Review – Metal Slug Anthology [PSP/Playstation 2/Wii]

MSA-1Release Date: 2007 (Europe)   |   Developer: SNK Playmore/Terminal Reality   |   Publisher: Ignition (Europe)

If you’ve lived behind a tower of modern games or are a younger gamer then you may not be familiar with SNK’s Metal Slug series and that is truly a shame because you might be missing out on something special. For those already in the know, Metal Slug is a stone-cold arcade classic requiring no introduction but for the uninformed, here’s the deal. Released in 1996 for SNK’s Neo Geo arcade hardware, Metal Slug quickly became one of the quintessential run ‘n gun experiences that the rest of the genre suddenly found itself compared to. Nazca Corp. blended tight, challenging gameplay with their stunning 2D artistry to create one of the defining Neo Geo experiences and a killer app for the (incredibly expensive) home version of the hardware.

The game oozed charm and was overflowing with character thanks to the comical nature of the cartoon-like visuals which should have been at odds with the military theme and bright red blood. It was – as previously mentioned – challenging too but not necessarily in an outrageously cheap way; not to begin with anyway – that’s a sin for some of the sequels to atone for and we’ll hold court on that subject in due course.

By the time SNK called time on the creaking Neo Geo hardware in 2004, the system had hosted six Metal Slug games. If you weren’t rich enough to own a Neo Geo and splurge on massive cartridges sporting eye-watering price tags (so most of us then) then it was difficult to be a Metal Slug fan though. There were ports to all kinds of the consoles such as the Playstation, Saturn, PS2 and original Xbox but these tended to vary in terms of quality and accuracy. In 2007 however (2006 for the US), we were treated to Metal Slug Anthology for PSP, Playstation 2 and Nintendo Wii. This compilation from the retro gods collected unaltered arcade versions of the five Neo Geo ‘Slugs plus the Atomiswave’s Metal Slug 6 which was brand-new for the West when Anthology hit the shelves.

LOADING…

I’ll start by quickly talking about the compilation in general. I won’t discuss the Wii port as I haven’t been lucky enough to own a copy but I have owned both the Playstation 2 and PSP editions of the game. Sadly, Sony’s versions suffer from unwelcome load times, even in basic areas such as the front end menu or in-game character select screens. It’s not a deal-breaker but is still pretty unforgiveable in my opinion, especially since the PS2 and PSP shouldn’t have been at all taxed to run a small collection of old Neo Geo games when the PS2 didn’t appear to break a sweat over big stuff like Gran Turismo and Black. The PSP is a more understandable situation given that the handheld’s loading capabilities were often scuppered by the UMD drive. Even so, I play all of my PSP games direct from the memory stick (thanks to the wonders of Custom Firmware) and even then, the loading isn’t completely eradicated. The Wii port is meant to be a lot better as it was allegedly coded by SNK themselves while Terminal Reality handled the PS2 and PSP versions. Don’t quote me on that though; it’s something I remember reading in period reviews.

In terms of extras, there’s an art gallery to unlock using tokens earnt by playing through the six games. It’s not much but I’m personally a big fan because outside of the official press art for SNK games, there is a wealth of bizarre artwork resembling fan art and this is often included in their games. Artwork won’t be of interest to everybody, granted, but I love the quirkiness of SNK’s galleries at times. That said, what we are really for are the games so let’s talk about them.

Original and best

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the original Metal Slug is in close contention for being the best game of the series. It’s a purer experience than the sequels and suffers with less of the bloat and often unnecessary variety that its successors injected (in a well-meaning way of course). You simply run to the right, avoiding enemy fire and blasting anything that gets in Marco Rossi’s way. You are granted three lives per credit and ten grenades per life. Continuing with a fresh credit gifts you the Heavy Machine-Gun power-up upon re-spawning as a welcome gesture. You might think then that Metal Slug is about as complicated as Paris Hilton and that’s a fair assessment as there’s nothing overly innovative about the whole thing. It’s HOW the game does what it does that makes it so endearing.

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First of all, the controls and ‘feel’ are spot-on and you should never find yourself condemning either for getting iced by an enemy. Secondly, the power-ups are just so damn fun to acquire and put to use. The Heavy Machine-Gun makes you feel like a force to be reckoned with, the shotgun’s explosive punch fills you with confidence and the Rocket Launcher is just the nuts. Special mention must go to the Arnie-like “Rocket Lowncher!” announcement from the voice-over dude when you collect the latter – always a pleasure to hear. Then there’s the Metal Slug tank itself which can take several hits before being destroyed. The tank is actually pretty cutesey thanks to its stubby profile and ability to jump but the rapid-fire machine-gun and cannon pack a serious punch.

