It's with no small horror that I realise I'm inching towards my ten year's anniversary of doing this (i.e. Writing nonsense about videogames in exchange for a small pile of money). Starting on the Amiga, I was in the front line of its battle in the post-Sonic Brushfire conflict where everyone and their dog made a rudimentary side-on action game of varying flavours. I've still got the scars, man. Hell: I get Flashback flashbacks [not as good as Another World, was it? - Equally ageing Ed].
Returning to this Metal-Slug-style side-on blaster, you realise that no matter how much has changed, fundamentally, nothing has. Things which were always bad signs back in the day rear their ugly head here. The lesson in question: the number of lives a game gives you is inversely proportional to its quality.
Start Alien Hominid and you discover that you have many lives. And Credits. Oh my.
Hominid makes a compulsive and charismatic star, the very best quality of sociopathic teenager's notebook margin-scrawlings brought into technicolour life. He shoots people, and they die in a splendidly bloody fashion. Fire the red laser beams and slice your targets in half, slumping messily to the side like a prime side of beef. A blast of the freeze-ray and reduce those who dare try and prevent you leaving the Earth into statues to shatter. A flamethrower either reduces them to an embarrassed cinder or sets them running about in an understandable panic. Yes, they're standard weapons you may expect to see in any arcade game. And, yes, the results are almost as unimaginative. However, the execution is cartoon-perfect and ripe with charm.
In addition to these standards, they've given the little chap an expanded, demented action set too. Time a jump right and you can grab hold of people's heads, then either lift them from the floor to lob at the opposition or bite their bonce clear off, to the horror of their nearby friends. Less dramatically, a forward roll allows you to nip beneath an incoming bullet. As a defensive measure, the Hominid can burrow into the ground where he's invulnerable. His stay is only limited by the amount of time his lungs can hold out, but until then he can grab passers-bys down with him. Oh yes - and if he fires close up, he dispatches foe with a knife-slash rather than a laser. Add an R-type-styled energy-build-up-blast, and you've got an amusing arsenal to unleash.
Then there's the array of vehicles you can pick up, with short trips in cars, tanks, giant yeti and other assorted elements of the delirious Invader-Zim-homage you're thrown into. Action is constant and varied, with the game constantly mixing up its elements. When it returns to one, you'll often get a visual twist. For example, fundamentally, the FBI descending from helicopters to attack are virtually identical to the Communist Soldiers exploding from the ground, but it feels very different. It's also a constantly funny game, with plenty of sight gags. It certainly presents a particularly brutal line of slapstick.
Its problem is that, at least when first playing anything, it's not really very much fun. It's not fun because - as signified by the number of lives - it kills you constantly, without sufficient warning and in a manner which annoys rather than excites.
Let's have a look at a mild example of how Alien Hominid goes out of its way to alienate the new player: the first mini-boss. He's a chirpy robot, whose main attacks are either running at you or standing still and firing a thick beam-laser at you. The only terrain you have available to outwit this mechanical fiend is a platform at around his head height. His pattern is obvious enough. He starts on the right. He runs to the left. He turns around, pauses, and runs back to the right. He then fires his laser beam at platform height, pausing, then kneeling and firing it at ground height. The sequence then loops.
Easily graspable, yes? Where Alien Hominid's annoyance shows is in the detail of its execution. Obviously, you don't want to be in the ground when he's doing his run in either direction, because you'll be stomped to death as you can't jump high enough. Equally, the timing on the jump means that you can't jump to the platform and then jump again before he stomps you. So, essentially, you'll want to be on the platform when he's considering the run. If you're on the platform when he's firing the beam at platform height, you're dead, as your jump doesn't get enough clearance to avoid it. So, basically, you want to drop down a level when he's about to fire. Essentially, you want to be on the platform at all times firing at the bad guy, apart from the one moment when he's doing his laser thing, when you'll want to drop off before hopping back up in time for more violence.
What turns this into something a little more deliberately confusing is that you have to be crouching on the platform to actually shoot him. So the cycle you follow is crouch and shoot, jump, crouch and shoot, jump, down platform, shoot, jump back up, crouch shoot and then loop. The problem is that combining crouch and jump is the command to skip down a level. By having your character crouch throughout the sequence, it makes any mistiming of the combination lead the wee Alien to leap down in front of the path of the ongoing mechano-beast rather than jumping over its head. Due to the unwieldiness of the leap, once you've dropped, you'll never get back up in time to avoid him. In other words, by deliberately setting up the simple situation the way they have, they've deliberately created a set of commands that it's relatively easy for the player to upset in an unavoidably fatal way. It's not that they're setting you a challenge for you to think and overcome - they're making it easy for you to make a mistake through basic pad ergonomics.
And, only when writing this, do I realise that there's a far easier way to take him out. Rather than bothering with the platform at all, you can use your ability to bury beneath the ground to avoid all his attacks, resurfacing to bombard the git with everything you've got. Except this even makes it worse - if they want to introduce the idea of burrowing to avoid the opponents this early, why have the platform there at all, so leading the new player into a frustrating, awkward sequence rather than towards an optimum sequence?
As said, this is a really mild example, but this sort of thought goes through the entire game. Like when you meet a heavy weapon trooper, rather than taking a few more hits than the normal one-death soldier, they take a couple of dozen. Or creating the forward roll and crouch to allow you to skilfully duck beneath an oncoming bullet, then creating sloped floors which break this aspect of the game entirely. Or having a boss situation, where they turn a memorisable sequence into something far more haphazard by adding a few of the more regular baddies who wander in to harass you.
Or regularly having foreground parallax objects which conceal the action, an awesomely bad decision when the game works on a one-hit-kill basis. Similarly, the graphic style hurts, with the meaty explosions regularly disguising that one deadly slug. Or... well, whatever last killed you, really. It's rare you feel fairly dispatched.
While the truly skilled and/or truly persistent (with good memories) could possibly run through it without touching one of their extra credits, that's less to do with the level of skill you're able to display and more due to the huge wodges of extra lives it showers upon you with a level's completion. I'm not entirely convinced if you lose (say) six lives completing any level and get given another (say) six at the end of each, that it's actually completing it with a single credit. Completing it with six times the number of lives equals... erm... ah... many credits.
Persist, and playing a level can become fun. However, this is only after you learn how it operates rather than any point while learning how it operates. Progression is relatively fluid and often exciting until you hit the problem which you haven't mastered yet, and then you jettison lives like lemmings until you hit on the right idea. Essentially, you have to beat the game before you can have any real and sustained fun with it. The point seems more to be about chasing the high scores (extra points for classy dispatches, for example) when you know what's going on more than the actual challenge itself. It's this attitude which turns this from a populist stroke of joy into something that'll sit with its admirers in a ghetto of its own choosing.
It's a shame. With a wonderful visual style and (on the surface) an accessible genre, this is the sort of game you want to give to a friend who wants a quick blast... except, they'd never have any fun with it whatsoever. The design decisions are aimed at those people who have Metal Slug tattooed across their brow and demand a phenomenally brutal challenge for their money, as that's the only thing which their honed reflexes can feed off.
This is very much for the hardcore. And, as the hardcore eventually does when it takes over any genre, it ruins the game for anyone but the hardcore. Leave it to them.