Metroid Prime: Federation Force—the “Metroid game nobody asked for,” if you take the gormless voice of the internet seriously—marks the first time since 2010 that Nintendo’s released a game in a series that many consider as important as Mario and Zelda. Indeed, its absence during a release period that saw 9 Zelda games and no fewer than thirty-five original games featuring Mario and friends seemed like incontrovertible proof that Nintendo had left the franchise adrift somewhere in the cosmos. Well, folks, I hate to shut down the haters, but Metroid Prime: Federation Force proves that there’s still plenty of life left in the franchise… even if Samus does mostly sit this one out.
The thing about Metroid is that it’s never been just one thing. Not that this makes it unique amongst Nintendo’s “tentpole” franchises; even the skip-one-and-you-haven’t-missed-anything Pokémon games have occasionally branched out into other territories. The side-scrolling, exploration-heavy 2D platformers that longtime fans associate with the series may have all been variations on the original Metroid, but each had an atmosphere and a hook all its own. Metroid Fusion was no Super Metroid, but it introduced one of the greatest Nintendo villains of all time and left a distinctly survival-horror impression on players who saw it through to the end. Metroid Prime: Hunters failed to successfully adapt the open-ended exploration of Metroid: Prime—itself an adaptation of Super Metroid for audiences weaned on first-person shooters—to a portable format, but it nailed the atmosphere and gave players the best simulacrum of the PC multiplayer shooter then possible on a portable device. And then there was Metroid: Other M, which, despite all of its narrative failings, successfully brought the classic-style Metroid games forward into an era of stylish, Hollywood-style action games. The point is, the series doesn’t begin and end with Super Metroid, and the sooner players understand this, the sooner they can accept a game like Metroid Prime: Federation Force.
As for Federation Force: it may be circumstantially similar to Hunters—the only new Metroid game on its respective platform, and a multiplayer-focused spinoff at that—but the similarities end there. No, Federation Force does not put players behind Samus Aran’s visor (an Amiibo-unlocked palette swap lets you pretend, though), but it does successfully expand on her universe with an age old narrative twist: having players inhabit an unknown soldier trailing just a few light-years behind her. Forcing players to view the world from a different perspective immediately takes the burden off Federation Force to emulate previous games: you’re part of an elite unit of space marines, not a solitary bounty hunter, so your primary goal is to shoot everything in sight, rather than to get lost (and then un-lost) on an alien world. Accordingly, this is not an exploration heavy game, but a mission-based one: there’s just as much playtime here as Metroid Prime, but it’s broken up into smaller chunks that are more conducive to portable play sessions. Many missions can be completed in 10-15 minutes for solo players, while the lengthier ones max out around the 25-30 minute mark. The shift in gameplay style means it doesn’t really feel like any Metroid that has come before, but in spite of its odd chibi aesthetic, the world itself has enough familiar visual elements—returning enemies, the flight path of a missile—to feel like it belongs to the greater Metroid Prime universe.
Objectives vary widely between missions, and save for a couple of boring variations on “protect the transport,” they’re all fun. The first mission, for example, has you clearing out an arctic outpost that’s been overrun by giant bugs, while another has you destroying a Metroid breeding lab and extracting one of the species’ eggs to bring back to the Galactic Federation for research (who’s running this show anyway, Paul Reiser?)
I finished about three quarters of Federation Force’s 22 missions solo, but the game really comes alive in its multiplayer modes, which can have up to four players connected at a time in co-op and six in the competitive Blast Ball game, which feels like Rocket League Lite but is still good fun. I got the most enjoyment out of Federation Force’s multiplayer either playing online with other reviewers and friends in the press, or locally with my wife; she’s no Metroid fan, but she warmed quickly to Federation Force once she realized how similarly it plays to games like Left 4 Dead and Portal 2. In fact, she insisted I point out in this review that this is literally the first co-op game we’ve ever played together that didn’t cause a single argument (we give tough love with controller in hand.) And despite Nintendo’s lack of experience with online multiplayer shooters, they’ve become quite proficient in the genre: between this and Splatoon, I’ve even enjoyed playing with complete strangers, which is an experience I typically try to avoid.
