Insomnia | Reviews

Metal Slug


By Joshua Farrelly / August 13, 2008

This review was originally published on SegaFans.

Upon its release in ’96 Metal Slug was immediately celebrated for its hectic action and richly detailed graphics work, and also for bringing some welcome diversity to the Neo Geo library. Over a decade later, it continues to be one of the most popular arcade games ever (as evidenced by the number of ROM downloads, among other things), having endeared itself to the hardcore and mainstream alike -- a triumph for any game so founded on skill- and score-based play. Of course popularity testifies nothing to a sufficient degree of appreciation of an arcade game among its fans (in part due to a widespread lack of understanding of the arcade philosophy), but it goes to show that Nazca have created one hell of a shiny red ball here. And those willing (and able) to delve deeper, will find nothing less than a masterpiece of arcade design and action shooting.

It shouldn't come as a surprise then that the developers are no strangers to the genre. Under Irem, the team's previous efforts included Gunforce (1991), Kaitei Daisensou (1993) and Geo Storm (1994), and were also reportedly involved in an earlier SNK action shooter, Cyber Lip (1990). Gunforce and Geo Storm in particular can be seen as progenitors to the uniquely methodical brand of action shooting that Metal Slug would eventually end up embodying. Gunforce itself played similarly to Contra, but with a number of factors limiting the pacing in favor of careful planning (such as the speed disparity between the player and projectiles, a lack of visual cues for most enemy shots, and more complex enemy and stage designs). Also notable was the large number of vehicles and other objects your character could seize for an added offensive or mobility advantage. Three years later Geo Storm would step up the pyrotechnics to such excessive levels that you were forced to be even more observant, as it would usually be that one bullet sneaking through an explosion that got you. It featured scoring mechanics unusually innovative for the subgenre (something the horizontally-oriented games always seemed to lack), like rescuing hostages and collecting items for point multipliers during a performance assessment after every stage. Metal Slug continued to build on many of these elements, revising when necessary (bullet visibility, for instance), to deliver something significantly evolved from the model inherited from Konami, though it sadly arrived far too late on the arcade scene to have its deserved effect.

One of the primary developments was giving the player more attack options. You begin simply enough with an unlimited pistol that can be fired in four directions (pressing diagonally upwards causes you to shoot upwards while running, rather than shooting diagonally), and a small supply of stick grenades. These obviously have a shorter, arched trajectory and will roll forward (skipping a tier when possible) until they expend their fuse or upon hitting an enemy, leaving a tall explosion also capable of causing damage. By pressing the shot button in close quarters you draw a knife which works similarly to the martial arts attacks in Shinobi (1987), but with the added function of conserving weapon power-ups (and indeed all ammunition will need to be managed interdependently, according to the motivating factor in your run). These can be acquired either from crates, enemy soldiers marked by tan fatigues, or from P.O.W.s, as a reward for rescuing them (they reveal the power-ups from behind a pair of boxers like a magic trick; hopefully this isn't suggestive of the former location of the smuggled items). Weapons include the heavy machine gun, rocket launcher, shotgun and flame shot, each with typical range, rate, and power attributes. It's worth noting that the heavy machine gun has a special property that allows it to shoot a diagonal spread of bullets by switching between directions, for maximum space coverage.

The most powerful weapon at your disposal though is the titular mobile tank (inspired, by the way, by a Masamune Shirow creation). Where Gunforce and Geo Storm gave you an assortment of specialized vehicles, Metal Slug gives you a single versatile tank, that if anything is more agile than our heroes Marco and Tarma (after a little adjusting to the weighted movement, that is). Its standard gun is a fully rotatable turret resembling the heavy machine gun, but with a more sporadic aim. Your bomb attack turns into a mid-range armor-piercing shell fired from the stubby cannon, or into grenades while crouching. Yep, the tank can crouch and crawl (the top half is sort of sucked into the bottom), and jump even, just like the characters. And if you want, you can forget the projectiles and simply crush enemies underneath its toothy treads.

