Give your average next generation console devotee the time of day and they’ll probably inform you with a smug confidence that 2D gaming is ‘dead’. As console hardware has become more and more adept in the art of displaying realistic 3D visuals there has been a noticeable decline in quality hand drawn videogame product, with only portable systems getting any kind of ‘2D love’ at all. It’s a lamentable state of affairs but thankfully there are still some companies out there that know the value of good, old-fashioned gameplay over swanky graphics - SNK Playmore being one of them. These kind-hearted chappies have decided to grace Nintendo’s fledgling Wii console with a truly epic collection that focuses on one of their most popular franchises. No points for guessing the name of said series at this stage, folks.
When Metal Slug burst into arcades in 1996 it practically redefined the ailing ‘run and gun’ genre overnight. The dizzyingly exhilarating mixture of silky animation, sumptuous artwork, witty level design and ‘twitch’ gameplay resulted in something of a hit for SNK. Ten years and six sequels later (not to mention portable spin offs and several mobile phone editions) the cycle is still going strong. This Wii compilation contains Slugs 1 through to 6, as well as digit-shunning Metal Slug X. In terms of value for money it’s unquestionably an impressive package – even more so when you consider that PS2 and Xbox owners were previously expected to play £19.99 a pop for the likes of Metal Slug 3.
To those of you that haven’t experienced the Slug lineage before - kindly emerge from underneath your rocks and listen to this handy summary. The series has never been about complex plots or intricate control systems – it’s more an exercise in instinctive action and visual gratification. You are tasked with simply moving from the beginning of each level to the end, indiscriminately mowing down hordes of enemies and occasionally tackling a monstrously huge end of level boss. Along the way you can liberate prisoners, which not only counts towards your rating at the end of the stage but also gives additional weapons and ammo. Your default firearm is a weedy little handgun but throughout the course of the series you pickup improved weapons like machineguns, flamethrowers, rocket launchers and shotguns (albeit with limited amounts of ammunition). The ‘Metal Slug’ of the title is a diminutive tank that appears at set points in each level and grants protection and increased offensive capabilities for a short while. Throughout the seven games additional transport becomes available – ranging from the sublime (a cool yet characteristically dumpy jet fighter) to the ridiculous (a gun-wielding camel). To touch upon the many innovative and original features spread across the decade-long history of Metal Slug would require more time and space than this reviewer is inclined to take up, so let’s move on.
The games included here are unquestionably excellent. All are graphically stunning – so long as you appreciate intricate 2D illustration. Each level is literally bursting with character and players will often find themselves pausing from the onslaught in order to fully realize the numerous inconsequential animations and details. On a large TV the graphics do appear somewhat blocky, with the exception of Metal Slug 6 (which is the most recent instalment and runs on Sammy’s Atmoswave arcade hardware - the backgrounds are higher resolution, but the sprites themselves are slightly blurred).
Metal Slug as a franchise features some truly astonishing moments, but it’s somewhat surprising that the first title seems to make the most lasting impression. Maybe it’s because the sequels added so many features that the purity of the original concept became muddled slightly, but whatever the reason this reviewer seems to fire up the first Slug the most. The gameplay and level design is so perfect that the other releases (particularly the 4th and 5th editions, which were handled by a different team and were the first to be coded after the demise of the original SNK) seem frightfully over-indulgent in comparison. It’s worth noting that this could be largely down to personal preference – all of the games featured here are undoubtedly superb and more than worthy of your time and attention. There are not many decade-old franchises you can say that about these days.
Keen to make use of the Wii’s unique control setup, SNK Playmore have included a wide variety of choices, all of which (with the exception of the Gamecube pad support) make use of the motion sensitive features of the Wiimote and Nunchuk. Unfortunately they are mostly useless. One method attempts to replicate the feel of using a proper arcade stick – the player is called to place the Wiimote vertically on a flat surface and wiggle it around as they would a conventional joystick. A novel idea in theory, but in practice it proves to be painfully inaccurate and therefore horribly misguided. The only really suitable option is holding the Wiimote on its side like a traditional joypad (as many Virtual Console games require you to do), but even then you have to ‘flick’ the controller in order to throw grenades and when you’re in the middle of a heated fire fight this can prove to be more difficult than you might otherwise expect. The ability to use a Gamecube pad is welcome but only analogue support is available and as any fan will inform you, Metal Slug requires digital control in order to get the best out of it. All of this convoluted controller malarkey could have been easily solved if the game supported the excellent Classic Controller, but SNK Playmore have mystifyingly decided against it. The exact reason is open to rampant speculation but there have been rumours that Nintendo are keen to keep the Classic Controller purely within the domain of the Virtual Console. Blah.
In addition to the superlative selection of software this omnibus also includes a smattering of bonus items, the most interesting of which is an interview with the creative team behind the series. Although it’s merely in textual format – a video or even audio equivalent would have been nice – it still manages to provide a fascinating insight into the world of Metal Slug. However outside of a few pieces of artwork there’s not really much else of interest here. It could be argued that more bonus content would have made this a more ‘complete’ package, but when you’re getting seven excellent games for the price of one, there’s little justification to grumble.
The lack of Classic Controller support is stupefying and although the games are perfectly playable using the Wiimote, it’s something of a missed opportunity. The lack of meaningful bonus content will also annoy those hardcore Slug fans that have owned many of these games in some shape or form previously. Casting these minor criticisms aside for a moment, it’s hard not to feel a warm glow inside when playing such a classic series. Metal Slug is the product of a bygone era where innovation, humour and enjoyment were prized above all else. Many will rebuff this collection on the grounds that these games are ‘too basic’ to be compared to other next generation releases, but ignore the twittering of these fools. The challenge represented by these titles is immense and if you’re willing to invest the necessary time and effort they will reward you in ways that more technically advanced titles could never manage. Metal Slug Anthology may not play to the strengths of Nintendo’s console, but that doesn’t stop it from being a highly recommended purchase.