This week on Podcasting with Power, I mentioned picking up the newly released entry in my favorite Nintendo franchise, Metroid Prime: Federation Force for the Nintendo 3DS. Regular listeners have probably picked up on my reluctance to play this game over the last few months, but truth be told, I've been flooded with morbid curiosity surrounding the troubled title.
But what was so enticing to me about a game that inspired a petition 24,000 signatures strong calling for its cancellation? Despite appearances in Super Smash Bros. and Nintendo Land, Metroid fans have been left with nothing since the 2010 Wii title, Metroid Other M. As a fan of the series that sent heroine Samus Aran on such epic adventures as Super Metroid (SNES, 1994) and Metroid Prime (GCN, 2002), Nintendo going radio-silent on the franchise since that controversial release felt like a betrayal. Naturally, I've been hungry for anything related to the face-sucking aliens.
And yet, from the first time the public saw Federation Force during E3 2015, something has seemed... off. This isn't the return to 2D form that fans hoped the ill-fated Metroid Dread would be, nor is it the action-packed Metroid Prime 4 in glorious HD that diehards are still hoping for on the NX. Instead, this is more akin to 2006's Metroid Prime Hunters on the DS (of which I hold the unpopular opinion of adoring), while adopting a cute, chibi art style. I'll level with you right now; this is not the Metroid title anyone asked for.
I generally think you should judge a game for what it is rather than what you may wish it could be, but slapping a franchise name on your product does come at the constant comparisons to other Metroid games. While set in the main continuity (positioned between Metroid Prime 3: Corruption and Metroid II: Return of Samus in the chronology), the first chunk of the game is largely void of fan service, with talk of the Galactic Federation and Space pirates peppered throughout. However, it isn't long before familiar characters and enemies begin to appear. The game certainly isn't as lore heavy as the Prime Trilogy, but it's not a botched tie-in either.
The structure of the game might be where Federation Force deviates most from its predecessors; the game is broken up into short, 10-15 minutes missions chosen from a menu. While that sounds like a turn-off initially, I think it suits portable play better than large, segmented areas with save stations scattered throughout. I praised Luigi's Mansion: Dark Moon (3DS, 2013) for adopting a similar structure rather than that of a console-based game. The game can be played solo, but the game was clearly designed with cooperative play in mind. Every mission is available to both local connectivity and over the internet. In my experience, the netcode for this was consistently stable, maybe the best I've seen in a 3DS action game. However, I want to share this tip for the solo players out there: in the beginning of the game, you'll acquire an item called "Lone Wolf", which is intended to make the game manageable on your own, and will automatically disable itself if you choose to play with others.
Levels sometime seem relatively empty, especially early on in the game. For the first hour, you shouldn't have any trouble navigating the game, but the difficulty ramps up after that to provide a challenging experience. Objectives are inventive and varied, so much so that I was constantly looking forward to discovering the next level's "gimmick", just as you do in a Mario platformer. I have found it lacking in the secrets department, as this has been a mainstay in the series, but there is a bit of fun in collecting and using Mods. Your character has three slots for Mods that can vary from reviving you from near-death, preserving ammo, and so on.
Thankfully, the control set of the game is very reminiscent of the original Metroid Prime rather than its DS sequel (which used the stylus and touch screen for aiming). The default control scheme uses the right shoulder button to free-aim with the 3DS's gyroscope, while the left shoulder button locks on to enemies, and other functions are left to the face buttons. While I found the default controls easy enough to master, I've mostly played with the second, New 3DS-exclusive scheme (although a Circle Pad Pro will allow original 3DS the same luxury). This one maps nearly all of the functions (shooting, lock-on, jump, and special items) to the 4 shoulder-buttons, and aiming is done with the C-Stick in a way familiar to fans of console first-person shooters.
Where the game falters most, as is often my opinion with 3DS games, is the presentation. The game is full of sloppy textures and blocky character models; a far cry from the art styles of both the Prime Trilogy and most of the 2D games like Metroid: Zero Mission. Sound design and music fare a bit better, but are ultimately just as forgettable.
For a game that fans were so adamant to hate from the word go, Nintendo and Next Level Games certainly packed a lot into the game. Amiibo costumes (including a Samus skin!) make for some fun character models, and the previously-mentioned control and online features make the game feel robust. The largest extra, however, is the Blast Ball minigame. Part Federation Force, part Rocket League, Blast Ball is a fun way to past a few minutes, although I haven't felt overly compelled to return to it after more than 2 hours of play. Like the campaign, this mode is also available on the internet or locally, and even adds Download Play functionality.
Like I said, this is the game that nobody asked for. It certainly isn't going to be remembered as one of the greats in the Metroid series, as it doesn't quite feel like Metroid too often. That said, it is a fresh-feeling action game unlike anything else I've played on the 3DS. As the days of the 3DS begin to wind down, I can see Metroid Prime: Federation Force as a game worth picking up for the fan not smitten with the influx of JRPGs and indies on the system, and looking for something unique.
Zachary Davis is a lifelong Metroid fan, and host of Secret Stage's Nintendo Podcast, Podcasting With Power.