First unveiled as a suspiciously Samus-shaded title at the Nintendo World Championships, Metroid Prime: Blast Ball was more recently revealed to be part of the upcoming Metroid Prime: Federation Force for 3DS. While the main multiplayer action of Federation Force wasn't on the show floor at this year's E3, we did get a chance to take Blast Ball's blend of shooting and sports for a roll, and had fun in spite of some clunky controls.
The rules of Blast Ball are simple: playing in teams of three, you'll suit up into a Metroid-style mech and - using a first-person perspective and a massive arm-mounted cannon - try to knock an enormous, electrified orb into the opposing team's goal. It plays very much like first-person football, though the deadliness of the ball makes for a very different style of sport - you'll need to keep it at bay with your blaster rather than your boot, since being hit with the ball will damage your suit. Take too much damage - from smacking into the ball or from enemy fire - and you'll need to wait to respawn, leaving your team a player down in the interim.
Movement is mapped to the Circle Pad, 'B' jumps and 'A' fires your cannon, either in rapid bursts with quick presses, or a charged shot if held down. Holding down 'R' allows you to strafe with the Circle Pad or fine-tune your aim with the gyroscope, while holding 'L' locks onto the ball, keeping it front and centre in your visor's Prime-style display.
Locking on is extremely helpful - we lost track of the enormous ball surprisingly quickly without it - but unfortunately, in our quick play session, the controls just didn't seem to match up to the mission at hand. The biggest issue is that while locked on to the ball, your mech's lateral movement is much slower than you'd expect, making it difficult to circle around to the angle you'd need to send the ball flying in the direction you'd like. We found it easier to let go of the lock, run downfield a bit, and then re-lock on, but that's a relatively clumsy process that cost us several chances, and the close-quartered court we played in didn't leave a lot of leeway for lock-ons on the run.
Even without aiming issues, it felt difficult to fire a shot that felt productive, rather than adding to the general chaos - a single shot (even a charged one) didn't seem to affect the trajectory of the ball very much, and with six people firing on the poor sphere at once it tended to be either stuck in the crossfire or rolling slowly down a side-wall. We were also surprised not to find a more traditional twin-stick-style setup, given the C-stick on the New 3DS demo units; having strafing and reticle control relegated to secondary shoulder button overlays made our mech feel just unwieldily enough that goal-scoring was a tricky proposition.
Still, perhaps precision and finesse were never going to be a strong suit of space soccer played by massive mechs, and in that context our time with Blast Ball still offered up plenty of chaotic fun. Even on the noisy show floor, our team was able to coordinate some basic strategy, with one player doing their best to act as a keeper while the other two charged forward, and though we won't claim we always knew what we were doing, landing the ball in the opposing net was a satisfying surprise every time. And thankfully, even when the controls frustrated, the absurdity of batting a ball around with a blaster remained fun throughout, especially with five other players laughing and cursing in equal measure to either side.
The demo also looked great, with a fun HUD - which cracks when you take too much damage! - smooth framerate and beautiful lighting effects on the ball and arena. The overall aesthetic is perhaps not as meaningfully Metroid as some might've hoped, and the character and mech models feel sadly generic, though there could be a very good reason for that; we'll have to see how Blast Ball fits into the full Federation Force package to be sure.
In fact, that might be a good attitude to adopt for the gameplay in general. While Blast Ball's controls were tricky to get to grips with for ball sports, for instance, we imagine they'd feel very smooth for more straightforward shooting, and we can see Blast Ball being an excellent diversion within the frame of a larger game; we anticipate that online play will be included, too, which is also welcome. What that larger game looks like remains to be seen beyond Treehouse demonstrations, but as a quick taste of the newest title in the Metroid universe, Blast Ball certainly shows promise.