“God created war so that Americans would learn geography.”
Strap on your army boots and grab the biggest bazooka you can find because that golden classic, the original Metal Slug is now available on the Nintendo Switch. The ACA (Arcade Archives) series has been of tremendous value in gaming by translating great arcade titles to home consoles, making games accessible to gamers who previously might have never had a chance to play them, given the rising rarity of actual arcades. The sub-category ACA NeoGeo re-releases Neo Geo titles, some of which have never been on home console before. ACA NeoGeo Metal Slug can be found on PlayStation and Xbox but this review is focused on the Switch version. The hardware is uniquely appropriate to short games with high accessibility and co-op, after all.
Metal Slug is the first game in the series released by Nazca Co. and SNK in 1996, ten years before the Arcade Archive version. It is an energetic, dynamic, humorous run and gun. The series hasn’t changed much since its inception though it has steadily grown weirder over time. What you’ll find in this first entry is more realism, though in Metal Slug more realism simply means “less ridiculous”.
There are however none of the space aliens, gigantic mutants, marching undead, or impossible war machines that later games in the series introduced. Metal Slug is much more straightforward and somewhat within the realm of being grounded. One could at least imagine that this is the adapted story of two soldiers who single-handedly win World War II armed with nothing but their pistols, a few heavy weapons, and a tank now and then… okay, so not realistic at all. Maybe just about the only realistic thing in Metal Slug is you can only get hit once before you’re dead.
But that’s the enjoyable thing. The reason why Metal Slug retains its appeal, among other things, is because it’s the gaming equivalent of two kids playing with their action figures. “Well I brought my dinosaur! Who eats forcefield dogs!” This is underscored by the delicious animation. It’s enough to make Don Bluth blush. The cartoonish explosions and almost slapstick violence keep the game from appearing too serious as you charge through ranks of enemies and their vehicles, blasting away the bad guys as macho men Cpt. Marco and Lt. Tarma.
Both highly proficient soldiers are members of the Peregrine Falcon Strike Force. Their mission, broken down into six stages, is to stop the villainous General Morden from exacting his coup d’état upon on the world. His army of tyrannical and riotous rebels aim to overthrow the governments and establish Morden’s rule. The General has also procured the deadly Metal Slug all-terrain tank and its technological variants. Only you can stop them. Marco and Tarma must destroy every Metal Slug they come across to keep the tech out of the General’s greedy hands, as well as defeat the rebel armies and rescue prisoners of war. The grateful POWs will offer their two rescuers ammunition and weapon upgrades. You’ll need all you can get. More firepower equals more freedom! It’s all very much Saturday morning cartoon stuffs.
Metal Slug’s fun-factor is instantaneous and incandescent but brief, like a giant smoking fireball. With only six stages and no huge secret levels or hidden bosses, there isn’t a tremendous amount of replay value other than coming back for the endless ammo blast-fest. There is a special ending of sorts, after defeating the General (spoilers: highlight to reveal) he is shown to have survived, looking up to the starry skies, setting up the outer space intervention events for the sequels.
One of the biggest blows against Metal Slug being an engaging experience, and I make the distinction between the arcade version and the home ports, is the fact that there are essentially infinite continues at home. Sure, you the player could have as many continues as you liked in the arcades, provided you had as much money as you liked. With how easy it is to die in Metal Slug, this could mean quite a lot of cash.
There really are no stakes in Metal Slug. We need stakes for everything. In Metal Slug death means nothing. The game advances straight from level 1 to level 6 as you push past every fortification. The only stakes existed in the arcades where you were feeding your very real quarters or tokens into the cabinet. At home, it’s just a matter of button mashing your way to victory. That inevitably and exponentially gets boring after a single playthrough.
The ACA version adds a high-score mode with no continues and a caravan mode that prods you to collect as many points as possible in a set time limit, so these are essentially the new stand ins for the higher stakes of the original arcade gameplay. This, to my mind, is the thorn in the side of arcade ports for home consoles.
As wonderful as it is to revisit these games which maybe never saw any other kind of accessible re-release, the boon of infinite lives and infinite continues detached from depositing quarters and tokens is a double-edged sword that ultimately undercuts the enjoyment and challenge. There is no easy way around it, especially here where you’re bound to play the main mode upon first purchasing the game but after that point you probably won’t be too interested in taking on the limited high-score or caravan modes. As such, arcade home ports exist like short excursions into the past, a place you can return to but where you really can’t stay.
