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Metroid Prime Hunters

Developer: Nintendo | Publisher: Nintendo
Players: 1 to 4 Player Game | Release Date: 03/20/06 | Genre: FPS

I can still remember my excitement the first time I saw a video of Metroid Prime Hunters. It was at Nintendo's Pre-E3 Press Conference in 2004. Nintendo had only just recently confirmed the rumors that they were indeed making a dual screen handheld in late January. No one had yet seen what the system looked like or really knew anything significant about it including its most important feature: the Touch Screen. That's why the crowd was so excited during that press conference. Eschewing their previous behavior, Nintendo went from being completely tight-lipped on the subject, to full revealing all details about the DS and promising a retail launch only six months later. That's just not the way Nintendo usually operates, especially concerning new hardware.

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When the huge screens on the stage showed a video of Metroid Prime Hunters, the crowd exploded. It exploded again when Reggie mentioned that the demo will be fully playable on the show floor.

This was one of the most highly regarded gaming franchises, and a very able looking conversion of the GameCube iterations was running in full 3D on a handheld. Two years later, with the hard work of NST, I can tell you that Metroid Prime Hunters has lived up to that excitement and anticipation.

The demo card that most DS owners have provides only a small taste of the final version of Metroid Prime Hunters. NST has done an amazing job packing in a console-size set of features into a handheld game with production values not usually experienced in a portable game. Hunters features a full-fledged single player adventure and a robust multiplayer mode dressed with the care in graphic and sound design that you'd expect from a major production.

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Hunters has to be the best looking game on the DS right now, and will probably hold that title securely for some time. NST's artists did an excellent job capturing the look and feel of the GameCube games, and I'm amazed that the Nintendo DS can render graphics that look this good. Of course, the up-close texture detail cannot match the GameCube's, but there is a great amount of variety and it's easy to identify enemies and objects in the environments even on such small screen. Lighting effects add even more detail to Samus's arm cannon, morph ball, and other objects. Some environments are quite large too, and so far as I've seen, there are no pop-ups or fog. This is pretty important when it comes to multiplayer. The visual style design takes a cue from the GameCube games as there are lots of details like broken walls, exposed machinery, pipes, plants, ancient stonework, and other things you'll come across on different planets and space stations in the game. It really helps you orient yourself and distinguish different areas while creating a believable world.

The sound is also on par with the design of the GameCube games. Lots of objects and enemies make different sounds. Again, that creates a more interesting world and greatly helps in alerting and orienting the player. Hunters features both original and remixed music, and all of it sounds great and suits the environment. I really can't get over what a great job NST did capturing the feel of the GameCube Metroid Prime games. Of course the DS can't render as many polygons or special effects as the GameCube, but the sound and graphics for Hunters exceeded my expectations.

The game mechanics closely resemble that of the GameCube games except that the use of the Touch Screen makes Hunters more of a First Person Shooter. This feeling is cemented by some of the enemies you'll encounter in the single player adventure and certainly by the multiplayer. Most of the game will be explored through a first person perspective. It actually feels like a PC First Person Shooter when you use the Touch Screen. Using either a stylus or the thumbstrap, you can turn your view freely while using the D-pad (or face buttons for left-handed control) to move. I prefer to use the thumbstrap during single player, because it's more comfortable to hold the Nintendo DS that way. However, I use the stylus during multiplayer because I find that I can focus my aim more quickly and accurately. Unfortunately, both methods are going to result in hand cramps after an hour or two of playing for most players. Alternatively, you can use the D-pad and face buttons together to control both view and movement, but you'll lose the analog control and you'll be at a huge disadvantage in multiplayer. As I said in my Super Mario 64 DS review, the Touch Screen controls might take some getting used to, but it's worth it.

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Hunters is not a pick-up-and-play game, unlike most DS games, or even handheld games in general. Part of the reason is because the control is a bit advanced, and novice gamers could have a tough time with it. However, the other reason is because the single player is a serious Metroid adventure and the multiplayer is going to take some practice before you can adequately compete with other players.

The story for the single player adventure unfolds both through FMV cutscenes and in-game text messages. The cutscenes are nicely produced and feature sequences that wouldn't really be possible using the in-game engine. The Scan Visor is back, and you'll learn a lot about the story and settings by scanning all kinds of objects in the environment. Some players find this pretty boring, while others enjoy delving further into the fiction. Fortunately, if scanning isn't your thing, critical objects that must be scanned in order to progress are marked with exclamation points. So if scanning bores you, you should be able to quickly scan and activate necessary items while skipping over non-essential details without much hassle.

Hunters is a perfect example of how dual screens can enhance gameplay. It's not revolutionary; not all DS games need to be. Having all of the different weapon selections, morph ball activation, and radar right there on the Touch Screen really allows for quicker and smoother experience than you'd have otherwise. The multiplayer wouldn't be nearly as fun if you didn't have this kind of access and the single player's better for it too.

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You'll be fighting new and familiar enemies in the worlds you visit. Because of the controls, Hunters is definitely a first person shooter, so this alters the way combat works compared to the GameCube games. Six new major enemies, rival bounty hunters, present a new challenge not yet seen in a Metroid game and give the game its namesake. Each hunter has different abilities and do require you to employ different offense and defense tactics. Overall, the variety of enemies strengthens the gameplay, but I am disappointed with the boss fights. There are essentially two bosses that you'll fight multiple times with slight variations. This really is a shame given the great bosses we saw in Metroid Prime 2: Echoes.

