Or how not to launch a spinoff.
2015 was a year of transition for Nintendo for a variety of reasons. The Wii U was definitively a sales bomb, regardless of how well received Splatoon and Super Mario Maker were when they launched to critical and fan acclaim that year. The 3DS was doing okay, but as the system entered its fifth year in the wild, it creaked under the pressure of being Nintendo’s only successful console on the market. We were still two years away from the Nintendo Switch, even if 2015 was the first time we heard mention of the NX - the codename that begot the Switch name when Nintendo revealed it was fervently entering the world of mobile game development.
While good Nintendo games were continually coming out, a few mainstays had been in weird states of transition. Take the Legend of Zelda series, which was being populated by remakes and spin-offs while we all waited for Breath of the Wild to come out. Or more relevant to the topic of this video, take Metroid, which was a beloved hardcore franchise that was seemingly on life support for a decade. Following an early 2000s run that saw three numbered Metroid Prime games, two Prime spinoffs, and two new 2D entries, everything landed with a thud following the release of the Wii game Metroid: Other M. Aside from the well-made Metroid Prime Trilogy collection on Wii, the Metroid series was languishing between indifference and irrelevance. Until E3 2015, where Nintendo announced a new entry in the series and somehow turned indifference into anger and fury.
But I’m not here to stoke that anger - or I guess I am since I’m not mad at Metroid Prime: Federation Force. I’m here to tell you that Metroid Prime: Federation Force is great, actually, but at the same time, the announcement and reveal of the game justifies concern and confusion among fans of the decades-old series. It’s a shame that a quality work such as Federation Force was widely dismissed. I want to spell out what went wrong in its rollout and why this is still a game worth celebrating regardless of its sad place in history.
With 2015 being such a transformative year, Nintendo’s presence at E3 was some amount of a last gasp. The past few years of the notable convention were a series of ups and downs, especially during the Wii U era. In 2012, the launch year for the home console, their booth was packed to the gills with Wii U demo stations, but was conspicuously absent of people. The naive, optimistic young Nintendo reporter that I was back then was stoked at how short the lines were, but in retrospect, it was a harbinger of the lackluster Wii U sales to come. E3 2013 and 2014 were steps in the right direction, with the former highlighting a solid lineup consisting of the likes of Mario Kart 8, Super Mario 3D World, and several Smash Bros. reveals. 2014 was arguably Nintendo’s strongest of the Wii U era, hosting a Smash Bros. tournament and demo as well as the fervent reveals of Splatoon and Mario Maker.
That brings us to E3 2015. Following on the heels of the moderate good will of 2014, Nintendo followed a very similar script, kicking things off with the 2015 Nintendo World Championships that included novel competitions and the reveal of EarthBound Beginnings on Wii U Virtual Console and a mysterious game called Blast Ball.
It didn’t take long for folks to piece together how much Blast Ball looked like a first-person Metroid Prime HUD. Within moments, there was hope and speculation for something new in the Metroid series. It had been a half-decade since Metroid Other M and almost a decade since the last brand new Prime game. Surely, Nintendo had something up their sleeves to satiate the Nintendo fans that stuck around during the dismal Wii U era.
As everyone would learn the next day during Nintendo’s E3 2015 Digital Event, this was not your father’s Metroid Prime. This wasn’t really anything that Metroid fans asked for. It was Metroid Prime: Federation Force, a co-op-focused shooter that put you in the mech suit of Galactic Federation soldiers. Samus was nowhere to be seen in the sub-minute-long reveal. This was just a new adventure in the Metroid Prime universe, aiming to launch nine years after Metroid Prime 3 and six years after Samus’ last non-Smash appearance.
To say Federation Force’s announcement was met with a thud is disrespectful to thuds. And even as someone who loves Federation Force, I get it. Metroid as a series had been dormant and there was no promise of more adventures with Samus. There was just this quirky co-op spinoff. Pair that with the rest of the E3 show for Nintendo, which was filled with question marks or poorly received reveals. Star Fox Zero was a headliner. The Legend of Zelda: Tri Force Heroes paired with Federation Force as another late-in-the-game multiplayer-focused 3DS game. Animal Crossing finally got a Wii U game...that was an amiibo-centric board game. Mario Tennis was back with what we would come to learn was a clear low point for the entire sport of tennis. Metroid Prime’s return in spinoff form was already starting from behind, but the rest of Nintendo’s lineup wasn’t doing it any favors.
I remember being hopeful for Federation Force. The game looked fun! Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon developer Next Level Games was working on it! But at the same time, Nintendo revealed a new game in a beloved series that appeared to play incredibly differently than the acclaimed entries, without any promise or mention of anything else in the works. Federation Force was a red-headed stepchild at announce because of this. And it sucks because Federation Force is great, actually. It’s just different from 2D Metroid and Metroid Prime.
The fan response teetered between confusion and anger. YouTube videos had massive amounts of dislikes and even the optimists were waiting for a Metroid Prime 4 announcement that never came. Hindsight being 20/20, Nintendo likely didn’t have another Metroid game to show during 2015. Metroid: Samus Returns was in development but still over two years away from launch. Metroid Prime 4 was but a twinkle in the eye of series producer Kensuke Tanabe, as even the initial development of the game didn’t likely start until early 2017. There wasn’t anything concrete to reveal alongside Federation Force, and even Tanabe’s comments about the future of the Prime series after Federation Force weren’t enough to cut through the noise.
