The Metal Slug franchise is one of those games that both irritates the life out of me and makes me feel as though I’m actually quite good at gaming sometimes. It is a ferociously hard series of games for the single reason that it is an arcade game. It is the epitome of coin-guzzling arcade-style shooting where you press right, shoot everything and die more times than you’re truly capable of dying. Sometimes you do it in tanks and planes and on top of elephants.
You heard me. Actually, it might have been camels but were there elephants too at one point? It’s a bizarre history. They probably didn’t. There were camels though. With guns.
You see, Metal Slug teeters on this weird precipice of being amazing fun, amazingly silly and oddly serious. Think of the whole series of games as sitting in a Venn diagram with all three. Most of the time, the games sit squarely in the amazing fun circle but it does tend to drift into amazingly silly with alarming regularity. We’re talking the aforementioned camels with guns, turning into zombies and mummies and getting quite fat if you eat too many food items.
Yep. That’s the level we’re at.
And with First Mission, we have it in the palm of our hands.
Just without all the OTT gimmicks.
Which is ever so slightly disappointing.
Let’s get this straight before anyone thinks I don’t like this game: it is only the lack of silliness that basically makes this disappointing. And it’s not even a disappointing game. It’s bloody Metal Slug. In your hands.
Albeit stripped down to be pretty much a bare bones copy of it.
Story-wise, I’m not going to beat around the bush here. It’s pretty much a straightforward HERE ARE THE ENEMIES, GO KILL THEM type of game in much the same way the others are. Being an arcade-style title, it lends itself to this type of vague storytelling that these games generally do. We don’t have time to waste on plentiful cut-scenes. We’re standing up, wrestling with the controls and wanting to get knee-deep into the action. We haven’t got time for your exposition, just let us fucking shoot some stuff and go from there.
And here it is. In the palm of your hand. Straight into the action with only a small amount “WE NEED TO KILL THESE GUYS NOW” storytelling before Mission Zero begins. Not Mission 1, because that would be SILLY. Mission Zero is your basic give-you-everything level where you’re running and gunning, tanking and planing so that you get used to any mission the game throws at you. You’re going to be in the tank for this mission – GOOD THING I KNOW HOW TO USE IT!
Using the tank, and plane, is pretty simple though. The tank is controlled in the same way your main character is, shooting and jumping – yes, jumping – like you would normally. Traversing the levels is just an intuitive as it is with Marco but the shooting itself can be a bit finicky to get started with. The turret spins around and it doesn’t change directions instantly as you do. It rotates around an axis which means you won’t be able to immediately attack everything. However, it IS automatic, meaning that swinging the turret round shoots everything around you anyway. Essentially, any major grumbles are wiped out. It might be clunky to begin with but let’s be fair… it’s trying to be realistic with its shooting, even if it’s not exactly realistic in any other way. Like the fact that it can jump.
Also, one major difference between this and the vehicles in the main series of games is that if your vehicle gets wiped out, that’s it. Game Over. The levels are designed to be completed with that vehicle and messing it up means you have to start again. There are occasions where it leads to a separate path but it does mean that you don’t complete the mission and you have to live with that unerring amount of failure.
A BIG FUCKING RED CROSS OVER THAT MISSION ON THE MISSION MAP.
But I was doing so well!
And there are bosses. Of course. They’re usually planes, choppers, trains, whatever. BIG MACHINES READY TO FUCK YOU UP. To be honest, they’re actually quite tame in terms of what they do. They usually throw slow-moving bullets at you while you blast away at them with your tiny gun (because that’s what you end up being left with by the time you get to the boss) and then have to try and blow them away with grenades when you remember “OH YES I HAVE GRENADES” because dammit, that boss takes too long to piss away at it with fucking BB gun pellets or whatever it is you’re using. And those grenades are so easy to use.
No they’re not.
You have to press the option button to select them.
Yep. Do you know how tiny that button is?
This is the game’s only major flaw but it’s not ACTUALLY the game’s fault. There’s so much that this game wants to do, that it tries to do, and it has to resort to using this button – which truth be told isn’t particularly responsive at the best of times and needs a proper push, as opposed to a tap – to be able to fulfil the role of ‘change weapon’. But… there really isn’t any other way around it. The machine only have two main buttons, no shoulder triggers, and the only choice is to use this one…
They ironed it out for the sequel… but I have never actually played that one so I have no idea how. It intrigues me somewhat though… what other way IS there? Both buttons at once? Hold A, press B? I dunno. As much of a fiddly flaw as it is, it’s not instantly recognisable as to how to solve it. This is the type of game that struggles to work on smaller systems when there aren’t enough buttons… It’s kind of like having to press start on the Mega Drive’s original 3-button controller when you wanted to use kick attacks on Street Fighter 2. Who has time for that? Ain’t nobody got time fo’that, etc.
