It’s been a while since I posted something here on Darkstalker90. There are various reasons for that but I won’t bore you with those because that’s not why you’re here, is it? You’re here for some gaming-related content so I’ve skipped over the (frankly embarassing) backlog of semi-completed drafts to talk about a game that has commanded my attention over the last week or so: the mighty Streets of Rage 4.
Go back just a few years, and SoR4 would have been just a fantasy – one of those games that cropped up on many a retro-head’s I-wish-they-would-make-this-but-they-probably-never-will list. The franchise’s future seemed to be confined to re-releases on retro Sega compilations and those iffy plug ‘n play devices. Sega themselves had tried and failed in the 90’s to develop a Streets of Rage 4, and the popularity of the side-scrolling beat ’em up had rapidly waned with the demise of arcade-style gaming.
So it was a pretty earth-shaking shock to say the least when Streets of Rage 4 was first shown in 2018. With Sega acting solely as a licensor this time, it was down to the collaboration of Dotemu, Lizardcube and Guard Crush games to do the series justice and deliver on twenty-six years of fan anticipation. No pressure, then… Continue reading “Walking the Streets of Rage once again…”→
Whenever there’s a discussion about which of Capcom’s forgotten fighting games (so anything other than flippin’ Street Fighter, then…) should be brought back in a blaze of current-gen glory, there’s usually only one franchise that tops the polls: Darkstalkers. As a huge fan of the Darkstalkers, I can’t suppress the fanboy in me very effectively and I tend to agree. That said, there is another fighting game with a cult following that has been pushed to the back of Capcom’s storage locker for far too long: Rival Schools.
I’ve always been aware of Rival Schools but it was one of those games that I didn’t get around to playing in period. Until recently, the closest I came to the franchise was playing as Kyosuke in Capcom Vs SNK 2 and Batsu in Tatsunoko Vs Capcom. That all changed when I was slimming down my collection and testing out game discs (many of which I’d bought years ago and never played) before listing them for sale on ebay. The Playstation port of Rival Schools: United by Fate was one such game and there was a part of me that had to wonder why I had shoved this to the back of the shelves and ignored it for so long, especially since I’m a big fan of classic Capcom.
It’s what’s inside that counts
The first hurdle that needs to be cleared, when playing Rival Schools for the first time in 2020, are the horribly outdated visuals. Look, I’m no graphics whore. I grew up playing the Playstation and I’ve also enjoyed Sega Saturn and 3DO games long after they were “current” systems, so I’m no snob when it comes to old 3D. But it’s an unavoidable fact that we’ve been spoilt by the realistic graphics of the last few hardware generations, so returning to the era that pushed crude textures and pioneering polygons into the mainstream is always going to be jarring and requires a brief adjustment.
As such, I was initially taken aback by the character models in Rival Schools when I first booted up the game. Perhaps I’d just become accustomed to the perfect curvature of Sophitia’s bosom in Soulcalibur VI, or maybe it was because I’d not played Rival Schools before so my eyes weren’t prepared. Whatever the case, some of the most enjoyable fighting games of the 90’s – Tekken 2, Street Fighter EX and Virtua Fighter 2 – all look pretty blocky these days but that shouldn’t (and doesn’t) detract from the quality of the games.
So once I’d acclimatised to some of the derpy expressions and Tiffany’s cubism-inspired tits (complete with a primitive jiggle effect), I found myself enjoying the game, warts and all. In truth, the characters only look janky up close during win animations. During regular gameplay, they actually look pretty good for their age and you’d be a fool to expect much better from the original Playstation. Perhaps Tekken 3 and Soulblade are a little easier on the eyes but Rival Schools isn’t that far behind.
But it really is what’s under the skin that counts.
Rival Schools is presented as a three-dimensional fighting game fit for the late 90’s but, in truth, it’s a bit of a hybrid. While it does have a sidestep feature and dynamic camera angles to capture the crazy super moves, it still feels like a 2D fighting game. That’s because it uses the familiar Street Fighter-style inputs on the d-pad and a light/heavy attack set-up over on the buttons.
