I hadn't noticed how much Xbox Live Arcade was populated by short, uneventful, casual games. True enough, that's a significant part of its charm and an aspect that broadens the 360's horizons in a way that would be difficult to achieve with commercial, off-the-shelf releases. But now Metal Slug 3's arrived we've found the sturdy middle ground 'twixt hard and fast gameplay and involved console devotion.
Metal Slug 3 is neither a short nor a complex game, but a massively detailed epic in the classic arcade style - a vision of what the coin-op's silver age could have looked like had it come along ten years later. The fourth game in SNK's much-lauded series (following on from 1, 2 and X), it was a bold move from the start when the developers pushed ahead into the new millennium with a 2D hand-drawn platform shooter. Fortunately for SNK, the sheer weight of high-octane passion that permeates every jagged pixel of this NeoGeo classic ensured it stood proud amidst the sea of 3D games it was born into.
And this hasn't changed - Metal Slug 3 once again gets the dust blown off its noble cartoon graphics and emerges as an unforeseen champion of another gaming realm. This time it's reminded us that a Live Arcade game doesn't have to be a two-minute retro-revival; it can be a lengthy, wonderfully gruelling adventure of non-stop violence and mature, yet cartoony circus of balletic destruction.
But what's really fascinating here is the fact that a vaguely ageing title appears to have found its niche market on a modern console - this is Metal Slug 3's ideal home, and you'd be a fool not to make it welcome in yours.
800 Microsoft Points isn't a huge amount by any means (a mere drop in the ocean for those wise enough to have given Christmas a wide berth), though it does initially sound a tad weighty for a game that's so difficult to pigeonhole. From a cursory glance at the simplistic run 'n' gun game mechanics, there's no reason to think Metal Slug 3 would find appeal with any demographic other than the ex-arcade creeper or teenage ADD sufferer, but that's not the entire story. While it certainly does appeal to the quick-gaming-fix fraternity, it also highlights a void in the 360's catalogue that any dedicated follower of Microsoft doctrine should be excited to fill.
It might be an incredibly simple case of button-bashing and bullet-dodging on the surface, but Metal Slug 3 just keeps going - and continually evolves the play mechanics to keep even the most apathetic gamer teetering on the edge of their seat, exhausted by the action one second and energised by the change in incredible scenery the next.
The premise is equally simple, yet perfectly adequate to establish the protracted adventures of the four well 'ard heroes - Marco Rossi, Tarma Roving, Eri Kasamoto and Fiolina Germi. With the nefarious General Morden's rebellion long since crushed, the super-soldiers' special talents are called upon once again when rumours of his reappearance are whispered in the darkest corners of the globe. But another, indiscernible menace is also looming - kidnapping farm animals, interfering with government officials, raising the dead and doing naughty things to inquisitive scientists.
Quite how these two troublesome circumstances merge is what the game's all about, and although it doesn't make any particular difference in the long run, it's a premise that provides an incredible wealth of colourful adversaries and environments as the characters attempt to track down the mastermind behind the evil plot. Travelling across the globe from the Middle-Eastern desert to the bottom of the sea and the bowels of the pyramids, the wildly outrageous antagonists that teem throughout every inch of the game are awe-inspiring.
But if we're talking about jaw-dropping stimulation with Metal Slug 3, the graphics take the entire bakery. Two-dimensional graphics have rarely, if ever, been so lavishly represented as in this game. In the year 2000, when Metal Slug 3 first appeared on the NeoGeo, games storage and system capabilities had finally reached a level which fully unlocked the potential of this sadly dwindling style. Where graphics previously had to be reduced in size, colour and frequency on-screen, there was no longer any restriction other than the developer's imagination and dedication.
Unfortunately, these were the two elements lacking in most new game developments - where it had become easier to create a single 3D model than animate every frame of every sprite that ran across the screen. If anything, SNK went utterly overboard bringing this game to life, and the sheer, unimaginable number of pencil miles that have gone into Metal Slug 3 is enough to make your eyes bleed and your creativity gland haemorrhage.
From enormous, lumbering crustaceans with a fortress of cannons mounted on their serrated shells to a cloud of miniature spores dancing on the invisible breeze, there's nothing that was too much work for the graphic artists to pour their souls into - a living, animated canvas of sheer entertainment that's a thrill to behold and dwarfs even the most advance 3D worlds modern games now sport. This aspect alone is enough to keep gamers white hot throughout the long and winding levels.
This was also the first game in the celebrated series which introduced branching pathways. Each of these branches provides a superbly divergent twist in the level, and although they ultimately lead to the same conclusion, such intriguing diversions add substantial replay value to a game that would otherwise feel forced and linear.
Naturally, many of these diversions begin with a new Slug - the mechanical wonderments from which the game takes its name. These armoured vehicles are every bit as imaginative as the rest of the game's features, and add not only a different method of gunning down a score of zombies, mummies or mutated seabass but instil a subtle feeling of inclusion in the weird and wonderful worlds as player's steal a micro-helicopter, mount an elephant or sink to the briny depths in a personal submarine.
Elsewhere, foremost among the XBLA version's features is surely the online multiplayer facility. Being a two-player game added a lot of dynamism to the original, and SNK has had the good sense to take advantage of the fact that this game is being hosted on a public network, and allowed for an online, co-operative multiplayer mode. And this doesn't feel at all like an afterthought or semi-functional bolt-on; no noticeable network lag or slowdown occurs to hamper the majesty of the blazing action.
The obligatory HD version is also included, but to be honest I barely looked at it. Metal Slug 3 looks so incredible in its native resolution, the upscaling filter effectively robs it of a degree of pixelated splendour for little in return. I'd like to have seen it in widescreen, but as with most XBLA games, this doesn't seem to happen so it wasn't a massive disappointment to find it bordered in the centre of the TV.
It's initially tempting to reduce the score slightly for the sake of the credit system, but without a coin-box add-on to the Xbox controller it's difficult to see quite how else SNK might address this inherent flaw in arcade-to-home console conversions. Although the Achievements have been actively linked to scores gathered within a certain number of credits, it's really a matter of self-discipline for the gamer to ensure Metal Slug 3 is played "properly". That said, a few extra credits at your discretion are no bad thing when you want to sample the delights that latter levels might bring, so in this case I'm happy to agree with SNK's decision to leave credit allocation to the prudence of the punter.