Today’s gamers live in an era where the industry seems focused on processing power, graphics capabilities, intelligent enemies, Dolby Digital surround sound and a variety of other “next-generation” features. The funny thing is, somebody must’ve forgotten to tell SNK Neo Geo about the trend, because the company’s Xbox game Metal Slug 3 breaks all the rules.
Metal Slug 3 goes as old-school as possible without quite stooping to four-pixel sprites, a true arcade game that just happens to appear on a console. It’s a two-dimensional side-scroller. It’s got incredibly (but purposefully) dated graphics. It’s got a complete lack of save points. Its steep difficulty is counter-balanced by a relatively short campaign. And by the way, it’s incredibly fun, if you like old-school games.
Like a classic arcade stand-up, Metal Slug 3 allows players to go through a mission by themselves or with a partner, and that partner can pop in at any time in the game by, you guessed it, “Pressing Start.” Whether players opt to go it solo or with a friend, the gameplay remains the same (kill everything in sight), the aiming scheme is identical (up/down/left/right), and the position and number of enemies remains unchanged. But before you think these are signs of a poor game, remember one thing: Metal Slug 3 makes no bones about being a true arcade port, and such elements are just par for the course.
Like Contra and, to a lesser extent, every arcade “shooter” in the R-Type vein, the weapons in Metal Slug 3 are incessantly upgradable, with heat-seeking rocket launchers, heavy machine guns and weapons of an equally booming nature. All of these weapon upgrades are attainable during each level after beginning the stage with nothing but a machine gun with unlimited ammunition and a limited number of grenades that can be replenished via the game’s numerous power-ups.
Each level has various paths to the end, from the obvious route to the occasionally obscure subpath. On some levels these subpaths involve an underwater excursion, while in others it simply involves going over a bridge rather than overwater in a boat. The boat and the other nine vehicles are referred to as “metal slugs,” and they represent the biggest powerup a player can get, since your firepower increases exponentially while riding them.
Amid all this action, the weaponry retains a bit of comic flair. For example, the weapon upgrades and grenade replenishments are all delivered by bearded men whom players must free from their roped captivity. Gamers can also save a caged monkey that whips out a gun and dishes out the hurt a la the ship-circling upgrade in Gradius. Even the scoring system is not without its jokes, as players who collect enough fruit will eventually see their character get temporarily obese from the high-fiber diet.
Also in classic arcade fashion, the mid-level enemies are generally benign clones of one another, but the end-level bosses are huge, hard and have a tendency to kill your player more than once. Just the first boss, for example, takes up the entire left-hand side of the screen, and once players’ vehicle is destroyed by the boss’ missiles, the pea-shooter of a machine gun leaves little hope for quick victory. This is arcade blast-a-rama at its finest, for better or for worse.
If the gameplay doesn’t drive that fact home, the graphics and sound sure will. Have you heard about the latest bloom lighting, normal-mapping and multiple-pass texturing? Well forget about all that before popping Metal Slug 3 into your Xbox. This game bleeds arcade, from pixel-counting character models to two-dimensional environments that prevent any and all backtracking. It’s supposed to be that way, and old-school gamers will revel in the flashback to the “good old days,” but it might catch younger gamers by surprise. So too will the sound, which can get repetitive at times (particularly the soundtrack) but stays true to the game’s arcade flavor.
Unfortunately, the one aspect that doesn’t uphold the arcade heritage is the checkpoint system, and it’s probably the game’s fatal flaw. In many arcade games, and in fact even in the original Neo Geo release of Metal Slug 3, players continue where their character died. In the Xbox version of Metal Slug 3, though, players continue at the beginning of the level. And this fact will not be lost on those with a tendency to throw their controller, because the game only allows five continues for its difficult five-level campaign. And if you can beat this game on your first attempt with those five continues, you’re better gamers than we are. Two players is the way to go on this one; the more bullets flying at bad guys, the better.
Once you beat the game (which, by the way, is completely feasible), a few unlockable modes become available, but not enough to keep you playing for weeks on end. In one unlockable mode you can play through as an enemy character, and in the other mode you can kill enemies and get fat off their fruit. There’s also the option to upload your scores via Xbox Live, although it wouldn’t been a better use of Xbox Live functionality to include co-op support than simple leaderboards. After all, online co-op probably wouldn’t have hurt the framerate with Metal Slug 3’s graphics engine.
Metal Slug 3 is definitely entertaining, and it’s a must-rent for anyone who has a hankering for arcade action before Arcade Treasures 2 and Xbox Live Arcade ship later this year. But is it worth the full purchase price? Let’s put it this way: how many arcade stand-ups did you buy and take home with you? Metal Slug 3 is one of those games you’ll think fondly of for years to come, but it’s probably one of those titles, like the coin-op arcade classics, that you’d just as soon remember fondly than have at home collecting dust for years to come. It’s a solid title, to be sure, but probably best suited as a rental for all but the most hardcore arcade fanatics.
- Gameplay: 8.2
- Classic arcade action never takes itself too seriously, but it is seriously hard.
- Graphics: 8
- They’re supposed to look old-school, remember? It’s called “authentic.”
- Sound: 7
- It gets the job done, but even arcades can get obnoxious.
- Replay: 6
- Unless you’re a leaderboard junkie, there’s not much to keep you going.
- Overall: 7.8
- Fun while it lasts, but a bit too short and possibly too “retro” for its own good.
— Jonas Allen