11 January 2004



























































I remember seeing Metal Slug for the first time, back in 1996. Wandering listlessly into the small Quasar arcade in central Bath one dull afternoon, your correspondent noticed an unassuming generic JAMMA cabinet sitting amidst the arcade's collection of gargantuan dedicated "simulators". On closer inspection, he was surprised to notice that it appeared to be some sort of 2D platformy cartoon-style shooting game. He may well even have done that thing where you blink, take a small start backwards and then open your eyes extra-wide for a better look.

Anyway, the sheer shock of seeing a non-3D game in a 1996 arcade - and in a cheapo generic stand-up cabinet to boot - was so great that I had to shove some coins into the slot and give it a go. (If you don't recall the times, trust your reporter when he says that you just didn't get 2D videogames in 1996. Game makers were still flushed with the excitement of the 3D era, which had begun in earnest only a couple of years earlier, and releasing a 2D game was a bit like George Lucas deciding that Star Wars: Episode III was going to be a black-and-white silent movie with a live pianist in the cinema providing the soundtrack. Although, that would be excellent.)

20 minutes and several continues later, your reporter was hooked. Trusted colleagues such as celebrated TV illusionist and sports pundit J Nash were enlisted to participate in the two-player action, the evil General Flipflops or whatever his name was was resoundingly defeated, the poignant ending sequence watched ("PEACE FOREVER!"), and then everyone had tea and cake and the world was fine.

Metal Slug was such a breath of fresh air, such an isolated outpost of sheer fun and joyous knockabout comedy in a world suddenly obsessed with tiresome "realism" in videogames, that everyone was delighted to see a sequel, Metal Slug 2 (and just that - thrillingly, not "Metal Slug 2: Un-Necessary Punctuation And Wanky Subtitle") appear in 1998. A little harder than the original but just as much fun, MS2 marked a welcome return in a world still starved of 2D titles. And then, as so often happens after the first sequel in a series, it all started to go a bit wrong.

1999's Metal Slug X was essentially a "Director's Cut" of MS2, a spit-and-polish job featuring most of the same levels, with the graphics smartened up, a few extra bits chucked in, and the difficulty ramped up some more, with more emphasis placed on vehicles than in the previous two games. The extra difficulty, more numerous enemy tanks, and the "zombie" feature introduced in MS2 - whereby the player could be turned into a walking cadaver by poison-breathing mummies, still able to move and fight but at only half the speed - combined to drag down the pace of the game, with the player rarely getting to take two steps forward without being molested by hordes of bad guys appearing magically from nowhere like they were in Final fricking Fantasy or something.

This unwelcome new direction for Metal Slug reached its nadir in Metal Slug 3, released in 2000. (As well as getting worse, the games were getting more frequent, as SNK frantically struggled against impending bankruptcy by milking the living daylights out of any IP they could find.) Savagely hard, full of enormous enemies taking forever to hack your way past, and stuffed to the neck with endless, treacle-paced zombie sections, MS3 sucked almost all of the joy out of the design.

Out went instant fast-moving swashbuckling fun, in came a slow, gruelling slog against ridiculous odds (especially with the now-hopelessly-inadequate default popgun issued to our heroes by their recklessly negligent commanders, with which they were frequently expected to take out entire tank divisions, helicopter squadrons, or armoured bosses the size of a tower block), and one which the player was expected to plough laboriously through multiple times in order to travel all of the various branching routes which could now be taken to the end.

Fearsomely unfair, heavily reliant on big set-pieces and often downright tedious, MS3 stretched the goodwill of the series' fans to its limit. While it was actually fairly well-received in its own right at the time (largely by those playing on emulators, where the constant need to pump in streams of coins after yet another unfair death was negated), the true measure of sequels in long-running series is the response to the next game in the line, because you can best measure the real feelings of players by how eager they are for more.

By the time MS4 arrived in 2002, SNK had succumbed to the pull of the dumper and Mega/Playmore had taken over the Metal Slug franchise. Deciding not to fix a formula that they didn't know was broken yet, they released a game much the same as MS3 in most respects, though shorter and with less branching. It's actually a slightly better game - still horribly difficult and still loaded with murderously wearying zombie sections, but marginally less unfair and gruelling - but sure enough, MS4 proved much less popular than its predecessor, and remains the most-criticised game of the series.

Which brings us to Metal Slug 5 and, for readers implausibly too dim to have figured it out about five paragraphs ago, the reason why World Of Stuart hates capitalism. Because Metal Slug 5 is, once again, a slightly better game than the one preceding it. It's faster, adds some fun new elements like the bit featuring the little Renault-style car seen just to the right of and below the paragraph you're reading now, and most importantly gets rid of the damn zombie sections.

And yet, it's approximately as much fun as having your teeth descaled.The simple fact of the matter is, Metal Slug has outstayed its welcome, and by a considerable distance. What was once a breath of fresh air in a world of tired sequels is now part of the problem rather than part of the solution.

The game's fundamentals have changed so little that in order to still present a challenge after eight years, the only option available to the designers is to ramp up the difficulty in a lazy, artificial way. It took your correspondent 35 continues to reach the end on first play, but only because the game is so unfair (after around the midway point of Mission Two) that it's impossible to sum up enough respect for it to tackle it "properly", coupled with the fact that if you do, the only way to win without being killed is to pick off opponents so laboriously and slowly with your pea-shooter pistol that any remaining shreds of the charging-around-all-guns-blazing fun of MS1 are picked up and tossed to the four winds.

The only enjoyment to be gleaned from MS5 is in seeing the ever-prettier graphics, the exotic new vehicles and the sinister new bad guys, which is why we've taken pictures of them and stuck them down the right-hand side of the page, so that you don't have to go through the punishing and dismaying business of getting to them yourselves. It's nice to see that the graphics artists, at least, have kept up their high standards.

Metal Slug should have stayed a one-off (or at best a two-off). It would have been fondly treasured in the memory of all who played it at the time, and a thrilling historical discovery for those who didn't. But by squeezing it for every last penny, SNK, Mega and Playmore have sullied its good name forever, and poisoned its legacy.

It's probably asking too much that some good things are just left alone - witness, for example, the horrible fate of Tremors in the movie world - without some bunch of reptilian scum in suits demanding that the "revenue" from the "brand" be "maximised" with endless, soulless, point-missing retreads, but please, no more Metal Slugs.








(If you really must find out for yourself, the emulator recommended by all of us here at WoS to run MS5 is NeoMAME32 Plus. And no, obviously we can't tell you where to find the ROM file. You'll just have to download it from your legally-owned cartridge or arcade board.)


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