Back in the day, I was never allowed to have a Neo Geo console. The ridiculous cost of the unit itself (£399 at launch, equivalent to £700 now), added to the fact that the games used to regularly retail for over £100 a pop, made my Mum and Dad say “No!” and point out I still had a perfectly good Atari 2600 to play on. Parents eh? I think this is probably why my six year old son has a Wii U, 2DS and various other electronic devices to play with, if you’ll forgive the amateur psychology. Anyway, moving on and as a result of this parental decision, I never got to play Metal Slug in the home until now, with the release of ACA NEO GEO Metal Slug for the Xbox One. So, has it been worth the 21 year wait?
The story, such as it is, revolves around a super weapon, the titular Metal Slug. This experimental tank has been stolen, and it’s up to the Peregrine Falcon Squad to get it back, by shooting anything that looks like getting in your way. Playing in single player mode, you take control of Marco Rossi (no fancy character selection here) and proceed to bring the pain – “I ain’t got time to bleed!” etc… The story is throw away nonsense and has no bearing on the way the game plays out, but it’s nice to know why we are shooting all these bad guys, isn’t it?
Loading up Metal Slug and you’re faced with the choice of options of how you want to play. Normal Mode, in either English or Japanese, speaks for itself, allowing you to run through the whole game from start to finish with unlimited continues. Hi Score mode gives you one continue, and challenges you to score as many points as you can before you inevitably succumb to the cumulative effects of lead poisoning. The last option meanwhile is Caravan Mode, which puts five minutes on the clock and challenges you to score as many points as you can with one continue before time runs out. My ambition is to survive the whole five minutes, but that’s a whole other story!
Being a veteran of Contra 3 way back on the SNES, and many other run and gun games since, I thought I’d have this game licked in no time. Boy was I in for a rude awakening. What time has done, at least for me, is round off the corners of the difficulty spikes so I’m viewing these past games almost through rose tinted glasses, remembering them as hard, but not too hard. My first death within a minute of spawning into the game served to remind that these games demand respect, as one hit equals one death – there is none of this ‘shields that regenerate if you hide for bit’ gaming here. It’s probably worth admitting that to complete the game first time, it took me 44 continues, and I’m not even ashamed. NEOGEO Metal Slug demands total precision, focus and concentration, as if you let your guard down, there are no end of enemies waiting to offer you projectile based death. Add to this soldiers who fire huge missiles, throw grenades, stab you if they get too close, drive tanks and man huge installations, and you can see that this is not a challenge for the faint of heart.
Graphically, the Metal Slug games have always had an adorable, sprite based art style that had its genesis in this game. The joy on the POWs’ faces when you free them, the agonised expression as your little guy gets shot, and all the little touches in the background really take you back to the days of yore. The sprites are still an effective way of displaying the game to you, and the hand drawn art style really makes it seem like you are playing a cartoon. Crunching sound effects, distressing screams, massive explosions and gun reports make this a game that, on an aural level at least, doesn’t disappoint.
So onto the game itself. Run from left to right, shoot baddies, rescue goodies, and at the end of the level defeat a ridiculously overpowered boss. Rinse and repeat, or as Scooter from Borderlands would say “Try not to die”. Waves of enemies are relentless, throwing everything but the kitchen sink at you. Every now and then, you’ll run across a pick up that gives you an overpowered gun of your own, whether that be a rocket launcher or a heavy machine gun to bring the noise. Sadly, these don’t last, and quite often you’ll find yourself facing a screen full of enemies with nothing more vicious than your starting pistol and some harsh language. This can be somewhat of an issue, but given the soldier you control has the reflexes of a squirrel, it is possible to jump and duck your way through, even with a weak weapon.
Once per level, you are given the chance to get into the Metal Slug tank, which evens things up somewhat, and turns your one hit death into three hits before the tank blows up. Weirdly, the tank can also jump and duck, and fire many, many bullets, but this is a futuristic super weapon, so maybe they’ll all do this in the future? With a bit of care, it’s possible to take the tank all the way to the boss of the level, which again makes your life a lot easier. I think I managed this once, so it’s not a given by any means.
Speaking of bosses, a special mention has to go out to Allen O’Neill, a Rambo style character with an M60, grenades and a knife. As he is only man sized, as opposed to giant tanks or helicopter sized, I really struggled with putting him down. If he’s above you, he’ll throw grenades. On the same level and he’ll fire his M60. Or if he gets up close, he’ll shank you in a heartbeat. Oh, and he absorbs bullets in the best tradition of end of level baddies. Beating him was a real punch the air, inadvertent whoop moment, and even the telling off from the wife couldn’t take the shine off.
However, this port is not without issues. Slowdown again raises its head, as it does in another NEOGEO title, Neo Turf Masters, but here, weirdly, it makes your life a bit easier. It’s off putting, don’t get me wrong, but when there are 20 enemies firing at you, the bullets moving slower can be a blessing in disguise, albeit a somewhat jarring one. Luckily, the slowdown doesn’t ever last too long, but really it shouldn’t happen on a console with the power of the Xbox One. I wonder just how many times more powerful the box under the telly is than the original Neo Geo from back in the day? Well let me tell you as a quick Google reveals that in terms of polygon pushing power at least, today’s machines are roughly 1,000,000 times more powerful than the 90’s era machines. Which is a lot. And so slowdown really shouldn’t be an issue…
In conclusion then, there is an awful lot to like about ACA NEOGEO Metal Slug. Charming graphics, unforgiving skill based gameplay, pad bitingly hard bosses and a touch of slowdown combine to make a heady brew. Again for the low, low price of £6.39, this is a slice of nostalgia that demands to be played.