Last week was pretty great, and not just because I played through a different Metal Slug game each day. No, it was pretty great because I spent the week with my three month old son. My wife’s FMLA was scheduled to end and accordingly, we had planned for me to use up some accrued vacation time to prolong daycare one more week, and you know, get some quality time with our little tree frog. I had taken off the week when he was born, and of course we had plenty of bonding time in the evenings and on weekends when my wife would get a break, but nonetheless, spending so much unbroken time with him was immensely fulfilling. At this stage in his development, he seemed to make noticeable improvements with his motor skills daily; and I may be a little biased, but everything he does is so fascinating!
During evening hours and weekends, I’d already experienced how much effort goes into watching an infant, how selfless you have to be. But being with him all day and trying to fit in some semblance of a normal schedule was exhausting. Before the week off, I’d foolishly planned on scanning in documents from our filing cabinet and updating photos with GPS coordinates while he slept. I quickly found out just keeping the house tidy was a success. And it wasn’t that he didn’t sleep much, it just came in the form of numerous short naps; if I added it all up, he probably slept as much as I thought he would. About once a day though, he would take an extended nap, which was when I’d fit in chores, lunch, and a Metal Slug game.
Unlike the tasks I had planned to do, the idea to play through a Metal Slug game each day was spontaneous. That Sunday, after discussing my recently purchased copy of Metal Slug Anthology with a friend, we popped it in. Neither of us had beaten an entry in the series, and as we were between games, we thought it could tide us over. I’d always been drawn to the series’ trademark cartoonish visuals, but the flawless animation really moved me. That first game was frustratingly tough, though; it was definitely designed to eat your quarters in the arcades where it originally appeared. With normal settings, it took us nearly fifty continues to beat! The difficulty was enough to turn my friend off, but the game’s brevity and unlimited continues, coupled with the fact that the compilation had seven games, sparked the idea of beating one a day for the rest of the week.
As the week progressed and I played yet another entry in the series, it became increasingly clear how similar the games were. Truly, if you’ve played one Metal Slug, you’ve played them all. There were differences between them, to be sure, but they were slight. And there were absolutely peaks and valleys amongst this collection; the exorbitant, practically half the game in length final stage of Metal Slug 3 blew me away, and remained the highlight of the week, while its immediate follow-up was comparatively uninspired. Digging a little deeper into the series revealed the answer, and highlighted a need for additional context in compilations such as this, beyond an art gallery.
Nazca Corporation, the Japanese studio that spawned the Metal Slug series was founded by a group of former Irem Corp. developers, after that company all but dissolved in early 1994. Through the early 1990s, they had collaborated on a number of arcade games for Irem, such as Undercover Cops, In the Hunt, and GunForce II, each of which share a strong visual identity with the Metal Slug series, and in the case of the last two, play similarly. Their first game together as Nazca, Neo Turf Masters, released for SNK’s Neo Geo arcade/home console platform in January 1996. Metal Slug followed a few months later in April, and they were promptly folded into SNK Corporation proper. Their work on Metal Slug continued unabated for the next couple of years.
Metal Slug 2 released in February 1998, and in addition to six new stages of quarter eating, run and gun pandemonium, there were new playable characters, vehicles, weapons, enemies, and perhaps most notably, a pair of odd status inflictions. In both instances, my avatar was transformed into a slow-walking representation of their former self. When mummified, my avatar shuffled ahead at an excruciating pace (albeit, beautifully), and my proficiency with firearms and grenades diminished drastically; it was such a relief if I managed to survive long enough to locate an antidote. On the other hand, when my character consumed too much food, they became obese. Again, my forward momentum was curtailed but for this affliction, there were perks: my attacks (close quarters knife slashes, grenades, and firearms) were altered with beneficial qualities.
Debuting a year later, in March 1999, Metal Slug X was an enhanced, remixed version of Metal Slug 2. Apparently, that game was so plagued with slowdown, the developers at Nazca and SNK wanted a do-over. Truth be told, I can’t remember experiencing such issues, but needless to say, if slowdown occurred it didn’t cast a shadow over my playthrough. There were plenty of other changes too. Besides necessary fixes for some oddball glitches, stages were altered with more enemies and power ups, and crucially, the iconic Rocket LAUncher sound bite was introduced. Were these, plus loads more of barely noticeable changes enough to play through the game twice? Maybe not, but this was undoubtedly the definitive version of Metal Slug 2.
Metal Slug 3 though, well that’s the definitive version of Metal Slug, period. First available in March 2000, this was the final game developed by the Nazca team. SNK had fallen on hard times and were acquired by Aruze Corporation in January 2000, a company primarily known for their output of pachinko machines, but that only prolonged the death knell; SNK eventually filed bankruptcy in October 2001. Perhaps seeing the writing on the wall, it seems as if the developers threw everything they had into making Metal Slug 3. Loads of new vehicles were introduced, like a submarine which provided for an In the Hunt throwback; branching paths kept successive playthroughs interesting; and more than anything, the multiple sequences that made up the final stage, which was like, half the game, just kept getting more and more grandiose. On top of the over-the-top action it already contained, there were traditional shoot ‘em up sequences, both horizontal and vertical, that really lit my fire. Having played four Metal Slug games in as many days at this point, I was starting to get fatigued, but this final stage knocked me flat on my ass in awe. I won’t forget it anytime soon.
