I really should have gotten around to playing Metal Slug sooner. I knew from the moment I first saw it years ago that it was something I'd want to see more of, but it never made it to the front of my mind until now, and that was a mistake.
Metal Slug is like Contra as drawn by Disney or something. It is a visual treat, but it's backed up by some solid gameplay too, both single player and co-operative. You must shoot your way through an armies worth of troops in order to defeat General Morden, and, if you're lucky, you'll be able to do so with the titular tank known as the SV-001: Metal Slug.
Run, jump, shoot. There's nothing to it. In fact, my first attempt should be a breeze...
Alright, so my first blast through Metal Slug wasn't anything special, especially in terms of competence, but it was enough to sell me on playing this one for a while. The controls just feel nice, and with nice controls comes an experience that is enjoyable even when you fail, and we'll get to that soon enough.
There are only three buttons to think about; one to jump, one to lob a grenade and one to shoot, or slash your knife if you're close enough to an enemy. With your default pistol, you have infinite ammo, but grenades and other weapons require you to keep tabs on the ammo counter at the top of the screen and to look out for power-up/weapon icons as your mission progresses.
Weapons, like flamethrowers, shotguns and rocket launchers, are usually dropped by prisoners of war that you free as and when you come across them during a mission, though they can drop additional points instead - it's an arcade game, after all (though I am playing the PC port).
At the end of a mission, after a large boss of some description, you'll see how many of these prisoners you freed, each one granting a bonus, but only if you were able to not die while they were free men. Lose a life and you'll score nothing more for rescuing them - but that's not a big deal if they gave you a bloody big gun before running off. Like the shotgun, for example. Possibly the greatest shotgun ever programmed into a video game...
So scary, even the PoWs flee from you...
Which brings me neatly onto talking about the animation. Yada yada yada screenshots don't do it justice but by God Almighty is it true in this instance. The level of detail Metal Slug reaches with its sprite work is top notch, to the point where you ought to question just who the bad guy is.
Many of your opponents are minding their own business while you storm in, guns blazing. Some even appear to run in terror from you, and some are just chilling, oblivious to their surroundings, sunning themselves (at night) on a gunboat. Why not, eh?
Everything is stylized to look almost bouncy and round, which you'd tend to associate with friendly, cheerful things. You notice it most on the various vehicles you come across, with tanks looking both formidable and cute, which tanks should not be. Certainly not the latter, anyway.
I can only recall similar looking vehicles in two places: on a tabletop covered in Warhammer 40k miniatures, and in Advance Wars for the Game Boy Advance, which happens to be on this 1001 list, and I'm looking forward to it. Dinky little blobby things are fun to look at and feel great to destroy. One day, I look into the psychology behind that...
Those photos show off the Metal Slug, which allows you a couple of free hits before it threatens to explode, but it also changes the gameplay just a little with the inclusion of a weapon that actually fires in directions other than left, right, up and down.
You don't notice it too much because the action is quick and the situation generally calls for you to be in places relative to your target that don't require diagonal aiming, though you can fire quick enough so that a couple of shots end up going in a diagonal direction if you switch your aim back and forth between up and right, for example.
It's impractical though, and you'll be doing more harm than good for your chances in what can be a tricky little game.
Death is everywhere in Metal Slug. With only 6 missions, you can complete the game in half an hour or so, but it took me 40 continues to do so. Each continue gives you three lives, so there's plenty to play with, including some invulnerability upon respawning, so to speak, in order for you to quickly dispatch the foe that caught you out.
On this PC port, the arcade free play option was most definitely selected, and I was back in the game within seconds of dying. Maybe even within frames, though I didn't count. It's quick, thankfully. If Metal Slug required a reload of the level between deaths, then I don't think I'd be harking on about it as much as I have been, even with those graphics.
Some deaths are perhaps cheap, some enemies are right bastards in the way they kill you, but with practice and experience you can mitigate the dangers and play the game as though your lives actually mattered and that infinite, free continues weren't a thing. But that's for other people to worry about.
From beginning to end, Metal Slug captured my attention with gorgeous sprite work, phenomenal feeling weaponry and an overall presence that said: "You're going to like this playing this".
Would I have liked it as much if I had to pay for lives over and over and over again in the arcade? I don't know. Perhaps not. But would I have missed out on potentially the greatest looking game since A Link to the Past? I most definitely would have. I've already missed out on it, though - barring some slowdown - this PC release is doing a fantastic job at remedying that.
There are oh so many Metal Slug titles today that I'm sure I'll be playing some more of them, but only this first title made it to the list. Are they more of the same? Do they take things in a direction that doesn't work? Do they just not live up to the greatest that is their grandfather? I look forward to finding out and will say that you must play Metal Slug.
Time for another attempt. Fewer than 30 continues this time...
The game wasn't originally going to feature people as the playable characters, just the SV-001 itself. The inclusion of Marco and Tarma meant a change in tone, and a somewhat generic shooter became an iconic one.
Metal Slug, developed by Nazca Corporation, first released in 1996.
Version played: PC, 2015.