Metal Storm is a lesser-known game from developer Irem, better known as the creators of the R-Type series. While it shares some similarities in design and pacing to R-Type, it also happens to be one of the most unusual platformers ever to grace the Nintendo Entertainment System. Even now, platformers featuring player control of gravity – such as Nintendo’s Super Mario Galaxy – are considered revolutionary. Truly, Metal Storm was ahead of its time.
At its core, Metal Storm is a platforming shooter similar to Contra or Megaman. The player controls a humanoid mecha, progressing from left to right, jumping on platforms, shooting robotic enemies and avoiding bullets and hazards. At the end of each stage is a boss to defeat. Aim up while jumping, however, and this formula gets turned literally upside-down as the gravity of the stage reverses itself. The player will fly upward and land, feet-first, on the ceiling. All the enemies of the stage will also fly from ground to ceiling, or ceiling to ground, as the case may be. Pressing down and jump while upside-down will reverse this process and shift gravity again. This ability is not possible twice without touching the ground between a gravity-switch, to prevent the player from rapidly switching gravity and levitating through a stage. It’s a subtle nuance that keeps the gameplay challenging.
At first, wrapping your head around platforming and avoiding bullets while upside-down seems daunting. Thankfully, the game eases you into the gravity mechanic, starting simple and becoming more complex later. While there are only six real stages, each presents a very unique challenge that demands creative exploitation of gravity switching. While one stage might feature conventional platforming, the next will scroll endlessly in the vertical dimension, or will wrap the floor with the ceiling. Platforms alternate spikes on the top or on the bottom. Many enemies and barriers will alter their behavior depending on how gravity is switched. Levels are not merely challenges to overcome but puzzles to solve.
In true Irem fashion, many of the levels require extensive trial and error to discover the perfect route. Most situations that appear at first glance to require twitch reflexes and impeccable timing actually have a much safer solution, but this approach to level design comes at a cost. Much like the R-Type series, Metal Storm requires memorization to survive. It is fun to retry a stage over and over until you discover the path through it, but several hazards and challenges feel almost unfair the first time you run into them – and explode. You need to be prepared to deal with a little frustration to successfully beat this game.
Aside from the stages, the bosses are equally challenging, but feel a lot less creative. Half of the bosses wouldn’t feel out-of-place in any other run-and-gun game, and most can be beaten without ever reversing the gravity. The “boss” after beating the final stage feels like an even bigger let down, because the game just forces you through a gauntlet of all the previous bosses, one after another. You’ll spend much more time with the stages than the bosses, because if you die on a boss you’ll need to replay the entire stage leading up to it.
Your M-308 Gunner is a very agile machine. Movement and jumping is quick and responsive. One button shoots while the other jumps. Jumping while pressing up will reverse gravity, and this can be done on the ground or in mid-air. You can also fire straight up or straight down by pressing up or down on the D-pad while shooting, and bullets will actually pass through many walls, enabling you to flank under or above an enemy and take it out safely. I think my only niggling complaint about the controls was the lack of diagonal firing, which felt sorely needed. But the more restrictive aiming makes the game that much more challenging to figure out.
Metal Storm is a great-looking NES game. Understandable, since it came near the end of the lifespan of the resilient little console. The mechanized enemies, stages, and the player all sport an abundance of detail and color. The player’s sprite, in particular, has very detailed animations and looks fantastic in motion. The explosion when the player dies looks like it was ripped straight out of an episode of Gundam Wing, and I mean that in the best possible way. The enemies look robotic, but some come across as a little too generic and abstract. The backgrounds are similarly detailed but also abstract. It isn’t often clear just where the game is supposed to take place. Metal Storm is also notable for using a fake form of parallax scrolling to give the illusion of depth between the backgrounds and foreground. Even so, you won’t be focused on the background artwork very much. You’ll be a little preoccupied with not dying. On that note, you might be more focused on the hitbox of the player – that is, the area of your own sprite which can be hit by enemies. It feels a bit off. It’s a rectangle, while the sprite of the M-308 Gunner is a bit thinner near the head. That means that when dodging some diagonal lasers and bullets, you might get hit when the bullet never collided with the sprite at all. It’s rare but a few later bosses will use this to screw you over. All told, this is a minor complaint.
The sound is composed of the familiar shooting and jumping blips and bleeps you might find in Megaman or Contra, but it sounds appropriate if not outstanding. The music is very catchy, but not overly memorable.
Metal Storm is by no means perfect. But whatever can be said about it, the game was well ahead of its time. It contains a brilliant and creative concept, with level design that pushes that concept to its limit. The game is full of developer Irem’s characteristic quirks, but fans of the R-Type series will find plenty to like about the flow of the levels. Action fans and even more strategic and tactical gamers will find plenty to enjoy here, but this game is much closer to Megaman than Cybernator. With a few very slight improvements, particularly the boss fights, this should have been a game that changed the run-and-gun genre. Alas, releasing at the tail end of the NES lifespan means Metal Storm was overshadowed by larger releases, and now remains unfortunately obscure. This little piece of forgotten gaming history deserves to be played, if only to experience the mind-bending concept it was built on.
My Rating: 8/10 (really good, despite some flaws)
Metal Storm can be purchased for around $20-$30 USD. Game was completed on normal difficulty.