There are a couple of extra techniques available in the Metal Slug, one being a self-destruction maneuver with a shred of utility, the other an ejection from the tank, but with a few seconds of invulnerability that can save you a life or allow you to safely set up a position. In addition to this defensive advantage, the Metal Slug can take a few hits before blowing up and ejection becomes compulsory.

The other half of the game's system, the environments and situations themselves, is no less exceptional. Countless opportunities to explore all the fancy mechanics are provided through excellent stage layouts and enemy arrangements, quite aside from the fact that each stage represents some of the finest pixel paintings and set-pieces in arcade history (or at least until the first couple of sequels). Enemy variety is equally impressive, although represented by identical middle-aged and pot-bellied men (this isn't a contention; it very much adds to the comedy and collectively lends them more personality then our protagonists even!) Throughout the game they will be wielding pistols, knives, grenades, riot shields, bazookas, machetes, missiles, rockets, firecrackers, and uh, snowballs, and piloting planes, motorcycles, trucks, armored carriers, helicopters, boats, and multiple tanks.

Metal Slug also benefits from one of the more elaborate scoring systems seen in the subgenre: a combination of traditional checkpoint milking and item bonuses, along with various point multipliers and performance bonuses. In fact, a pretty drastic accommodation is required from players who attempt the game at the highest level. For starters, the preferred weapon becomes the knife in most cases, as it offers three times the point value of shooting. This alone induces a host of new strategies. And because each shot has the same value, the most powerful weapons lose their desirability as well. Inside the Metal Slug, adeptness with the cannon is crucial. A well-placed shot against a soldier just outside the center of impact can net you a massive 10x multiplier, or 12x against vehicles (no precision necessary, but hit points will need to be learned for effectiveness here).

After each stage you are awarded additional points based on a couple of criteria. For every rescued hostage in your counter you are given 1000 points. Besides the ones in plain view (which mostly serve as ammo refills), there are tons of hostages in obscured locations throughout the stages, usually trading gifts of power-ups for item bonuses. Clearing a stage with an appropriate amount of hostages will trigger the "Great!" bonus worth 100k, and because your hostage counter resets after a death, this acts as a "no-miss" reward of sorts. You could die and still get the bonus, but even then it will only shift your losses elsewhere, due to an interesting glitch exploit that is absolutely necessary for high-scoring runs, easily accounting for half of your total score if optimized, or somewhere near that. Perhaps it's best to leave it at that. Lastly, survival of the Metal Slug will add 10k to your bonus, but this should be part of the plan already (unless speed is the motivation), since bosses are generally designed with the vehicle in mind (especially its eject function), to relieve some of the duress of certain routines.

On the subject of item bonuses, there are some very imaginative uses of them in this game. The most lucrative of treasures are placed into platform puzzles; some food items can spoil to a diminished value; coins can be "comboed" for exponential bonuses, and so on. My favorite are the boxer shorts hung out to dry in the fifth stage. After you destroy a building, they will dip down just enough for you to reach them with a jump, before getting carried off by the wind.

Then there is the matter of time. With so many re-spawn areas and checkpoints to employ, the game can take well in excess of an hour to complete. I've noticed this to be somewhat controversial, usually among players who are accustomed to the typically shorter duration of forced-scrolling shooters. Really, an arcade game of this length is nothing new (old as the checkpoint itself, at least). Where Metal Slug improves the tradition is in scoring mechanics that appreciate activity more than camping, which also fits nicely into the risk/reward system.

Alas, Metal Slug was created during the declining prominence of its form (both as an arcade game and as an action shooter), yet it had a measurable impact on what was still to come, possibly energizing it to an extent. Demon Front and Dolphin Blue are the most notable and direct examples, and although I would consider them more rightful heirs than some of the officially licensed doujin games SNK Playmore has put out, they do not really rise above the level of imitation. Surely if the old masters of the arcade hadn't shifted their sights elsewhere, even they would've had a tough time matching the fully accomplished atmosphere and overall intensity found here -- let alone improving them or devising more challenging scenarios. There is something inimitable about this work, with obvious attribution to the talent of the graphic artists, but above all in mechanics honed through long experience in the old Irem school of game design. Luckily for us, this is where the sequel comes in.