Finally, there’s that distinctive art style which is a big part of the game’s appeal. Without it, Metal Slug would just be another solid run ‘n gun game but thanks to Nazca’s artistic sorcery, every backdrop, sprite and tiny detail deserves close attention. In fact, there is such a ludicrous level of detail in every single thing that it’s a wonder that they ever finished the game or were permitted the time to go so crazy in the first place. Special mention must go to the enormous bosses which are both intimidating and spectacular. Taking them down always feels like an achievement.

The visuals are backed up by the audio which consists of memorable voice-overs, fantastic sound effects (the explosions are awesome) and memorable music that blends military-themed composition with Nazca’s jazzy sound, the latter fitting in perfectly against all sound reason.

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I’ve already stated that the game is challenging as it really is but the original Metal Slug is perhaps the fairest of the lot. The first three missions are no cake-walk but can be completed with minimal stress. It’s only towards the end of the game that the opposition begins to overwhelm and you will have to feed in credits in order to push on. This was an arcade game designed to part punters from their cash but that said, I’ve certainly played much, much worse that would have you searching for Dick Turpin’s name in the developer credits.

Put simply, the original Metal Slug is a creative masterpiece and a very enjoyable arcade action game that deserves its lofty reputation. If you only play one game in the series then this has to be it but SNK did make some sequels so let’s address those next…

Bigger isn’t always better

Metal Slug 2 is probably the closest rival that the original game has for the honour of being the best in the series. I did say that if you only play one entry then it should be the original but ideally, you’d play the immediate follow-up as well. MS2 is more of the same but bigger and more extreme than before. New power-ups and new Slug vehicles debut as do the Mars People alien enemies. The bosses are equally impressive if not better than before with special mentions going to an Arabian palace that turns into a missile launcher and the second mission’s boss which sees you constantly climbing to avoid the chasing jaws of an enormous machine. The only issue I have with Metal Slug 2 is that the last few levels are a bit brutal with the player being expected to dodge too much crap and kill far too many aliens. That aside, it is a worthy follow-up deserving of your time.

Metal Slug X is essentially a remix of Metal Slug 2. The first stage for example now takes place at dusk, there are new enemies, remixed music and new power-ups. There’s a handy list of the updates here on Wikipedia. Whether you prefer X over ‘vanilla’ Metal Slug 2 is a personal preference but being as it is very similar, I would also class X as a game you can definitely keep coming back to.

Unfortunately, the series takes a nosedive with Metal Slug 3 that it never really fully recovered from. This was the last game produced by the original Nazca/SNK partnership before SNK went bankrupt and rose from the ashes as SNK Playmore. They went all-out and cranked the creativity up to the max with MS3 which should have been a positive thing but ends up being both good and bad. Starting with the good, they went pretty wild here and introduced a ton of new stuff and awe-inspiring bosses, all rendered in the same agonisingly attractive art style. The game also still plays perfectly soundly. The first problem however is that you aren’t only fighting military forces this time around but all manner of organic creatures and aliens. This did allow Nazca’s artists the chance to flex and animate a bunch of crazy stuff (which all looks lovely) but you will miss the characterful enemy soldiers and military hardware when you’re shooting at crabs, insects and…zombies?

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Yes, there is a zombie-themed level that mimics a slasher movie and I really hate this shit. When you get killed, a bolt of lightning will resurrect you albeit as a shambling, sluggish zombie with none of the agility that you need to avoid the onslaught of enemies. It doesn’t fit in with what Metal Slug is meant to be but even if you can overlook that, playing as a zombie slows the action to a crawl and puts a definite damper on things. Even when you are still in human form, emptying vast amounts of ammo into walking bullet sponges is no fun. The only enjoyable thing that comes from the whole zombie thing is the ability to vomit a massive arc of blood that covers most of the screen and takes out enemies with the force of a grenade. That’s fucking cool.

The other killjoy is the fact that Metal Slug 3 is just too damn hard. They really wanted your pocket change with this game, possibly to stave off impending bankruptcy. The first level is reasonably manageable but the cruelty factor soon arrives with the player being expected to dodge an unreasonable amount of on-screen shit. The final stage in particular is downright sadistic with overwhelming quotas of dangerous enemies clogging the screen and an insane amount of lethal projectiles to avoid. It also feels as though it will NEVER end. Whenever I decide to play MS3, I find myself begging the game to simply stop by this point. The bosses in this game also absorb a ridiculous amount of firepower before they go down, to the point that you may question whether your game has glitched out and granted said bosses immunity to death.

