Developers City Connection have a specialty: cosying up to the back catalogues of once-big publishers, and releasing their games, one by one, onto the Xbox Store. They’ve harvested most of shoot ’em up pioneers Psikyo’s work, and now they’ve moved onto Taito. We are already forming a Taito wishlist: Psychic Force, New Zealand Story and Rainbow Islands next, please!
In a dusty, forgotten corner of Taito’s back catalogue is Metal Black S-Tribute. Other developers might have scooted past it, but shooters are City Connection’s specialty, so you can see why it caught their eye. And we’re glad they did stop and give it a leg up, as it’s one of the most fascinating shoot ’em ups that we’ve played in recent memory.
Note that ‘fascinating’ isn’t necessarily good. But it does imply that Metal Black S-Tribute tries things, and it can’t stop from adopting that experimental mindset. If we knew someone who was developing a shooter right now, we’d encourage them to play Metal Black S-Tribute, simply because it has a determination to pioneer game mechanics, and there’s so much to learn from it: both good and bad.
Take the basic shooting, for example. You can fire a stream of bullets with a press of the A button, but that stream becomes a drip if you hold A too long. So, you’re having to press and repress A if you want to maintain a steady flow. It’s rubbish and we hate it, as we’re thumping the same button over and over again, just to do what other shooters do as a baseline. It’s a change for change’s sake and we got carpal tunnel (we may be exaggerating).
But then Taito does something wonderful by including the beam system. Kill enemies, and molecules dance around the screen. These can be collected to advance your Beam Meter, which – as with any other shooter – slowly makes you more powerful. But here’s the thing: the molecules do what molecules are wont to do, and they stick together. They start bashing into each other and clustering, which makes it easier for you to pick them up en masse. It’s such a beautiful thing to watch and toy with, as you wait for the bullet hell to die down so you can pick them up in one big DNA helix.
Fill up your Beam Meter and you then have a choice. You can keep your top-tier firing capability, or you can choose to dump it all into a monumental but temporary laser beam. It saps away your ship’s basic firepower, but by golly does it clear a screen. Aim it at the weak spot of a boss, and you can reduce it to half health in no time. And, of course, if you use a Continue then you are losing your beam progress, so why not Hail Mary when your back is against the wall?
This is Metal Black S-Tribute in a nutshell. It makes goofy, unworkable design decisions, and then tosses in something truly brilliant. You wonder how they can coexist.
Take the enemies: there are some brilliant ones here, all focused on getting you to react in different ways. And they don’t just attack, either: there are enemies that surround your ship so you can’t fire; nanobot-like enemies that cling to your ship and slow you down; and enemies that collect together to create walls. The enemy rulebook is tossed out of an airlock, and we love it.
But then Metal Black S-Tribute starts chucking the enemies into the level in ways that you can’t deal with. The spaceship can’t fire behind or down, but enemies hang around on the far-left of the screen in your blind spot. Other enemies loiter in the gaps within scenery, but there’s no way of hitting them as your ship is so focused forwards. We felt like the levels were designed for a completely different shooter.
What a fabulous mess Metal Black S-Tribute is. We loved its bonkers bonus levels, where the action goes first-person and you’re moving a reticule around to lock onto enemies. It’s Top Gun Maverick coded on a Nintendo Game & Watch. It’s a big idea, but it’s janky as anything to play.
We love that the bosses tend to have a whacking great tentacle that hoovers up the molecules that you don’t pick up. Boss battles can resemble a game of Hungry Hippos, as you try to nab the balls before the enemies does. It doesn’t half look odd, but we were there for it.
And those bosses feel like they’ve been designed by someone who is making it up as they go along, possibly while on something illegal. “It’s a meteor with the head of an, um, chameleon! Oh, and another one is a fleshy brick that climbs a ramp, with a ball that bounces around it! And when you’re done with that, make me a spaceship who’s exhaust is a fleshy mandible. Cheers!”. It’s the fever dream of an utter madman. We were there for it.
We’re aware that we haven’t particularly told you what Metal Black S-Tribute is about, what it’s like to play, what you have to do, or any of that contextual stuff. But where is the fun in that?
Know that Metal Black S-Tribute is a horizontal shooter made with an anything-goes mentality. Playing it is like eating those Harry Potter jelly beans: sometimes you get strawberry-cream, other times it’s earwax. But the experience is so enjoyable that the odd bit of earwax becomes manageable.
Keep finding these little gems in other people’s back catalogues, City Connection. The more bonkers, the better.
You can buy Metal Black S-Tribute from the Xbox Store