My thumbs hurt. Also, my soul. Oh, Irem.
There are numerous NES games from the console’s twilight years in the early 1990s which were poor sellers in their day, but have since attained an ironic sort of fame within the classic gaming community as “hidden gems.” Some of the most ambitious and lavishly-produced titles for the system debuted around this time, only to flounder in the face of stiff competition from the flashy new 16-bit systems. Such a title is 1991’s Metal Storm, the cult classic sci-fi run-and-gun published by Irem and developed by their subsidiary, Tamtex. Not even a 12-page cover story in Nintendo Power was enough to put Metal Storm over with the public when the fabled Super Nintendo was just around the corner.
While it’s heartening to see these long-neglected classics finally find the audiences they’ve always deserved, there’s a corresponding downside rooted in that most bastardly of sciences, economics. Simply put, games with high quality and low production runs are destined to become prohibitively expensive sooner or later. Though a far cry cost-wise from Taito’s Little Samson (which madmen are currently paying close to $1100 for in loose cartridge form at the time of this writing), Metal Storm is still the single most expensive video game I own. I shelled out $100 for my copy at a convention and, though I don’t really regret it per se, I also don’t see myself spending that much on any one game again in an era of affordable flash carts.
However you end up playing Metal Storm, you’re in for a unique experience on the system. Side-scrolling NES action games were a dime a dozen, so Irem wisely chose to give this one a twist to set it apart from the pack: Your character can control gravity at will! Far from being just a superficial or situational gimmick as it was in Shatterhand or Mega Man 5’s Gravity Man stage, every aspect of the level layout and enemy placement here is is painstakingly planned around the fact that you can swap between walking along the floor and the ceiling at a moment’s notice. As in Capcom’s Bionic Commando with its grapple arm platforming, it’s this total commitment to an innovative core mechanic that elevates the game above the majority of its peers and makes it well worth playing today.
Metal Storm places you in the cockpit of the M-308 Gunner, a rifle-toting humanoid robot which looks just about as close as it legally can to something out of Gundam or Macross. It’s the year 2501 and Pluto has been fitted with a humongous Death Star-like laser cannon intended to protect the solar system from invasion by hostile aliens. Predictably, the computer system controlling the laser has gone haywire. Neptune has already been vaporized and it’s only a matter of time before Earth gets the axe. With the laser’s self-destruct mechanism jammed, all of humanity is counting on you to fight your way past the Pluto base’s copious defenses and initiate the self-destruct sequence manually. Welcome to old-school gaming, soldier, where every princess needs rescuing and every computer is the HAL 9000.
While the story here may not be anything to write home about, the graphics sure are. You may not be inclined to think much of them at first based just on screenshots. The backgrounds can arguably be somewhat garish at times due to how many of them consist of abstract, vaguely mechanical patterns rendered with just a few bright colors in what I can only call a patchwork quilt style. I was occasionally unsure if I was supposed to be blasting my way across a space station or an oversized sofa from the 1970s. Once you actually see the game in motion, however, you’ll quickly realize that the draw here is the fluid character animation and liberal use of parallax scrolling. This latter technique (in which multiple layers of background graphics appear to scroll by at varying speeds in order to simulate depth) is not a default capability of the NES hardware. Regardless, Metal Storm utilizes a mapper expansion chip inside the cartridge working in tandem with memory bank switching techniques to showcase convincing parallax effects on virtually every stage. It really is eye-catching for anyone accustomed to the look of other games on the console.
Things aren’t quite so striking on the audio front, unfortunately. The soundtrack is middling at best, suffering from overly short music loops and a shortage of really standout songs, apart from perhaps the first level theme. Sound effects fare better, with some great explosions and an absolutely perfect “bwoop” when you execute a gravity flip. I couldn’t tell you why this action should bwoop specifically, but trust me, it should.
There are twelve total stages to tackle and a boss fight after every even-numbered one. Clear them all and you’re treated to a standard “boss rush” where you must defeat the previous six guardians again back-to-back before you can finally engage the self-destruct device and roll the credits. The stages themselves are actually all fairly short and leave you very little room for error. Similar to the player ships in most auto-scrolling shooters, your mech doesn’t have a health bar and will explode instantly upon contact with an enemy, projectile, or stage hazard. Additionally, you won’t be revived on the spot if this occurs like you would in other run-and-gun games like Contra. Instead, you’re sent back to the beginning of the stage. If you’ve ever played Irem’s Super Nintendo debut from later in 1991, Super R-Type, you know this rather strict system all too well.
If all this has you concerned that Metal Storm might be too punishing to be enjoyable, you needn’t worry. While it’s true the stages require some memorization and tight execution, you’re given unlimited continues with which to practice them, as well as passwords after every boss fight. There’s also a very useful selection of power-ups available. The most common and important of these is the armor, which allows you to withstand one additional hit before exploding. There’s also an energy shield that blocks bullets and damages any foes that touch it, a gun upgrade that makes your laser rifle shots more powerful and able to penetrate walls, and a “Gravity Fireball” that renders you invincible mid-gravity shift. You can only benefit from one of these last three abilities at any given time, however, so picking up a gun icon while you already have the shield active, for example, will cause your shield to vanish. Thankfully, the armor upgrade isn’t exclusive in this way. I suppose a greater variety of power-ups might have been nice, but I do have to give the designers credit for making each one we do get both functionally unique and powerful.
With these tools to level the playing field, experienced run-and-gun players should be able to clear Metal Storm in a handful of hours…on its normal setting. Do this and you’ll be given a special password and instructed to “Try a game for experts.” Hoo-boy. Lemme tell you, they had a real master of understatement on staff there at Tamtex. I was looking forward to a little more difficulty after the relatively forgiving main game. What I got was the Ninth Circle of NES Hell. The majority of life-saving power-ups have disappeared, the bosses have all-new dirty tricks, and the regular enemy placement is so outright fiendish as to evokes the infamous Kaizo Mario World and other similar troll ROM hacks. Those one-hit deaths and sparse checkpoints which were manageable before are now the very bane of your existence and level memorization graduates from useful to strictly mandatory on a second-to-second basis. If I wasn’t the sort of obstinate bastard who can’t let go of a self-imposed challenge, I’d have certainly quit in disgust around the midway point. Metal Storm on the expert setting is what people who’ve only heard of Ninja Gaiden imagine that game to be. It is doable, barely, but I didn’t enjoy it as I’d hoped to. Maybe you will.
Expert mode aside, I can unreservedly recommend this one to 8-bit action fans. The control is spot-on, the level design is inventive, and no two enemies test your maneuvering and shooting skills in quite the same way. Above all else, the gravity shift mechanic elegantly and unobtrusively informs every move you make. Mastering it over the course of the journey genuinely feels like fun rather than work. This, latter day game designers, is how you do a tutorial.
Oh, what a feeling when we’re blasting on the ceiling!