By the nineties, PC gaming companies such as Sierra, LucasArts, and Origin Systems took notice of the fact that almost anything released on the newly revitalized console market easily sold thousands, sometimes millions, of copies. The biggest appeal consoles had was their accessibility; this was an age when operating a personal computer required a degree of expertise, and knowledge wasn’t as widely shared. Even the simple task of loading a game involved typing multiple command lines in DOS – far more complicated than the act of placing a cartridge into the slot of a gaming console and pressing the power button. Naturally, these developers sought to capitalize on this blooming market. A select few of them were able to make the conversion successfully such as ICOM with their MacVenture NES ports, but quite of a lot of them ended up borderline unplayable such as King’s Quest for the Sega Master System. The primary reason this transition proved tricky was because PC and console games were designed with entirely different user interfaces in mind. After all, if a game required a keyboard, recreating the interface on a console where players only had four buttons and a control pad was a nearly insurmountable task.
Around this time, Origin Systems attempted to market their pioneering Ultima series of computer RPGs to a larger demographic. Although their NES interpretation of the series’ fourth installment is somewhat regarded in select circles, this plan came to a halt in the 16-bit era with their SNES ports of Ultima VI and Ultima VII. The former unsuccessfully tried to have the controller emulate the complex item management and combat interface present in the original version while the latter fell victim to Nintendo’s strict censorship policies at the time, becoming an incomprehensible mess in the process. Undeterred by these setbacks, Origin Systems decided to try their hand at a then-booming genre tailor-made for gaming consoles: the platformer. In 1994, Metal Morph, the effort created from this newfound ambition was released.
Analyzing the Experience
It is the year 2214. Scientists from the planet Earth have created the Hypergate, a portal which allows interdimensional travel, and are facing a first contact scenario. However, a normal human using the portal would be subjected to an overwhelming strain that would ensure their demise. The only one capable of traversing dimensions is Metallion, a being made of living metal just like his spaceship. He successfully makes it to the other side of the Hypergate to meet the alien committee only to promptly get captured by them. The aliens seek to replicate Metallion’s morphing ability so they too may utilize the portal and invade Earth. Luckily, before our hero can get experimented on, he escapes by turning himself into liquid metal and flowing through a grate on the floor. Now it is up to him to repair his sabotaged spaceship by collecting all of the stolen morph pods and warn the Earthlings of the aliens’ ill intentions.
On the surface, Metal Morph would appear to be your typical platforming game. These portions are somewhat reminiscent of Konami’s Contra series in that your primary means of defending yourself is a gun capable of shooting different projectiles depending on which power-ups you collect. Unlike Contra, there’s a bit more of an emphasis on exploration, as the goal of these sections is to scour the level for a morph pod that will allow the protagonist’s spaceship to change its shape. The protagonist can morph into a living metal, allowing him to flow down drainpipes and access different sections of the level. When he is in this form, he cannot be harmed by most enemies or hazards.
After clearing the first level, you quickly learn that there is another distinct face to the gameplay. For the next stage, Metal Morph becomes a three-dimensional rail shooter. For these sections, the goal of this game is to destroy all of the aliens’ spaceships. Occasionally, you’ll face off against a larger spacecraft that can only be damaged by exploiting its weak points: the ports from which enemy reinforcements emerge. With each morph pod acquired, your own ship will be able to take on a new form – usually one that’s more powerful than the last. Some forms have a superior rate of fire while others can lock onto enemies or can fire missiles for a better damage spread upon impact. After this, the game alternates between these two genres until you reach the end.
When playing this game, I was reminded of the classic SNES game, ActRaiser. Part of what made that game so unique was how it blended two different genres together into one neat package. Half of the experience was a side-scrolling, hack-and-slash game while the other had you build a thriving community from the ground up. To be completely fair, it wasn’t exactly the best platforming game with its somewhat stiff controls and as a city-building simulator, it largely paled in comparison to SimCity in terms of depth. What made that game work so well was how seamless the two styles complemented each other, creating something far greater than the sum of its parts. Considering how Metal Morph similarly melds two entirely different gameplay styles into a single experience, one might wonder how it would fare against ActRaiser and other titles that partook in this out-of-the-box genre fusion. The answer is that the two cannot and should not be compared, for Metal Morph is a complete mess from top to bottom.
