Metal Slug: Super Vehicle-001 (Neo.Geo AES) 09.02.2023
In 1994, Irem, a company known for its many hit arcade games, closed its Osaka office, which was responsible for video games, to focus on other activities. Soon, employees joined competing companies (Sega, Atlus, Hudson), including SNK, which is also based in the economic heart of Kansai. A director of Irem, who went to SNK, suggested to his superiors that they create Nazca Corporation, a subsidiary of SNK that would house former Irem collaborators.
In the book "Metal Slug: The Ultimate History" (published in 2020 and still available, an essential for Metal Slug fans, by the way), Kazuma Kujo looks back on the early days of Nazca, a studio that was almost independent within SNK, located in a different building. While it took a period of adjustment (it was not easy for the former Irem employees to accept the fact of developing games for a company that was once one of their major rivals), SNK showed a lot of respect for allowing Nazca members free rein to their creativity, preserve their mindset and their way of doing things.
Initially, Nazca was responsible for porting games to PS1 and Saturn, but quickly, SNK authorized Kujo and his team to develop their own games, Metal Slug and Big Tournament Golf (Neo Turf Masters). We can also legitimately wonder why Nazca decided to venture into the development of games as disparate as a run & gun and a sports game... In reality, former Irem employees who migrated to Nazca had already worked on golf games and In the Hunt at the time, so they didn't start from scratch in these two genres. It was decided to split the Nazca teams into Metal Slug and BTG, with some members working on both projects simultaneously.
The Nazca studio consisted of no more than twenty people, including a good dozen working on Metal Slug (2 game planners, 6-8 designers, 5 programmers and one person for sound and music). The majority of the designers came from Irem's A team, while most of the programmers were from the B team.
The development team was heavily inspired by their previous productions at Irem, GunForce and In the Hunt in the lead, to design Metal Slug. Their initial idea, "Metal Slug Zero", was to only control the tank (very close in spirit to In the Hunt, where you control a submarine) but the two inconclusive location tests of August 1995 changed the game: the SNK top management forced them to completely revise their copy to produce a more classic run & gun game... Thus, the project that was supposed to last 18 months was extended by a full semester. This led to a period of intense crunch, where the developers literally fell asleep from exhaustion at 2-3am in the office and wrapped themselves in their sleeping bag for a few hours, to resume work at 9am! Most of the game's backgrounds were reused, but the levels had to be lengthened to take into account the fact that the hero moved much faster than a tank.
Metal Slug: Super Vehicle-001 (メタルスラッグ) was released on April 19, 1996 on MVS, May 24 on AES and July 5 on Neo Geo CD. The success was immediate, especially in Europe where Kazuhiro Takeshita (president of SNK Europe) sold 5,000 copies in one month (probably talking about MVS, even if it is not specifically mentioned in the interview).
The story of Metal Slug takes place around 2028. A war is raging between two military groups: the Regular Army and the Rebellion, led by General Morden, a bloodthirsty dictator (whose name in German actually means "to kill, to eliminate"), an unlikely mix between Saddam Hussein and Adolf Hitler. Seeing the Regular Army panic and collapse, First Lieutenant Marco Rossi of the Peregrine Falcons Special Forces unit of the Regular Army quickly unites the remaining Allied units and begins a commando operation to recover their "Super Vehicle-001", technologically very advanced tanks. He is accompanied by Second Lieutenant Tarma Roving of the same unit. You play as Marco (and/or Tarma in 2-player mode) to counter Morden in this last-ditch operation...
The introduction, brief but effective, presents the two main attributes of the Metal Slug, highlighting the turret and the cannon in action. A bullet impact that pierces the screen, the tone is set... Fans of strategy and puzzle games, pass your way, Metal Slug is meant to be brutal and cathartic!
The options menu is reduced to the bare minimum, as you can only adjust the difficulty (easy, medium, mvs, hard) and the number of lives (up to 5 maximum).
The traditional "How to Play" screen briefly but effectively introduces the game's main gameplay mechanics, which use three buttons on the stick:A to shoot B to jump C to throw a grenade (or shoot the cannon when you're in the tank)
While pressing A+B when you're inside the Slug, you can "sacrifice" it by launching a suicide attack, in order to deal maximum damage.
You have a basic pistol (with unlimited ammunition) and a melee attack with a knife and/or kicks (to prioritize for scoring). Unlike Contra, for example, you will not die if you come into contact with most enemies, but only if you are hit by an attack or enemy fire. Grenades are the heart of your arsenal, you have 10 for each life but can increase this number by a multiple of 10 by collecting ammunition crates, which are generously distributed throughout the levels.
