Presented by Marurun
Note from racketboy: we don’t publish reviews too often here anymore (or should we?), but when asked for a recommendation for our soon-to-be-published Retro Gaming Gift Guide, he sent me this full-length review. How nice of him! Anyway, hope you find it useful 🙂
The most recent console generation has been a boon for retro-gamers. Between the Super Nintendo rehashes on the Gameboy Advance and Nintendo DS and the Xbox Live Arcade and Wii Virtual Console gamers have every opportunity to re-live, or in the case of the younger gamers re-invent, gaming history. SNK Playmore is one of the companies which, for a brief time at least, was leading the retro charge. They released several excellent collections across multiple platforms, including the Samurai Shodown Anthology, the Kind of Fighters Orochi Saga, and the much lauded Metal Slug Anthology. Metal Slug Anthology has been out for a while for the Playstation 2, Playstation Portable, and Wii, and is quite affordable, under $13 via Amazon.com or eBay. It’s a great gift for the retro-gamer in your household, especially if they’re fans of Contra and run-n-guns in general. Before we go into why, let’s look at a little Metal Slug lore.
Metal Slug has quite a reputation with retro-gamers, and the reasons are many. Let’s start with the developers. Nazca, Metal Slug’s original developer, was formed by a number of ex-Irem staffers. Irem, creator of Moon Patrol, Ninja Spirit, and the legendary R-Type, hit a rough patch in the 90’s, and when some of the staffers jumped ship they founded Nazca Corporation. One of Nazca’s first titles was the run-n-gun Metal Slug for the Neo Geo. Metal Slug owes its visual style to the later generation of Irem titles, confirming its fine heritage, but where Irem was losing its way and tarnishing the legend, Nazca was forging ahead. Nazca only developed the first 3 Metal Slug games, considered by many to be the best of the series, but the later games still retained much of the magic. The Metal Slug series lives on today, in Metal Slug 7 and Metal Slug XX.
Konami’s Contra established the classic run-n-gun formula: two dudes, some running and jumping, a number of awesome weapons, more baddies to shoot than you can shake a stick at (hence the guns), and fantastic bosses and sub-bosses. Treasure advanced the Contra model with Gunstar Heroes by incorporating hand to hand combat, adding weapon combinations, and adding dozens of sub-bosses and boss-like enemy encounters. Aside from these defining stand-outs, the genre really never captured the gaming public’s eye and few later titles outside of Konami’s own sequels to Contra could successfully capture the magic. Nazca set out to change that. The original Metal Slug was released on the Neo Geo in 1996 and it took arcades by storm. It took the 2-player run-n-gun model and mixed it with fantastic animation, richly detailed graphics, and an exaggerated sense of humor. Nazca threw limited special weapon ammo, grenades, and drive-able vehicles to the mix. In fact, the title of the game, Metal Slug, comes from the tank vehicle most often encountered in the game.
The Metal Slug series is well-regarded for its graphics and animation. The sprites have a hand-drawn quality and the Neo Geo’s massive cartridge memory was clearly exploited for animation. The characters move fluidly and have funny idle animations. The enemy soldiers engage in a variety of activities aside from running, shooting, throwing grenades, and hiding behind cover. They also lounge around campfires, desperately bail out sinking boats, leap at you with knives drawn, and hit the deck after throwing grenades. Even the dying animations are detailed, as the baddies flail around while aflame and collapse in a pool of blood. The POWs you rescue pull powerups and point rewards out of their pants and background characters attempt to go about their business even as you are shooting the baddies around them. The environs are also often minimally destructive, with your character able to destroy cars, some buildings, and even cliff faces. Multi-part, full screen bosses have multiple ways to kill you and utilize all of them as you slowly tear them apart. As their guns and armor are destroyed they show wear and start smoking, all prior to collapsing or exploding. Your enemies aren’t just soldiers and tanks. They include zombies and aliens as well, all well animated and bursting with personality.
Gameplay is, of course, the primary reason this series has such a good reputation with retro-gamers. The running and jumping controls are spot on. Weapons can be fired up and down in addition to left and right. The heavy machine gun leaves a trail of weapon fire, allowing you to hit enemies at an angle. Rockets and Chaser missiles seek, while other weapons streak or bounce along the ground. Grenade projectiles fly out and then drop, either from your personal launcher or your vehicle, and lasers blast in a straight line. You can also lob grenades. You can drive vehicles, ranging from the titular Metal Slug tank to camels and donkeys, jets, a couple varieties of hopping mecha, a submarine, and some interesting variations on the Metal Slug tank. Almost all vehicles feature a multi-directional cannon and some feature grenades or missiles as well. Should you run low on armor you can grab a gas tank or leap from your vehicle and send it careening into the enemy for a suicide attack. The powerups you can collect aren’t limited to points, weapons, and vehicles. You can be zombified or become obese, changes which affect your character’s movement and weapons. In later games you can even slide, switch weapons on the fly, and use alternate melee attacks.
