Arcade Archives is a series of emulated arcade games from yesteryear, being republished by Hamster Corporation as downloadable titles for modern consoles and personal computers. Part of that is their converting of old Neo Geo engine games from the early to mid nineties, with a particular focus on SNK, the studio behind titles such as Fatal Fury and, later, the King of Fighters series. It’s worth pointing out here that the emulator was developed on PlayStation by Nippon Ichi Software, and ported by Hamster to the Xbox platform without any kind of optimisation to accommodate for the different chip architecture. This means almost every title suffers from slowdown and other issues, which seriously affect playability in some cases, lowering the final rating of the game.
Today, I’ll be taking on the Saturday-morning-cartoon-meets-uber-violence that is Metal Slug.
When developer SNK Playmore launched Metal Slug in 1996, it was something of a revelation. Taking the gameplay of titles like Contra and Bionic Commando to new levels of action and fidelity, it featured six levels of scrolling platform run-and-gun chaos against a beautiful hand drawn backdrop of various locales. And do you know what? Even today, some twenty-one years later, the game still looks and plays fantastic. Playing it in 2017, it’s not hard to see why Metal Slug spawned six sequels, several spin-offs (including a tower defence title, bizarrely), and many pretenders to its throne.
The first thing that hits you, though, is the resolution. I highly recommend playing with one of the in-built emulated filters switched on, which simulate the look of a CRT display to reduce the blockiness of the graphics. Now that’s out of the way, you can really appreciate just what the developers managed to do with the relatively limited number of pixels.
The quality of the artwork and animations are second to none. In this age of millions of polygons and HD textures, it’s easy to forget the amount of work which goes into creating hand drawn 2D assets, and animating them frame by frame. Everything which moves, from the main characters to each individually drawn enemy and vehicle, is superbly animated. Tanks come over the hill in the background without missing a single frame, as you destroy the ground beneath them and watch them tumble to their destruction. Enemy soldiers run, crawl and shoot with glorious physicality, their exaggerated cartoon animations betraying the violence that comes afterwards as you paint the screen with their blood. Everything is bright, colourful and beautiful, trees and structures feeling solid and imposing with the thick, cartoon style. Accompanied by some proper, 90s arcade music thumping away, and the sound of your guns and grenades destroying everything as the announcer cries “Mission Start!” “Machine Gun!” “Flame Thrower!”, it truly is an audiovisual delight. And with retro-styled pixel art making a comeback over the last few years, it’s right at home playing this on modern consoles. There are a couple of things which remain steadfastly true to the original release however, which by today’s standards, hold it back somewhat.
First is the control scheme. You run around using the left thumbstick, which emulates the original arcade stick from the cabinet and NeoGeo versions. Because, back in the day, people only tended to have one stick, you also use that same one to aim 360 degrees around your character. I’m going to say something here which will rub purists the wrong way, I’m sure, but reviews are all about personal opinions, so here’s mine: I would have loved to see this had an option added for multistick support. Never has a game been so ripe for adaption into a twin-stick shooter as Metal Slug, and having one to aim and one to move would bring the gameplay up to the standard we expect in 2017. After all, they added the ability to toggle auto-fire on and off for the main game mode, so why not bring that ease of use one step further? In fact, two games of note that were released in the 80s did have an extra stick on the cabinet, one for moving and one for combat: Renegade and Smash TV.
Secondly, it’s the games punishing arcade roots. You see, arcade games, like any other profitable business, are designed to eat your money. They want you to spend on continues and extra lives and extra players. Unfortunately this mechanic remains intact with Metal Slug’s port to todays machines: You’ll reach several points along the way where you find yourself dying over and over within seconds, and have to spam the bumper on your controller to add in dozens more credits to keep playing. In the arcades of course, so called ‘ninjas’ would learn the patterns and difficulty spikes and be able to overcome them, but the average Joe would find themselves either spending up or walking away. With this emulated release it is of course free to add credits and continue the game, but having to spam the bumper every minute or so is a pain in the arse when you’re trying to run around and aim using one stick and stay alive.
Still, in single and multiplayer the game is still a blast. It’s a genuine joy to play through, and marvel at the level of detail the artists and animators stepped up to provide. There are also the usual High Score (one life) mode, and Caravan (timed High Score) modes to delve into, and gain achievements from. In truth, if this game was a stand-alone re-release, it would be an easy recommendation. But it isn’t. It’s part of the ACA NeoGeo series, and that means there’s an elephant in the room: Performance.
As with most of these unoptimised, lazy PS4 emulator engine ports, Metal Slug suffers from serious performance issues when there’s a lot going on. With the amount of action on the screen, especially in multiplayer, it absolutely ruins the ride. If you have no other way to experience the beginnings of this classic and deservedly revered co-op series, then I still say you should buy it, but if you also have access to a PlayStation then that’s the way to go with ACA NeoGeo Metal Slug. Still, it’s testament to the sheer playability and design of the original game that I can still rate this so highly – without the performance issues, this could be the classic you’re searching for amongst the console emulation crowd.
REVIEW CODE: A complimentary Microsoft Xbox One code was provided to Bonus Stage for this review. Please send all review code enquiries to email@example.com.
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