By the mid-1990s, home-console gaming had taken a turn for the three-dimensional. Titles like WipEout, Battle Arena Toshinden and Ridge Racer had Sony's PlayStation looking every bit like the future in 1995; and SEGA's Saturn was impressive, too, with immersive polygon-built experiences like Panzer Dragoon and Virtua Fighter. That some of these standouts had transferred from arcades also illustrated how coin-op trends were changing - 1995 saw Time Crisis, Tekken 2 and Gunblade NY eating up pocket change by the fistful, each showcasing then-cutting-edge 3D visuals.
But naturally, that wasn't the complete picture. SEGA and Nintendo continued to release amazing games for their 16-bit Mega Drive/Genesis and Super Nintendo consoles, even when faced with the 32-bit revolution; and in the arcades, it wasn't all newfangled graphics. Many games still used traditional sprites - and Nazca Corporation's Metal Slug, released in April 1996, really went to town with them. Such is the run-and-gunner's exceptional attention to visual detail, matched by compelling and intuitive gameplay, that playing it 25 years on, it doesn't feel like a game that's a quarter of a decade old, at all.
It's not Metal Slug, but there ARE a lot of guns... Have a laugh with our Call of Duty: Warzone - Wins and Fails video, below...
At its core, Metal Slug is exceptionally simple: run from left to right, shooting enemies and saving hostages, until you reach a boss and blow it away. But while it's impressively elementary in its mechanical design - throwing in an assortment of weapons and the 'Metal Slug' tanks that give the game (and series) its title, to lend no little razzle-dazzle to the rampant destruction - Metal Slug is an audio-visual symphony that transcends its era.
Characters of all kinds are impressively realised, with even the lowliest of enemy grunts expressive of animation; environments explode and collapse with palpable weight; bullets tear through skin and bone with an explicit zeal that, if the game wasn't so cartoon-like of aesthetic, could actually turn a player's stomach. And all the while, the music (on Spotify here) ripples and peaks, rattling militaristic percussion into jazzy synth flair, propelling you onward through the screams and the cackles, the relieved "thank you"s and the ever-rewarding announcement of "Mission Complete".
Metal Slug's developers at Nazca Corporation - a studio founded by ex-members of Irem, notable for R-Type and other shooters - didn't want gritty realism for one of their two breakout games for the Neo Geo (the other, Neo Turf Masters, is also excellent, and somehow makes a round of golf amazingly exciting). Instead, they looked to the work of famed Studio Ghibli founder Hayao Miyazaki, and evolved the colourful and super-detailed sprites of Irem's GunForce II, which bears such a similarity to Metal Slug that it's easy to see why it's considered a spiritual prequel. The result is a half-Pixar, half-Platoon, Saturday morning cartoon cacophony wrapped up in a blood-stained bow with "War Never Changes" printed its entire length.
What did change was who - or what - the player controls in the game. According to designer Kazuma Kujo, in conversation with Retro Gamer, the soldier protagonists of Marco Rossi and Tarma Roving were relatively late additions. "Originally, the combat vehicle was the only character you controlled," he told the magazine. "However, when we did location tests, we did not get a good response from customers playing. So, we changed the game so that the soldiers were the central characters you controlled."
Having human faces at the forefront of Metal Slug's story - the (excellently named) Peregrine Falcon Strike Force must battle an evil uprising to bring about global peace and prevent a devastating new world order - undeniably helped the single game become a multiple-title series, with overarching plotlines incorporating an alien menace and supernatural foes like zombies and mummies. And while none of that seems especially original, that was never the point. The player having fun, facing up to and overcoming a challenge, was what Metal Slug was all about - and really what all games to bear the name since have prioritised.
At the time of its release - both in arcades and on the Neo Geo AES home console - Metal Slug was a luxury far beyond most players. A truly challenging experience, it could wipe out your pocket money for a month at a time if found in an arcade; and the play-at-home version, only being on the AES initially, was astronomically expensive (if you believe this article, original cartridges can sell for up to $20,000). A swift port to the Neo Geo CD, released in the summer of 1996, took that asking price down considerably; and in the years since, Metal Slug has worked its way onto all manner of consoles and handhelds. From where I'm sitting, writing this, right now, I can see my Neo Geo Mini and my PSP, and Metal Slug's on both of them - and a fair few other devices, besides.
That widening of Metal Slug's availability has seen it become much more than an arcade classic - with its increased accessibility has come an appreciation way beyond desire stirred purely from Special Reserve ads in the back of games magazines, or amongst those with the rare means to enjoy it on its debut platforms. It's now simply a classic of its genre, its era, rather than one limited to the still-pretty-exclusive club of Neo Geo owners. It's an all-timer in the pantheon of side-scrolling shooters; the foundation upon which a successful series was built and the continuation of learnings from decades of arcade design.
And Metal Slug is absolutely a game that is as fun today as it ever was. Those visuals feel fresh, vibrant, absorbingly consistent of feel and tone, exaggerated but oddly believable within their world - that's the Miyazaki influence, shining through. The gameplay - while its beats are mappable, its patterns learnable and sternest challenges ultimately beatable - remains testing, several playthroughs in (Mission Three's mincemeat-loving mini-boss, Allen O'Neil, still causes me problems). As a package, it excels, and would be as well received as a new game today as it was 25 years ago, of that I'm sure. While those polygonal hits of the mid-90s seem like relics, whatever the nostalgia for them, Metal Slug's sights and sounds, and scintillating action, will always be evergreen.
Metal Slug is the GAMINGbible Game of the Month for May 2021 on Antstream Arcade, a retro- and arcade-game streaming service offering 1,000s of titles (including last month's GOTM, Mortal Kombat), playable on PC, Mac, Android and a range of other platforms. Anstream Arcade is free to use, with a premium subscription also available, and you can find more information on its official website.
Featured Image Credit: SNK
Topics: Retro Gaming
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