Samus stars in the latest of Nintendo's string of easy but addictive pinball adaptations.
Back in the days of Game Boy Color, the default game in my system was Pokemon Pinball. With two main pinball boards and several smaller ones, dozens of monsters to collect, and a brand new Rumble Pak for GBC, the game was flashy for its time and delivered a very, very addictive pinball simulation. The parallels with Metroid Prime Pinball are all there, and while the first pinball game for Nintendo DS isn't going to reside in my system for as long as Pokemon Pinball did, it's just as much fun.
When this game was originally announced, many people were worried that it would be a cheesy exploitation of one of Nintendo's most serious and beloved franchises. Metroid Prime Pinball avoids that pitfall by applying a heavy layer of mood and polish, and it helps that the game is made to look like a real pinball table rather than some fantasy world like Mario Pinball Land (which was developed by the same company, Fuse Games).
In fact, there are two full-featured pinball boards, plus four more boards that are full-sized but simpler in design, centering on a boss enemy. All six boards take up both screens on the DS, whose vertical orientation makes them perfect for pinball. There's no scrolling at all, and that's a big help in keeping your eyes on the ball and seeing where it's about to go. The lower screen is touch-sensitive in that you can drag your finger to tilt the board. It's a cool idea in that you can control the direction of tilt, but the sensitivity is too low for it to work very well in a split-second attempt to save the ball. Unfortunately, there's no option to map tilting to one of the normal buttons, which worked fine for Pokemon Pinball on the older Game Boy systems. The two buttons that really matter, for the left and right flippers, work great and are redundantly mapped so that you can use your preferred setup.
A common complaint against the Fuse's last pinball game was that the boards felt too empty, too wide-open. You certainly couldn't accuse Metroid Prime Pinball of that same fault. The two main boards are crammed so full of ramps and bumpers that it'll take you quite a while just to figure out what everything does. There is a large open space in the bottom-center area, right above the flippers, but it often fills with enemies, which must be destroyed for points and prizes. You can attack just by hitting the Morph Ball into an enemy with enough force, or you can set bombs (up to three at a time, of course) and hope that an enemy is nearby when they explode. There are also special weapons in the form of power bombs and missiles; the latter can only be used in "Combat Mode", when Samus stands tall above the flippers and fires relentlessly on her enemies (you can rotate her with the flipper controls and press Y to fire missiles). There's even a mini-game in which you press L and R to make Samus wall jump from side to side up the part of the pinball table where your score would be displayed in a real arcade. If you can jump to the top without falling, you'll get a special item like an artifact or extra ball. These decidedly non-pinball gameplay moments help reinforce the Metroid theme without taking too much focus away from the primary pinball action, and my only gripe about them is that the shooting segments sometimes drag on for a bit long.
The main part of the game is Multi-Mission Mode, in which you move among the first four pinball boards in search of twelve artifacts, which are unlocked for completing various challenges and defeating the boss enemies. Once you get all twelve, you can go to the Artifact Temple board, which is a puzzle-based boss battle that takes the ubiquitous multi-ball feature to a whole new level. Beat that, and you can face the final boss in the Impact Crater board. After the credits roll, the artifacts reset and you can keep playing on more difficult versions of the six boards. It takes a good bit of time and a lot of pinball skill to reach that point, so this makeshift adventure mode is a pretty satisfying experience that lets you try out all of the pinball boards.
Once you play on a board, it also becomes available in the Single Mission Mode, in which your game is confined to a single board and you try to set a high score or beat the boss as quickly as possible. The best scores and times are stored in a high score list, of course. Improving your scores is fun and addictive and is the main reason to continue playing after you beat Multi-Mission Mode, which won't take very many tries for seasoned pinball fans. It's a shame that the default scores are so easy to beat and that there's no online ranking. Even self-competition can be fun, but it's always better to compare scores against real people. And scores are really all you have to keep the game going, because there are no other long-term goals like completing the Pokedex in Pokemon Pinball.
I don't have much to say about the DS Rumble Pak, because it doesn't do much. Its clicky vibrations are discrete and weak, not nearly smooth enough to qualify as a "rumble" and certainly not powerful enough to be a "shock". It's only slightly stronger than the vibration in Wario Ware: Twisted and much louder. The audible thud of the device's activation is actually perfect for Metroid Prime Pinball, since it sounds a lot like the quick thud of a real pinball bumper, but I think it's going to be really annoying in other games such as Mario & Luigi: Partners in Time. Overall, the best thing about the DS Rumble Pak is that you're basically getting it for free with this game, because it's not worth two cents if you ask me. You'll play with it a few times for the novelty factor, then replace it with a real GBA game without a second thought.
The quality of Metroid Prime Pinball far outweighs that of its companion gimmick, so don't let that last bit discourage you from playing this excellent pinball simulation. With top-notch graphics and sound that believably invoke the Metroid series, not to mention some really cool pinball innovations that incorporate many trademark features of the series, this game really does feel like a seamless, if unlikely, merging between classic arcade pinball and the creepy-cool Metroid Prime series. If you're the type of gamer who can actually get fired up about high scores, it's well worth adding to your DS library.