It’s not necessarily a bad thing however because I immediately knew what I was doing, allowing me to pick the game up quickly and concentrate solely on getting to grips with Rival Schools‘ unique mechanics.
First up, Rival Schools is a tag-team fighting game of sorts. I say “of sorts” because you can’t actively tag back and forth between your two characters, as in the Marvel Vs series, but you can switch in between rounds. You can also utilise your partner for powerful combination super move known as a Team Up Technique. Depending on your partner, the Team Up move can be an outrageous tag-team super move for big damage, a stat boost, or even a cheeky health boost. I really like this tag-team system because it injects strategy into a fighting game; do you choose a partner that can restore health and simply use them solely for that purpose or do you forfeit the stat/health boosts, select two characters that you are competent with, continuously switch between them and opt for the big damage Team Up Techniques?
Each character also has a selection of “Burning Vigour” super move attacks. These and the dual-character Team Up Techniques are all ridiculously awesome because they are incredibly over-the-top and feel stupidly OP. These crazy moves also tend to be shown off with different camera angles, taking advantage of the game’s 3D engine. I’ve played a lot of Capcom fighting games and I have to say that the Burning Vigour and Team-Up Techniques in Rival Schools are probably some of the most visually satisfying of the lot.
You also get plenty of access to these attacks too because the super guage fills up faster than The Flash on Speed. Some may criticise this because it makes the game feel easy and the super moves throwaway. I get that, and agree to a small extent, but Rival Schools is more about the entertainment factor than being a serious tournament game.
But there’s still more to the core gameplay. For instance, there is the Textbook Combo (a nice school-themed pun!) which is the ability to string together a short sequence of light and heavy hits, similar to Darkstalkers‘ Chain Combo system. You can also launch enemies skyward then jump up to hit them with a Textbook Combo in mid-air and even cancel into Burning Vigour supers. If it sounds similar to the the Vs series’ air combos then that’s because it feels exactly like that, down to the launcher input being the same.
There are also Defensive Fall and Get Up Attack techniques, as well as dash attacks. Finally, there is the Dodge ability that snaps you out of the 2D plane and back into the 3D realm. You can dodge sideways in either direction and, if you time it just right, you can evade an incoming attack at the very last moment and slide all the way around to your opponent’s back to catch them off-guard with a combo or deliver a different, more powerful throw attack that can only be used at an rival’s back.
A loaded package
Away from the actual gameplay, Rival Schools is simply bursting with charm and it’s easy to see why so many people love this neglected series. The characters are bold and full of personality, the music is terribly catchy and there is a big effort put into the presentation of the game. There is an anime-style intro upon booting the game up, for example, multiple animated endings and every character has their own unique illustrated endings to their stories. It’s one of those games where even the sound effects for selecting menu items are endearing.
The characters all feel unique to play as, and there are twenty of them to choose from as standard. That said, the veteran fighting game player will spot some cheeky imitations in amongst the roster, such as Hideo who is essentially the Ryu of Rival Schools with Shoto-style special moves. Roy seems to have borrowed Ken’s Shoryu-Reppa super move and Street Fighter Alpha‘s Sakura is included in the line-up. Overall however, the roster isn’t simply a copy-paste job; the majority of the fighters have their own style and are fun to experiment with.
Capcom really went all out with the Playstation conversion of this game too. There are two discs: an Arcade disc and the Evolution disc. The Arcade disc alone would have been acceptable enough since it features a fantastic conversion of the arcade original, a training mode and extra, bonus features. But Capcom also threw in the Evolution disc which is just so much more.
The Evolution disc contains an optimised, more balanced version of the game and more characters. As well as unlockable, alternate outfit versions of four of Rival Schools‘ female characters (complete with unique Team Up Techniques), there are 24 pre-edited special characters – mash-ups of the original characters and their moves. You also have the new Group Battle, League Battle and Tournament Battle modes, as well as the Cooperate Battle which allows four players to get in on the tag-team fighting with the assistance of the Playstation Multi-Tap. Finally, there is a “Lesson” mode and an art gallery. Phew!
