Note: the following article is an opinion. Please leave any caterwauling regarding Metroid Prime: Federation Force with your worries at the doorstep. Thanks to LIQUID12A and Push DustIn for edits.
If you’ve spent any of your time looking at upcoming Nintendo releases over the past year, you’ve probably heard something about Metroid Prime: Federation Force. Normally, an iteration of the beloved science fiction series developed by Next Level Games (the studio behind the excellent Wii Punch-Out!! and Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon) would be a cause for celebration, but it’s had a toxic reputation since it was announced last year. It’s not a “real” Metroid title, this view of the game goes, but a bizarre co-op shooter with unsatisfying art direction. Instead of acting as a corrective to the widely despised Metroid: Other M (an inevitable future entry here), it ignores the greatest pleasures of Metroid, namely its exploration and atmosphere. And its mere existence shows that Nintendo is clearly out of touch with what the “real” gamers and fans want.
It’s important to contextualize how extreme this reaction has been. Nintendo has had to block comments on YouTube videos about it to stop an incessant stream of comments that have at times bordered on harassment. Former Nintendo President and beloved gaming icon Satoru Iwata’s last public statement – potentially made on his deathbed – was an apology to apoplectic fans angry at the game. Literally the final thing he gave the industry was not a statement of hope, or a piece of wisdom, but a desire to placate fans whose anger clearly saddened him. It’s mirrored the comments directed at the also upcoming Paper Mario game Color Splash, and there seems to be little sign of slowing down.
Now, I haven’t played Federation Force and it’s possible the final game won’t be good; personally, I’m not big on multiplayer shooters, the art style isn’t great, and I’d much rather have a more “traditional” installment. But even discounting the many, many times Nintendo has succeeded by going against the grain, the reaction still ignores that this isn’t even a new phenomenon for this series. Before its release in 2002, the reboot Metroid Prime was viewed with disdain and suspicion; fans did not expect an American first-person shooter to recreate the series’ memorable cavernous worlds or incremental upgrades. So when it turned out to be one of the greatest games of all time and one that fundamentally preserved all the series’ best traits, it was a shock. Prime was so successful that it not only brought the franchise back from an eight year absence and more popular than ever, it led to a trilogy and two spinoff titles. By 2005, a multiplayer focused installment for the Nintendo DS, Metroid Prime Hunters, was eagerly anticipated despite being the exact kind of combat-heavy game the fans vocally didn’t want three years prior.
Right off the bat, I should note some qualifying statements with this choice. Hunters was liked, sold well, and overall never got anything near the wave of negativity Federation Force has. But for a game as ambitious and successful as it was, it’s had a surprisingly limited footprint. There hasn’t been a revolution of handheld shooters in its wake, and Metroid itself left it behind. Because of that, the game occupies an odd space in the series: it’s just sort of there, the Boomerang of the franchise. Developed by Nintendo Software Technology (1080° Snowboarding), its success was strong but fleeting.
While Metroid games are incredibly rich in theme and presentation, Hunters unfortunately overplays their less imaginative plotting. There’s a mysterious signal in a far-off solar system referencing an “ultimate power,” and bounty hunter Samus Aran is hired by the Galactic Federation to investigate it. She isn’t the only one; six rival “hunters” with their own motivations are looking as well. And because the power can only be unlocked via a set of keys, finding the secret is a zero sum game.
Beyond the excitement from a graphically sumptuous online shooter on the DS, the big selling point for Hunters was its cast. All of them provide unique gameplay options (each has a unique weapon and counterpart to Samus’ classic Morph Ball) and distinct perspectives. Ice-powered religious zealot Noxus wishes to stop criminals who might harness the power. Sylux, a mysterious, violent bounty hunter, only wants something new with which to crush the Federation and Samus. The golem Spire hopes it can enlighten him about his extinct species. Trace, a sniper from a militarist insect people, aims to capture the thing as a rite of passage. Former science experiment Kanden is merely angling to show his brutal power, while disabled Space Pirate general Weavel hopes to recapture his former glory. Sadly, while they have some very strong designs, they also aren’t so interesting as to be particularly memorable.
