If I could turn back time...
2D shoot 'em ups. Doncha just love 'em? No? Then I suggest you go back to the front page and pick something else to read, because Metal Slug X is a game for people who love 2D shooters, games which defy convention and contemporary design techniques in favour of pure gameplay. And explosions. Tons of them. MSX is the PlayStation port of one of the most excessively difficult but downright enjoyable 2D shooters SNK ever developed. Admittedly it isn't as good as the Neo Geo originals, but then how does one improve upon perfection?
For those of you intrigued by the notion of a new 2D shooter, but without a clue in the world what Neo Geo or Metal Slug is, here is a brief introduction. Metal Slug X is a side-scrolling 2D shooter starring four commandos and screen upon screen of Nazi equivalent troops in locations ranging from Egypt to Siberia. You pick a trooper and land at the start of the war zone, armed with your trusty blaster and a full complement of bombs. As you move from left to right, and occasionally in other directions, you pick up more impressive weapons dropped off by POWs you manage to free and by downed soldiers on the opposite side, not to mention vehicles, and you put them to use eradicating the enemy threat.
Being gifted weapons by POWs may sound ludicrous, but it's a gameplay decision. Much of the rest of the game is also geared towards entertainment, a perfect example being the graphics. Oh how easy it would have been to create a fairly boring 3D world of platforms and low-poly models, but unlike polygon monstrosities which threaten to split at the seams on the straining PSX hardware, Metal Slug X is hand-drawn through and through. The overall resolution is quite low, but within the system's confines SNK has crafted some beautiful sights. The main characters are all diligently animated, and unlike many other PlayStation games where detail deficiency is a part of the design rendered mandatory by high-poly characters hogging all the resources, SNK can allot the same amount of cartoon detail to each and every sprite; and so they have.
Things that make you go BOOM
The menu and in-game interfaces are as spartan as they possibly can be, enjoying more in common with a beat 'em up aesthetically. Your HUD tells you (and your optional partner) how many lives, bullets and bombs are at your disposal, as well as how many points you have accrued. When you pick up a weapon your ammo measure is adjusted and the game shouts the name of the weapon. Your model will be seen changing his weapon, with the new skin viewable in each of the usual positions; facing left and right, firing up and firing down as you jump around, and the firing animations grow steadily more exotic and spectacularly violent as the game continues.
Meating the player out with a ferocious arsenal is the least SNK could do, however. Fighting across moving trains, Indy Jones style, trawling the catacombs and blasting your way through a busy street is no walk in the park… by er, more than definition. Your enemies are legion and pissed off. The troopers come in waves, firing from a standing or crawling position, or hiding behind objects and throwing grenades at you. Often they take up elevated positions too, and projectiles vary in rhythm and rhyme. If you simply pasted down the fire button you wouldn't get more than a few feet. Apart from the troopers, you face tanks, planes and all manner of other war machines, and various stage-specific bad guys like Mummies in Egypt (with their mummification guns and grenades, which bind you in cloth and lessen your mobility), and the aliens who seem to be working with the pseudo-Nazis. Or are they?
At the culmination of each of the game's six levels, you have a massive boss encounter to deal with. When I say massive, I mean screen-filling pandemonium. A little Armageddon with each passing task. Even mid-level bosses fill the screen, and the end of level attacks are great. The best has to be during your ascent from the depths of the Egyptian tombs to the surface, as you leap upwards in classic 2D style from platform to platform evading a mechanical chomper as it crawls slowly along munching the route in your wake. I haven't done that in a long time, and it was a welcome challenge after so much contemporary 'innovation' in blasters of late.
Tools of the trade
Throughout the game you swap your trusty blaster for the likes of machine guns, shotguns, flamethrowers, rocket launchers, even a peculiar remote controlled bomb toy (rather like the sheep from Worms) and a laser gun, which carves up enemies like a lightsaber. Supplementing your arsenal besides are a number of pilotable vehicles, and these are what give the series its notoriety, and they are an asset here for sure. From the obvious trucks and tanks to the less obvious camels with rotary guns, tanks with jump buttons and Harrier-style hover jets, the game goes a long way towards entertaining you. After screens and screens of delicate, evasive blasting with the tension building and one life left on the counter, hopping into the cockpit of something large and powerful and ploughing through the amassed bad guys is a pleasant release. A good, old fashioned gaming experience.
'Good old fashioned' is indeed the overall theme, and as such the game is an absolute bitch to play. Stupidly hard. Swarms of enemies rain down upon you and you soak them up and have to introduce them to the business end of a machine gun or whatever else you're packing. MSX features five difficulty levels, and the least of them is itself pretty difficult, although those not anxious to fight through on one life can make use of the generous number of continues.
The level design is of the highest quality not only in terms of visual impact and artistic achievement, but in terms of challenge and the way it helps to live up to the deceptively simple premise. You never once feel as though you have seen it all. By the end of the game you are still waiting to be bored by the design. It doesn't happen, and the grand finale rivals any battle witnessed in a 3D shooter. The final boss is a tenacious sonofabitch, and the battle reveals an interesting twist in the plot, matched by a comedic end sequence which at first leaves you musing 'so, are we still fighting?', before answering the question and getting a laugh.
Further to the basic single player game, SNK has thrown in "Combat School", and the "Another Mission" mode as an added bonus. The latter consists of 20 fairly simple levels, each of which consists of one simple task and ten scores to beat. The first of them for example asks you to race between a series of pylons without dropping into the abyss, all the while avoiding cutlass-throwing rogues on a bridge above and bomb-throwing troopers from left and right. This wouldn't be too difficult, but you only have bombs - no primary weapons - which makes getting to the end on one life to register your score something of a challenge. Fans of the game will lap up these extras, and they definitely add to the replay value, although in itself I could play the single player game mindlessly for the next two or three years. Co-op too is unputdownable. Is that a word? It is now.
That said, there are several chinks in the game's armour. The digitised speech has been taken directly from the Neo Geo originals, and as such falls short of the PlayStation's capabilities. It adds to the low-budget feel of the game, but it isn't great, and although the graphics never look pixellated, the game does slow down from time to time when there's a lot happening on-screen, which you would never have seen in the Neo Geo and arcade originals. Furthermore, the music is mostly forgettable, and although the Egyptian tune used on the first level is quite memorable it isn't exactly something you might play in the car on the way to work.
Metal Slug X is a fan-pleasingly simple update to the MS series, and to the rest of us it's the best game of its kind on the PlayStation. At a wallet-friendly Ł19.99 (and even less if you shop around), this is an excellent investment, and the co-operative multiplayer mode is a delightful inclusion. Let's just hope that it isn't the last 2D shooter we see on a Sony platform.