Metroid Prime: Federation Force was doomed to fail because of the context in which it was announced. There was no rebounding from the deafening furor of the E3 reveal, even if frankly the core gameplay looked fun as hell in multiplayer during the Treehouse segments. The fact that the only playable demo was of Blast Ball was even more of a death knell for the early reception. Blast Ball’s cute, but it’s insubstantial. For better or worse, Federation Force is a sobering tale of how to not announce a spinoff to a longtime franchise.
Nintendo tried to rehab the reveal before the August 2016 launch in a March 2016 Nintendo Direct. It was debatably too little too late, but Tanabe clearly had a passion for this series and this concept. Federation Force ventured to show a different part of the universe, expanding it beyond Samus and Metroid by highlighting the battle between the Galactic Federation and the Space Pirates. Samus was finally confirmed to be a part of the game, but not playable. The attempt at salvaging a dreadful reveal was the best it could be, but it wasn’t enough.
Metroid Prime: Federation Force launched on 3DS on August 18, 2016 to a MetaCritic score of 64, by far the lowest ever for a new Metroid game. It’s worth noting that the second and third highest critic scores actually come from Nintendo World Report’s leadership. Our current Director John Rairdin gave the game a 9/10 and I reviewed it for the magazine Nintendo Force and gave it an 8.5. It does feel fitting that John and I are working together on a video called “Metroid Prime: Federation Force Is Great, Actually.” We have the receipts to prove we mean it.
Now the naysayers have a point because the context for how Federation Force was revealed fell flat and over the course of the year between announcement and launch, Nintendo had no real ability to satiate the desire of fans for a “real Metroid game.” But with the hindsight of years after launch, what makes Federation Force good? Let’s dive into the gameplay and legacy of Project Golem.
First off, the first-person shooter controls on 3DS work great. This does use the nub C-stick on the New 3DS as camera control, but that nub doesn’t work that well. Even with the middling second-stick, the combo of Circle Pad movement, lock-on, and gyro controls make aiming feel wonderful. It takes a lot of learnings about Metroid Prime controls and makes something that lands around the best of both worlds, taking the original Cube controls and the Wii motion of Prime 3 and the remastered Trilogy. Developer Next Level Games clearly can make the 3DS sing after their work on Luigi’s Mansion: Dark Moon and even with the chibi art style, this is a good-looking 3DS game.
The individual missions have a lot of variety, whether you’re trying to corral beasts, protect areas, or find items. I might have said some things when this game came out about it feeling like a natural extension of Metroid Prime and I’ll admit that’s a little crazy talk, but it still feels like it fits in that world. The three planets you visit could easily be a part of the places you explore in the prior Prime games. There’s the ice planet Excelcion, the machine ruins of Talvania, and the volcanic Bion. They assuredly fit the typical tropes of the franchise, especially since most places have long-gone ancient races that left everything in tatters as Space Pirates swoop in to mine the remains.
Now we get to elements of Federation Force that probably sunk it further into a spiral of doom. This is designed to be a multiplayer game, but it truly works best with a full team of four. The difficulty stays consistent no matter if you have one, two, three, or four players. With four, it’s well balanced, staying challenging but not impossible. With two or three, the difficulty can ramp up considerably. As a single player, you have the ability to toggle a mod on or off that gives you double firepower while receiving half damage - making it a great way to level out the challenge if you’re rolling solo. You can even have drones join you too.
By the time Federation Force launched in 2016, the 3DS was more than five years old and was showing its age considerably, especially in terms of online play. I don’t remember the exact specifics of the online landscape the day Federation Force came out but I don’t recall any positive random player experiences. Unless you have a quartet willing to hop online with you, you likely had a bad time trying to find partners to ride the wave beam that is Metroid Prime: Federation Force. It’s a damn shame because when I did pair up with a full squad, I had an absolute blast. But also I ran a Nintendo fan site at the time so finding that group was relatively easy. Even if this was the Metroid game everyone was hyped for, the active online player base wasn’t really there for it on 3DS in the summer of 2016.
Even Blast Ball had a bad beat by the time it came out as part of the final game. While the multiplayer mode is novel in how it is essentially Metroid Prime Soccer, the mode’s lunch was stolen shortly after announcement by the launch of the now-monolithic Rocket League. You could debate about the veracity of comparing the full-fledged online-focused Rocket League to the throwaway side mode of Blast Ball, but no matter what, Blast Ball was done bigger and better a year before the game was even publicly released. Federation Force’s release has a lot of self-owns from Nintendo along the way, but it was truly a perfect storm of Murphy’s Law.
Even with the generally poor reception despite the quality and competency of the game’s core, Federation Force is now a part of the world of Metroid. Maybe it’s a sad chapter, but it’s a chapter nonetheless, filled with a chibi art style and a weird plot obsession with making things bigger that pays off with a final boss being a giant morph ball Samus who is possessed by Space Pirates. And then you fight Master Brain, which may or may not be tied to Aurora Units and not the Mother we all know and love. There’s even a story tease with the mysterious Prime villain Sylux showing up to steal a Metroid. Maybe that will play into Metroid Prime 4? Or maybe we can look forward to another 15 years of wondering who the heck Sylux is and why they matter.
I loved Metroid Prime: Federation Force when it came out and I still love it to this day. It might not be the Metroid game we all wanted, but it’s a fun game for what it is that was released at the absolute wrong time. The multiplayer is awesome when the stars align, and the general variety and story are fun and interesting. You can dismiss this game all you want and while I’ll join you hopefully waiting for Metroid Prime 4 to continue the spectacular solitary adventures last seen in 2007, I’ll always have a fondness for this game and perchance to dream of a world where this was an addition to the world of Prime and not seen as a lone forgotten offshoot. The Federation Force died so Samus could run again. Here’s hoping we don’t have another moment in time like that again.