The Neo Geo. Just its very name evokes images of fantastically colourful beat-‘em-ups and chaotic, yet hugely entertaining shooters. Metal Slug is an iconic run ‘n’ gun series that has, come to define the system - both its virtues and its drawbacks.
Metal Slug was an anachronism when released in 1996. 3D games were taking over the arcades, which themselves were beginning a painful downward spiral into coin-pushers, claw grabbers and fruit machines. Here, going toe-to-toe with Virtua Fighter 3 and Sega Touring Car Championship, was a game firmly entrenched in two dimensions, and featuring an old-style gameplay coupled with a beautifully charming comic style. Metal Slug would come to refine the balance that arcade games so often sought to distil into pixelated form: instantly playable and attractive, tough enough to keep ‘em coming back for more, yet just about easy enough to prevent frustration. It’s a fine line that the series skirted on both sides.
While published by SNK, initially into its interchangeable MVS arcade system, and then into the Neo Geo home console, Metal Slug (subtitled Super Vehicle-001) was initially developed by Nazca Corporation, a branch of Irem that eventually became absorbed into SNK as the series developed. The 2D view, while praised and loved today as a retro-cool viewpoint that complements the gameplay perfectly, was nevertheless a clear case of necessity being the mother of invention. The Neo Geo system was essentially a 2D platform, although in the case of Metal Slug, 2D graphics that were on a scale never before seen.
As with many Japanese games, the developers behind the original Metal Slug were mysteriously name-checked in-game, although it’s known today that the game was chiefly designed by Kazuma Kujo, as part of a larger team. The original idea was to create a submarine-themed game, inspired by legendary shoot-‘em-ups such as R-Type and Gradius. One simple twist to tanks (the Metal Slugs of the title) and a switch of focus to on-foot combat, gave Metal Slug’s formula a heavy hint of another arcade classic, Contra. Set in the year 2028, an evil general is seeking control of the entire world, and has obtained control over the Metal Slug all-terrain tanks. Unable to tolerate this further, Captain Rossi and Lieutenant Roving of the Peregrine Falcon Strike Force have been sent in to recover and/or destroy the deadly tanks, as well as eliminate the copious rebel forces.
Playing solo or two characters, Metal Slug’s graphics are the first thing that draw your attention. Finely-drawn in a humorous,yet muscular style, the joy of its dynamic, frantic action couldn’t fail to entice gamers. Simple, precise, controls, an incongruous, yet effective combination of cartoon characters and realistic violence, plus a sheer overflow of excessive explosions and mayhem, all contributed to make Metal Slug an arcade and home console sensation. The numerous random (and ultimately irrelevant) animations only endeared the game further.
Sequels were inevitable and two years later, Metal Slug 2 appeared in arcades and on the Neo Geo. Like most follow-ups, it’s larger and offers more gameplay elements, such as new weapons and even more bizarre slug configurations (Camel Slug anyone?). The action is hugely upped too, with a platform-jumping escape from a giant metallic claw a particular highlight, although unfortunately the Neo Geo hardware often struggles to handle it all, resulting in some frustrating slowdown. The developers took note, however, and released Metal Slug X a year later. Basically what Metal Slug 2 should have been, X took a new, smoother engine and threw in Metal Slug 2’s gameplay, with a few added tweaks, most notably even more weapons with which to deal wanton death upon your enemies.
With the winning formula honed, Metal Slug 4 (2002) is another sleek entry in the series, albeit one not produced by the original team. Similar in tone to the first game, the focus is more on military opponents, meaning it’s a little more of a straightforward romp than the two previous games. However, there are still some mean bosses to challenge your dexterity and shooting skills, and while a little by-the-numbers, Metal Slug 4 is as explosive and fun as ever.
Game five in the main series, released a year later, includes a neat slide for the main characters, and three new slug tanks to jump into and have fun with. By now, the series was also appearing on the PlayStation 2, Xbox and PC, in addition to the arcades and Neo Geo.
And talking of the PlayStation 2, in 2006, Sony fans got both Metal Slug 6 and Metal Slug, the latter an ill-advised attempt to bring the series into 3D. Frankly, some games just work best in 2D, and as SNK found out, Metal Slug is one of them; while not exactly a terrible experience, Metal Slug’s move into 3D lumped it in with several thousand similar games on the PlayStation 2 – ok not that many, but it felt like it – and it suffered from that infernal malaise of many Nineties video games, dodgy camera issues.
Meanwhile, the sixth game itself also marked a momentous occasion as it became the first Metal Slug game not to appear on the Neo Geo console. Released in arcades and on the PlayStation 2, the former uses Sammy Corporation’s Atomiswave system as – finally! – the slowdown for which the series had become notorious is more-or-less eliminated. There’s also a welcome return (well, for most of us) of the rebel-Martian Alliance storyline, with piles of wacky opponents; however,Metal Slug 6 ramps up the difficulty to maddening levels, ensuring it’s certainly not a game for the light-hearted, despite a useful weapon-switching ability.
Just as Metal Slug 6 marked the end of the series on the Neo Geo console, so Metal Slug 7 marked the end of it in the arcades, and indeed on every format except for the Nintendo DS. But there’s no reason to be sad, because this is actually a very fine effort, retaining all the core gameplay that has endeared the series to fans since 1996, and also includes several value-busting bonuses. Harking back to the previous handheld game, Metal Slug Advance, there’s a mode that concentrates on prisoner rescue, a high-score attack and also a range of combat school missions (which had been appearing sporadically in the games right since the start). So far, it has been a suitable swansong; but who knows what lays in wait just past that ominous-looking cave…
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