In addition to the Beretta and grenades, special weapons can also be collected:Heavy Machine Gun: A heavy machine gun that allows you to shoot in eight directions (where you will be limited to four directions with the pistol) Flame Shot: A flamethrower that is devastating against infantry but has limited usefulness against armored vehicles Rocket Launcher: A high-rate-of-fire missile launcher (it launches missiles in pairs) Shotgun: A shotgun, extremely powerful and satisfying to use but with a reduced range
The SV-001, or Metal Slug if you prefer, has a rapid-fire, rotating Vulcan cannon turret that can fire in any direction, as well as a heavy main cannon. The cannon uses separate ammunition from grenades and other weapons, and is much more powerful. Hand grenades can still be thrown from the vehicle. They have the advantage of having a much higher firing rate than the cannon and will be a valuable asset against bosses, if you have managed to keep your Slug until the end of the level of course! In fact, your tank can withstand three direct hits before being destroyed. When the vehicle's health is completely depleted, the player only has a few seconds to leave the vehicle before it explodes. Fortunately, you can restore your war machine's energy bar by collecting gas cans along the way.
Finally, more anecdotally, in the final mission, you will have the opportunity to use a machine gun turret perched on a submarine. You will only be able to sweep an angle of 180° and the shots are identical to those of the pistol, but with a much higher rate of fire!
In general, you will obtain bonuses (in the form of special weapons or objects that earn points) by freeing prisoners of war. They also have their importance for scoring, as you will receive a score bonus for freeing the prisoners at the end of the level. A window then displays the name and rank of each freed prisoner of war. However, if you die before the end of the level, the count of freed prisoners is erased... If you are aiming for the high score, you will therefore have to complete each mission by freeing as many prisoners as possible without dying!
If you've never played Metal Slug (which is unlikely, I agree), you'll be immediately struck by the finesse of the graphics, that pixel art typical of Irem productions (including In the Hunt). The art direction reaches a level of detail and refinement that is rarely equaled! The sober but always well-chosen colors, the breathtaking animations (despite slowdowns when the screen is overloaded with moving sprites, even in single-player mode) that shine through their variety (soldiers die in over a dozen different ways), the particularly successful rendering of explosions, the numerous destructible elements... Everything breathes the work well done, by passionate artisans, a true love letter to pixel art! The attention to detail is evident from the first stage: the parrots that flee to escape the conflict, the reflections in the puddles of water, the animation of the waterfall before facing the first boss, etc.
The stages (six in number) do not confine themselves to a single tableau but are constantly renewed: the first mission begins on the outskirts of a Khmer temple in Cambodia, then continues in front of a giant submarine wreck, then a swamp full of enemies and traps reminiscent of the Vietnam War, before going up a waterfall to face an imposing armored seaplane. In the second, you begin your journey in an abandoned train station, then evolve on a bridge where you will have to sink the Hammer-Yang boats (be sure to reach land before they sink), then take control of a Slug to eliminate the planes in scenery worthy of a Miyazaki anime, before facing for the first time General Morden, the game's main villain. I'll stop there, you get my point!
The developers had in mind to create a game that resembles an action movie and it can be said that the challenge was met with flying colors! A true parody of World War II, the references abound: Nazi flags and crosses, soldiers that look like they were taken straight from the Wehrmacht, prisoners of war inspired by Rambo, etc. The team also drew inspiration from the manga universe: the Slug looks exactly like the Tank Police from Dominion, and many vehicles recall Miyazaki's productions. In fact, Marco Rossi is a clear nod to Porco Rosso. And Fio Piccolo, a protagonist of Metal Slug who will appear in the following episodes, should remind you of Fio Germi, from the very same Porco Rosso...
Many scenes instantly evoke the conflict of 1939-1945: the Maginot Line with bunkers and trenches, the ravaged European cities, the D-Day scene, etc. However, the title always manages to alternate between humor and drama in a miracle of balance. Metal Slug is meant to be a pastiche of war and does not miss an opportunity to remind you that this is all just a game. In fact, once the adventure is over, the final message is unambiguous: "Peace forever!". The soldiers' facial expressions are hilarious (they go about their business, have a good meal around a campfire, take a bathroom break, pinch their noses when jumping off a sinking ship, lie down flat when they throw you a grenade, etc.), as are those of the NPCs in the background! The humor is omnipresent and hilarious. The details are so abundant that you will continue to discover them with each new game!
