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Game: Metal Slug Anthology
System: PlayStation Portable (also PlayStation 2 and Nintendo Wii)
Emulators: None (Metal Slug 1-5 arcade versions can be played on MAME, FinalBurn Alpha, Kawaks & Nebula)
The original Metal Slug (MS) was a side-scrolling shooter released by SNK in 1996 for its NeoGeo platform, already well known primarily for the fighting games Fatal Fury, Art of Fighting and The King of Fighters. While one of the later franchises established for the system, the Metal Slug series has as great a following as the aforementioned titles due to its fast-paced, chaotic gameplay, its charming art-direction and the fact that each installment (at least until Metal Slug 4) pushed the hardware of the NeoGeo to its limits.
Metal Slug Anthology (MSA) assembles the 6 NeoGeo Metal Slug games (1,2,X,3,4&5) for the first time on one disc to mark the series 10th anniversary in 2006. Although numerous (10, no joke) delays caused the game to overshoot this milestone, it makes up for it with an extra draw. It contains the first version to be released outside Japan of Metal Slug 6, the series' latest entry, originally developed for the more powerful Atomiswave platform. When the collection was released last December for the Nintendo Wii, however, the ports were compromised by everything for graphical errors to downsampled or nonexistent sound effects. So how does this title, only just released in Europe and yet to hit US and Australasian shores, fare? Well, if you are worried that the PSP version maybe plagued by the same errors as its Wii counterpart, or because Metal Slug, a 2D game, may not have aged gracefully over the last 10 years, don't be. I wish I could leave it at that, but unfortunately this collection is marred by issues all its own and, overall, is ultimately a disappointment.
In the beginning, the series was something of a quircky shooter set in a World War II-esque scenario. MS1 saw Marco Rossi and Tarma Roving battle the evil army of General Morden- the links between whom and a certain German authoritarian could be drawn by any grade school flunkee. While Morden was set to remain an antagonist in most of the games, they gradually branched out in more bizarre directions. MS3, for example, often cited as the high point of the series, featured zombies, mutant crabs and ultimately battle inside an alien mothership. The titular 'Metal Slug' is in fact a strangely agile vehicle that takes many forms- originally a standard tank, 'Slugs' that fly, venture underwater, and walk are all available to ride. If those aren't odd enough, you can also ride camels, ostriches and donkeys and wield weapons as banal as the 'Heavy Machine Gun' or as laughable as the 'Iron Lizard'- a tiny anthropomorphic rocket with wheels that falls to the ground and smiles as it rushes toward enemies. Crazy huh?
Despite all this, the ridiculousness of Metal Slug conceals a deviously addictive and insanely difficult game. Human enemies take one shot to drop. Considering a Heavy Machine Gun fires off 3-5 shots with each button press and you get 200 ammo per pick-up, you'll be taking down a considerable amount of chaff during your missions. The flipside is that you only take one shot to kill aswell. After playing through Mission 1 of Metal Slug 1 this might not seem that intimidating but do not be fooled. There are many situations where you are swarmed by enemy gunfire and you'll get the feeling more than once that there was nothing you could have done to avoid dying. This makes a Metal Slug session a symphony of adrenaline and frustration. Don't worry though- you'll never end up throwing the controller (in this case the $400 PSP). It is no secret that the game requires planning as well as cat-like reflexes to get through, but it is certainly not impossible. The difficulty is stymied somewhat by the fact that you have infinite credits to finish the games with. Considering it will likely take you at least 20 to a game the first time, the fact that dying so many times would have translated to a heavy monetary penalty at the arcade will be largely lost on most players of MSA. To be clear, these are HARD games. However the gameplay is ultimately addictive and a profound feeling of satisfacition will overtake you when you manage to finally manage to finish one of them on your first credit.
Luckily the PSP version's controls are fit to the task. Unlike the Wii which strangely prohibits use of a d-pad and buttons for all actions (why, oh why?), the PlayStation Portable's sensitive buttons mean taking down that boss fast enough will never be a problem because you weren't as good at flicking a Wiimote like a retard as the game would like you to be. All three main actions (shoot, jump and throw grenade) will map easily to the face buttons of your PSP. In the main menu, the responsiveness to the controls is surprisingly laggy, but this is a minor gripe. The only real irritation might be having to use the shoulders to pull off Ralf and Clark's special attacks in Metal Slug 6. You need to map one button for the special move, and one for switching weapons in addition to the core 3 (I always use the triangle button for switching, which leaves the special to L or R).
