Recently at the local Albertson’s, while purchasing a copy of an XBox magazine, the cashier asked, “So, you a gamer?” I replied, “Oh yeah, hardcore. What about you?” He said, “Yeah, but I don’t like the 3D games; I like the old 2D ones.” The chatter ended with me thinking that this isn’t the first time I’ve heard this sentiment. But for better or worse, the way of the 2D action/shooter game has been miniaturized to mostly handheld platforms, and 3D reigns supreme.
Leave it to SNK, a company that sticks to its 2D game design roots to bring a 2D side scrolling shooter game to today’s consoles and do it with style. Metal Slug 3, a port of the original arcade/NeoGeo game, manages to be as appealing as it was back in the day when quarters flowed into slots while parents did their boring shopping. As one of the four square-jawed heroes or spunky heroines, players shoot and dodge their way through six stages in an attempt to earn a High Score and complete the levels. It’s a serious gaming test, as Metal Slug 3 has an unforgiving difficulty level made more frustrating by its continue system. I don’t know that even the supermarket guy’s preference for 2D would survive against the mass of obstacles flung at a Metal Slug 3 soldier.
For a game that involves shooting most everything that moves, the instruction book contained a lot of back story. None of it played out in the actual game as cut scenes or even scripted events. Briefly (and as near as I can determine) the heroic soldiers from previous Metal Slugs return after some inter-agency intrigue to deal with an alien invasion. The aliens are mutating animals to attack, and troops from General Morden’s army (the villain from the previous Metal Slugs) also show up to gun or knife down the player. It doesn’t make much sense, but it did give the graphic designers free rein to design some memorably wacky enemies and environments, including aliens, zombies, enemy vehicles, yetis, and more.
I hadn’t played a 2D side scroller since Skullmonkeys for the original Playstation, so popping in Metal Slug 3 provided a nice trip back to the days when camera controls didn’t exist. Metal Slug 3 also has no cut scenes, no pages of stats or briefings to read, and no complicated control combos to learn. It involves picking up a controller and mostly hitting the X button as fast as your thumb allows. With so few games like it available for today’s consoles (particularly the XBox), it stands out.
After choosing your soldier, players are dropped into the combat zone. Metal Slug 3 features six different levels of action. Just like old times, the player must keep their character moving to the right (other directions as well sometimes) to get to the end, where a heavy duty boss battle awaits. There’s little subtlety to the controls; players must shoot as fast as possible to destroy enemies with the occasional grenade chucked for good measure. They also must jump, crouch, or outrun the return fire. It’s all easy to figure out and fun, as old arcade games like Contra or Rush ’N’ Attack were.
Stages are divided into different areas that can be found, allowing different paths to the boss battle. Sometimes these secret areas have more hostages to rescue and bonuses to collect, other times they’re just an easier fight than staying on the main path. Seeking the High Score often forces decisions as to whether to take the difficult path full of bonus points or an easier path where you can progress further.
Along a stage’s path, players collect power-ups by freeing hostages and other friendly characters. Most of these are weapon upgrades that, while limited in ammo, allow players to cut an easier swath through the bad guys. The soldiers can also find and board Slugs (the game’s name for a vehicle), and these take the forms of tanks, submarines, mechs, even elephants.
The Slugs allow the good guys to take a few more hits, but outside the Slug, one shot = one kill for the player. Players are liable to wish the same were true of the bad guys, who often require concentrated firepower to destroy. Since dying occurs often, the game winds up being an intense exercise in reflexes and memorization.
Metal Slug 3 wears its old school arcade origins proudly, to the point that it includes game credits as a part of the experience. Once a player’s lives are exhausted, they can continue by using one of the four allotted credits. This would have been fine if players restarted from the sub-stage or at a checkpoint. Instead, continuing starts the level over from the very beginning. Because Metal Slug 3 is a relatively short game from beginning to end, it’s likely this design decision was made to help lengthen the game. What it ends up doing though is add repetitiveness and frustration. Stages are long enough so that you’ll be repeating the same five minutes you went through without a problem to get to the point that killed you and is likely to kill you again.
The game takes some edge off by allowing players to change the difficulty setting and number of lives per credit, but even the easy setting has challenging moments that’ll burn off two or three lives. It’s a testament to Metal Slug 3’s game play that players will find themselves goaded into continuing anyway (and without the need for diligently digging around in one’s pocket for another quarter). For casual gamers, the difficulty is likely to be a turn off.
Though Metal Slug 3’s XBox Live support involves only the ability to post one’s score to a leaderboard, its offline two player cooperative option is welcome. The added firepower of a buddy makes completing stages easier, but this is offset by the fact that game credits remain at four, which means only two continues for each player. It’s a shame that online multi-player capability isn’t there, as this would have pushed Metal Slug 3 into “must-have” category, especially for Live gamers who need to let off some steam after online rounds of the serious tactical shooter games.
Additional bonus stages are unlockable after completing the Arcade mission. These are nice additions, but given the difficulty of completing the game, I wonder how many casual gamers will stick with restarting a level time and again in order to enjoy the bonus levels.
Metal Slug 3’s level of detail in the characters, enemies, and destruction wrought by these is something to behold. Players will often see to surprising, gross, or amusing moments, such as zombies pulling out their digestive tract to shoot dangerous glop at a player, enemy soldiers running in panic from the player, or the player struggling to escape from inside a snowman. Stages are filled with destructible objects, and even though the screen can get filled with chaotic explosions, enemy vehicles breaking apart, and more enemies piling in to take a shot at the player, the frame rate remains smooth.
Despite being 2D sprites, the thorough graphic work makes for consistently entertaining animations that a player can watch repeatedly in order to catch all the subtle touches. The graphics end up becoming most of Metal Slug 3’s incentive to continue, just to see what inspired lunacy the designers concocted for the next area.
Familiar voice overs from the original arcade game announce power-ups and make other exclamations. I’m mindlessly humming some of the game’s background music as I write this; it’s that catchy.
Despite its difficulty, six stages of action isn’t much. Rather than make the game last longer, the limited continues are more liable to deter players from continuing on to unlock the bonus material. Metal Slug 3’s distinction as a 2D arcade game that rewards thumb speed, reflexes, and sheer determination has an appeal in the midst of today’s increasingly realistic, complicated, and (often excessively) story-driven games. Whether that appeal lasts depends mostly on the dedication of the player for this type of gaming. In today’s casual-gamer focused market, it probably won’t last long.