In the platforming sections, the enemies have overwhelming advantage over you. Although you can dodge their attacks by reverting to your liquid metal form or by ducking, they tend to shoot as soon as you’re in their line of sight. Because their bullets are both fast and tough to spot, chances are, by the time you see it heading for you, it’s too late to dodge them. What’s worse is that at any time on certain levels, you can get attacked by a sentry robot which flies onto the screen out of nowhere. Unless you know about them in advance, your only hope is that they miss or otherwise fail to get a shot off. Speaking of which, a particularly unfair aspect about this game is how enemies can shoot at you even when you can’t see them while your own bullets disappear as soon as they reach the edge of the screen. This makes dealing with enemies on a higher level than you an exercise in frustration because the minute they leave the screen, they are practically invincible.
Moreover, if you try to shoot enemies while jumping, you’ll discover the bullets go in a random direction when doing so. This is because, in a move likely inspired by Contra, when your character jumps, he does an impressive flip. What sets these games apart is that in Metal Morph, the direction of his shots depends on which frame of animation of the jump is in when you press the fire button. At the end of the flip, he falls straight down for the rest of his decent, but at this point, you can only aim straight ahead of you. This is something that needs to be seen to be believed. The ability to reliably shoot while airborne is concept that has existed since platformers became popular in the mid-eighties. That Metal Morph doesn’t even grasp this basic concept demonstrates just how behind the times it was despite having a superior graphical presentation to anything from the 8-bit era.
None of this would be so bad if you had a life meter, but despite having a body that can survive harsh environments, it takes only one shot to kill the protagonist. This combined with the enemies’ deadly accuracy means that the average person will likely die within the first minute of gameplay. It is then that they would discover another horrifying facet about this game. Upon death, you are given the traditional arcade countdown that ends the game if you let it reach zero. That’s right – you only get a single life per continue. I find myself perplexed at this decision even from a semantical standpoint. Because the protagonist respawns in the same place he died, all this does is serve to waste the player’s time, as they have to press a button to continue instead of having it be an automatic function.
Adding this game’s growing list of problems is that the weapons system leaves a lot to be desired. To start with, each weapon other than the standard shot has limited ammunition. This wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem, but there is no way to manually switch weapons. The only way to do so is to deplete the weapon you’re currently using and hope it changes to the desired one. To be fair, the most effective ones tend to be prioritized first, but it’s still a bad design choice – especially because it means you can’t save the best weapons for when you really need them. What doesn’t help is that there is no ammunition counter. Coupled with your ability to hold more than one weapon at a time, it is amazingly difficult to keep in track of not only how many rounds you have left, but which shots you currently possess.
Perhaps the biggest strike this game has against it is its appalling level design. This game prominently features force fields that prevent you from accessing certain sections of the level. By using switches, you can deactivate them, allowing you to pass. The first problem is that you can’t tell what position they’re in simply by looking at them; it’s not as though they light up when on or turn different colors to indicate their status. This means the only way to know which ones you’ve used is to simply memorize their location, which becomes tedious when there are numerous scattered throughout the level. I also remember one level in which they blended into the background, leaving me to wander back and forth until I pressed up accidentally and discovered their existence. I would say the worst thing about them is how most of the time when you use one, you’ll initially have no idea what it did. The only way to find out is to use a switch and return to a force field in a different section of the level, hoping that it was right one. You know a game isn’t exactly a quality title when the developers mess up something as simple as on/off switches.
It’s not just the developers’ lack of knowledge regarding electrical appliances that plagues the level design, however. For example, in the above screenshot, you would think it goes without saying that the protagonist is facing a wall and consequently cannot pass it. Such an inference is understandable, but entirely false. Despite clearly being attached to the ground he’s standing on, the wall is part of the foreground, and is not a real obstacle. Granted, this specific problem is mostly exclusive to a single level, but there are so many subtle moments like this scattered throughout the rest of the game. You’ll often find yourself not knowing where to go, you won’t make jumps you think you could make, and there are many instances where you have to navigate conveyor belts but you can’t even tell what direction they’re moving in at first glance. All of these seemingly minor transgressions add up, obliterating any semblance of enjoyment this game may have had.
