When you're a 2D run-and-gun series, originality through level and boss design is really all you have going.
Publisher: SNK Playmore
Display Artist: SNK Playmore / Mega Enterprise
Multimedia: Metal Slug 4 & Metal Slug 5
Platforms: PlayStation 2 and Xbox
Number of players: 2 s
ESRB rating: Teen
Developer: Mega Enterprise
US release date: 2007-07
Of all the people who've been following Metal Slug 4 and Metal Slug 5 since their arcade inception, only the curious and indefatigable remain for the home console christening. The duo have endured indignities, put-downs, and insults these past few years, extra shameful considering developers of games like these (2D arcade, sprite-based side-scrollers) are virtually fueled by positive word-of-mouth alone.
Outside reasons for the relentless defaming include Metal Slug 3 setting the bar too high and unpleasant legal wrangling (too messy to go into detail here, though essentially MS4 was outsourced to Korea's Mega Enterprise, while the fifth was made by a reconstructed team of some of the original developers), which altered fan outlook and fostered the cruel, unsympathetic atmosphere. But at last the console versions arrive before us like an Alexander/Brown Bunny DVD double-pack, the two with their backs to each other as the critics continue to circle in.
So, okay, Metal Slug 5 is really as crappy as people say, and more. On the other hand, Metal Slug 4, widely considered the worst of the series, is actually a decent effort and ought to have a new reputation established as an underrated cult curio. Just how it became the black sheep is initially confusing since it retains the exact structure as all of the other Metal Slug titles: blast through the hundreds of grunts that stand in the way of each end-level boss, pick up POWs and power-ups, all the while hopping in and out of the occasional vehicle that both protects the avatar and lays waste to the scenery. No other Contra-clones can match the unmistakable Metal Slug freneticism (not even the Contra games themselves). The games are infinitely replayable with a brilliant, yet simple approach of treating us like mice. It laughs manically as we're dropped into model landscapes packed with bullets, mines, grenades, and general mayhem. In this age, Metal Slug's frantic pace and instant accessibility remain fresh and unparalleled. So how did a game faithful to its roots fall so far from grace in so many eyes?
It must be because Metal Slug 4 is faithful to the point of flattery; whole sprites and scenes are lifted from earlier Slugs and littered throughout the stages. When you're a 2D run-and-gun series (and one whose game mechanics were already perfected two games into the series), originality through level and boss design is really all you have going. But to its defense, Metal Slug 4 is a tasteful thief; the redesigned pyramid and zombie levels (which were the second levels of parts two and three, respectively) show themselves towards the end of Metal Slug 4, making them more creative and challenging than in their original iterations. Is that enough to excuse Mega Enterprise? Not really, but it shouldn't stop you from enjoying the game guilt-free.
And whereas Metal Slug 4 has warmed-over bits, Metal Slug 5 suffers from nearly the opposite: half-baked firsts. There's a new slide move which, in grand John Woo fashion, you can use while shooting between your legs. Sliding would've been useful in previous games, but Metal Slug 5 is simply too easy and boring to make this as exciting as it should've been, stemming mostly from the shockingly bad level design that presents zero surprises to the player. With few slopes, obstacles, or ledges to ascend/descend, the game consists mostly of running to the right and left on a flat plane. Exciting for marathon runners, but not so much for us sedentary thrill-seekers. In addition, rather than actively challenging the player, the final levels do little more than increase the number of enemies in vehicles and armored suits. This fatal mistake doesn't make the firefights more exciting, but labored and tedious.
And if you didn't think it was possible, they've actually managed to screw up the plot -- as miniscule as it is. Action games (especially those of the 2D variety) were never about good stories, but good storytelling. Consider that back in its 16-bit prime, the Sonic series was able to arch an engaging narrative across four games without displaying a single word and with minimal game interruption. With the best old-school games, it is through a pantomime across the screen, a twitch of the pixels that the action is propelled to great heights. Metal Slug 3 achieved this. Metal Slug 4 came close through a plot twist in the final mission (though this is a schematic again cribbed from part three). Metal Slug 5 is an unreserved mess.
In another half-baked milestone, General Morden's troops (the instigators of the first four games) are gone. At the beginning of MS5, you're in a rainforest fighting both guerrillas and natives. You kind of assume everyone was fighting over a silver mask, which one of the natives finds and puts on before being struck by lightning. Later, some guys in gas masks try to kill you. Then a whole cult of silver masked dudes show up... who may or may not be related to the natives... who may or may not be related to the final boss, a scythed demon. The demon tries cutting through you like a birthday cake, you shoot at it a lot, it leaves, and the game ends.
It's not just that the lack of continuity between, well, anything that's jarring, but this does eventually subtract from the enjoyment of the game. The Metal Slug games may be considered violent but there's levity to the bloodshed, and not just because of the puckish art and animation. In the first four, you knew who you were up against and why you're motivated to shoot. Take that away, as Metal Slug 5 does, and the deaths become faceless, and the game risks becoming the senseless tableau of destruction and debauchery politicians love raving about. The sooner you lose sight of whom and why you're fighting, the sooner these wars become games.