With the glut of run-and-gun platformers on the NES, one could be forgiven for dismissing Metal Storm as just another game where you played as a robot blasting other robots. On the surface, that’s pretty much all it looked like. But Metal Storm was much more than a me-too shooter coasting on the coattails of quality titles like Mega Man and Contra.
First off, it had a really clever twist: By pressing up and jump players could reverse gravity, sending their character and a host of the game’s enemies flying up to the ceiling. This was more than just a gimmick too, as much of the gameplay revolved around careful gravity manipulation. Awkwardly placed enemies could be maneuvered into more advantageous positions, out-of-reach power-ups could be grabbed, and massive spike-pits could be cleared all with a well-timed reversal of gravity.
The level design, too, stepped up to accommodate the player’s added capabilities. While some of the levels were fairly standard run-right-and-shoot-stuff affairs, others were much more complex than those typically found in a shooter.
For instance, the second level consisted of a large maze that required a great deal of gravity-switching to navigate, including some wild midair reversals where the player reversed gravity at the lowest point of his jump to get an added bit of momentum. A later level took place on an elevator traveling through enemy-filled areas, forcing the player to constantly bounce back and forth between the floor and the ceiling to avoid being struck. One of the later bosses was a series of three square robots that rotated around a room. The walls, floor, and ceiling were all deadly to the touch, so the player needed to ride the robots even as he tried to destroy them. Of course, finishing one off at the wrong time could result in the player not having any place to stand, so the battle was as much about being clever as it was precision reflexes. Even today, decades later, these scenarios still come across as fresh.
And despite how pedestrian some of the screenshots may appear, Metal Storm was actually one of the better-looking games on the system. Though the player’s avatar is predominately an unfortunate shade of orange (contrasting sharply with mostly white and blue mech on the box), its run cycle is one of the smoothest seen in an NES title. A number of enemies also move with surprising grace for 8-bit sprites. There is even a decent amount of faux-parallax scrolling, giving many of the stages an impressive degree of depth.
It may have been essentially forgotten in the two decades since its release, but time has not dimmed the spark of quality in Metal Storm. “Innovation” is a word that gets thrown around a lot these days in the videogame industry, but if players want to see an instance of real innovation, all they need to do is take this game for a spin.