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Metal Storm (NES) artwork

Metal Storm (NES) review

"Metal Storm seems to be one of the rare cases in which a game was good, available on a popular console, well placed in contemporary media (cover of Nintendo Power, March 1991), and yet fell almost immediately into inexplicable obscurity, only discussed now by the handful of individuals who still cling to the NES as their platform of choice. Part of the problem I think is that the NES has entered a state in which it is regarded as a collectable to keep around as a conversation piec..."

Metal Storm seems to be one of the rare cases in which a game was good, available on a popular console, well placed in contemporary media (cover of Nintendo Power, March 1991), and yet fell almost immediately into inexplicable obscurity, only discussed now by the handful of individuals who still cling to the NES as their platform of choice. Part of the problem I think is that the NES has entered a state in which it is regarded as a collectable to keep around as a conversation piece or to play when one wishes to be “old school” or perhaps just ironic. Its library feels like it has been fully explored, thus the average player can simply get by knowing only the traditionally canonical titles like Super Mario Bros 3 and Contra. Today Metal Storm is probably most often experienced by a bored person sifting through a bunch of NES roms they just downloaded; they will come upon the game in question, play it for 15 seconds or so, and then move on thinking it’s just another platformer/shooter.

I must confession that I too am guilty of misinterpretation and neglect. It was over a year ago that I acquired Metal Storm at a flea market. It received from me enough playtime to ensure that it worked, and was then quickly discarded in favor of Mega Man 3 or some other such infallible title that is appropriate to keep in one’s system. My first impression was that of a drab, plain shooter with what I assumed to be an amusing but shallow gimmick. It wasn’t until I came back to it, and found myself standing on a ceiling and firing downwards at an enemy that was placed above me, that I finally understood what a jewel I had found.

Let me clarify: Metal Storm is not one of those games that have terrible flaws that are redeemed by some hidden virtue that a dedicated person uncovers after hours of labored play. Metal Storm has those virtues right on the surface, just waiting for any curious individual willing to give it the careful attention it warrants. The only glaring issue I can muster with the game is that its reputation does not precede it – though it can hardly be blamed for that.

The scenario is this: you are a robot (or perhaps a person inside a robot), and for some reason you need to go to the right side of the screen and obliterate the boss that seems to exist only for your amusement. You must repeat this until all levels are completed, at which point you are free to pat yourself on the back and play a second quest. One hit kills you unless you pick up an armor power-up, in which case you are killed by two hits. One button jumps, the other button shoots. There are three different weapons (which you retain when you die) and each is rather unique: one shoots through walls, one creates an indestructible bullet shield that can be rotated around you, and a third turns your body into a flaming weapon when you are manipulating gravity.

Oh – by the way, you can manipulate gravity.

That’s right, the main feature that made late-80’s platformers unique is here thrown into a state of instability. Press “up” and “jump” at the same time to make gravity draw upwards and vise versa with downwards. This is responsive and easy enough to perform, and can be done at will. Gravity affects not only you but also the enemies you fight. Some enemies will be drawn to the ceiling; others will change the direction they fire. Sometimes parts of the level will move with gravity. Without question, this feature is the main appeal of the game.

Often there is no such thing as “the ground” in Metal Stormbecause the bottom of the screen and the top of the screen frequently loop together, much like the world Map in your standard RPG. There are no pits, just holes that never seem to end. Because your sprite is almost always centered on the screen, this creates the illusion of a playing space and expands infinitely in all directions. It is really quite odd to wrap your head around.

For example, one time I was standing upside down on the underside of a platform. I wanted to be on the top of the platform, so I reversed gravity, fell downward toward the bottom of the screen, and ended up standing on the other side. Each level is something different. Another time I was trapped inside a box that moved around while enemies bombarded me. Another time I navigated a maze in which doors opened and closed depending on the direction of gravity. Your quantum ability was not simply a gimmick that was slapped onto a generic shooter to create the illusion of originality; this game was clearly built from the ground up to utilize the idea to its fullest.

The initial challenge presented by the game is to simply understand its physics. Once the player has figured that out, it becomes a very enjoyable, very satisfying platformer/shooter with spot-on controllers that will never let you down. For the most part, the game’s seven stages are of average difficulty, and a (thankfully) short password will let you continue where you left off, meaning it is accessible to even a novice. After you beat the game however, an exponentially more difficult quest becomes available for that angry, pain-loving masochist in us all.

You might recognize Metal Storm’s developer Irem for the more famous R-Type series, which uses the same design philosophy of a simple concept added to an established genre that redefines familiar rules in exciting ways. You will also find the game shares may stylistic similarities to R-Type, such as sedated colors, mechanized enemies, computer-stylized music and sound effects, and dreary, science-fiction environments. This suits the game quite well, allowing the player to concentrate more on the game’s concepts rather than its aesthetics.

Since this is a game focuses on skill, as opposed to glitch exploitation or just surviving so you can keep your power-ups, and since the player’s progress is reflected in a score break down at the end of each stage, Metal Storm has criminally untapped potential for speedruns, score attacks, and the like.

Metal Storm is a game that is absolutely ripe for a revival. There really is no reason for it to lurk in obscurity. You shouldn’t try it because it was innovative, or because it was made by the same people that brought us R-Type, or because it paved the way for some of the ideas found in Super Mario Galaxy and Portal, but because it is an absolute work of brilliance and is more than capable of standing on its merits alone.

dagoss's avatar
Community review by dagoss (June 02, 2008)

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honestgamer posted June 02, 2008:

This was really a terrific review of a game I've been interested in for years, but have yet to play (because I like to own actual carts, not ROMs). I'll have to renew my search for a copy of this.

Another game that was featured on the cover of Nintendo Power but went almost nowhere--and one I quite like--is VICE: Project Doom, which is fairly common and can be obtained inexpensively. Great game!
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overdrive posted June 02, 2008:

Wasn't part of the reason for this game being so obscure because there was a huge delay in shipping. A ways later, Nintendo Power had an article about some high-quality NES games that went below the radar, including this one. I think they said it was about 6 months after their review that it actually hit the shelves, so that might have affected sales, especially if all magazine coverage took place that long before it actually was released.

I think Vice Project Doom also was mentioned in that article, as well as Little Nemo: The Dream Master (which I really have to play sometime -- that game just looks sweet).
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EmP posted June 02, 2008:

I was just saying to Felix over AIM that this was a killer review.
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dagoss posted June 02, 2008:

Thank you EmP and HG!

Overdrive, if Wikipedia is to be trusted, Metal Storm was released in February 1991, a month before that issue of Nintendo Power (though presumably people were reading it in February). The only thing I can think of that really worked against it was its release being so late in the NES's life. It's also a "B+" on the rarity list, which is a good indication that it had a low production run (and also partly explains its obscurity today).

Vice: Project Doom is actually on a list I made of great games that don't have a review yet on this site.
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Genj posted June 02, 2008:

I got this game really cheap when I was like 6 or 7 because I thought the robot on the cover looked cool.
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Felix_Arabia posted June 02, 2008:

This was a good read. I actually own the Nintendo Power issue you refer to in your review.
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dagoss posted June 03, 2008:

I haven't read the issue; I only know that the game is on the cover and featured in a lengthy article. Does it contain anything of interest, or is it like a mini-strategy guide?
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overdrive posted June 03, 2008:

As I recall it was their standard picture-laden guide. I recall thinking the game looked pretty sweet back in the day, with some cool levels and bosses.

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