Metal Slug 3 is not a bad game per se. It has a lot going for it in the aesthetics department but the difficulty spike and general madness of battling crustaceans, Aztec gods and zombies really let it down. I simply cannot enjoy this game when I play it because it’s the first time that Metal Slug felt too cheap and remorseless to WANT to perservere with. It was the end of the original era though so how did SNK and Metal Slug fare in the Playmore era? Hmm…

A mixed bag

By this point, SNK Playmore didn’t yet exist and it was entity simply known as “Playmore”. In conjunction with Mega Enterprise, they kept SNK’s franchises’ ticking over with Metal Slug 4 being one result. I have to be honest and say that I really don’t care for this game. It’s not that it’s bad but it’s incredibly “meh”. Unsurprisingly – given the financial situation – MS4 is a recyclathon of old sprites and ideas but the classic Nazca art clashes somewhat with new stuff doing its best to imitate. The game receives points straight away for returning to military enemies but then throws it all down the toilet by re-introducing mummies and zombies. The level design is incredibly by-the-numbers and dull with very few set-pieces since the game instead favours holding the player up on the same screen for an eternity while wave after wave of enemies pour in from both sides, often in suffocating volumes that slow the game down. Bosses aren’t too interesting either and trade patterns for simply filling the screen with as many bullets, bombs and enemies as possible. Granted, I’m no master player of videogames but I don’t see how it’s possible to avoid some of the stuff that later bosses throw at the player.

Metal Slug 4 could have been a lot worse but at the same time, there’s no avoiding the fact that it had very little charm or creativity going on. It’s not a sequel that I can recommend on any grounds, really.

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Conversely, Metal Slug 5 is far superior. Aside from some tribal enemies at the outset and the final boss itself, it’s back to military enemies for a more traditional ‘Slug affair. The opposing army isn’t headed up by series antangonist Morden this time (even though the sprites are blatant re-skins) but the darker colours, black ops-style enemies and gritty rock music do suck some of the series’ trademark humour out of the game it has to be said. However, this is a reasonable trade off considering that the game is much fairer than the previous two and as a result, far closer to the formula of the first two games which were challenging but not downright malicious as per MS3 and 4. Bosses too have much better attack patterns and as such, aren’t a drain on your soul to take down. The final boss is a bit cheap though and probably the most ridiculous, out-of-place end boss in the series. Looks awesome though.

Unfortunately, Metal Slug 6 ruins the redemption of MS5. This was the first post-Neo Geo Metal Slug with Sammy’s Atomiswave platform taking over the hosting duties. Appropriately, SNK Playmore tried to inject some new blood into the series by upping the character select screen to six with the addition of Ralf and Clark from Ikari Warriors/King of Fighters. In addition, each character has special abilities such as Ralf’s Vulcan Punch attack and Eri’s ability to aim grenades in specific directions. You can now also stock up to two power-ups and switch between them. Also, MS6 introduced an easy mode which lowers the difficulty and grants the player the Heavy Machine-Gun as the standard weapon at the expense of not being able to challenge the game’s final stage.

That’s the good/interesting stuff. Sadly, the game just feels like an imitation or a fan-made tribute. Yes, the familiar sprites and visual design are correct and present but as with MS4, the new backgrounds and enemies aren’t as impressive and clash with the old, classic Nazca creations. Sound effects and enemy voices are also different (not for the better) and once again, the series returns to aliens and weird shit before long. The difficulty beyond the first few missions is also tough to swallow with all manner of bullet-sponge aliens and bizarre creatures flooding the screen and demanding a ridiculous amount of firepower to put down. The game feels cheap too with so much shit happening at once that there’s no hope of surviving. The final stage takes a (rotted) leaf from Metal Slug 3‘s book and features and seemingly endless gauntlet of everything that makes this sequel so charmless and unenjoyable to endure. By the time I reached the final boss, I was both bored and frustrated – emotions that I would never have associated with Metal Slug when playing the first two games. In short, it’s still a solid run ‘n gun but only because of all the work that Nazca put in back in the 90’s. Without their blueprint and artwork, games like Metal Slug 4 and 6 wouldn’t even be worth talking about.

Conclusions

To sum up the core Metal Slug series, I would say that the first two games + Metal Slug X are utterly essential run ‘n guns that any gamer with an interest in old-school, arcade gameplay should experience. As for the rest…Metal Slug 3 is worth a look for it’s aesthetics but is simply too cheap to enjoy, Metal Slug 4 and 6 are not worth your time while Metal Slug 5 is surprisingly decent with genuine replayability. Personally I’d rank them as MS1 > MS2 > MSX > MS3 >MS5 >MS4 > MS6. As for the Anthology specifically, it’s a shame that there are those loading niggles with the PSP and PS2 versions but whichever port you go with, the value is undeniably strong.

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