Now, a couple individual Metal Slug titles are available on the Wii Virtual Console, but Metal Slug Anthology contains Metal Slug, Metal Slug 2, Metal Slug X, Metal Slug 3, Metal Slug 4, Metal Slug 5, and Metal Slug 6. That’s 7 Metal Slug titles for, currently, under $20. The Wii version, the one I own, includes a few menu options to allow you to select between control schemes, change the difficulty and number of lives, and toggle rapid fire. The game also includes a variety of unlockables in the form of an image gallery, sound test, and the text of an interview. The way you earn points to unlock these extras is by completing the games included in the anthology. The first 6 games appear to be emulated from the original Neo Geo ROMS. Metal Slug 6 is a port of the arcade title, originally developed for Atomiswave, the arcade successor to the Sega Naomi . The emulation is near perfect. The visuals and audio hold up excellently, with no slowdown that you wouldn’t find on the Neo Geo original. I can’t comment on the quality of the Metal Slug 6 port as I’ve never played it in the arcades. What I can tell you about Metal Slug 6 is that it’s just as smooth and well-animated as the previous titles. I found all of the games included to be just as much fun to play as emulated on the PC and only a joystick and a cabinet short of the arcade experience I remember.
The manual runs down the basic premises of all the games and introduces you to the characters, including the series original protagonists, Marco and Tarma. The game and manual are littered with bits of artwork from games past, some selections more attractive than others. Thankfully, as the character artwork has changed the in-game characters have remained largely the same. It also covers the controls, something we’ll address next.
So is this game the perfect specimen for Metal Slug fans? Unfortunately, no. The main menu can be very non-intuitive. If you just keep hitting A expecting a proper menu you’ll get dumped into Metal Slug the first. This is because the menu screen doesn’t really tell you what you need to do to switch games. In order to switch games you have to hit left or right on the pad to change the displayed title image. This took me way too long to figure out but is a minor irritation. The real killer, however, is the available control schemes. The game doesn’t support the Wii Classic Controller and most of the Wii controller arrangements are rather awkward, using motion controls to either move the character or toss grenades. The best control scheme for the Wii controller requires you hold it like an NES pad and would be mostly fine except you have to jerk the controller with a twisting motion to throw grenades. If you have a GameCube controller you’re in luck. You can use the GC controller to play the game without any unnecessary motion control imposition. This is truly a disappointment as your character responds to control input perfectly, so if you have a comfortable control scheme you’ll know that any mistake in game is your fault. Alas, without a GameCube controller you’ll have far too many encounters with death that aren’t your fault, and you’ll be cursing the Wii wand for it.
The best way to approach this collection is from the beginning. Established Metal Slug enthusiasts may want to jump to whichever entry is their favorite first. There is nothing wrong with this approach, but even the die-hard fans should take time to sample the early entries in the series. Even if they seem a little simpler in graphics and gameplay they features excellent level design and establish many of the conventions to which the series adheres even today. In this way, giving the early titles a solid nod is likely to improve one’s appreciation of the later entries in the series.
For newbies to the series, start with the original Metal Slug. It is the simplest and most straightforward entry in the series and will get the art style, animations, basic gameplay, and sense of humor of the game firmly established. It’s nice to see how the series has grown over time by slowly working one’s way through the various titles. The flopping fish you see in Metal Slug still appear even in Metal Slug 6. In the first Metal Slug you can only choose between Marco and Tarma, identical in all but appearance. Over time they added new characters with new idle animations. By Metal Slug 6 each character is different in terms of special weapon ammunition capacity and strength of melee attacks. If you’re not already comfortable with the format and style of the game, you may miss the core elements while trying to figure out the different character and vehicle gameplay quirks.
My favorite Slug title is Metal Slug 2. I’m often torn between Metal Slug 2 and X, but I have to give 2 the win. Metal Slug X is like an enhanced remix of 2 and marks the beginning of a slight change of focus in the Metal Slug series by throwing increasing numbers of enemies and enemy fire at the player. It’s a lot of fun, but Metal Slug 2 is the game that firmly established that the series had legs and was more than a one-shot wonder. It’s a massive expansion on the gameplay elements established in Metal Slug but it still requires thoughtful playing. There are also point rewards and powerups hidden throughout the levels. You shoot this palm tree or that stone idol’s eye enough times and a gem drops out for you to collect. Shoot just off screen in the upper corner of a particular part of a level and a POW drops down and give you a shotgun. I enjoy all the Slug games, but Metal Slug 2 is the game that reliably keeps drawing me back in when I stray.
So what’s the verdict? Let me get my bias out of the way up front. I studied in Japan for 10 months, from fall 1998 to spring 1999, and when I hit the local arcades it was usually to play Metal Slug 2 or Metal Slug X. Even if I died quickly on the later levels the early parts of the game made me feel like a machine of destruction, and there was more than enough eye candy to keep my eyes lit up. So, with that out of the way… If you have a Wii, a GameCube controller, and can comfortably sit close enough to the Wii to use that GameCube controller, Metal Slug Anthology is a retro run-n-gun dream. If you don’t, well, this game is cheap enough you should add a GC controller onto your order, maybe a wireless one so you can sit back and get comfy. General Morden’s forces and aliens by the score will fall before your heavy machine gun and Metal Slug armory. This is simply the cheapest legal way to own these great Neo Geo classics. They’re fast, fun, and visually and aurally fantastic. If you like run-n-guns you’ll like Metal Slug. If you like Metal Slug, you’ll love this collection. It’s an excellent discount buy, so pony up a little cash and buy a piece of gaming history as a little gift to yourself for the holidays.
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