It seems surreal in this post-Street Fighter V age to be playing a Capcom fighting game that had a warehouse of kitchen sinks thrown at it. To any younger readers of this blog, I would say this: go play PS1 Rival Schools and you’ll understand why us grumpy old farts moan about the bare-bones menu screens on modern fighting games, and the way that there is nothing to unlock (unless you are paying by credit card).
Rival Schools: United by Fate was an incredibly pleasant surprise and I think I need to be sent back to education myself for making the schoolboy error of not playing this sooner (enough with the school jokes!). After spending a good amount of time with the game, I can definitely confirm that the characters have just as much charm and appeal as Morrigan and co. from Darkstalkers. What’s more, the fighting system is excellent and strikes a perfect balance between the technical stuff and accessible, mental fun. It certainly wouldn’t need much to be brought up to scratch for a modern revival, something I’m now very much all for.
The only downside is that the Playstation port isn’t the cheapest used game to pick up these days, and it hasn’t been re-released on PSN outside of Japan (reportedly due to licensing issues) which certainly doesn’t help. That said, I think that Rival Schools is worth every penny of your money if you are a fighting game nut or a fan of classic Capcom.
By now, you’ve probably seen the trailer and reviews for this thing but I’m going to talk about it anyway. I love retro/classic games and I adore Capcom’s back catalogue so a product like this should either be in my hands already, or on my Christmas wishlist. But it isn’t and here’s why.
What is Capcom Home Arcade?
Essentially, the Capcom Home Arcade is a premium version of the tried-and-tested retro-themed plug ‘n play devices. This one means business though. The device features a pair of arcade-style controls for starters, and competition-spec sticks/buttons from Sanwa. Here it is from the horse’s mouth a.k.a. the official site:
“Featuring a pair of competition class Sanwa JLF-TP-8YT sticks with 8-way GT-Y directional gates and OBSF buttons for the finest precision, response times and durability.”
So this isn’t something that’s going to fall apart and break after a few hammerings. Sanwa are, after all, a well-known and respected brand in the arcade stick field.
The device has the (pretty much now standard) HDMI-out connection and also wi-fi connectivity for uploading high scores.
As for the games, you are once again assured of quality. These are original CPS1 and CPS2 arcade ROMs running on a licensed (not without controversy…) version of the emulator, Final Burn Alpha, so you won’t be getting the kind of shady emulation associated with cheaper retro handhelds or plug ‘n plays from the likes of Blaze.
So as far as the actual quality and execution of the hardware goes, I cannot fault the Capcom Home Arcade.
What are the games?
The device comes with sixteen pre-installed arcade titles:
1944: The Loop Master
Alien Vs Predator
Capcom Sports Club
Cyberbots: Fullmetal Madness
Darkstalkers: The Night Warriors
Ghouls ‘N Ghosts
Mega Man: The Power Battle
Street Fighter II: Hyper Fighting
Super Puzzle Fighter II Turbo
So what’s wrong with it, then?
So…solid hardware, a decent line-up of games and sound emulation; should be a great product then, right? Well, I would never ask anybody to take my viewpoint as the gospel (because this is just my opinion after all) but, in my eyes, the Capcom Home Arcade is FAR from deserving of a “shut up and take my money!” meme.
For starters, this thing is ugly as sin. Look, I get where they were going with the design, and I’m not saying that it won’t appeal to anybody, but this just looks a bit tacky. The non-symmetrical, oddly-shaped form isn’t pleasing to my eye. It’s like the next Playstation being a giant Sony logo – who would take that seriously? I would have much preferred a traditional-shaped arcade stick decorated with some original artwork from an artist associated with Capcom such as Kinu Nishimura, Bengus or Akiman.
But the physical shape of the Capcom Home Arcade is the least of the problems.