Speaking of Metal Slug 6, it will definately stand out amongst the others. Unless you managed to get a hold of the Japanese import for the PlayStation 2, this will likely be your first outing with the new game. The previous NeoGeo games were all built around the same engine, slightly tweaked each time. While the art may have varied between games, the overall look did not. With the exception of new weapons and slugs along the way as well as the poorly-recieved slide move in MS5, the games felt the same as well. Even though Fio, Eri, Trevor and Nadia join Marco and Tarma at various points across the first 6 games, they all play effectively the same way. As mentioned, MS6 was the last of a brief 5-game stint SNK had on the Atomiswave hardware in 2005-2006. As such, while keeping many of the same sprites from previous entries, MS6 sees them all upscaled and accompanied by new higher resolution and more varied mission backgrounds and landscapes. It also makes core gameplay changes for the first time in the series' history. First off, you can now store up to 2 weapons and switch between them mid-battle. Secondly, Ralf and Clark from Ikari Warriors and The King of Fighters join the cast, to total 5 playable characters for the first time in a Metal Slug. More importantly, each character for the first time is given unique characteristics. Marco's default weapons do more damage. Tarma does more damage when in Slugs and is able to lock the Vulcan Cannon on them in place while moving. Fio packs a Heavy Machine Gun by default and gets more ammo from pick-ups. Eri can aim grenades and stocks twice as many. The Ikari Warriors will force you to play the game most differently though. Ralf only picks up half as much ammo as others. However, he has a special attack that can heavily damage enemy troops, and even vehicles, up close. His melee attack style is supplemented by the fact that he takes 2 hits to kill- that's right. This can make the game a lot easier, in theory. Clark also packs his Argentine Spinebreaker, which is basically a throw executed against one enemy during which you are invincible. I mention the changes in MS6 at length because, as I said, this game will be new to most people and is a major draw for the Anthology. I consider, however, the changes to be mostly for the worse and make the game feel slower and more boring than its predecessors. The weapon change feature, while novel has 2 important consequences. Switching between weapons causes you to stop and think more often, robbing the game of its frantic 'run n' gun' feeling. This is compounded by the fact that weapon pick-ups are far less plentiful in 6 and that there is a focus on conservation of ammo right from Mission 1. More often then not you will find yourself against a bunch of enemies or even a boss and, unless you picked Fio or Ralf, you'll be plugging away at them with your handgun. While it may be argued that these changes encourage thinking what you are about to do beforehand, I reckon the system is ust plain not fun the way it is. A little tweaking, and maybe things will change. My 2 cents. Graphics- and sound-wise MS6 floors every other game. It does not have the variety of MS3 but it almost has the length. The music is also composed mostly of remixes from the series and are for the most part memorable- they do get stuck in your head.
Which brings me to the presentation of Metal Slug Anthology. I've spent half this review talking up the franchise because honestly the strength of the original titles is the only redeeming quality of this collection. It fails in almost every other area. Firstly graphics and sound- I immediately set the video to take up the full screen (480x272) as soon as I got to the main menu. Big mistake. When playing in the full 16:9 ratio, the Metal Slug games 1 to 5 look terrible. Where Street Fighter Alpha3 Max's 2D sprites really came to life on the PSP's LCD, Metal Slug's look horrid- far more blurry than you would expect. Also, unlike SNK's other recent ports, MSA lacks any graphics-tweaking options whatsoever. There is no 'filter' and no soft focus. Not that those things would necessarily have made a huge improvement, but they would have been a show of good faith at least. To its credit, MS6's higher resolution is definately noticable when playing full-screen. Still, when playing in 4:3 or even in the NeoGeo native resolution (304x224), the unseemly black border around the image is very prominent. Wallpapers to help conceal this have to be unlocked. Sound is pretty much perfect emulation. However the music has undeniably aged poorly- it too sounds just plain 'blurry'. MSA would definately would have benefitted from an arranged soundtrack which is, again, a mainstay of SNK home ports but curiously missing here. Sound effects are mostly intact with the exception of MS6. That game's sound, having played the PS2 version, is definately downsampled, like the Wii version's. No effects were missing but some were obviously different sounds altogether- gunfire and the sound of tanks being hit sound nothing like the originals. I am sad to reiterate that it still has the best AV out of all the games presented.
There is more to presentation though. Since it is billed as a celebration of Metal Slug's 10th anniversary, the Anthology should by rights have a few, if not a host of, cheesy extras. Again, MSA fails to deliver. The only really new thing here is a (IMHO) boring interview. Did I mention it was a text transcript and not a video? A pathetic effort. Most of the unlockable art and music are copied straight from the PS2 port of MS6. Not a bad thing, to be sure, but consider that all the extras from each other game's home ports has been discarded. Even worse than that- the menus from each game have been chucked as well. What you are left with is a bunch of white text on black background options after you leave the first game selection screen. 'New Game' and 'Load Game' are all that after firing up Metal Slug X. Underwhelming? Very. The icing on the cake, I have to say, is the fact that there is no level select, even once you've finished the games. Not only that, but you can only save one state. If you were hoping to be able to replay MS3's Mission 4 or 5 at your leisure, think again.
At this point I feel I should be honest with you all. I love Metal Slug to death. I think hearing 'Rocket Lawncherr' being yelled is one of the highlights of gaming. I also think that Metal Slug is exactly the kind of game for the PSP- fun frantic stuff that looks nice, is hard as all hell and can be played and fully enjoyed in short bursts. So here's the thing- Metal Slug Anthology really isn't any of those things. As much as it pains me to deliver such a scathing review, as a compilation, this is just poor. It doesn't look particularly nice on screen. The sound could use a lot of work. It is a still a difficult game, true but playing each from the beginning each time you want to start will certainly drill the first Mission in each game deep into your head long before you see everything the later Missions have to offer. This design, coincidentally, is not as conducive to on-the-go gameplay either. What you have is essentially a bunch of glorified emulation- no frills and hardly any extra features. The tacky and laggy menu system seals the coffin. As a celebration of this great series' 10th anniversary, Metal Slug Anthology fails. Some months back I would have said to get it anyway since it would have been the only avenue to playing Metal Slug on the PlayStation Portable. However, since then, NJ's delightful MVS2PSP emulator has been able to offer most of the games with the additional feature of being able to save multiple states, enabling you to recreate a makeshift level select, all at fullspeed mind you. The ridiculous amount of delays brings in to question what, if anything, SNKPlaymore or distributor Ignition did with their time. As it stands this collection is only worth it if you do not have a homebrew capable PSP (but why shouldn't you?) and to play Metal Slug 6. Even then, as far as MS6 is concerned, there is a lot more to get out of the PlayStation 2 version.
Overall Score: 6/10
Overall I give Metal Slug 2 thumbs up, but this particular compilation 2 thumbs down.