Finally, the pen is mightier than the sword.
Except, actually, it's not. Which is why Nintendo has changed the control system for Metroid Prime Hunters so that you fire Samus's gun when you tug on the shoulder button, and not when you tap the screen.
This is an important change, because the system that was in place at E3 earlier this year - drag the stylus across the screen to aim, and tap the screen to shoot - was somewhat at odds with the premise of a multiplayer first-person shooter. Firing your gun every time you take the stylus off the screen is not really conducive to keeping a low profile, and immediately puts everybody in the game who dares to look around at a tactical disadvantage.
Oddly Nintendo has kept that control system in place as an option (which, given that most of your prey will know not to use it, puts you at an even greater disadvantage), but the truth is you probably won't find you need to make use of anything other than the default. Played the way it's initially set up, Hunters works fairly well - the action is on the top screen and the touch-screen below the fold is given over to top-down, Doom-style wireframe map, and depending on whether you're right or left-handed, you use the D-pad or diamond of face buttons to control movement and strafing, drag the stylus around the screen to turn and aim, tap the shoulder button to fire at enemies, and double-tap the screen to jump. If you want to transform into Samus's morph ball form, you just tap a small circular icon next to the map, at which point the shoulder buttons become triggers for bombs, and there are three other circular icons close together on the other side which allow you to switch between the default charge beam, missiles, and something charmingly described in the manual as your "Electro Lob".
Basically "First Hunt" is an evolution of the demo version of Metroid Prime Hunters that we played at E3, polished and retouched a bit and then generously bundled with the Nintendo DS itself in order to give people something to play around with when they first get hold of the system - and, presumably, to gauge public opinion on how a first-person shooter should work on this sort of system in time for it to influence the rest of the game's development. Or so we'd hope.
In exchange for your interest, you get three single-player tutorial levels, of which more in a moment, and three multiplayer deathmatch arenas that you can contest control over with up to three other people using the DS's one-click-and-it-works wireless networking. It also includes a short CG video of Samus crouching and shooting a bit, which you can access by tapping on the only discoloured blob on the mesh of red hexagons that make up the Start screen, and it features a menu background that reacts delightfully to stylus contact. Obviously that last bit isn't important, but we like it, so we're going to tack a mention onto the end of this paragraph and you're just going to have to live with it. Swish.
In terms of looks, it's built in a 3D engine that looks much better than the N64 titles most of the DS games are compared to, running at a solid 30 fps with some solid animation and effects - particularly the "interference" you'll see on both screens when smashed in the face with the aforementioned Electro Lob. For some reason having an effect like that spread over the touch screen is more overwhelming, in a kind of "Shit, they're messing with my controls!" kind of way that the rumble function of a normal pad could never encapsulate. It's basically Metroid Prime, GameCube-style, with muddier texturing and fewer polygons, but otherwise it's very distinctive.
Mighty morphin' power Samus
Technicalities aside: The single-player bits are very straightforward and a little monotonous. But then they are only tutorials - and it is a valuable experience getting to grips with the controls and power-ups, given that Hunters takes a genre you're already used to and shakes it up like a nail bomb in a snow globe factory. (By which we mean: Expecting you to accept a cherished sight even though you have to put up with the unwanted addition of a short sharp stick.) There are three tasks to complete, and they're called Regulator, Survivor and Morph Ball.
Regulator is the most "game-like" of the three - you have to kill a lot of enemies in order to open doors and navigate a series of corridors, rooms, spiral walkways and eventually a short morph ball hamster maze, until you get to battle a dark Samus character, whose role is obviously similar to that of a deathmatch bot opponent. Survivor, meanwhile, is the only task set in one of First Hunt's actual multiplayer levels, and involves surviving for as long as possible in the face of a huge mixture of spiked crawlers, floating green ghoulie things and facehugger-style enemies who sap silly amounts of health and charge at you as soon as you stray into their line of sight.
Morph Ball is probably the only one we'd bother to replay more than a couple of times if we weren't being paid to do so - and it's the one with the most challengingly weighted time limit. The idea is to direct Samus in morph ball form through a level that looks uncannily like the one we played at E3, collecting a series of blue blob holograms and reaching the goal before your time is up. That the blobs are spread out over several rooms, up and down ramps and the like makes it more interesting, but rolling the little ball around is like guiding a marble with the tip of your finger - to recycle a comparison from the last DS feature we published - and entertaining enough to invite repetition on that basis alone. The movement in relation to your stylus's movement is precise enough that you always feel in total control - and it bodes well for anybody anticipating a Monkey Ball outing on the DS that Morph Ballin' is quite so gratifying.
