DS Lite brings Metroids, Sonic back into foreground

I alluded to this in an earlier entry, but until the Nintendo DS Lite arrived, there were a bunch of DS games sitting here that I couldn’t bring myself to play – something about the size and heft of the original DS kept me from playing them. That’s completely changed with the DS Lite – not only have I dipped into the old pile, but I’m also going out and picking up games I missed a while back. On my list for today: Metroid Prime Pinball, Metroid Prime Hunters, and Sonic Rush.

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My favorite of the bunch is Sonic Rush, the um… 75th Sonic the Hedgehog game. Well, okay, it’s not really the 75th, but there have been lots of them, and I mostly lost interest in the series after Sonic 2, except for two lapses – the Japanese Sonic CD, and Sonic Adventure for the Dreamcast. The rest of them I would sooner leave than take, but when Sega’s genius, it’s genius.

 

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Sonic Rush for the DS isn’t genius, but it’s so close that you might think so anyway. It’s a 2-D side-scroller, but tighter and more fun than I’d remembered the 2-D Sonics to be, aided visually by the use of a very well-animated polygonal Sonic. The best part’s the music, which is stellar not only by portable standards, but reminiscent of the most memorable tracks the Sonic series has ever had. It’s dancey, upbeat, and always interesting enough to make even the very familiar action gameplay seem fresh again. Add to that (finally) the true use of both DS screens for gameplay – you’re never quite sure which screen Sonic’s going to wind up on – and 3-D boss encounters, and you have a game that’s not just a good Sonic, but also a good show of what can make the DS special. For a bit on the two Metroids, click on Read More below.
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Then there’s Metroid. It’s one of the greatest game series of all time – so good that the 19-year-old NES version remains enjoyable even today, though most would prefer its Game Boy Advance remake Metroid: Zero Mission instead – and in recent years, the subject of much milking. The GameCube had Metroid Prime and Metroid Prime 2, the Game Boy Advance got Zero Mission and Fusion, and now the DS has Metroid Prime Pinball and Hunters. Another side-scrolling title, Metroid Dread, is supposedly either coming or cancelled for DS as well.

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I’m a pinball fan – like Tetris, that’s one of the genres I find especially worthwhile when I’m looking to pass some time with a portable game console, yet it’s hard to beat a few of the classics – Devil’s Crush (Genesis/ TurboGrafx) in particular. So it helps that Metroid Prime Pinball is a legitimately solid pinball game beneath its graphical varnish; too many of the licensed pinball titles I’ve tried just bored me, and like Devil’s Crush, this one has enough action to be worthwhile even if you’re not a Metroid fan. A Rumble Pak for the DS is included in the package, adding occasional physical jolts during the game if you want them.

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There are six Metroid-themed tables on the cartridge, two of them accessible from the start, the rest unlockable. Generally, the artwork’s very nice – the sort of hot sci-fi CG stuff you’re familiar with if you’ve seen the Metroid games or most recent movies – and the music’s pretty good, too. Typical ball-paddling action is broken up by minigames, frequent on-table alien appearances – Metroids, Space Pirates, et al. – and the fact that your ball is Samus Aran, complete with not-quite-powerful-enough bombs. Like all of Nintendo’s best games, there’s enough padding on the tables to let mediocre players last a while and learn enough in the process to become better for the next time; you wouldn’t know this was done by an outside developer (Fuze Games) unless you were told.

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Metroid Prime Hunters is a bit of a different story – a first-person shooter with strong platform adventuring overtones. The good news is that it’s a lot better than the demo that Nintendo gave away with Nintendo DS systems, and the pessimistic expectations many (including me) harbored since seeing it in early form. This is, meant in almost entirely a good way, a highly ambitious Nintendo 64 game. It looks and feels a lot more like Metroid Prime for the GameCube than anyone could possibly have expected from the DS after seeing Super Mario DS, and that’s a seriously good thing. You still get to turn into a ball and snake through tunnels, walk around corridors and in big rooms shooting things – lots of flying things, really – and of course, do a bit of platform-hopping. If you liked Metroid Prime – and I wouldn’t have guaranteed this about Mario DS versus Mario 64 – you’ll enjoy Metroid Prime Hunters.

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Now, having said that, it’s equally undeniable that Hunters leaves you wanting more. Like a better controller. Nintendo’s clearly done as much work as humanly possible to make this game playable on the DS’s 3-D controller-less hardware, and if you switch off of the default setting, you come pretty close to the GameCube experience. But it’s still not quite the same. It’s really hard to aim and shoot; Hunters really needed a lock-on or AI shooting mechanism, but doesn’t have it. Instead, Nintendo compensates by giving you enough energy to withstand the plenty of punishment you’ll take from enemies that are too hard to shoot precisely. The consequence is a game that doesn’t frustrate, but also doesn’t entirely satisfy, even when it’s doing a million times more from a gameplay standpoint than any other portable Metroid has attempted.

Fighting against other Hunters (single or multiplayer) and bosses feels just like you’re playing a full-sized 3-D console game, minus a bit of acuity and accuracy; textures are predictably rough, and polygons are fewer than one would hope, but more than one might have expected. Similarly, everything from different weapons to different visors is preserved here from Metroid Prime, simplified a bit for the small screen. Note the singular on screen; the bottom display is regrettably always used as a weapon and ball morph toggle – with rare breaks for movie clips – rather than as a second 3-D screen. If only all of the visor scanning stuff (specifically, the display) could have been offloaded onto the bottom screen…

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Hunters is impressive enough by DS standards to rate a solid B on my scale, Pinball a B+, and Sonic an A-. There’s some irony in those scores, given that they’re inverse to the effort required to make each of these games: Sonic is the most cookie-cutter of the bunch by Nintendo portable standards, followed by Pinball and most distantly Hunters, but because of the music, fun, and neat little visual tricks, it’s also the first one I’ve wanted to come back and play.

Given comments and questions from readers and friends on the fence about DS, I’ll say this again: the DS Lite absolutely rocks. Put aside its nice looks; it just feels better in your hands, looks much, much better because of the improved screens (mine has one stuck pixel – argh!) and is easier to carry around. It is getting easily 5 times the use of my old DS, probably more. If you are thinking of ordering one, just do it already. You’ll be glad you did.

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