Not that there weren’t a couple of bad sessions to remind me why I don’t like playing with strangers, like that time I played the third mission with three other randos, my mech was disabled right after I’d gone back to rescue the three of them during the escape sequence, and then they abandoned me, forcing me to either sit there for five minutes and wait for the clock to tick down, or quit mid-mission. I chose the latter because my time is valuable, and the game punished me by breaking one of my favorite mods. Why am I being punished because other people are jerks? I get it, of course: Nintendo’s trying to discourage players from leaving a mission early so other players can rely on them, and they can’t control when that system is abused. I don’t blame the developer for this. Where I do take issue with the design is the matchmaking system: it’s far too hamstrung by the requirement that players experience missions in story order, at least on their first playthrough. Despite leaving my lobby open for 5 minutes on each of the final two missions, I couldn’t find anyone to play them with me simply because most players hadn’t gotten that far yet. Eventually I powered through on my own, but it would’ve been nice to have a few other players with me to distract enemies while I chipped away at the main objective, even if those other players weren’t experienced enough yet to be able to handle everything the endgame throws at you.
Of course, I had to power through the missions in story order so I could write this review, but I had just as much fun when I was replaying earlier missions with friends, thanks to a multi-tiered reward system that encourages repeat playthroughs. First is the medal system: simply completing a mission will earn a single medal, but players can earn up to two more per mission by completing optional objectives—for example, every squad member extracting a Metroid egg in the mission I mentioned above, or completing the mission under a par time. Second: more medals means more missions unlocked, more mech skins, and more mod slots. Mods, which are hidden in plain sight throughout each mission, allow players to customize their play style, providing bonus effects like damage boosts, enhanced armor, or instant revival upon death, depending on your skill, which can be a life-saver in solo play. Do yourself a favor and replay the first 7-10 missions over and over until you’ve collected 19 medals, which will give you the maximum number of mod slots to play with, greatly increasing your chances of survival when you don’t feel like playing with others.
Getting all three medals in a mission is sometimes easier when going it alone, but at other times it feels like a downright impossible endeavor, so playing with other marines and utilizing effective squad tactics is a must if you want to get everything you can out of Federation Force. Generally speaking, you’ll determine your role in a mission (medic, vanguard, backup, etc.) during the pre-mission loadout screen, where each player selects weapons, shields, health packs, decoys, etc. from a shared pool of items. Each mech can only hold a certain amount of items, so it’s a good idea to really think about the objectives and location of a mission before you pick your items. Then again, popular items like missiles and health packs go quickly, so you can’t take too long to decide. There’s also an inter-player comms system—a series of pre-cooked messages that reach each player’s system in their own local language—that’s effective enough for telling lost players, stragglers and goof-offs to “hurry up!” or “follow me!,” but there are a few instances where it proves to be a pretty inadequate replacement for good old voice chat. On the one hand, I don’t really want to hear my friends’ voices coming from inside a Metroid game—it’s still kind of weird to me that it’s an online co-op corridor shooter— but I’d prefer that to the repeated chorus of “awww, damnit” I’ve seen repeatedly when syncing up via Twitter or Skype after a mission that my squad failed to earn a specific medal on.
I used to shrug off those annoying polls that would pop up on popular video game sites in the early 2000s: the ones demanding readers vote on which two game characters they think would win in a fight, which would inevitably pit Samus Aran against Halo’s Master Chief at the top tier. But it’s funny, because in a way, those imagined battles between two of gaming’s most iconic—but forever separate—characters actually feel like they’re at the core of Metroid Prime: Federation Force’s DNA. I’ve never played a Nintendo game before that feels so much like those Halo co-op sessions of years past, and those are some of the best gaming memories I have. And this kind of play feels right at home on the system, provided you’ve got a dual-analog equipped New 3DS, or a Circle Pad Pro for older 3DS models, or don’t mind using gyro controls to aim. Of course, comparing Federation Force to Halo isn’t going to win any converts from that vocal minority who’s bitched about the 3DS game since it was first revealed in 2015, but honestly, Federation Force doesn’t need to be another Metroid Prime or Super Metroid to feel like it belongs in this universe. All it needs is a reason to exist. And I’d say being the best co-op game on a Nintendo handheld is a pretty damn good reason.
Invisible Gamer’s review of Metroid Prime: Federation Force is based on final review code provided to us by Nintendo. A second copy was purchased for local multiplayer. The game launched on Friday, August 19th, 2016.