Given how long the Nintendo DS has been available, it's hard to believe that Metroid Prime: Hunters was one of the first games shown off when the system was first introduced. Some of you early adopters may remember getting a brief demo level of the first-person shooter as a pack-in with your system. After a long wait, the game is finally out, and for the large part, it hits the nail on the head as far as delivering a faithful Metroid Prime experience in the handheld. It's also got the best multiplayer options we've seen yet in a Metroid game and surprisingly fluid controls.
In Hunters, you reprise the role of Samus Aran, everyone's favorite bounty-hunting heroine. You'll search a small batch of planets in an area known as the Alimbic Cluster for a cryptic "ultimate power" that's said to be hidden in the system. The key to this power involves finding and unearthing eight different artifacts called octoliths. Why not three? Because then it'd be called the tri-force or something. These octoliths are scattered across a few different planets and space stations. Samus isn't the only one searching out these octoliths, though. You'll come across several other bounty hunters with unique weapons and abilities that will duel you during your trip and attempt to steal your hard-earned octoliths. Lose a battle with one, and they'll steal them--beat the same bounty hunter later, and you'll recover your lost octoliths.
Controlling Samus is one of Hunters' strong points, at least once you get used to the controls. The default scheme has you dragging your stylus on the bottom screen to aim your weapons, while you use the D pad to move forward and backward or strafe left and right. Left-handed input methods also exist, so southpaws needn't fret over the prospect of using their right hand to aim with the stylus. The shoulder button lets you fire your selected weapon, while double tapping the touch screen will let you jump. Unlike the Metroid Prime games on the GameCube, there is no lock-on. You have to do all your own aiming. The stylus method can be a little awkward to learn for some, and it induced cramps in our hands at first; the temptation exists to switch the controls to the more familiar D pad and face buttons for your movement and aiming scheme. But if you stick with the stylus control, you'll find that you have much more precision over your aiming, and you're able to execute circle-strafes and other FPS-style maneuvers with ease. Up the sensitivity and you'll even be able to spin 180s, which can be key in multiplayer. In many ways, Hunters' unique control gives it a precise and speedy feel much closer to the keyboard-and-mouse input of PC shooters than you can get from typical dual-analog stick control schemes on console shooters.
Once you get used to the interface, aiming is speedy and precise--just like an FPS game should feel.
The downside to the interface is that to switch weapons, change into morphball mode, or access your scan visor, there are small touch panels on the touch screen that you need to tap. It's possible to accidentally drag your stylus over these areas and unexpectedly swap to missiles, for example. It's also less than ideal to take your eyes off the main screen to find exactly where you need to press to swap weapons in the midst of battle. These compromises are not all that burdensome though, and the tradeoff for speedy, precision aiming is definitely worthwhile.
Hunters' single-player adventure mode has you exploring several different planet types that run the gamut of typical Metroid settings. You've got your abandoned tech station, an ice world, ancient ruins, and a lava world, among others. The art style of the levels is definitely evocative of previous Metroid Prime games, and the game engine does a pretty good job of rendering rooms. When the action gets hot and heavy, the frame rate can dip noticeably, but it's pretty rare when it happens. The detail put into the boss and bounty-hunter models is great, and everything animates nicely. There are a generous number of cutscenes that sometimes stretch across both screens or use separate camera angles in each screen for cinematic effect. Our only major gripe with the graphics is that they can look grainy at times, particularly when you're engaging in a long-range shooting battle with...something that you can't quite make out. The resolution limitations of the DS may be more to blame for this problem than the game engine, though. On the plus side, Hunters sounds fantastic, both from an effects and a music standpoint. Hunters offers some familiar tunes, which contribute to the authentic Metroid feel and experience, while the weapon sounds and explosions offer great feedback in both single-player and multiplayer.
As you make your way through the campaign, you'll not only find the storied octoliths, but also uncover the lore behind the ultimate power (you are using your scan visor, right?) and unlock a number of different beam weapons, ranging from an ice beam that bounces off walls to a fire gun that does added burn damage on impact to a sniping laser. In typical Metroid fashion, you'll have to backtrack to earlier areas with your new guns to open up doors that were previously inaccessible to you, though you don't have to find and unlock all your abilities--the morphball mode and bombs are available to you at the outset.