Before you write off Metroid Prime Pinball as a lazy and rather untimely attempt at cashing in on a classic Nintendo series, consider that most brilliant pinball tables these days bank rather cynically on any license they can get hold of. Nip down to the local arcade and have a go on the Pirates of the Caribbean 3 pinball machine and you'll see what I mean. It's a terrible film, brilliantly applied in detail to the flashing lights and noisy flippers.
Which is exactly where Metroid Prime Pinball succeeds. Of course, the original GameCube title was utterly fantastic, and far from the dross that is Disney's latest rum-swigging romp. Regardless of this, the way in which the visual style and defining elements of Prime as an FPS have been applied to the rules of what makes a great game of pinball is in most cases nothing short of brilliant.
Leafing through the manual and digesting the back of the game's box it is very easy to be sceptical. The idea of a level-based progression from table to table, and missions to work through, makes Prime Pinball sound like a very loose interpretation of shooting the silver ball. However, these elements are cleverly interwoven into the mainstays of pinball game mechanics, and will delight those who know their Bally from their Gottleib, without excluding anyone blissfully unaware of the difference between a 'drop-down' and a 'dancefloor'.
Casting the packaging aside, and actually tucking into Prime Pinball, fans of the original game will likely be instantly delighted and comforted by the familiarity of presentation from the outset. Nintendo's seminal first-person-shooter feels like a distant memory in gaming terms, but from the moment the first note slips out of the DS's speaker you'll feel like the last time you visited the Phendrana Drifts was only a day ago. Everything from the menu screen backgrounds and level maps to the tables themselves are packed with nods to the original game, to the extent that playing works as a bit of a time machine, in the same way that hearing an old song from your youth takes you back to the days of bad skin and nervous romance.
'A tangled web of ramps dominates the top half of each table, leading the ball to secret areas or simply giving the player a break from the constant ricocheting nearer the flippers.'
The main game mode sees you progress from table to table after attempting a selection of objectives. Turning a blind eye for a moment to the boss-level tables, most of the play-areas work like traditional machines. Collections of bumpers and illuminating targets litter each table, which open up various bonuses when lit in certain ways. A tangled web of ramps dominates the top half of each table, leading the ball to secret areas or simply giving the player a break from the constant ricocheting nearer the flippers.
The missions kick in when you manage to flip the ball into a fairly accessible lock, or perform a simple combination of ramp runs, which result in one of several themed tasks. Some involve multi-ball challenges to destroy Metroid's phazons. Others see you battling Burrowers and Space Pirates from the license, using the ball to blast them out of the way. Occasionally they take you out of Samus' ball mode, locking the character to a point between the main flippers and arming her with a constantly firing weapon. Using the flipper buttons to guide the direction of fire you must survive attacks from waves of various aliens from the GameCube Prime.
Once you have attempted the missions, win or lose, you can exit the table and move on to another playing field based on a level from Metroid Prime, later returning to try the challenges at higher difficulty levels. Of the six tables available, some take on the form of boss battles, which, while certainly still playable in their own right through the traditional single mission mode, are less elaborate than the main tables. They forgo the usual excess of ramps and neon lights in favour of a wide open play area with a huge boss from the first game in the centre of the upper half of the table. They can be defeated with a healthy pounding from your ball, but are best disposed of with the weaponry that becomes available to you through a similar process of 'progress and reward' to the first game.
Initially firing off bombs as your ball scatters about the table seems a little impossible and rather unnecessary, but quickly you feel enough of a pinball wizard to use the facia buttons to plant charges under the Metroids that drift onto the screen. Along with the weapons available, each ball also has a generous health bar, which can be eroded by Metroids, the firepower of Space Pirates and other foes. Thankfully this feature is none too important to your progress, as you will rarely suffer a frustrating ball loss from accidentally clipping an enemy, and it is fairly easy to replenish the power of your shield regularly.
It is surprising and almost refreshing to see there are no touch screen controls bar one, which sees you use a thumb or finger to nudge the table if the ball gets worryingly close to dropping between the flippers.
The fact that Metroid Prime Pinball comes with a rumble pack seems like nothing more than a generous bonus to make the package worth buying. However, being able to feel the ball movement and moment of impact with buzzers not only adds a touch of realism, but helps with timing and keeping up with the game's pace, to the extent that it is far more important than the game's competent sound.
The final touch of brilliance that makes this Metroid spin-off a worthwhile purchase is the DS's split screen, which negates any need for scrolling. There is the disadvantage that a small area of the play-field is obscured by the space between the two screens, but this has a minimal impact on the game when compared to scrolling, and is easily forgivable. The only other concerns lay with the progression structure, which does demand fairly regular replays of the initial missions you will quickly find quite simple, and on the whole six tables is a rather small number when half are essentially boss arenas.
Yet despite all the ball abilities, unorthodox mission structuring and gameplay mechanics, the vast majority of your playing time is spent enjoying a thorough, well-considered, traditional pinball game. It is addictive, intense and packed with detail. It is also good enough for those alien to Samus' world to enjoy a great deal, and should please pinball fans without the budget or space for real machine enough to take their minds off scouring eBay for a bargain table to store in the shed.