Like Bionic Commando, Metal Storm is a game dating from the latter primordial soup days of the platformer which recklessly abandoned conventional wisdom about how the genre was supposed to work in favor of its own unique mechanics. Unlike Capcom, though, Tamsoft didn’t completely discard the fundamentals and start over nearly from scratch. The player’s M-308 Gunner? ran and jumped and fired a gun, not unlike Mega Man or Bill Rizer or any other 8-bit hero you care to name. What put the M-308 apart from its peers was the extra layer of empowerment added to its skill set: the ability to reverse gravity.
By pressing up plus jump—or down plus jump while running along the ceiling—the player is able to reverse the polarity of the M-308’s gravity. Actually, that’s not entirely true. Were it simply the M-308 being affected, it would be the only one drawn to the opposite side of the horizon by this maneuver. But the environment is affected as well, and platforms will swing as gravity changes in order to create pathways or, alternately, obstructions. Enemies are affected, too: Some flip along with the M-308, while others react to these polar changes in different ways. For instance, a certain beam cannon towards the middle of the game creates a deadly barrier when gravity is reversed, forcing the player to revert to normal orientation. This causes the beam barrier to drop, but it also puts the M-308 directly in the line of a stream of enemy mechs.
Details like these serve as the dividing line between “clever” and “classic,” and Metal Storm comes down squarely in the latter category. The world has no shortage of games with clever control gimmicks and inventive mechanics, but the ones that make proper use of those elements are in much shorter supply. Metal Storm doesn’t simply throw a neat idea into the mix—its core conceit is blended thoroughly into that mix, becoming an integral ingredient. Without the ability to reverse gravity, Metal Storm would be a solid, unremarkable platform-based shooter, one of dozens to pop up in the late ’80s and early ’90s. But the total integration of that feature turns it into a mind-bending test of reflexes, coordination, and planning.
The basic rules of Metal Storm should be immediately accessible to anyone who’s played an NES action game. You run left to right, you jump, you take down targets while avoiding enemy fire. These rules hold true for when gravity is reversed as well, with the primary different being that the M-308 is upside-down and leaps in a downward parabola. The challenge of the game rests in knowing when to reverse gravity, and in being able to execute that action with split-second timing. As for true expert play? That exists in suspension between the two poles, in being able to manipulate the game physics, in learning to use momentum and gravitic transitions with a light, deft touch.
In some senses, Metal Storm hearkens back to previous generations of games with its fragile hero and looping stage design. One hit and the M-308 Gunner is done for, unless you’re lucky enough to have come across a barrier power-up (which allows you to shrug off a single hit) or a shield (a bar of indestructible energy that can be aimed independently in any direction). This fragile mech makes its way through a world that defies logic and physics, with many stages offering endless scrolling up or down. Certain areas allow you to can stand above an enemy and fire upward, and your stream of bullets will wrap around the screen to hit from below.
Rather than come off as a dated throwback to primitive early arcade games, though, this Möebius strip effect ties back into the game’s basic premise. The challenge offered by the looping corridors of the enemy stronghold is in dealing with non-standard spatial logic in addition to the daunting need to juggle two different horizontal orientations. The need to manage the M-308’s gravity reversals is demanding on its own, but it becomes even trickier when your flips send you careening into pockets of corridors that initially seem inaccessible, into the path of seemingly harmless enemies, and even to the reverse side of the platform you’re currently standing on.
To the developers’ credit, they never really try to pass off Metal Storm’s world as realistic. Rather, they offer up a world that doesn’t obey conventional rules but is nevertheless internally consistent. Even the graphics play a role here, and the game’s sophisticated parallax scrolling effects help cement a sense of unreality; where parallax in every other game I’ve played is employed to create an illusion of depth and multi-layered environments, Metal Storm’s second level uses a parallax layer that disorient by scrolling vertically as the rest of the screen moves horizontally. It makes no logical sense, but it nevertheless works in the context of the game.
All of these elements add up to make Metal Storm a wonderfully, memorably unique creation. Certainly it wasn’t the first game to play with the idea of gravity. It was released contemporaneously with Mega Man 5, whose Gravity Man yielded up the power to flip gravity as well. A year or two before that, the arcade version of Strider featured a dizzying zero-gravity boss fight that challenged players to manage both positioning and momentum. Yet even with these arguable precedents, Metal Storm stood apart for the way its gravity mechanics were so thoroughly integrated into the action, so cleverly explored throughout the levels, and so subtly played with in the game’s peripheral elements.
For that matter, Metal Storm still stands apart; few games have properly explored or expanded on its ideas over the years. Maybe it’s too difficult to design a game that plays with space in unconventional ways, or perhaps developers worry their sales would suffer a crib death if they properly explored these mechanics to their full potential. Metroid and Metal Storm fans alike remain haunted by the fascinating early footage of Metroid Fusion which depicted Samus Aran cheerfully defying gravity, running along ceilings and cornering doorways while hugging the walls.
It’s only the very recent VVVVV, developed by Terry Cavanagh, that offers a true successor. Cavanagh acknowledges Tamsoft’s influence, referring to Metal Storm as “the second best gravity-flipping game after VVVVV.” Who knows why one of the NES’s most innovative titles has gone down as one of its most underappreciated as well, but VVVVV makes a damn fine 20th anniversary present. With luck, the success of Cavanagh’s critical darling will inspire more gamers to explore its roots and discover one of the most inventive works of the 8-bit era.
Based on: The heartfelt belief that the whole world is totally topsy-turvy, and that this is in fact awesome.