Of all the titles released during the Neo Geo's surprisingly long lifespan, Metal Slug arguably stands out as one of the most famous and beloved. Released in 1996 - a time when the traditional run-and-gun arcade shooter was on the wane - this debut release dazzled with its superb visuals, excellent animation and tight controls. Since then, we've seen six mainline sequels and a series of spin-offs, as well as anthology collections and Virtual Console releases on the Wii. It was almost inevitable that Metal Slug would make an appearance on the Switch the moment that Hamster Corp. confirmed it was bringing its ACA Neo Geo range to the console, and the good news is that this seminal title has lost none of its ability to entertain.
The setting surely requires no explanation; you're tasked with taking down an entire army of enemies using a series of guns - many of which can be collected in the field by saving POWs and have limited ammo - grenades and (of course) the titular Metal Slug tank. This "Super Vehicle" pops up at predetermined points in each of the game's levels, and is capable of taking a fair amount of punishment before it explodes and your character is forcibly ejected. Later Slug games introduced a wide range of alternative vehicles - some of which felt a little on the gimmicky side - but by sticking to a single option here there's a certain purity to the experience.
This simplicity may be viewed as a shortcoming, but in all honesty Metal Slug is such a refined and enjoyable romp that it actually feels tighter and more enjoyable than some of its gung-ho sequels, many of which piled on the sprites (and the absurdity) to the point where some scenes looked downright silly and slowdown was a real issue. In this opening game, the theme is kept strictly military, avoiding the rather outlandish and largely nonsensical plots introduced in later entries. You won't find any gigantic mechanised crabs but you will find an impressive selection of screen-filling military ordinance, all of which you're expected to take down.
The visuals really are stunning, even after 20 years; this is 2D artwork at its finest, boasting detailed characters, rich backgrounds and plenty of offbeat humour. Enemy soldiers display a wide range of emotions; explosions send them flying into the air with blood-curdling screams, while at other points - unaware of your presence - they indulge in bonefire chats or a spot of sunbathing. As you can imagine, these memorable moments are what makes Metal Slug stand out from other run-and-gun titles, which tend to take a humourless view on the art of destruction.
Metal Slug is also a tough cookie to crack, calling for quick reflexes and dogged perseverance. Having unlimited continues does dampen the challenge somewhat, but thankfully the ACA Neo Geo range comes with Caravan and Hi-Score modes which are ideal for showing off your skills. Caravan gives you a set period of time in which to rack up as many points as possible, while Hi-Score has the same objective but grants a single continue. Both have online leaderboards so you can compare your talents to those of other Switch players.
You might assume that Metal Slug's numerous sequels would be far superior to the original but that isn't the case; while the other outings in this series add their fair share of neat features, the 1996 original has a simple purity to it which makes it feel more focused and less preoccupied with pushing the hardware (and the imagination of the developers) to the limit. It's arguably one of the finest 2D titles ever made, and while the gameplay might be seem rather shallow to modern players, if you're a fan of old-school arcade blasters which task you with scoring as many points as possible, then this is a must-have.