As we write this we still await the Nintendo Switch Virtual Console, but courtesy of HAMSTER we have the 'ACA' Neo Geo range on Nintendo's latest console. These are essentially faithful ports, designed to emulate the original Neo Geo experience on modern hardware while throwing in a broad range of features and customisation options. The treatment is rather similar to the 3DS iteration of Mega Man Legacy Collection - the games have the usual glitches and old-school slowdown, but there are a lot of fan-pleasing bonuses to enjoy.
Metal Slug 3 is fondly regarded in the series, delivering on the trademark madness while also providing some uniquely memorable moments. The basic formula is Contra blended with '90s arcade visuals and slapstick comedy. You run and gun, with various power-ups to find that give you ludicrous heavy guns, rockets and more besides. A limited number of bombs can be thrown in each life, you do melee attacks automatically when close to a foe, and one-hit deaths mean that you'll perish plenty of times.
In its arcade form this was a huge coin guzzler, but the unique aesthetic to these frantic games continues to set them apart. Not only is the art design reflective of some comic book styles, but it was beautifully programmed at the time. Every aspect of the game has a few more frames of animation than is strictly necessary, giving the sense of more fluid and detailed movements and visual effects. It's all old hat nowadays as developers utilise impressive engines and technology to do remarkable things with pixel-art and more, but at the time Neo Geo games like these - including their arcade forms - were remarkable to behold.
The core experience, with it being a score chasing run and gun experience, is relatively quick. You can quite easily rattle through in under an hour, seeing all of the bizarre and humorous twists and turns in the 'narrative'. Multiple playthroughs are encouraged, too, as set points in each stage offer obvious - and in some cases hidden - alternative routes. Some of these differ wildly from each other so it's possible to have fairly fresh runs as you experiment with different options. Some moments are hugely entertaining, and it's the sort of game so wacky in its execution that reviewing it was arguably the most silly fun this gamer had enjoyed for some time - if you want easy laughs, this is a good place to find them.
So, what makes this ACA range worth the investment? To be fair to HAMSTER it throws a lot of extras and customisation into these titles; in this case we kick off with display options that include a little extra width on the screen and various filters to add scanlines (we liked the cleaner default view, however). You can even adjust the display size in custom ways, stretching the image beyond its 4:3 default ratio if you're happy to have stretched pixels - don't do that, though.
Keeping the focus on the visuals, at launch the colours were washed out, an issue that was quickly acknowledged. Following an update there has been a visual improvement with deeper colours and a more varied palette. It looks fine on a modern TV and suits co-op well (we'll come to that), but we rather got used to playing solo on the console's screen - the Switch display is nice and sharp and, through blowing up the low resolution source image less, arguably shows the visuals at their best. As a selling point for ACA games on Nintendo's system that portable option is definitely right up there.
In other options you can reassign buttons (which are baffling initially but are fine with practice) and also set auto-fire, so you can press and hold rather than trash your controller buttons. You can also ensure you get from start to finish by giving yourself up to 99 lives and as many credits, while you can choose from eight difficulty settings and even unclutter the HUD a little. Online leaderboards also feature and, even beyond that, you can choose from the Japanese or English version of the game. You can also try a High Score Mode in which you have no continues, or a 'Caravan' mode in which you have a time limit. All told, there are plenty of options for more casual players that want easy but chaotic fun, in addition to hardcore players keen to showcase their skills.
Beyond that local co-op is supported, which is arguably the most enjoyable way to enjoy the game. We had a blast playing this with a buddy with similarly rose-tinted memories of the good old days. It also makes the game far easier, with enemies going down quicker and with good teamwork being genuinely effective as enemies swarm in from both sides of the screen. The game is still a hoot when played solo, but going through it with another player - either on the TV or in 'Tabletop' mode - adds a little extra spice. For the record you can use various controller combos such as a Pro Controller / Joy-Con Grip, or just use one Joy-Con each; for the latter option you need to reorder the controllers in the system's main menu before booting the game, so that it'll recognise each Joy-Con separately.
It's an undoubtedly enjoyable experience, but we do have some complaints that flirt with the line between 'authenticity' and outright performance issues. For one thing, deliberate slowdown is present in these emulations, regardless of whether you're playing them on PC, PS4, Xbox One or Switch. HAMSTER pitches this as authenticity, and as per the aforementioned Mega Man Legacy Collection that is fair enough - just know what you're signing up for. This is a faithful port, so you won't be basking in silky smooth framerates, and this game will chug just like it did back in the day.
Frankly, we think the line between authentic arcade slowdown - which actually helps on some occasions - is crossed at times in this release. Sometimes input lag factors in big time, and even when the game is clipping along reasonably our character will be annoyingly picky on whether they respond to our demands that they throw a bomb, for example. In co-op, too, a few late sections grind so much that it becomes a real slog for short bursts, with inputs and the on-screen action being so nonsensical that you hold fire and hope for the best.
Now, before you sharpen the pitchforks and slam our insensitivity towards authenticity, we know the difference between deliberate slowdown in a faithful emulation and actual performance problems. Yet while boss encounters work well (and the occasional slowdown adds to the drama) at some points in the game it's just dips in performance. Do we forgive all just because the arcade and Neo Geo entries struggled at times? In some cases yes, but in some moments where it drops to 10 frames-per-second and is temporarily unplayable, no we don't.
While these drops, control quirks and occasional problem spots didn't spoil the experience, they nevertheless exist; we're not fully convinced, either, that all of the dips are 'authentic recreations', and even if they are some of the chokepoints are a tad too extreme.
Metal Slug 3 is a blast, all told, and for those that want to experience a retro run and gun classic - that was once expensive and out of reach for many - this is a nice option. It's a hoot, with the anarchic action and quirky animations contributing to a fundamentally bonkers experience. HAMSTER, to its credit, has also loaded in some nifty customisation options so that you can dabble and experiment. It's a short experience unless you seek out various alternate routes, of course, and as outlined above we think it flirts on the line of 'authentic slowdown' and 'annoying performance issues'. In many cases we suspect the former and had a lot of fun regardless, but the latter crept into play occasionally.
At the end of the day, though, for fans of the genre this is tough to ignore. Whether playing on your own or with a buddy, it's sure to raise a smile and even a few laughs as you obliterate everything on screen.