The 8-bit Review
Metal Slug’s graphics are as smooth as delicious salted butter. Visuals are one of the game’s best and immediately striking features. They are recognizable to virtually anyone who has seen them, even non-gamers. First and foremost are the character sprites. They’re animated with the bounciness and stretchiness characteristic of Disney animation. Soldiers yawn, laugh, scream, and vaporize in hysterical pantomime while your ludicrous protagonists charge forward with their heavy machine guns and rocket launchers.
The developers spared no apparent expense in the details they lavished upon the backgrounds, which were painted with muted palettes so the characters would really pop. Perhaps the most impressive graphics belong to the bosses awaiting you at the end of each stage. These are typically gigantic robotic monstrosities or fearsome super-weapons. Remembering that this is pixel art makes the complexity of these graphics all the more astounding. So while technical limitations cause a bit of slow down now and again, that infamous annoyance in retrogaming, and while there aren’t the tremendous fantasy weapons seen in later Metal Slugs, this first outing is still rich in visuals. It’s instant eye candy.
The soundtrack by Takushi Hiyamuta isn’t anything to write home about. In many ways, it’s typical of the sound of the mid-90’s when the rock of the 80’s began to die out and we started getting this weird fusion with hyper-jazz. Though the result isn’t particularly memorable or melodic, Metal Slug’s soundtrack served the game it belonged to. It was as musically volatile as the rest of the game. It in addition captured the sound of militarism and reckless abandon that Metal Slug is all about. You know if you play these tracks in reverse the backmasking chants: “Guns! Guns! Guns! Guns! Guns!” Plus, hey, there’s that iconic announcer.
As mentioned, the Metal Slug series hasn’t changed much from the first game to Metal Slug X. It did however give the 2D side-scrolling genre, by then a tired one, a fast-paced facelift that threw tons of enemies at you at once, covered the screen with explosions, introduced plenty of new weapons and so on. Rescuing POWs is one thing which sets Metal Slug apart and made it unique. If you died, you’d lose the bonus points for any rescued prisoners collected at the end of each level, so there’s an extra layer of incentive there to push for higher scores and avoid enemy fire.
It’s the fluidity and speed of Metal Slug which is still engaging even after a decade. It is clear to me why the series did so well by changing so little about itself. What is also clear is how Metal Slug served as an influence to so many games to come. Just ask Broforce, which is basically just Metal Slug on steroids.
We are talking about the ACA version here, so at this point we’re talking about a game with a main mode that has infinite continues. I can tap the shoulder button to add as many credits to the game, essentially quarters, as I want. With this setup, nothing is truly challenging unless you grow weary of playing at all.
With only three buttons descended from the primary colored circles of the arcade cabinet, Metal Slug is the perfect game to pick up for the first time and immediately enjoy. There are a few secret points to pick up in each level but that’s about the only thing hidden from you at the start of the game. Everything else is just a steady march forward against all odds, picking up weapons, rescuing prisoners, gunning down enemies, and seemingly causing as much collateral damage as possible. Metal Slug was a slightly more skill-based game before there were infinite lives but now dying hardly matters.
The extra modes don’t add much to Metal Slug’s replay value. As a single-player game, it can get boring quickly, especially after you’ve already beaten it. I find myself returning to games like the Metal Slugs most often when I have guests over in my home to hang out. Metal Slug is, as seen, highly accessible so it’s easy to jump in with two players without having to “explain the rules”, as it were, to someone who has maybe never played this kind of game before. That’s even easier with the Nintendo Switch, since the hardware specifically allows for ease of switching between one and two players.
As far as the ACA NeoGeo price, I could wish it was just a little cheaper for how little replay value there is. A few graphics filters and two alternative game modes only go so far on such a short and straightforward game. Unless we’re counting the inclusion of the Japanese version a boost to replay value?
A representative of its genre, Metal Slug saw four main sequels, numerous spin-offs, plenty of ports, and several recollections over the years. It manages paradoxically to be a fairly white bread army shooter while at the same time advancing its image with unique caricaturing, eccentricity, and smoothness.
My Personal Grade: 8/10
Metal Slug successfully launched one of the most memorable 2D side-scrolling shootie-pies in human history. For that it deserves to be set on a pedestal. This was a game I for one was always excited to find in a local arcade. At a pizza joint in my town they actually had one of these cabinets. It was for the second game but then Metal Slugs are virtually all the same. And that’s what remains best about them. They didn’t aspire to lofty philosophy, high thoughts or buzz words, character development or social topics. They were just fun to play as a reprieve from daily life. And isn’t that really, essentially and fundamentally, what gaming is all about? You can’t really expect a whole lot out of this ACA title but at least you can expect consistency.
Aggregated Score: 7.0