Controller mischief aside, the rest of the game works as you expect it to. There are a lot of weapons to get a hold of, including shotguns, rocket launchers and machine guns and ammo is generally limited for all of them. After that, it’s back to the standard handgun and knife.
Oh yes, as per the standard Metal Slug, you have the obligatory knife with which you can slit the throats of your enemies – and yes that is basically what they’re going. Well… the spurt of blood signifies that that’s the case. The slumping of bodies is just as unnerving on this version as it is on the home consoles. Watching the neatly-animated characters slowly, lifelessly fall to the ground is oddly satisfying. The way this game carries over that level of detail into the handheld version is nothing short of impressive. It can do that quite easily because the character sprites generally look quite ropey on their own. They move beautifully though and the game does manage to bring across a gritty, military feel to proceedings with quite a lot of panache.
The Metal Slug series has always been a pretty high-intensity affair. Deaths are inevitable – and frequent – and obtaining the perfect run is nigh-on impossible for the most part. It is made much easier in this version by virtue of the life bar. You can take a few shots here and there and can replenish your health with various items (some of which degrade over time which diminishes their effects, which is rather neat on the whole). Some connoisseurs may not like this idea in a Metal Slug game. Some people might. This IS a spin-off so it’s not directly classed as a mainstream title. We can forgive it that. I mean… there are definitely things we can forgive.
THIS IS NOT ONE OF THEM. NOW LET US NEVER SPEAK OF IT AGAIN.
The game focuses on completing missions (usually GET TO THE END OF THE LEVEL) but there are also prisoners of war to find and free. They all look the same but we won’t begrudge it that. They’ve always looked the same. They’re either tied to a post or tied up and sat down. They also give us free stuff. Fuck yeah. Free stuff!
They aren’t AS important in this version though. My first major foray into the series was 3 and you got quite a lot of bonuses for completing a level WITHOUT DYING with all of the prisoners of war found. In this one? Nada. You get a few points. You get a weapon occasionally but it’s inconsequential for the most part.
As far as I know anyway.
And here’s where the game really comes into its own: branching paths.
You can finish the game really quickly if you do everything right and find the quickest exit through the level. It might take you about twenty or so minutes if you blitz through it like a maniac but if you delve deeper and explore a bit more, you tend to find a different way through. If you fail a mission (particularly the vehicle ones), then apart from the RED CROSS OF FAILURE that you get branded onto the map, you also get sent on a different path to get through the game. One day you might go from Mission 1 to Mission 7. The next, you could end up going from Mission 2 to Mission 9 or something. It’s not random. It depends on where you go and what you do. Fail the first flying mission and you have to finish it on foot and go from there. Fail a tank section (WHICH I HAD NEVER DONE BEFORE UNTIL MY LATEST PLAY THROUGH OH MY ACTUAL GOD), and you’re sent to the prison camp.
That’s right. You wake up here, laid out on the floor with onto your knife. Enemies watching you trying to escape will try to slice you open with a machete. Dogs will set off the alarms and a spotlight will follow you to fire at you. Rats will jump up at you. Spears will poke through small gaps to try and impale you to the ceiling.
I had NEVER need this stage before and it was TERRIFYING to think that I was basically down to a knife and one wrong move could mean instant death. Fall off the screen and you’re done for. It’s game over man, etc, etc.
But what’s even worse is that this led me to a level that, again, I’d never played before and wished I’d never seen before. EVER.
HOLY. SHIT. THIS LEVEL.
Go after the train on one of those old-school push-pull carts by repeatedly pressing A and then jumping over electric… probes? Or something? Either way, you need some serious skills to survive this level. Electrocution WILL occur. Jumps have to be PERFECT, and landing on the rails will electrocute you further. Jumping over the obstacles is an absolute nightmare because the cart keeps rolling so just jumping won’t work. You have to move WITH it.
And it’s fucking annoying.
But it was challenging. It threw something else into the mix that I’d never seen. I was given yet more hooks to a game already akin to velcro.
And even 16 years after its release, I found NEW joy out of it. The branching paths I knew about were branched even further. I hadn’t expected to return to it thinking I’d see something new…
But I say that every time. Every time I played it, I never got the same experience. It was always bloody great fun.
It was just the right amount of new each time. It never left you out in the cold.
And on the Venn diagram of this game, we’re basically getting this:
And who can argue with THAT?
Apart from NO ONE. BECAUSE STATISTICS.