"MSA's primary flaw is that it's conspicuously devoid of the heroic intensity that stirred fans of the original so. On a mechanical level, it's visibly Metal Slug; your pistol-packing grenade-lobbing hero storms through the side-scrolling levels in the expected fashion, terminating the screaming infantrymen and adorable artillery with regulatory-extreme levels of prejudice. And yet the battles utterly fail to excite. What's to blame?"
Metal Slug has a lot of history, but the first level of the first game will do the job here.
1996, arcades. MISSION 1 STARTed. Marco (PF 1st Captain, bona-fide badass) battled a teeming, fully-stocked army through riverbed shanties and skeletal shipwrecks, up to the peak of a roaring waterfall, tearing through his first bloody encounter with General Morden's crazy rebel army and kickstarting Metal Slug's incendiary caricature of WW2-styled one-man-army military confrontation in the finest style anyone could ever ask for.
2004, GBA SPs. MISSION 1 STARTs. Walter (PF cadet, this year's sprite edit) charges up a beachhead similar to Marco's, and... and...
...not one exciting thing happens.
MSA's primary flaw is that it's conspicuously devoid of the heroic intensity that stirred fans of the original so. On a mechanical level, it's visibly Metal Slug; your pistol-packing grenade-lobbing hero storms through the side-scrolling levels in the expected fashion, terminating the screaming infantrymen and adorable artillery with regulatory-extreme levels of prejudice. And yet the battles utterly fail to excite. What's to blame?
Is it the hardware? It's easy to point the finger at the GBA. Walter just manages to unload 9mm lead upon those cheeky soldiers with the same tight, rapid-fire vigour as Marco did back in the arcades, but the GBA's screen cramps him into a smaller frame, leaving the player disorientated by spastic scrolling and clumsied by buttons too fiddly to bash efficiently. Not only that, but everything he fights - familiar sprites previously animated with violent humour and faint pathos - is crippled by conspicuously-absent frames that seem to taken the life away with them. Metal Slug usually revels in seeing these lunatic mercenaries explode into vivid gore and these tanks heave, recoil, and burst into fire and shrapnel; the system apparently can't handle details this awesome, and without them, MSA just seems limp.
But that's not the GBA's fault, is it? After all, Metal Slug has worked on the half-as-powerful NeoGeo Pocket before. Don't blame the Boy wonder, blame the developer - SNK's reincarnated form, Playmore - for scaling back a blueprint that always relied on excess.
The NGPC games (MS 1st and 2nd Missions) worked only because they separated themselves, visually and functionally, from their arcade superiors. It's harder to forgive MSA - a lame, but definitely recognisable Metal Slug - when it throws the same old tedious enemies at you - soldiers of whom you can second-guess every move, cannons you've blown up a million times before. The level design is a step away from the Metal Slug norm, but one that's taken in the wrong direction; the adventure takes in bland caverns and forests filled with jumping puzzles and complex mazes far more videogame-y (not to mention platformer-y) than the lavish, organic vistas Marco assaulted in the original.
Struggle through one of these missions without just keeling over dead out of the choking tedium (which, incidentally, it now looks like the soldiers are doing when you cap them, now that the blood and cooler death animations have been removed), you'll reach the boss, and your spirits will be raised somewhat by the presence of genuinely-new artwork. Then, they'll be crushed again by the realisation that near-every one of these climactic juggernauts is basically a slightly-redone version of one that's gone before; MS5's Shark Tank, MS2's Harrier plane, and a couple of other obvious ripoffs show up to tie off each lazy, lethargic level, too familiar for excitement and too insulting for nostalgia.
It's just all been done before. And yet it's not even this grinding workaday mundanity that's responsible for killing the action. The problem is that the battle is just too quiet, and the stakes are just too low. In his days, Marco was always suffocated by the rebel hordes as they charged from every direction, living only on the empowering-yet-balanced weaponry and the geometrical logic to his enemies' patterns of attack. These elements do make it into Walter's battles in MSA and occasionally they come together - your shotgun's still awesome, you still don't need diagonal shooting, and you can still handle a chopper above and a tank to the side with style - to inject some satisfaction into the experience. It's tempered, though, by the condescending forgiveness granted by the health bar you're stuck with; if the tidy, predictable groups of identikit soldiers get the better of you, the only punishment is faint annoyance, and eventually, the awful boredom of having to repeat the section again.
MSA is all the oldest bits of Metal Slug, combined, configured, and presented in a way apparently intended to minimise enjoyment and maximize frustration. Everything here is old, tired, and way past its prime; aside from the hero, of course, PF trainee Walter. He's certainly no Marco, but when his rubbish training mission comes to an end, once he rushes into the by-the-numbers enemy stronghold and blows up the shockingly-uninspired final boss, tossing his cap into the air in rookie celebration of his promotion, it's pretty clear why Marco isn't present here.
He has real wars to fight.
Staff review by Daniel Forbes (March 19, 2005)
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