I was surrounded by gunfire. I was dead for sure. Two helicopters circled overhead, spewing machine gun bursts. At the far end of the screen was a covered wagon carrying a bottomless supply of armed soldiers. At first, I focused my attack on the wagon. No dice: the helicopters carved me up with their incessant hail of chubby red bullets. Then I focused on the choppers, jumping the soldiers' fire as I aimed. But I couldn't jump their shots without simultaneously dodging the chopper fire, and I died once again. I was damned if I jumped, damned if I didn't, and I began to despair.
And then I made a crucial discovery. As you pass under a chopper, it turns, indicating the direction in which it will fire (diagonal left, straight down, diagonal right). With good timing, you can trick the choppers back and forth just enough so that you know what direction they will fire, and then step out of the way. It was a true 2D epiphany.
Epiphanies like these come only after playing a particular stretch of difficult gaming over and over again. They are the fruit of careful experimentation and observation. They are not easily obtained, but they are the most satisfying part of learning to play a challenging, well-designed game. Where progress is earned, not given, the player appreciates the game and his own skill more than he would if he simply fed credit after credit, plowing his way through by attrition.
Players expecting a facile quarter-muncher will experience their own epiphany: Metal Slug 3 is hard. It's not a game you can plow through in a night. Sure, in its original arcade and SNK home console incarnations you could feed credits at will and continue where you died without penalty, but SNK made the Xbox port a little harder. When you lose all your lives, the game starts you at the beginning of the level. And some of these levels are long, often branching into multiple subsections and paths. Finishing this game is not a task for the weak, but it makes you appreciate your own skill all the more.
MS3 is filled with such aural and visual joy that it makes war look like a day at the zoo. Your chipper soldier must fight his or her way through five vast levels filled with giant wasps, mutant crabs, zombies, politically incorrect Arab assassins, aliens, sasquatches, and hundreds of totally inept soldiers. And here's where the zoo part comes in: in addition to the plentiful weapons available, you can ride armed elephants, camels, and ostriches into the fray, not to mention more pedestrian vehicles such as tanks, subs, robot suits, and spaceships. All these sprites are rendered lovingly with almost excessively detailed animation, faithfully preserved in the Xbox version without a single frame missing.
In fact, MS3 runs even better on the Xbox than it did in the arcades. I got used to console games outpacing arcade games sometime during the last generation of software, but now our home entertainment boxes can make our favorite arcade games even better. For grizzled arcade stalwarts like me, this is an exciting time to be alive.
People on video game message boards like to obsess over this next question, so I will address it here: Is MS3 the best run-and-gun shooter ever made? It is unmistakably one of the most creative and visually entertaining games of its genre. Few others can match the amusement value of watching your soldier, visibly porked out from collecting too many food power ups, bounding across an ancient Aztec temple roasting man-eating Venus flytraps. The reason fans prefer MS3 over, say, the Contra series is its presumed spontaneity. Unlike Contra, they claim, there is little memorization and more seat-of-the-pants, skill-based gameplay. I don't see a difference between the two series in this regard. Mastery demands both precision and careful observation of enemy patterns; forget a stray bullet or a hidden soldier and you're dead.
In fact, MS3's floaty jumping and inflexible firing angles - you can only fire in four directions (Heavy Machinegun excepted) - force you to memorize the minutiae of movement to an even more exacting degree than the Contra games. It's a different kind of memorization, less reliant on remembering enemy boss weaknesses and more on enemy appearance and terrain, but it's still there. Personally I prefer the Contra series and its more flexible approach to shooting and jumping.
Sadly, MS3 appeals mostly as a solitary challenge of reflexes and motor skill, and not as a two-player blast-a-thon. The continue system is in effect in two-player mode, meaning that a player cannot continue after losing his lives until his partner does the same. This makes it hard to get your friends to play more than a few games of co-op before they ask you to put Halo back in the disc tray. Playing MS3 is like reading the Bible: put some effort into it and you'll find it uplifting and exhilarating, but if you haven't got the character it'll bore you right quick.
· · · Eric Manch