Nintendo appears to really enjoy making pinball spin-offs for their major franchises. Mario, Kirby, and Pokémon all have had portable pinball titles, and even though Metroid is a series with very few spin-offs in general, it still wound up joining that group with the 2005 release of Metroid Prime Pinball.
It’s not hard to see how the series reached this point, and the transition was certainly a bit more obvious than how Mario entered the pinball world. Samus’s Morph Ball mode in other titles already had her curling up into a ball, all she needed from there was the proper layout to make things play like a pinball table. Metroid Prime Pinball doesn’t just go for plopping Samus down on standard pinball tables though. While the standard pinball staples are there like bumpers, ramps, and flippers, the pinball tables themselves are based on areas from Metroid Prime, and the visual flair and special elements they add that can only be pulled off in video game pinball help ensure that this game is feels like both a Metroid title and a pinball game.
There are three ways to play Metroid Prime Pinball: Multi Mission, where your goal is to collect all the Chozo Artifacts across the many boards, Single Mission, where you can play a single board and try to place on a high score table, and Wireless Mission, the game’s multiplayer mode which can be played by multiple people using only a single cartridge thanks to DS download play. Multi Mission is the main mode and certainly the highlight of the title. Starting either on the Tallon Overworld or Pirate Frigate board, you play an altered form of pinball where your goal isn’t just to rack up points. These two hub boards have ways to open up mini-games where suddenly the goal shifts away from bouncing your ball off of special objects. These come in a variety of breeds. Some, like the Wall Jumping game, are a complete break away from pinball for a brief second, and others, like Burrower Bash, Metroid Mania, and Space Pirate Frenzy, involve trying to hit certain targets with your pinball in a set amount of time. There are even games which involve something called combat mode, where Samus will exit her Morph Ball mode and use her arm cannon to shoot at enemies as they come in from the top screen. Succeeding at these minigames will unlock Chozo Artifacts, with the player needing 12 to get to the final levels of this campaign, but there are two artifacts that can only be earned through a special board type.
Phazon Mines and Phendrana Drifts are both boss boards, and while their focus on the fight means they are much simpler in design, the battles are still an interesting challenge and another nice twist on the pinball gameplay. Defeating the boss will earn you their exclusive Chozo Artifact, but there are many obstacles in your way, such as small enemies assisting the boss or the boss’s own powerful attacks. While falling past the flippers is still a way to lose a ball in Metroid Prime Pinball, you also have individual health meters for each ball, and while sometimes it can be hard to avoid attacks or refill that health meter, it does add an extra layer of intensity to the boss battles. You do have a few things to help you out though, with extra abilities like Missiles for Combat Mode and Power Bombs added to your arsenal as you progress through the game, and you can always earn extra balls by getting enough points or lucking out when you hit a slot space. It is very likely you will run out of balls on your first few tries of Multi Mission though, and you will lose all your artifacts once you hit a Game Over. It can be disheartening at first, especially if you manage to make it very far, but repeated plays will help you develop your pinball skills, learn the lay of the tables, and eventually you will learn how best to preserve your balls, earn points, and collect artifacts quickly so you can make it to the endgame with reserves to spare.
The two hub levels, Tallon Overworld and Pirate Frigate, are the best demonstration of what Metroid Prime Pinball has to offer. Beautifully designed mixes of Metroid series visuals and pinball functionality, these two areas are packed to the brim with features. Both of them have unique mini-games to play, unique enemies, and while standard pinball table features like the triple bumper area and small loop are present, you can still expect chaotic multi-ball moments, quick action, and the unique twists caused by the features only possible in a video game. Admittedly, the space between the top and bottom screen is a bit of a blind spot, but it’s easy enough to learn how to deal with it. Sometimes though, like in many pinball games, a bad bounce just means a loss is inevitable, and your control is still just limited to the activation of left and right flippers to hit the ball with outside of special mini-game moments. A forcefield can be activated between the flippers to stop it from falling through for some time, and interestingly enough, the forcefield moves with the flippers as a supplement to your ball bouncing actions. Metroid Prime Pinball does have a tilt feature that is meant to help you nudge the ball around by touching the touch screen, but I managed to finish the Multi Mission mode without knowing it exists and couldn’t find much use for it even after I did discover it.
Boss tables are a bit more simplistic, focused on being a good arena where you and the boss have decent access to each other. Despite being on more basic board designs, the task is still interesting and tests your skills fairly well, and there are still ways to earn points and spin the slots for boosts, so you aren’t high and dry if you end up here with little health or few extra balls. In the context of Multi Mission these tables do their job well, but Single Mission’s implementation of them is a touch underwhelming. Your goal in the hub tables is to rack up as many points as you can in Single Mission, but the boss boards are timed battles where you only have one ball to beat the boss with. Some bosses like the rock monster Thardus have periods of invincibility, and the final boss of the game is well-equipped to kill you or send your ball down the hole between your flippers. It is an understandable metric for gauging how well you can do on a boss, but it would be interesting to be able to engage those boards in a score-oriented manner as well, or perhaps have a survival mode as, once you’ve played the six boards in Multi Mission, you’ve seen essentially all the game has to offer besides high score modes.
There is, however, one last table exclusive to Wireless Mission, and for some reason, it seems to be the worst one. While Multi Mission had the beautiful rains of Tallon Overworld, the hub tables with many minigames to interact with, and boss boards which feel like actual battles despite being locked to the rules of pinball, Wireless Mission’s Magmoor Caverns table is a rather dull design both in what you can do on it and how it looks. Based on the lava caves from Metroid Prime filled with fire-breathing serpents and poisonous Puffers, the Metroid Prime Pinball equivalent is a somewhat bland, empty, rocky table with a bit of orange around the edges that is clearly lava but it has no effect on the play itself. You can access Magmoor Caverns to play on your own, the goal being to get 100,000 points, but the features here are more Pinball than Metroid Prime, with only the rare Metroid enemy floating in for you to attack with your ball and the visual flair of a tower jump you can activate. Nothing would really hook a player who was playing this game by download play, although pinball purists might like that it’s a straightforward and more realistic design without the interesting alterations the single-player tables have.
THE VERDICT: Despite the somewhat underwhelming Magmoor Caverns design, all the tables in Metroid Prime Pinball are fairly different and prioritize intelligent pinball play. Hammering your flippers won’t get you too far, and the game knows to make earning extra balls require high point counts to hammer in that you need to react properly and aim your shots as best you can. Traveling between boards in Multi Mission does have the feeling of going into a new areas with new opportunities, although the limited design of pinball means it doesn’t fully match the exploration of the main series Metroid platformers. This title does not feel constrained by that though, the pinball trappings being enhanced by the addition of Metroid elements and fun diversions into minigames that shake up the expected style of play.
And so, I give Metroid Prime Pinball for the Nintendo DS…
A GOOD rating. Besides the minor funk of the between-the-screens blindspot and the basic designs for a few minigames and Magmoor Caverns, Metroid Prime Pinball is held back from being better just because it leaves you wanting more. The pinball tables on offer are a good mix of traditional pinball and video game activities like combat, all of it contextualized in a Multi Mission mode that does a fairly good job of setting up goals to achieve against challenging opposition. A few more tables or ways to play them would be a wonderful way to make Metroid Prime Pinball have more staying power, especially if a few more hub levels were added where racking up scores could remain an interesting and diverse challenge.
The Metroid series is certainly a wonderful fit for a virtual pinball game, Metroid Prime Pinball showing the potential behind the combination of two seemingly disparate ideas. This reflex based arcade amusement mixed with an atmospheric exploratory action game shows that sometimes odd genre mixes can make for a surprisingly good end product.