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Metal Slug 3

I’m going to be bluntly honest with you – Metal Slug 3 is the first game in the series that I have even touched. Call it blasphemy, sacrilege or a just plain lack of culture on my part, but it is true. That said, I sure wish I had been familiar with the SNK’s Metal Slug series much earlier than now, because this type of frantic 2D gameplay is uniquely charming, especially considering the game industry’s current over infatuation with the third dimension.

When thinking of an accurate way of describing Metal Slug 3’s unique gameplay, I remembered something Bungie’s Jason Jones said a while back when describing Halo 2. He said, “Halo 2 is a lot like Halo 1, only it’s Halo 1 on fire, going 130 miles per hour through a hospital zone, being chased by helicopters and ninjas. And, the ninjas are all on fire, too.” Now, while this is a great metaphor for illustrating the improvement of Halo 2 over its predecessor, it works even better as a description of actual gameplay in Metal Slug 3 — only in SNK’s crazy 2D shooter you get assaulted by zombies, giant eels, alien spacecraft, man-eating plants, submarines, kamikaze pilots and mummified dogs, as well as flaming ninjas and helicopters. To put it more simply: Metal Slug 3 plays like Contra on crack. And, as any wizened, old school gamer will gladly tell you, that’s definitely a good thing.

Staying with the Contra comparison, both games have you running on foot through the various stages, blasting hordes of enemies, picking up kick-ass gun power-ups and trying to rack up the highest score humanly possible. Also like in Contra, the entire game can be played through cooperatively with a friend, effectively doubling the amount of chaos happening on-screen and extending the game’s lifespan significantly. Where Metal Slug 3 deviates from the Contra formula is with its inclusion of multiple paths through each level, the rescuing of hostages and, of course, the Metal Slugs – drivable vehicles like walking tanks, mini-subs, harrier jets and even gun-totting camels that are often very hard to locate, but well worth the effort due to their increased firepower and maneuverability.

One thing is for certain; the game’s tough-as-nails difficulty will be a serious gut check for gaming novices, even when set to the inaccurately labeled “Easy” setting. You can only take a maximum of five lives into any given level, and if you lose all of them, it’s back to the beginning of the stage for you — frustrating, yes, but oh so deliciously old school. The good news is you are given a smorgasbord of weapon upgrades to collect, including: shotgun, laser shot, flame shot, drop shot (bouncing explosive balls), enemy chaser (homing missiles) and the famous rocket lauwncha – as it’s mispronounced by the game – amongst others. Amazingly, despite the wide variety in gun power-ups available, none of them are significantly worse than any of the others, so you never have any of those dastardly moments that plague other 2D shooters where you accidentally pick-up an annoying, worthless power-up.

Of course, furiously frantic 2D gameplay is only made that much better when accentuated by furiously frantic 2D visuals and, thankfully, SNK more than delivered the goods here. Younger gamers – the ones weaned on the PlayStation and proclaim Final Fantasy VII as the best game EVAR – will likely look at Metal Slug 3’s graphics and snicker, but gaming veterans like myself get all misty eyed when witnessing such beautifully hand drawn sprite animations. In fact, I’d even go as far as saying this is some of the most impressive 2D animation, in terms of sheer volume, variety and fluidity, that I have ever seen in a videogame. Shoot an enemy soldier with a regular bullet and watch as he careens backwards, blood exploding from a massive chest wound. Shoot the same baddie with a rocket and he explodes in a shower of limbs, gore and entrails. Try frying him with the flamethrower and he’ll become engulfed in flames, stagger forward a few steps and collapse to the ground a charred, hideous mess. Now, take into consideration that that is only one simple bad guy out of the hundreds included in the game, and the fact that scores of these animations can be occurring on-screen simultaneously, and you start to see the kind of attention to detail that SNK put into Metal Slug’s brilliant visuals.

Audio-wise, the game’s arcade roots are quite apparent. Explosions, gunshots, death cries and the exuberant announcements that coincide with weapon pick-ups all relentlessly pepper the gamer, but never to the point of annoyance. In short, it’s just what you’d expect from an arcade shooter. Though not particularly memorable, the music always compliments the frantic on-screen action well enough, and even changes frequently to fit the current theme of the level. I especially dig that creepy, pounding guitar riff that plays during the early portions of level two.

Unfortunately, there is one significant downer to the whole Metal Slug 3 experience: the game’s questionable longevity. With only five levels, all of which can be cleared by an experienced player in less than two hours, and a limited number of unlockable goodies, many may find the $39.99 price tag a bit too much to swallow (though fanatical SNK loyalists that spent $250 a pop on NEOGEO games will certainly find it easy to accept). Granted, there is an Xbox only level and mini game that can be unlocked, and you can upload high scores via Xbox Live, but only the truly hardcore will keep replaying the game until every secret path is discovered and hostage (there are over 1,000 of them!) rescued. Though, as I mentioned earlier, having a buddy around to play the game with will extend the lifespan considerably, and you will tend to keep popping the disc in on a regular basis just because the gameplay is so uniquely enjoyable.

The third dimension has brought all sorts of new and exciting things to the world of videogaming. Without it there would have never been memorable titles like Halo, Ocarina of Time or Superman 64 (for us to laugh at), but, despite all that, there is just something incredibly satisfying about a great 2D shooter. Metal Slug 3 may be a few years old and minus a dimension, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of the best action games currently on the Xbox. On a side note, I hear SNK is also bringing Metal Slugs 4 & 5 to the Xbox. To that I simply say, bring on them Slugs!

8 out of 10

The author of this fine article

is a Senior Staff Writer at Thunderbolt, having joined in May 2003. Get in touch on Twitter @Joshua_Luke.

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