The roster of games is, admittedly, far from awful. These types of products are usually loaded up with the same games over and over again rather than the juicy, rarely re-released titles that fans of the company involved are constantly clamouring for. So credit must be handed to Capcom for including the likes of Alien Vs Predator, Gigawing and Armored Warriors. They also avoided two other pitfalls: wasting slots with sequels and wasting slots on a slew of Street Fighter II revisions.
That said, I have to wonder why they went for the Hyper Fighting version of SFII rather than Super Turbo, or why they chose the original Darkstalkers over the much expanded sequels. On the whole though, these are petty moans when many of these games have never been ported to home systems. In fact, almost all of these aren’t available on the likes of PSN, XBLA or Nintendo’s E-Shop at the time of writing.
There are even two trump cards in the pack: Alien Vs Predator and Progear. The former is one of the all-time greats in the side-scrolling beat ’em up genre and has never received a home conversion (the SNES version is the same in name only), something that fans had long written off as ever happening due to licensing issues with the characters. As for Progear, this is a CAVE-developed bullet-hell shooter that has also never been released outside of obscure, mobile ports for old phones.
Did I say the line-up of games is “far from awful”? I should take that back because it’s actually bloody good once you realise that you can’t just go and (legally) download them from PSN or XBLA for a few quid.
So…what IS wrong with it?
The Capcom Home Arcade retails for £200 and that is BIG money for a plug ‘n play, no matter how good it is. You ARE getting solid build quality and an interesting collection of games to play but it’s just too much in my opinion, and that isn’t me being a tight-arse git who wants everything for nothing.
For starters, you have to be a fairly hardcore gamer to pay that much money for sixteen games, and those sorts of gamers have been playing un-converted arcade games for years on dedicated emulator-based arcade cabs. Many committed retro-heads even have the original CPS1 and CPS2 boards for these games and play them via JAMMA-compatible SuperGun devices.
Then there is MAME. Yes, it isn’t technically legal but, again, most people haven’t been waiting 20+ years for Capcom to re-license Alien Vs Predator. When a game is THAT good, you just emulate it, as you would with the other titles that have never received home conversions. Yes, we would ALL (myself included) like to play and own everything legally but it simply isn’t possible when certain games don’t get re-released. We have our virtual collection of arcade cabinets on our computers and MAME does a damn good job of emulating them by this point.
And if MAME is too dodgy for you, several of these games were included in the various Capcom Classics compilations for PS2/Xbox/PSP which are readily available on the second-hand market. Additionally, Final Fight, Armored Warriors and Captain Commando were not long ago included in the Capcom Beat ’em Up Bundle along with four other games. This is still available on PSN for £15.99.
And it’s highly unlikely that casual gamers, younger gamers or those new to Capcom’s back catalogue will want to drop £200 on this.
The fact is, you are so much better off by obtaining what you can via the aforementioned, existing compilations and just emulating the rest. The quality of the Capcom Home Arcade and its games cannot be disputed but why do yourself out of money? If this was a £100 or less then I would endorse a purchase immediately, even if the device IS butt-ugly.
Capcom would have been better off dumping these games on a disc or lumping them together as a digital compilation. Heck, release them individually on PSN, XBLA and the E-Shop. Start a new line of retro re-releases under some sort of fancy banner, perhaps. I have to assume that more money goes into Capcom’s pocket by doing it this way. Certainly, they are attempting to cash-in on the Christmas rush when more unsuspecting punters – partners of gamers for example – are likely to pay the £200. Nothing says “I love you” at Christmas when a long suffering partner presents you with a thoughtful and expensive gaming item, after all.
What I SHOULD be doing is celebrating and going nuts over Alien Vs Predator finally being shown the light of day again but, instead, I’m sitting here in disbelief having seen that £200 price tag and the naff aesthetics of the Capcom Home Arcade. If it bombs and stores are forced to slash prices by 50% or more to get rid of them then I will probably buy one but I have a feeling that these won’t be that mass-produced. The Capcom zealots will probably buy them anyway, no matter the price.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Yes, there is a zombie-themed level that mimics a slasher movie and I reallyhate 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.
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.
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.