Part of the reason for this may have to do with the other shortcoming of the single player game. In previous Metroid games, boss fights were usually interesting because they required you to use a new ability you recently acquired. However, in Hunters, Samus starts out with all of her major special abilities. The most important one, the morph ball, allows her transform into a compact ball that can roll into small spaces and lay bombs. In previous Metroid games, much of the game world was initially inaccessible because you lacked the ability to physically reach a certain location. As you gained more abilities, like a double-jump, morph ball, grappling hook, etc. you would be able to explore new areas. That's missing from Hunters. As a result the level design isn't nearly as clever or intricate as previous Metroid games. Instead, Samus travels between different separate planets and space stations. It's not one intricately connect world as we've seen before. You will acquire new weapons that act as keys to open certain doors, but you won't be gaining new special abilities that are so crucial to the exploration gameplay Metroid is known for.

That's not to say that Hunters doesn't feature its own share of puzzles and morph ball challenges. There are several, and while the game starts out pretty easy, it becomes progressively more difficult. It will take about a dozen or more hours to complete. Overall, it certainly provides a fun and rewarding challenge. It's just not the kind of level design that normally makes up a Metroid game. Still, I was surprised and impressed by the size of the single player adventure.

NST has packed a wealth of features into the multiplayer. There are lots of options to choose from and statistics tracked. Oddly enough, it reminds me of Super Smash Bros.… Anyway, there two main ways to play. In any mode, you can play with up to three other opponents. Of course you can play locally, and four people can actually play with just one game card. Options are limited with Single-Card play though. However, everyone knows that the big deal with Metroid Prime Hunters is that you can play online for free over Nintendo Wi-Fi Connection. Online play is really awesome, and best of all, there all of the same modes and options are available for online matches. There aren't any restrictions like there are with Mario Kart DS.

NST outdid themselves with the multiplayer portion of Hunters. It's essentially a First Person Shooter like Quake, but of course it has a Metroid twist. There are seven different characters to choose from. All of the characters can use the same weapons, but each character has one "Affinity" weapon that features an enhanced ability when equipped. In addition, each character has a unique transformation, called an "Alt-Form." You should be familiar with Samus's Alt-Form, the morph ball. Each character's Alt-Form allows them to become compact and move faster than their walking, or bipedal form. In addition each character has a unique method of attack and locomotion in Alt-Form. One of my favorites is Sylux, who in Alt-Form can lay laser trip wires that act as remote mines. Another character can set down an automated turret. The differences may not seem to matter much at first, but once you get some experience, you'll recognize the different strategies necessary to prevail as and against different characters. I really appreciate NST's imagination in this regard.

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The variety in battle arenas is excellent. There are 27 arenas of varying sizes and features. Some have several layers, while some are compact with tight quarters. Big open expanses might be ideal for the sniper rifle-like weapon, and another level's small recesses make for the perfect ambush. They make use of unique Metroid elements as well. Some levels feature small tunnels and tracks for hunters to flee or give chase in Alt-Form. With nearly thirty levels, you won't be getting bored soon.

There are seven different game modes, and they're basically modes familiar to most First Person Shooters. Of course there's the standard deathmatch, as well as capture the flag, king of the hill, and a handful of other modes. Each mode is a worthy inclusion. One significant let down for me was that when searching for strangers to play online, you can only play the deathmatch mode. This isn't a technical limitation. You can create your own custom games and play against people on your friends list. A generous amount of options are provided. Not only can you select a game mode, but options like point limits, time limits, radar usage, and more can be set. So when playing with people that you've added to your friends list, you can play any game mode any way you want, online or locally. You can even add bots to a game (with still only four hunters in a match).

As a policy, Nintendo wants each of their online games to have a way to quickly jump into a match with no or minimal set-up, similar to Xbox Live's Quick Match. This is probably why you can only play deathmatch mode with strangers, but I still really wish there was a way to play any game mode with people not on your friends lists. Speaking of friends lists, I actually mean the Friends list and the Rivals lists. NST came up with a cool little feature called Rivals. After you play an online match, if you had a particularly good time playing against a player you haven't met before, you can add attempt to add them to your Rivals list. If they do the same, then that player will be added to your Rivals list which is like a secondary Friends list. Per Nintendo's policy, players cannot register Friends from within a game. Players have to contact each other outside of the game somehow. This means you'll still need to use those cumbersome Friend codes just as in the other Nintendo WFC games.

Metroid Prime Hunters, the only difference between Friends and Rivals is that you can both voice and text chat with Friends, but not Rivals (or players not on either list). Nintendo has some pretty cautious policies with their new online service. The chatting is somewhat limited. You can only chat during the pre-game and post-game lobbies. The voice chat works like a walkie-talkie. You hold down a button to talk and players will ideally not try to talk at the same time. There currently isn't a headset available for the DS, so you'll have to move your mouth close to the mic. If you want to type a text message, you'll be taken to a separate screen. This is kind of weird. The DS has two screens; it would have been nice to have a chat window on one of them.

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NST has done some fun stuff with the stat tracking. From within the game, you can view players' "Hunters License" which shows all kinds of stats about games won, kills made, favorite weapon, etc. These Hunters Licenses are also viewable online at NintendoWifi.com and MetroidHunters.com. In addition you can see leader boards and other statistics. NST just really went all out on the multiplayer and online features for this game.

NST has spent 2+ years working hard on Hunters and it shows. They packed more than I could have expected into a DS game. The complaints I have with it are only voiced because it's a Metroid game, a series I hold in high regard. Metroid Prime Hunters really is an excellent game, handheld or otherwise. Unless you're intimidated by the learning curve of the controls or the beefier, deeper gameplay experience than what is typical of a handheld game, I'd say that this is a must own game.

By Andrew Thivyanathan - 03/23/06
ESRB Details: Animated Blood, Violence
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Screenshots for Metroid Prime Hunters

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