Metal Storm

Developer: Irem
U.S. Publisher: Irem
U.S. Release: 1991
Genre: Action
Format: Cartridge

Based on: Waddling around in a 20-ton full-metal suit of mech armor -- and totally defying gravity in the process.

Games | Nintendo Entertainment System | Metal Storm

Article by parish | November 9, 2007

For a game that graced the cover of Nintendo Power back in the days when Nintendo Power was like unto the Word of God for NES owners, Metal Storm never really caught on. That could have something to do with how specific it is, though: it's a fairly short game built around a series of challenges built entirely around the game's primary gimmick.

This gimmick is of course what makes it relevant to the Mario Galaxy: the ability to flip gravity. Playing upside down comprises a fair portion of Mario Galaxy -- specifically the most challenging portions of Mario Galaxy. And it's fresh and fun and cool and all, but mechanically it feels very much like Metal Storm... with the occasional addition of a third dimension.

That is a good thing! Metal Storm is an excellent game.

For starters, it's a really good example of extremely focused gameplay design. You control a bipedal mech with a very limited array of control options. Basically, you can run and you can jump, which tends to be the case with most NES games. The duo maps so nicely to the two-button pad, you know? The one thing that differentiates the M-308 Gunner from a billion other NES action heroes is that it can change its own personal gravity -- hold up as you make a jump and the robot will flip toward the ceiling, reversing your controls' y-axis. You can return to terra firma by holding down as you leap from the ceiling.

This lends Metal Storm a flavor all its own. Well, unless you take into consideration the zero-G portion of Strider?, and I guess Gravity Man's stage in Mega Man 5. And probably a few other instances that don't spring immediately to mind. Whatever.

Playing upside-down can be pretty tough, as you'll undoubtedly discover next week. The left-right thing is easy enough, but leaping downward when you press jump will blow your mind the first few times it happens.

Even more mind-blowing are the levels, which are carefully crafted to make you think about how to apply this radical (and rad) skill. The first stage is easy enough, requiring very simple applications of reverse-gravity to bypass a handful of obstacles and flipping upside-down to shoot the boss' glowy weakpoints -- that's the first boss above and to the right, although said glowy bits aren't visible there.

Stage two is where it becomes instantly trickier. For one thing, there is no absolute vertical limit to this level -- you're inside a physically impossible tube or something where leaping to the top of the screen scrolls you upward in an endless loop. Add to that a number of platforms that flip at right angles depending on the current gravitational orientation (and which will blow you up if you cross their path as they move), floors that can be passed through in one direction but not the other, and (as ever in an NES game) instant-kill spikes, and Metal Storm becomes quite the challenge of both reflexes and mental acuity. Like Bionic Commando, it mixes up the clichés of platforming and forces you to adapt to a new set of rules without adding needless complexity.

You get a sense of what you're in for at the beginning of the second mission, actually -- immediately upon starting you'll notice a power-up trapped between a pair of spiked floors and one-way platforms. The only way to reach it is to leap toward the spikes and flip gravity at the last second, creating a sort of reversed parabola with your jump that allows you to sort of "float" past the spikes.

A later mission puts you inside a tiny box moving through a field of indestructible explodey things, giving you a sort of constrained obstacle course that requires instant reactions. Or there's the level where you're constantly under fire from ships moving along a sinuous rail. Or tricky moving platforms. And so on.

Visually, Metal Storm is kind of ugly and kind of impressive all at once. The backgrounds can be dull, and still screens make the M-308 Gunner look pretty lousy -- it's often lost in the scenery, which is entirely mechanical and therefore fairly abstract. In motion, though, it looks fantastic; the M-308 is gorgeously animated and moves fluidly. It even explodes beautifully, which is fortunate because this is one of those one-hit-kill games and you will explode often. The scenery is very tiled and rigid, but it also features plenty of motion -- even parallax scrolling, a rarity on NES. The power-ups are more practical than showy; unlike most shooter-style games, Metal Storm's upgrades don't have much in the way of graphical flash. But they're situationally effective: a directional shield to block fire, a personal shield that turns the M-308 into an indestructible weapon when it performs the gravity flip, and more.

In short, it's pretty much what you'd expect from Irem. It's brief, it's tough, it's technically impressive and it reeks of quality. The M-308 controls well and even stars in a secret The Guardian Legend-style? special challenge mode for those who find its basic gravity-flipping ways too easy. For grins, you can even see the stage three armada ship from R-Type in the background of one of the later levels.

And Nintendo totally ripped off the gravity gimmick for Mario Galaxy.

Well, probably.