The release of the Nintendo DS is notable for more than just the introduction of the first modern dual-screen portable handheld gaming system. The November 2004 release marked the first time that Nintendo had launched a new piece of hardware in North America before Japan and included the first Nintendo hardware pack-in game since the Virtual Boy's launch with Mario's Virtual Tennis in 1995. Back in days of yore the practice of including a new game with a piece of gaming hardware was common, but rising costs and a realization on the part of the companies that consumers would gladly fork over $50 in addition to the price of new hardware for the next installment of Super Mario Bros. or Sonic the Hedgehog put an end to the tradition. With Nintendo eager to establish a "third pillar" to their gaming empire and a desire to show off their newest gadget's abilities, the company decided to include a playable demo of an upcoming game with each Nintendo DS sold. This demo is a scaled-down time-limited version of the May 2005 release Metroid Prime Hunters and is fittingly titled Metroid Prime Hunters: First Hunt.

First Hunt is based on its Nintendo GameCube big brothers, Metroid Prime and Metroid Prime 2: Echoes, but lacks the classic Metroid exploration and adventuring aspects that make the series so memorable. Instead it is a pure first person shooter, challenging players to adapt to the Nintendo DS's touch screen capabilities while blasting Geemers, Mocktroids, and Metroids. The demo includes three similar yet distinct modes of play for one player: Regulator, Survivor, and Morph Ball. The Regulator mode most resembles Metroid Prime in that heroine Samus Aran must progress through a series of rooms while destroying all of the enemies that she encounters. However, there are no branching paths or hidden secrets; it's all straight-forward run-and-blast with some minor platform hopping and morph ball mazes thrown in for kicks. This mode automatically ends after ten minutes have elapsed, forcing players to keep moving if they wish to finish on time. Survivor mode challenges players to blast a neverending wave of Metroids; the game is over once Samus is out of energy. The Morph Ball mode eschews running and shooting, instead allowing players to race through a maze in morph ball mode while collecting special icons. This mode ends when time expires. Earning the high score on all three modes unlocks a special video trailer for the full version of the game.

The single player modes are rather basic and uninspired, showing just how much more needs to be done before Metroid Prime Hunters is released next year. What will most likely occupy fans of the Metroid series until then is the wireless multiplayer mode found in the demo. Up to four players can battle it out in three different battle arenas (provided that each player has a Nintendo DS and is in transmission range). These arenas - Trooper Module, Assault Cradle, and Ancient Vestige - are based on Metroid Prime environments and give another taste of the action to come next year.

First Hunt includes several different control modes, allowing players to choose which method of controlling Samus Aran is best. The first version of this demo that was displayed at the Electronic Entertainment Expo tradeshow in May 2004 forced players to move Samus forward and backward with the control pad while turning and shooting by tapping the stylus on the Nintendo DS's touch screen. By the time First Hunt was in the hands of the average gamer, however, additional control modes had been included. Players can choose to stylus-tap if they really want to do so, but now the preferred play mode includes using the Nintendo DS's thumb strap to drag one's thumb along the touch screen as one would drag a mouse on a mouse pad while playing a standard PC first-person-shooter game. Players who would rather just skip the touch screen altoghether can use the control pad and action buttons to maneuver Samus, but doing so prevents players from being able to quickly and accurately line up shots. There's even various mirrored control modes for left-handed players, ensuring that nobody is left out of the fun. The actual position of the action changes depending on the chosen control mode, but most players will experience the action on the top screen and will see the map and various option on the bottom screen.

Translating the Metroid Prime experience to a handheld gaming system can't be the easiest thing to do, and yet it looks like Nintendo is on its way to producing another classic video game. There are some issues that need to be fixed in First Hunt and some visuals that could stand to be improved, and it is unknown how long Nintendo will package First Hunt with the Nintendo DS or even if they will make it available in other territories as time goes by, but on the whole the demo is fun to play around with for a while and, maybe best of all, it's free.


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