Metal Slug roamed exclusively in the arcades and the high-level Neo Geo consoles for years, but just recently that's all begun to change. Change to the degree that we now have a version on the GameBoy Advance. Of course, we also had two versions on the Neo Geo Pocket Color, but this is the first truly authentic (comparable to the arcade versions) Metal Slug title on a handheld.
Metal Slug advance is a totally original title developed for the GameBoy Advance, with whole new levels and even new characters. It's nice when a developer takes the time to bring something new to a portable console...
The game also features a new Card Collecting feature. This isn't to say that Metal Slug has gone all Yu-Gi-Oh, but rather there are now cards that can be collected to give your player special features or can simply be viewed in a gallery. The cards can be found throughout the game and range from simple things like the various health cards to the upgrades for the excellent special weapons. If you want all of the upgrades you'll have to search each of the five missions with the finest eye for detail. You'll also have to avoid dying otherwise you'll lose all of your hard earned cards. The addition of the card mode certainly adds some depth that many gamers had found absent in the previous Metal Slug games and provides an incentive to re-play through the earlier levels before trying to tackle the more difficult later stages.
To cater for Metal Slug's new found sense of exploration the screen now scrolls backwards; Usually on the Metal Slug games you can't backtrack. Now the game positively encourages you to explore the gargantuan levels in search for cards and hidden secrets. This also adds to the game's difficulty as all enemies reappear once you're away from a set position. Because Metal Slug is a difficult game when you're just marching through, shooting all in your path, it becomes nearly impossible as a game of exploration. On more than one occasion I felt my thumb wearing down as I searched the incredibly maze-like Mission three. The gamer unfamiliar with Metal Slug may have great difficulty playing though the game anyway, but exploring the levels as well may cause them to simply give up.
SNK must have finally realised that with a smaller screen, Metal Slug is more difficult, because they have made Metal Slug Advance the easiest in the series. The life system is gone, as is the stage by stage gameplay. Now, whenever you finish a mission you're taken back to the hub, wherein you can select your cards, save, and browse the prisoner gallery. This means that you'll never see the continue countdown screen, which features so frequently in the other Metal Slugs and that you can never really get game over, despite there being a screen telling you this. When you die, you may simply restart at the last major level section, meaning that you can cut out huge sections of a level and keep dying over and over again until you finally complete the troublesome stage. Of course, if you want to build up the prisoner gallery and collect cards you'll have to avoid dying.
The life system has been altered in another way as well, in that you now only get one life per level, coupled with an energy bar. This is an excellent new feature for the series, and with the implementation of health boosting power-ups for when you've taken a few knocks, the gamer that dislikes dying every ten seconds can feel like they're making real progress, rather than dying over and over.
Metal Slug is also one of the most graphically impressive GameBoy Advance titles released thus far, losing nothing from its arcade brethren. The animation is excellent and the graphics are beautifully stylised. Coupled this with some very nice sound, full of the same speech samples found in the other Metal Slug games, including the excellent 'Rocket Launcher' sound bite, Metal Slug Advance is technically excellent.
Metal Slug Advance isn't all wine and roses however. With only five missions, the game doesn't seem that large and most good gamers will finish it sooner than they would with the other Metal Slugs. Of course, with the immense difficulty the average gamer won't finish it quickly - if at all -, leading me on to my next point. This game isn't for people that like easy games. The game is difficult and a lot of people will give up on the first boss. This is the 'problem' with the entire series, but keeps fans coming back for more. Of course, if you look at this issue positively you can see that it's not another game you'll spend Â£30 on to finish in a few days, unless you - as I have said above - are very good at games.
Metal Slug Advance is an excellent addition to the series, providing quality retro gaming. However, the fact that it makes no real compromises to cater for the modern pampered gamer may work against it at retail, with the difficulty probably being its biggest 'problem'. In the end though, the game is great fun and should find its way into the hands of all GBA owners, assuming they are up to the task.