After firmly establishing just how awful the platforming portions are, one may wonder if the rail shooter sections are any better. To put this game in context, Nintendo’s Star Fox franchise had debuted a year before, showcasing the potential of the SNES’s graphical capabilities. Metal Morph shows nowhere near the same polish, and in practice, I am reminded of Microcosm, an FMV game from 1993 that had an ambitious marketing campaign, but was ultimately released to a tepid response from the few people who were even able to get it to run on their computers. In that game, the angle made it hard to tell when enemies were shooting at you, especially if both ships were in the center of the screen. Much of the challenge Microcosm presented could be rendered trivial by darting around the screen while not shooting, as progress was made by surviving to the end of the level rather than actually fighting the enemies. Needless to say, this made for a boring experience because you would either die all the time trying to engage the enemy or just push random directions until you reached a boss fight. Some people have managed to complete this game without even looking at the screen for most of their playthrough.
That description can be used to sum up the rail shooter segments in Metal Morph as well, but there are two main differences. To begin with, shooting the alien spacecraft is not optional; the level will not progress until you’ve eradicated them all. Furthermore, one hit is enough to destroy your spaceship; it doesn’t matter how many morph pods you possess. One of the few good things one could say about Microcosm is that the ship could take more than one hit; Metal Morph doesn’t even have that going for it.
These sections often feature extremely busy graphics where it’s difficult to gauge where the enemy shots are coming from, and even the task of returning fire is a daunting one. This inability to reliably shoot enemies comes to a head during boss fights where you face off against alien space stations. During these encounters, you have to shoot the bays the enemy ships are flying out of as they’re opening. To do this, you have to ideally remain still and concentrate your fire. Keeping in mind that this is a game where you can only take one hit and start with only five continues with one life each, it doesn’t take long to figure out why this is a bad idea. It gets worse; every time you destroy one of the station’s weak points, it begins to swerve, making it even more difficult to get a hit. If that wasn’t enough, there’s no good visual cue that indicates whether your shots are actually connecting. The bosses don’t flash nor do they have a life meter to indicate how close they are to destruction. You could be facing off against a boss for several tedious minutes unaware that you’re not making any progress. I will admit that as a 3D rail shooter, it fares slightly better than as a gun-and-run platformer, but that is absolutely nothing to be proud of when one takes into account the quality of the latter.
Finally, what’s your reward for getting through all this? You discover that there was a traitor among your ranks who sold the secret of metal morphing to the aliens, thus allowing them to use the Hypergate. The player suffered through this travesty of a game and died an innumerable amount of cheap deaths only to be informed that it was all for naught. Though this isn’t a story-heavy game, this succeeds in adding insult to injury. On top of all that, the designers had the nerve to order whoever cleared the game to play through it again.
Drawing a Conclusion
Obscure games are a bit of a gamble. Sometimes you’ll discover an underrated gem lost to the sands of time due to any number of reasons such as having been marketed incompetently or lacking mainstream appeal despite, or perhaps even because of, its novel premise. In other instances, you learn some obscure titles are that way for a well-deserved reason. In the case of Metal Morph, it’s not difficult to see why it never caught on despite a big-name developer being behind its creation, as it is easily one of the worst games of the nineties. There is no reason why anyone should ever play it. If you’re looking for a good gun-and-run game, try Contra, Turrican, or Gunstar Heroes. Those seeking a stellar 3D rail shooter would have a lot more fun with Star Fox or Sin & Punishment. Chances are great that anyone reading this review has experienced a game far superior in every way to anything Metal Morph tries to do in addition to the ones I just mentioned.
Although I will say it was ambitious how the creators wanted to treat players to an experience derived from two entirely different genres, that means nothing if the execution of both of them is sloppy. In addition, these two styles have almost no synergy between them, making it feel as though the development team was working on two entirely different projects, but cobbled them together into a grotesque amalgamation once they reached the early beta phase. One of the few saving graces of this game is that you don’t necessarily have to start over from the beginning if you lose all of your continues because the options menu includes a level select feature. Don’t think for a second that makes up for the game’s shortcomings, though; it would be like saying poorly written books aren’t so bad because you can skip to the last page. When the only fun you have with a game is turning it off and abandoning it for good, you know you just played something truly abominable.
Final Score: 1/10