Another reason that we'd likely choose to replay Morph Ball more than the others is that replaying the others hurts our hands.
Y'see, although the refined control system is undoubtedly better than it was, the way it's set up now is inherently flawed in a new way. The idea of holding the console with one hand, which you use for D-pad movement and firing the gun, while you use your free hand to direct Samus using the stylus, sounds absolutely fine on paper. And, were you balancing the DS on a surface top from which paper could feasibly be derived, it might still feel absolutely fine. But as soon as you come to actually hold up the DS in the air, that D-paddin' and shoulderin' hand starts to feel the strain.
The human hand, it seems, was not built to hold something of actual mass whilst repeatedly tapping the top of it with the index finger and wiggling the thumb back and forth at a different angle. Do it for half an hour or so and put the thing down and you'll have to shake your hand around to get blood pumping back into all the right places. It actually hurts. Unless you rest it against something as Rob's been doing, in which case you'll probably discover it's no less comfortable than playing any normal console game that involves similar behaviour.
But: aha! There is an answer! As we mentioned the other day, the DS ships with a wrist-strap, and on the end of that strap is a little noose with a curved plastic bauble we're calling a thumb pad - basically the idea is that the noose tightens around the tip of your thumb and you press down on the screen using the thumb pad. Clever, eh? Like using your thumb on a touchpad, except the surface of the plastic means it glides around and the lack of skin contact means your touch screen doesn't get smeared by whatever you've been thumbing in the recent past.
Not just padding
It takes a little getting used to; to be honest, it took us a while to get the thumb pad to sit comfortably under the thumb. And it obscures more of the touch screen than you'd probably like. But it does mean that you're gripping the unit with both hands, which alleviates the stress on your other palm. Good news.
Bad news: this isn't an analogue stick where you'll keep turning if you just hold the stick to an extreme; it's a touch-sensitive surface that translates stylus strokes or thumb motions into finite movement. In other words, your thumb gets to the edge of the screen before you've turned as much as you'd like, resulting in a mad and even less comfortable thumb-waggling motion that could oh-so-easily be overcome by the addition of a sensitivity control for the touch screen. Are you listening, chaps?
That's not to say Metroid Prime Hunters is uncontrollable in its native first-person guise; just that it's either uncomfortable when you're not resting the console on something, or it's going to wear down the joints in your thumb until you could quite easily pluck it out and use it as a stylus. Before Hunters becomes a proper, pay-money-for-it sort of product, Nintendo needs to find a middle ground between the hand-hurting decency of the stylus and the more supportive but equally flawed wrist-strap alternative - or at the very least add a sensitivity setting.
And we don't like double-tapping to jump either, although we can't really see another way of doing it, short using the microphone to interpret yelps of "Jump!"
Don't Hunters, hunt this!
However, when we're not in great discomfort, Hunters is nothing short of a very promising game. The wireless aspect works very well - you go into the lobby and you can select from any game running in the vicinity and join it, assuming it's not full. Signal strength is usually fine, and when there is lag it usually recovers fine and at least has the decency to inconvenience you and your adversaries simultaneously. When you are set up, you'll find yourself tearing around levels of varying quality (the first is okay, the second is too big, but the third is good enough to warrant a paragraph of its own in a minute), but the addition of the morph ball gives you another angle when it comes to attacking and retreating, which changes the dynamic enough for it to entertain even muggins here, who has long since grown bored of samey deathmatch FPS games.
The best level of the three available is simple and effective design reminiscent, in a sense, of the very best Quake levels. All it is is a rectangular play area with cover points like overgrown riot shields at either end, along with bounce pads that lead up to power-ups, and a side corridor that runs along one wall of the arena with a window-like gap in the middle. It's very tight, and makes for an engaging tussle when you're never really out of the other player's sight for long - unless of course you're scampering off as a morph ball, scheming to rush-bomb your enemy as he frantically strafes this way and that trying to get his sights on you.
Realistically, in gameplay terms what we're seeing here is not going to revolutionise deathmatch for more than a few minutes of anyone's life. And, on top of that, the power-ups arguably respawn a bit too quickly anyway (especially the Quake-style damage amplifier and the missiles). But nevertheless for us Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt does represent two things: 1) living proof that the DS is powerful enough, and the controls versatile enough, to do a multiplayer first-person shooter effectively, 2) a perfectly adequate demo bundle, which will more than happily occupy you for a few inquisitive hours when you're not busy playing Super Mario 64 DS.
And for a First Hunt, that's a pretty good return.