There’s an old saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, yet while there’s certainly something to be gained through being inspired by a previously existing work, a new work generally must add something to the mix to keep things fresh and interesting. If the new work fails to add anything fresh, it simply becomes derivative and is almost certainly doomed to wither in the shadow of what came before.
Few games stand as a better example of this than Metagal, a new run ‘n’ gun platformer that clearly borrows heavily from Capcom’s Mega Man series. Though mildly enjoyable in its own right, Metagal seldom makes any notable efforts to differentiate itself from its inspiration, leaving us with a game that never hits the same highs and often sinks to new lows.
As opposed to Mega Man being predominantly about, well, robot men, Metagal’s ‘twist’ is that all the robots this time around are women. The story opens with Dr. Ray—a genius robotics scientist—being accosted by the nefarious General Keeper, who wishes for Dr. Ray to give him an android army with which he can conquer the world. When Ray refuses, Keeper uses an android of his own to kidnap Ray’s GAL robots (*cough* Robot Masters *cough*) and presumably turn them evil later on. Meta, who conspicuously isn’t present during this confrontation, is thus left as the last GAL robot standing and must embark on a mission to retrieve her sisters, her creator, and save the world from destruction. It’s about as flimsy of a plot as you’d expect for this sort of game, and while it’s not exactly one that earns points for its originality or intrigue, it does its job well enough.
Metagal follows the old school Mega Man formula to a T, with the bulk of your experience consisting of running and shooting your way through tough, themed levels that culminate in an even tougher boss fight, which then grants you a unique weapon which does increased damage against a boss from one of the other levels. It’s a straightforward, easy-to-follow structure and Metagal does a solid job of replicating it, but the game manages to fall short of its ambitions by offering up a paltry five main levels, followed by a three-part finale. It’s no joke to say that you can clear Metagal in its entirety in about two hours on the high end, and for a game that’s so focused on copying something that came before, it feels a bit odd that there wasn’t more effort put into designing at least a few more levels to bring it up to the par of eight bosses.
Unfortunately, the levels themselves aren’t terribly compelling to begin with, though there are some positives that first bear mentioning. One area in which Metagal manages to excel is in the overall feel and control of its gameplay; Meta’s running and jumping feels properly tight and the shooting mechanics are snappy, making for a game that—at least in the moment to moment action—can be legitimately enjoyable.
Another (perhaps divisive) element that we feel adds to the experience is the inclusion of passive regeneration for the ammo that your special weapons use. Any weapons aside from Meta’s default blaster use up some or all of a small energy bar devoted to ammunition, but instead of having to rely on randomized energy drops to ensure you can keep using your weapons à la Mega Man, the bar just slowly refills once it's depleted. With this small ‘quality of life’ change, you can use your full arsenal of weapons freely and without fear of wasting shots, and this helps to make enemy encounters feel that much fresher.
The unfortunate reality, however, is that the most difficult enemy you face in Metagal is not found in any of the filler enemies or boss encounters on your adventure, but in the level design itself. Though not to the point of being egregious, Metagal is far too reliant on cheap enemy placement, leaps of faith, and trap sections that require trial and error to properly clear, which makes for a generally frustrating and boring experience. Rather than offering up a legitimate, thoughtful challenge that tests the limits of the player’s dexterity, Metagal is much more content to simply hide obstacles that a player running blind has no chance of clearing and send them back to the last checkpoint so they can try again.
Granted, this issue is sidestepped somewhat by the “Rebirth” system, which allows you to spend consumable gears dropped by some enemies to start over at the start of the current screen, but that’s a remedy for a symptom of a deeper issue with the level design. At best, the levels of Metagal are just ‘okay’, and at worst, they’re infuriatingly difficult for all the wrong reasons; for a game that has an unusually low level count to begin with, this issue of poor level design is quite damning.
Similarly, Metagal’s presentation is uninspired and bland, even if much of the pixel art is satisfying to the eye. For starters, the boss designs lack any significant creative spark; all the GALS you face off against are functionally color swaps of each other with a few tweaks and new weapon patterns thrown in. Given the high bar set by Mega Man’s Robot Masters, these GAL designs fail to prove themselves as anything more than lazy, creatively bankrupt rip-offs. To match this, each level is themed after the boss at the end of it, but the unmemorable stage gimmicks and enemy types tend to blend together after a few levels.
To its credit, Metagal features some relatively solid pixel art—sprites are well-detailed and the backgrounds can prove to be especially eye-catching—but when the general stage themes are dull to begin with, there’s only so much that can be done. The soundtrack is equally monotonous, replacing the anthemic notes of many Mega Man tracks with generic, low-key chiptune music that you’re sure to forget almost immediately after hearing it.
You may have noticed that we mentioned Mega Man a lot in this review, and the reason for this is simply that Metagal is so devoid of any defining or memorable traits that it can hardly stand on its own; it’s a game that makes every effort to actively copy something that came before it, and it often falls short of properly doing so. Though it controls rather well and has moments where it almost approaches the quality of its inspiration, the terrible level design, uninspired art direction, and almost criminally short runtime make Metagal a game that’s difficult to recommend. If you’re a rabid Mega Man fan, have already played all the main games to death, and are desperate for something to fill that void, Metagal is maybe worth your five bucks. Otherwise, we’d encourage you to save your money and put it towards something that’s more worth your time.