Metal Slug 2 continues to make the rounds in these collections, but let's talk X exclusively since it pulverizes 2 in every way. The European motif is all but ditched and the game's much zanier (the team starts in a Middle Eastern desert and is soon fighting mummies, aliens, and has a close encounter with a killer whale). Though, if the series had to move away from the more serious personality of the first (and I believe it had to for things to remain fresh), this was the right direction. X is the most tightly wound of the series: the missions are short, but a mind-boggling number of enemies, weapons, and secrets are layered into every screen.
But, as expected, Metal Slug 3 remains the series pinnacle (though after tearing through the original and X again, all three are closer than I realized). The game is longer, more cinematic, and the secrets aren't throwaways like in X. The one with the yetis is practically its own level. There are more vehicles, paths that split the game into segments, and that first boss…is there anything more satisfying than beating down that maniacal, relentlessly pursuing engine with the pistol?
And when you think the game is in its final throes, a cute little plot twist occurs and the aliens take over as the opposition. The final mission as SNK designed it is this slow burn, a little flame that leads you towards what you think are the end credits. But instead it sparks right into a keg. The game literally blasts off into space, with your character in a rocket ship to finish the fight again. No game has ever let you fight itself to the end, stop, and reboot so seamlessly and without exhausting itself out. Metal Slug 3 is just this incredible, ambitious, and wonderful crosshatch of talented programmers and artists firing on all cylinders. Utterly perfect. Play it, watch it, and learn what you can from it – even if the people on the series now are incapable of just that.
How Metal Slug 4 became the black sheep of the family is perplexing, seeing that it keeps the structure of the earlier ones. Indeed, perhaps there's the rub. 4 is faithful to the point of flattery: whole sprites and scenes are lifted from earlier Slugs and littered throughout the stages. When you're a 2D run-and-gun series, and one whose game mechanics were already perfected two games into the series, originality is all you have going.
But to its defense, this is a tasteful thief: redesigned versions of the pyramid and zombie levels (second levels of 2 and 3, respectively) are placed at the end of the game and it builds upon what SNK originally did with the levels. They become more challenging, creative, and explorative than their initial iterations. Is that enough to excuse Korean developer Mega Enterprise? Not really, but, hey, why let that stop you from plowing through the game guilt free?
And whereas Metal Slug 4 has warmed-over bits, Metal Slug 5 suffers from nearly the opposite: half-baked firsts. There's a new slide move which, in grand John Woo fashion, you can use while shooting between your legs. Sliding would've been useful in previous games, but Metal Slug 5 is simply too easy and boring to make this exciting, stemming mostly from the shockingly bad level design presenting no surprises to the player. With few slopes, obstacles, or ledges to ascend/descend, the game consists mostly of running to the right and left on flat planes. Exciting for marathon runners, not so much for us sedentary thrill-seekers.
And the developers actually managed to screw up the plot – as miniscule as it is. 2D action games are not about good stories, as much as they are good storytelling. Consider back in its 16-bit prime the Sonic series was able to arch an engaging narrative across four games without displaying a single word and with minimal game interruption. With the best old-school games, it is through a pantomime on the screen, a twitch of the pixels that the action is propelled to great heights. Metal Slug 3 achieved this. But Metal Slug 5 is an unreserved mess.
In another half-baked milestone, General Morden's troops (the instigators of the other games) are gone. At the beginning of MS5, you're in a rainforest fighting both guerrillas and natives. You assume everyone is fighting over a silver mask, which one of the natives finds and puts on before being struck by lightning. Later, some guys in gas masks try to kill you. Then a whole cult of silver masked dudes show up... who may or may not be related to the natives... who may or may not be related to the final boss, a scythed demon. The demon tries cutting through you like a birthday cake, you shoot at it a lot, it leaves, and the game ends.
It's not just that the lack of continuity between, well, anything that's jarring, but this does eventually subtract from the game. The Metal Slugs may be considered violent, but there's levity to it, and not just because of the puckish art and animation. In the first four, you knew who you were up against and why you're motivated to shoot. Take that away, as Metal Slug 5 does, and the deaths become faceless. It risks becoming the senseless tableau of destruction and debauchery politicians love raving about. The sooner you lose sight of whom and why you're fighting, the sooner these wars become games.