Beautiful screenshots are worth more than my long speech, so here is the full course of the game:
Mission 6 & End cutscene
The gameplay is of very good quality, but it requires a short period of adaptation due to a certain inertia in the controls. If we are a bit picky, we can regret a slight lack of precision in the jumps, highlighted by the platforming phases at the beginning of the 3rd mission that some will find a bit haphazard...
The soundtrack by Takushi Hiyamata (who goes by "HIYA!") offers particularly successful jazzy-electro-rock compositions (some with military overtones), perfectly highlighting the intensity of the action. Hiyamata wanted players to feel like they were taking part in an interactive movie, and he was particularly inspired by Star Wars and Thunderbirds. A big fan of the saxophone, he often gives this instrument a place of honor in his orchestration! The iconic themes of the series are already there (the boss theme, the end-of-mission theme, etc.) for our greatest pleasure! The sound effects are not to be outdone, the soldiers scream in multiple ways when they perish (especially if you burn them with the flamethrower). And how can we not mention the speaker, who announces the beginning and end of each mission and intervenes every time you pick up a special weapon. HEAVY MACHINE GUN! SHOT GUN! FLAME SHOT! ROCKET LAUNCHER! He is undoubtedly part of the whole game’s experience!
Metal Slug is relatively short (about thirty minutes), but its pace is intense, with almost no downtime. It offers a concentrated dose of action, so much so that you come back to it frequently just for the pleasure of a short session and to try to beat your high score! It definitely has that little taste of "I want to come back to it!" Interestingly, the stages were designed by two different programmers, Meeher for those where we spend our time shooting/stopping and Kujo for those with scrollings. By deciding to alternate their stages, they found the perfect alchemy in terms of gameplay variety!
Metal Slug is considered to be the easiest game in the series, and it is hard to argue against this claim. The difficulty is never excessive, it gradually increases from the middle of the game, with a peak in the last level. But by learning the patterns, the locations of enemies, Slug vehicles, and power-ups, you will progress without any frustration, unlike other games in the series... You will probably be able to beat the game in one life up to the end of stage 3, but the missions after that are a whole different ballgame! For now, I can finish the game in 2 credits on MVS difficulty, but I plan to 1-cc it eventually! In general, be careful not to stay still, avoid jumping only if absolutely necessary, keep the Slug vehicle as long as possible, and use grenades (especially while crouching when you are inside the tank) to quickly defeat bosses! The bosses are also the culmination of each stage: the magnificent Tani Oh tank that bombards you from the foreground (mission 3), the double Shoe & Karn tanks (mission 4), or the Iron Nokana (mission 5), an armored truck equipped with a tank and that has the ability to raise itself to reveal a deadly flamethrower! And how can we not mention the mid-bosses, including the epic duel against Sergeant Allen O'Neil. Equipped with a heavy machine gun and grenades, he fights on equal terms and will definitely give you a hard time!
One last tip: absolutely play Metal Slug in the Japanese version, so you don't have to suffer the yoke of censorship! Get ready for fountains of blood and enemies that literally explode when they come into contact with your grenades or the cannonballs from your Slug!
I had been coveting this cult classic for many years (at least 10 years) and I probably should have taken the plunge a long time ago... But I am delighted to have recently acquired an original copy in very good condition (despite a slight sunfade on the Neo Geo logo). No need to mention the price, the many posts on social media have already caused enough buzz... Thank you to Tony (the previous owner), a passionate fan I know in real life who parted with it with great regret but who knows that I will take great care of it. And thank you also of course to Full7 and the entire store team (including Bruno, the manager) for the constructive discussions, for reserving it for me for several weeks, the time to think it over... Metal Slug 1 is the holy grail of my AES jap collection and I intend to do it justice by playing it regularly on the original hardware with my good old Sony Trinitron TV monitor! All I have left to do now is get my hands on a legit BTG to complete the full AES jap set. In due course, of course, there's no rush...
In conclusion, Metal Slug fully justifies its status as a cult classic (some would say mythical). A true action film in pixel art with masterful production values, a pure concentration of action with crazy intensity, a good dose of humor, the most arcade-like episode that is the easiest to return to because it is perfectly calibrated for short sessions, the quintessence of Irem's know-how, a true swan song for pixel art, it already lays the foundations for the series, which will evolve relatively little in the future. An episode close to perfection, and my favorite in the series, without a doubt!
My rating: 19/20
If you want to learn more about this mythical series:
A website that is extremely exhaustive on the Metal Slug license:
Of course, at the risk of repeating myself, I also invite you to read "Metal Slug: The Ultimate History". In addition to the very interesting texts and interviews (which I used to write this review), the magnificent screenshots that beautifully showcase the pixel art almost justify the purchase of this book alone!