The central “problem” with Metroid Prime Hunters is inherent to the work: it functionally cannot be a one-to-one recreation of the Metroid Prime experience. I’m not talking about things like a lower graphical fidelity so much as more basic elements: level and game design, narrative progression, and even the act of play are less satisfying or strong. The multiple planets are fairly lifeless and without the level of distinction that characterized Tallon IV or Aether of the prior games. To keep a semblance of balance, Samus’ various powers – Screw Attacks, Power Bombs, wall jumps, Grapple Beam – are absent, with only combative upgrades coming from the other hunters’ weapons. Environments are clearly built as battle arenas than spaces to be explored, and the plot progression is just a series of fetch quests, broken up by hunter battles and the occasional unpleasant and repetitive boss fight. Certainly the dramatic secret about the power is neither surprising nor well developed (anyone who hasn’t played it may have guessed it two paragraphs ago), and the other characters are only obstacles to repeatedly bash away.
This problem is exacerbated by the actual controls, which demand that the player holds the Nintendo DS in a physically uncomfortable position. Kid Icarus: Uprising had a similar problem that was seen as so extreme new editions came with a stand to more comfortably hold the device, but that game could justify it more with its plethora of imagination and wonderful cast. It’s odd for me to discuss issues like this when there’s content to unpack, but it was physically painful, and got progressively worse over longer periods.
All the same, the game’s sheer ambition is infectious and undeniable. The detail in the level and environment design is far beyond anything that had been seen from the DS up to that point, and despite being released early in the system’s life cycle it stayed a high water mark for its technical accomplishments. While it’s far less exploration minded than the series’ best games, it still has the standards of backtracking, key hunts, upgrades, and accessing new areas. Plus, a lot of these problems do become more defensible from when taken as a multiplayer shooter, and it’s very effective at that: fast, lean, and energetic. It’s not really Metroid, but it does do what it wants fairly well – especially being in relatively uncharted territory.
While the first Prime had an arduous trek from conception to acclaim, Hunters was fairly smooth by comparison. It got consistently high marks across the board, and with a demo added to first versions of the DS it became an early symbol of how the machine could go toe-to-toe with Sony’s PlayStation Portable, which it would quickly surpass in commercial and critical success. Metroid Prime 3 may have also taken inspiration from its ideas, from rival bounty hunters to a collection of planets – all of which were handled in a more interesting fashion. In 2005, with the Wii just a possibility, it was a world-beater. And why wouldn’t it have been? After Halo 2 took the ball of online shooters from PCs, it made sense that players would want the excitement of playing with people all over the world and the convenience of a dedicated portable device. Hunters was popular because of that – regardless of how “legitimate” it was as a Metroid game.
And then…it just disappeared. Other DS games like Professor Layton and Animal Crossing: Wild World surpassed it in iconography, and the two series entries since, Corruption and Other M, have largely overtaken it in players’ minds – albeit for vastly different reasons. I’m not sure why. Perhaps as the DS got more idiosyncratic games that exploited its unique design, the appeal of a traditionally “hardcore” title was less powerful? Maybe it just couldn’t compete with console multiplayer shooters, which would only become more common and successful in the years to come? Whatever the case, its influence has been minimal, and the very few handheld shooters made since have taken inspiration from elsewhere. Even Federation Force doesn’t appear to be drawing particularly from it outside of being a portable FPS.
Much of Hunters’ longevity has come less from its aims and more from other areas. Super Smash Bros. has taken criticism in its recent iterations for a comparative lack of content from Metroid, and amidst a poor bench of possible candidates the hunter Sylux has come up as a choice, especially recently after producer Kensuke Tanabe expressed interest in bringing the character back. Like most Metroid games, it’s seen in speedrunning, having appeared at Games Done Quick last year, and SG member LIQUID12A is an avowed fan whose knowledge helped with this article. While it’s definitely seen as a lesser entry in the series (a placement with which I’d agree), it doesn’t carry the stigma of Other M or the prospective anger of Federation Force. But it is surprisingly absent from the series’ canon.
With Federation Force releasing soon and the anger of fans not appearing to subside, I’ve been thinking about Hunters lately. It didn’t reinvent the wheel or fundamentally alter the series; it just was a thing, and then it wasn’t. Seeing the reactions to the new game, I’ve become somewhat worried that we as fans are taking too entitled an approach to the material we love, acting as gatekeepers that force aside anything that strays too far from a vision rooted in nostalgia while raging against creators for not catering to us exclusively or critics for not approaching the material in the way we might like. Because really, these kind of new perspectives happen all the time, and treating franchises as sacred and pure ignores their often mercenary origins, complicated histories, and the benefits that come through experimentation, even unsuccessful experimentation. Neither Federation Force nor Hunters nor any other game will erase Super Metroid or Metroid Prime, and if the former’s a bad game it’ll just be a bad game, nothing more.