Are you rich? Do you lie on a mattress stuffed with fifty-pound notes each night? Do you light the most expensive Cuban tobacco wrapped up in torn-off strips of Picasso’s early sketches, lit from a perpetual fire fuelled by your own private oil well? Do you employ legions of specially bred Russian supermodels to dictate your correspondence to you through the medium of dance and/or Pictionary (whichever tickles your whimsy)? Do you think that poor people were invented by the same criminal Labour government that put fluoride in the water? I mean, they can’t really exist, can they?
Answer yes to all of these questions and the chances are you could already own a copy of Metal Slug 3 on your Neo Geo AES. The AES may well have played host to some of the best and brightest arcade style games ever coded, but I remember as a boy (and I have a photographic memory), each game cost the equivalent of a developed nation’s space program and the system itself was only obtainable if you owned at least three properties in Monaco. So bless Patrick Moore’s shining head and wonky eye that someone’s finally got round to porting a game from this series onto a mainstream console that can handle it (no the Saturn wasn’t mainstream and no the PSone couldn’t handle it).
The run and gun mechanics of a Metal Slug game are just about the oldest old boy from the old school of arcade gaming around, but there are reasons why they’re still going. Partly, it’s SNK Playmore’s laudable unwillingness to buckle under the weight of an industry that wants ragdoll physics for breakfast with pixel shaders for lunch, and partly it’s just that they’re bloody good fun. Sometimes it’s just nice to pick up a game that has instantly recognisable controls and gameplay and constantly makes you smile as uzi-toting monkeys and ostriches packing plasma cannons run riot among evil crabs and Egyptian mummies.
The manual tells a hilariously serious back-story, going into almost Tolkeinian detail about coup d’etats, aliens and the lives of the Metal Slug heroes, however in-game evidence of this ridiculous tale is pretty tough to come by. The actual gameplay unfolds over a series of five varied and, at times, excruciatingly difficult levels, the object of each being to reach the enormous and highly improbable end of level boss, rescuing hostages, turning into a zombie and blowing anything that gets in your way to kingdom come in the process. Enemies are both multiple and bizarre (ranging from bog standard foot soldiers to giant crabs) and can be dispatched with your knife, a grenade or with a quick blast from your rather diverse arsenal. You can also climb into one of the vehicular Metal Slugs – that have been scattered around the levels – and wreak havoc on a slightly more violent, if a little uncontrolled, scale. The Slugs themselves have long been a hugely enjoyable part of the series and Metal Slug 3 doesn’t disappoint, giving you access to miniature helicopters, submarines, tanks and planes not to mention robot suits, camels, elephants and the aforementioned ostriches.
If this all sounds a little familiar, it’s because it is, not that that’s necessarily a bad thing of course. Certain genres don’t need dramatic changes to keep gamers excited, just a little rouge here and lipstick there is all it needs to keep the old slapper fresh, and SNK have done just that with Metal Slug 3. Whilst previous Metal Slug games have seen the player moving predominantly from the left to right, the third iteration has the player going up, down, diagonally and from right to left. This may not seem like a huge change – it’s not exactly Metroid Prime’s shift into 3D – but in a hectic shooter like this, it does alter the dynamic significantly. One minute you’re zipping along, chucking grenades and bouncing over soldiers with reckless abandon, and the next, the pace drops as you slowly sink in a miniature submarine having to pause every now and again to avoid giant conga eels called Helen and Linda (even I couldn’t make this stuff up). There are also plenty of multiple route choices to make throughout the game, so even if you’ve completed it one way, there’s always another to call you back for more. If you’re a fan of the series, the changes won’t disappoint you in any way and provide a whole raft of blissful new gaming ideas to enjoy.
“But what about me? I started playing games when I saw Lara’s boobs for the first time, should I get this?” Well, if we were talking about the £250 AES version there would be some concern. Metal Slug 3 is a fantastic romp through all that is good about 2D gaming: it’s big, bright, well-animated, frantic, cleverly designed, silly, bizarre and fiendishly difficult all in equal measure, but there are question marks over just how appealing Mr Average Modern Day Gamer is going to find this. Take the difficulty level for a start. You can argue over whether difficult games are a good thing or not until the cows come home, but the long and short of it is that many people just don’t want to put in the kind of practise that Metal Slug 3 demands if it’s to be finished in anything approaching a reasonable number of continues. I’m running at about 30 credits to finish the game at the moment and whilst it’s true that my reactions have been lessened by years of self-abuse (?!) and I was never much of a super-twitch gamer anyway, I have got at least some skill in these shovel-sized hands; 30 credits is just crazy talk and many people will give up out of sheer bamboozlement before then. You’ve also got to ask yourself how many times you’re going to go back to this. Yes, the game throws in a couple of bonus levels (one where you play the part of the an enemy foot soldier storming the alien mother-ship and another one where you have to eat as much as you can and grow fat whilst dispatching a seemingly endless stream of troops), but other, similarly brief games like Ikaruga and Rez have clever time-delayed bonuses for extended play and one feels that Metal Slug 3 misses a trick here. However, we’re not talking about spending a quarter of a grand. We’re talking about the much more reasonable sum of £20. So yes, you ought to consider this, even if you’ve never played anything that wasn’t in 3D before. Just trade in that copy of Pandora Tomorrow you regret buying now you’ve realised just how hopeless you are at the multiplayer.
So where does that leave us with Metal Slug 3? It’s a tough game to be sure. There are infinite continues to help you get to the end but that just feels like – well, it is – cheating. It also lacks longevity. The bonus levels, the multiple routes, Online score board and playing with a mate all add to the fun but it isn’t exactly going to last until the devil snowboards through the underworld. But look, beyond all this, try to remember a time when plot and dialog did not play a part in nearly every title on the shelves, and you’ll see it’s a good game. In fact, it’s a very good game. It may occasionally feel like a one trick pony but it’s a pretty special trick and since Konami sent Contra to the glue factory there aren’t too many old nags around these days who can do it at all, let alone as well as this.