Regarding SNK’s demise, one man who clearly saw the writing on the wall was Eikichi Kawasaki, the founder. A few months prior to the company’s October 2001 bankruptcy and auctioning off of IP, he departed and founded Playmore. With this new company, he successfully reacquired the rights to SNK’s properties, including Metal Slug; that said, Metal Slug 4 was actually produced by the series’ South Korean distributor, MEGA Enterprise. I’m struggling to find concrete details on this arrangement, but I imagine MEGA simply had the capital at a time when Playmore didn’t, and so they guided development. SNK’s dissolution resulted in the Nazca team scattering, and so Noise Factory, a relatively young Osaka studio closely associated with SNK and the Neo Geo, handled development for Metal Slug 4, which launched in March 2002.
Topping Metal Slug 3 would be no small task, but Metal Slug 4 doesn’t exhibit a team trying to do that. Instead, it’s obvious the developers were just getting their feet wet, learning how to make a Metal Slug game, and perhaps within a truncated development period. It was a back-to-the-basics entry that whittled down the number of vehicles and enemy types I came across, while at the same time continuing on with branching paths and odd transformations. Aside from the diminished variety of enemy types or background environments to produce, there was no discernible drop in visual quality, and the gameplay was just as hectic as what had come before, if only pared down quite a bit. More than anything, Metal Slug 4 was simply underwhelming considering what preceded it; if Metal Slug 3 was the clear high-water mark at this point in the series at this point, this game was the clear low-water mark.
By the time Metal Slug 5 released in November 2003, Eikichi Kawasaki had regained the rights to the SNK name, and thusly Playmore was then known as SNK Playmore. Noise Factory had also been acquired and once again handled development of the newest Metal Slug. It turned out to be the final installment on the venerable Neo Geo hardware, a platform that debuted in Japan way back in April 1990! In typical fashion, this entry was a beautiful showpiece of the platform’s 2D capabilities. Metal Slug 5 was also a return to form following its disappointing predecessor. With an escorted canoe ride through a lush jungle, followed by a trek through a booby-trapped temple, the game started strong and set itself apart from its brethren. There were still plenty of bombed out urban environments to run through guns blazing, but it also ended on a high note, duking it out against a massive, otherworldly foe.
The last entry in this compilation, Metal Slug 6, was the only in the series to be developed for the Atomiswave arcade platform, a collaboration between Sammy Corporation, Sega, and SNK Playmore. Coincidentally, the Atomiswave was in the headlines just a few months ago as many of the platform’s two-dozen or so games were receiving homebrew ports to the Dreamcast. Anyways, Metal Slug 6 released in February 2006, and was framed as the final installment in the series (but like an aging rock band who decided no, this is the last tour, there’s been another entry since then). Ralf and Clark from Ikari Warriors increased the roster of playable characters, and for the first time each person had unique traits. I wasn’t proficient enough to strategically die to use someone else at specific points or anything, but it was fun alternating between the cast for more than a palette swap. A difficulty option was also introduced, which besides reducing the challenge, truncated the game on easy. Which is a shame, since the final boss (and the last couple, actually) was quite memorable. There were some other clever updates to the gameplay, so thankfully, this compilation went out with a bang.
Like I mentioned, this compilation lacked historical context for the series, but did have a few extras, like a text interview and art galleries. I played the PlayStation 4 version, which was a straight port of the PlayStation 2 version, albeit with trophies. The trophy list was very basic, tasking the player with accomplishing the same four or five objectives across each game. I was impressed with how far my skills had come though when I went back into the games to try and get a few of the tougher trophies, and in doing so, I finally had my skills put to the test. Having unlimited credits to get through each game (except Metal Slug 6, since it had a selectable difficulty) made for a hollow sense of accomplishment, especially in comparison to playing through Mars Matrix where I at least felt like I earned the satisfaction of beating the game through skill. At the same time, trying to whittle down the number of continues I used per game from twentyish, to a standard five or whatever they would’ve allotted the player, well that would’ve taken a lot of time and effort, and I likely wouldn’t have seen any endings! I generally lean towards seeing the entire game at the cost of satisfaction and accomplishment in this philosophical dilemma, but all the same, the effort I put into beating Mars Matrix and the feeling from doing so will probably stick with me longer than mindlessly running though these games.
As far as memorable experiences go, thinking specifically of last week, nothing could top the joy of spending it with my son. I had to adopt a new routine, and essentially adapt to his schedule one hundred percent. There wasn’t much time for the things I personally wanted to do but hey, I’m a parent and that’s just part of the job. When I did squeeze my agenda items in, odds and ends like chores, rushing to get lunch, or playing through a Metal Slug game, I made the most of my time. These games were the perfect length for me to scarf down lunch and roll credits before the little one woke up from his afternoon nap, and they were fun to boot! Playing the entire series (damn near) back-to-back, day after day wore thin, especially after Metal Slug 3, but even at their lowest, these games were still gorgeous to see in motion and a blast to gun, and jump through. I was already a fan from afar, but this compilation solidified it for me, the Metal Slug series is awesome!