The year was 2004. The Metroid series had been brought roaring back to relevance a couple years prior with the excellent Metroid Prime, and its sequel was due out soon. At E3, Nintendo opted to unveil its newest platform, a bizarre device that featured two screens. Many were skeptical as to whether or not the device would be successful, but fans were absolutely blown away when they were shown footage of a Metroid Prime game running on the hardware.
Now, that's all a distant memory, and we can finally experience Metroid Prime: Hunters on the Wii U Virtual Console. The question is: has it held up over all those years? Yes and no. Metroid Prime Hunters is certainly worthy of its name, but the passage of time hasn't been entirely kind.
The story of Hunters is pitched as a "side-story" to the main Prime arc, something that can exist as a standalone and ultimately inconsequential experience. The Galactic Federation has received a telepathic message emanating from the Alimbic Cluster in the Tetra Galaxy, which says that the key to "ultimate power" lies somewhere within the cluster. Samus is dispatched by the Federation to investigate, and to either acquire or destroy whatever the ultimate power is. She's not alone, though, as six other bounty hunters are all after it for their own personal reasons. Thus, the race is on.
As is typical of the Prime games, you can have as much or as little story as you like along the way via scanning. While exploring the four different maps you can find bits of lore and information on certain objects, which will fill out your logbook further and reveal more about the mysterious Alimbic civilization. The Alimbic essentially fulfill the role of the Chozo in past games, being a fallen, highly advanced race that died sealing away a great evil. The story isn't nearly as interesting or well-written as the lore of the core Prime games, but it does a good job of setting the atmosphere.
Gameplay, while still focused on exploration, ultimately takes a more linear approach to things due to how the hardware limited the scope of what could be done with the campaign. Eight Octoliths must be collected to obtain the ultimate power, with three Alimbic Artifacts required to unlock the portals to each one. This can make proceedings feel dangerously close to one massive fetch quest, but at least you're given the option to freely jump between the different environments in search of artifacts for another Octolith at any time.
Environment design is reminiscent of that of the main Prime games, but they have a tendency to be laid out in a much simpler manner. No doubt this was done to account for the technical limitations of the DS, but it can feel a bit claustrophobic at times. Additionally, the presence of portals essentially negates the map system in places, as you're given no cues which portal matches up with which, and this can make it easy to get lost. Moments like this can get frustrating when you find yourself moving in circles, but they're thankfully not so prevalent as to ruin the game.
Exploration is still present and accounted for, but it's much more subverted due to the simpler levels. There are not as many clever puzzles, and most upgrades aren't too far off the beaten path, but there's still plenty to find if you're willing to look. The biggest disappointment is that the items you find along the way are just different beam weapons. There are no suit upgrades nor a grappling beam here, just different weapons that also allow you to open new doors. It's understandable that Samus' toolset isn't as deep on a portable experience, but you may find yourself slightly miffed at the lack of diverse items.
The controls certainly aren't broken, but come across as feeling gimmicky and imprecise. There's no lock on feature whatsoever, and Samus' cannon is controlled by the stylus. Tapping L fires the cannon, while double tapping the screen (or hitting a face button with your pinky) makes Samus jump. It works just fine when shooting switches and slow enemies, but immediately takes a turn for the worse when quicker enemies or bosses are introduced. At any point you may run into a Guardian or one of the other Hunters, all of which will actively dart every which way whilst shooting with uncanny accuracy.
Tracking them with the touch screen can be difficult, then, due to how sensitive it is to input. Moving the stylus a fraction in any direction results in a slightly disproportionate motion on Samus' part, which makes precise aiming difficult, particularly against enemies that are in constant, erratic motion. It works well enough to be playable, and the problem can be assuaged somewhat by assigning the bottom screen to the whole GamePad and the top screen on the TV, but this control scheme feels inferior to that of the other Prime games.
Presentation-wise, you'd be hard-pressed to find better on the DS. These graphics were a real treat back in the day, and they still stand the test of time. The fully 3D environments hold up pretty well, though they tend to have a somewhat monochromatic look due to each world having its own distinct theme. Naturally, models are fairly low-poly and textures are muddy, but it all looks fine in motion. Make no mistake, the "ruined" aesthetic of the Prime games is properly recreated here; the little details all add up to create an effective atmosphere. The soundtrack also does its job of providing a moody backdrop to the action, though none of it sticks out as being particularly memorable.
For this Virtual Console release multiplayer has been significantly pared back, something that may come as a disappointment to many. There's no way to do local or online multiplayer with people, though you can still continue playing with bots if you choose. When the bots are turned up to max difficulty it can almost pass as being an online match, but it's not quite the same. It's pretty cool getting to try out the different Hunters and see how their playstyles work, but the multiplayer has unfortunately become the sort of thing you'll try once or twice and then never return to.
All told, Metroid Prime Hunters is a fairly middling experience. Especially when played on a Wii U, Hunters reeks of a game that was held back by the limitations of the technology it was made for, despite some merits. Fans of Metroid Prime will no doubt still find plenty to love here, as the single player campaign does an excellent job of approximating the main series' gameplay. However, it's difficult to recommend Hunters to series newcomers when all three of the core games can be bought in a definitive package for a little bit more on the same console. If you enjoyed the other Prime games you'll still likely be relatively pleased with what you're getting here, but this is easily the most skippable entry in the series.