Arcade games weren’t a huge presence in my development as a gaming hobbyist. There was usually one around, and I played them when I could, but I was too young to have a substantial enough allowance to drop at the local quarter-hole. I rented games on weekends; that’s where most of my experience came from back before I had my own income.
Against what I just said, Metal Slug became a key game of my childhood. I can point out the bowling alleys and arcades that had a NEOGEO MVS cabinet that ran Metal Slug. I was in love with the game long before I actually got a chance to sit down and play it to completion. I think that would have been on the 2006 Metal Slug Anthology.
To this day, it’s still a game that I mention with reverence. However, it’s less than just an all-around well-executed run-and-gun shooter. It’s a friend.
Metal Slug was first released in 1996 for the NEOGEO MVS hardware. While the big thing at the time was 3D graphics pushed by the latest arcade hardware and home consoles, Metal Slug managed to be the most beautiful game on the market without using a single polygon. It hosts some of the best pixel art ever created. More than once, while I’ve been interviewing indie developers who work on retro-inspired games, they speak wistfully of how they aspire to create something with a divine aesthetic like Metal Slug.
Yet it doesn’t fall into the trap that many other games that push graphics to the forefront have. Nazca didn’t blow the sprites up to absurd proportions. The cartoony art style is incredibly legible, even in the most chaotic of moments. The controls work fluidly with the animation. You are left neither with the clunkiness of waiting for an animation to finish nor do the visuals suffer from herky-jerky interrupted movements. In a world that has seen plenty of great-looking games, none have been as immaculate as Metal Slug.
And it just feels good. Your movement is swift and responsive, and the jumps have just enough buoyancy to make you feel completely in control. Despite the shooting only allowing for 4-directional aiming, the spray of the heavy machine gun and the blast of the grenades give you the sensation of being an unstoppable powerhouse. Both you and most of the enemies are felled in a single hit, making the combat continually flow as foes are pour in from both sides of the screen.
Even the worst game in the Metal Slug series has the security of being great to play, and it’s all because Nazca laid such an incredible foundation.
HEAVY MACHINE GUN!
There isn’t much story to Metal Slug. I’ve read some lore from other sources, but nothing is really communicated in the game. You’re up against General Morden, but that’s all you’re really given. I don’t recall if his name even appears within the first game.
The wider lore, which I’ve got from the 2006 Metal Slug Anthology manual, says that the “Regular Army” is fighting against General Morden’s Rebellion. The Regular Army is losing and created the eponymous Metal Slug Super Vehicle 001 to turn the tide. The rebel army captures the Metal Slugs, so Marco Rossi and Tarma Roving launch commando attacks on places where the rebels are storing the Metal Slugs.
A Metal Slug SV-001 is an ugly monstrosity of a tank. They’re these dopey, bulbous vehicles, but they pack a punch. Getting one in the game allows you to tear a swath through enemies, but more importantly, you can take three hits before the tank explodes. Hardly seems like the ace-in-the-hole the story builds them up as, but you’ll be happy to find one in a level.
There are six stages that go through a variety of wartorn environments. The Rebellion are modeled after the Nazis, and even though the games take place in the near future, there’s a weird mix of old and new technology. Later games in the series would get a lot weirder in terms of settings and enemies. They would add additional types of slugs, transformations, and more weapons. But for me, the cartoonishly askew groundedness of the first couple of games is my preference.
SQUEAK-SQUEAK! KA-CHUNK! CHCHCHCHCH!
Enemy soldiers die in some extremely gruesome and detailed ways, but their cartoon proportions and expressions make the visuals seem silly rather than dark. The shotgun is an amazing expression of this. It’s not only my favourite weapon of the series but also one of the best video game shotguns committed to silicon. The shotgun emits a dense blast of buckshot that vapourizes whatever’s in front of it. It is incredibly short-range, but its immense destructiveness is something to see. Your foes disappear behind its particle cloud, and only fragments of them emerge from the other side.
Even when you’re down to your pistol, there’s nothing you can’t kill. A tank or hulking boss contraption can be brought down with your basic sidearm. You’re given the advantage over enemies by their perceptible incompetence. Unlike you, who can rip a grenade out of their pants’ pocket at a millisecond’s notice, enemies usually have to go through some extravagant animation before they can attack. Their brains only work at henchman speed. This doesn’t mean they can’t kill you. It just means that you can mow through hordes of them without issue.
In fact, death comes often in Metal Slug. It can be a bit of a quarter-muncher. Like many run-and-gun shooters, part of your success comes down to memorization. Reflexes and pattern recognition will get you so far, but it’s a series that likes throwing curveballs. The original Metal Slug has the fewest cases of these curveballs, but they still get thrown.
Otherwise, the difficulty arc is pretty perfect for an arcade game. The challenge starts off stiff, but by the time you hit the last mission, the game is practically just dropping enemies on you. I once thought that this was completely unfair, but the more I play it, the more I realize that it can be overcome. My current best effort is 5 continues to get through the game. That’s not bad, right? That’s, like, $2.50 on an actual cabinet if it’s 50 cents a play.
It’s perhaps necessary since Metal Slug can be completed in under an hour. This isn’t unusual for arcade games. As I explained to my therapist, no one wants to stand at a cabinet for eight hours, so there was not much point in creating games that were longer than the endurance of a human knee.
There’s also a tonne of slowdown. Interestingly enough, one of the worst spots for it is the first-level boss. I’m not even sure why. It makes sense for things to slow down on busy screens, but the first boss isn’t the biggest boss, nor is there a lot else going on. I think it might have something to do with the waterfalls in the backgrounds that use some stippled transparency, but I don’t have the technical wherewithal to completely break it out and see what’s going on.
In any case, if you have an accurate arcade port, it’s still going to have this slowdown. Just FYI.
It’s a small complaint. I’ve said before that the best Metal Slug game would just be Metal Slug with Fio, a mainstay selection starting with the second game, added as a character. However, I think whether or not this Metal Slug is high or low on your personal list of favourites is going to come down to how much you like the weird supernatural elements of later games. For me personally, I like the supernatural elements, but I absolutely love how tight Metal Slug is. It’s hard to choose between this and Metal Slug X. Either way, here’s your box quote: “Fuck, I love Metal Slug so much.”
This review was conducted on about 5 different platforms. The author has payed for each version on their own.