year, development studio Fuse Games hit the scene with its first official project: a clunky pinball design that revolved around squashing Mario into a spherical shape and whacking him around stiff and static Mushroom World-style table designs. Mario Pinball Land was not a very good concept to begin with, which carried over to a very substandard game design.
What a difference a year makes. Even with the critical and commercial problems of the team's first portable pinball game, Fuse Games was put to the task of utilizing the team's pinball expertise on a second portable design. This time, though, the system's the much more powerful Nintendo DS platform, and the team's been given a much more pinball friendly universe to explore. Metroid Prime Pinball may, on the surface, seem like a cheesy spin-off, but it's a concept that works and works well on the Nintendo DS system. It's some of the finest handheld pinball action ever developed, and pushes the DS platform in clever ways.
Metroid Prime Pinball is one of those unique times where the title tells you exactly what it is: Metroid Prime, but in pinball form. Fuse Games took several environments from the Metroid Prime universe and condensed them down into traditional pinball table designs chock full of targets, bumpers, spinners, ramps; pretty much every pinball gimmick that's been explored in the arcade is at work in some fashion in Metroid Prime Pinball, right down to multi-ball challenges that can throw, literally, a half dozen balls at the player.
But because this is pinball in a virtual sense, the designers throw a lot of fun elements that can't exist in real pinball. There are plenty of challenges where players must target familiar Metroid Prime enemies wandering around the environment, or even wall jump against the back glass to grab a hovering target. And one multi-ball challenge requires players to hit colored targets that can only be scored with the same colored ball.
All this comes through in a unique display that spans both of the Nintendo DS screens as one single screen. Like Mario Pinball Land, the pinball tables are confined and do not scroll, which makes it a lot easier to aim for targets from the bottom of the screen to the top. But because the additional DS screen extends the game tables vertically, the developers have created a handheld pinball game that feels much more like real pinball, with far more screen real estate and a view that mimics players looking down at a pinball machine. The only downside is the "Dead Zone" between the two screens; the tables are laid out as if the gap in the middle is some of the table that just isn't seen. This helps with the timing for when the ball leaves one screen and enters another, but it does affect visibility when the ball is lazily rolling around in the middle out of the player's sight. This only happens occasionally, but it does cause some confusion when the ball disappears from view. It's a minor quibble, and it's something that the player needs to adjust to during the action.
The touch screen is used in a very clever way that could (and probably will) be lifted for future DS pinball games. Players can nudge the table in any direction simply by resting the thumb on the touch panel and "pushing" the machine. It does take a little practice since players will have to use the shoulder button flippers in order to fully take advantage of touch nudging. But it's creative and it works well for pinball, and short of including a motion sensor in the cartridge, it's the best and most intuitive way we've seen nudge control employed in video pinball.
Visually, Metroid Prime Pinball is a great looking title that sticks with 2D effects to drive the imagery. Everything, from the table layout to the Samus ball to the enemy creatures, is prerendered, but the action flows incredibly smoothly with a fantastic physics engine driving the pinball around the environments. There are even some stunning effects, like rain environments and water reflections, and the action never chugs, even when the table throws six Samus balls at the player at high speed. As great as the game looks, it sounds even better with its fantastic music mixer that blends rocking Metroid music and environmental sounds during the action.
Most importantly, Samus works far better in the role as a pinball than Mario ever could because she already spends half her existence in sphere form. And because she's a lady that's known for kicking a whole lot of ass, it just makes far more sense to send her careening violently into space pirates and planetary bugs.
It's a really fun and addictive handheld pinball game, but it has a few shortcomings that prevent it from getting into the "stunningly awesome" area. More is always better when it comes to pinball, and though the game has enough table designs for a pinball collection it feels like a few more could have been inserted somewhere. The adventure mode is over surprisingly quick and doesn't have quite the meatiness that Pokemon Pinball experienced with its Pokedex collection, but at least this multi-table challenge is extended with a "hard mode" as well as the standard high score table.
But points to the development team for creating a separate pinball table for multiplayer mode. Metroid Prime Pinball supports single cartridge download play where as many as eight players compete on their own table for the high score. Though you never see the other player's ball (it's as if you've got your own machine), it's still a maniacal challenge because you never know what score the other person has until someone reaches the goal score.
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