Saturday, December 24, 2011

Metal Slugfest

I purchased Metal Slug Anthology for my Nintendo Wii, which collects all of the Metal Slug games from 1 to 6 including X. It's not as if I had never played a Metal Slug game before, there were the arcades, the version that I had on my NeoGeo Pocket Color (a hand-held video game system that was made to compete with the GameBoy), and there were the downloadables on Xbox Live Arcade that I never bothered with. It seemed like a good deal for $15, and on any other video game system, it might have been.

The NeoGeo Home was an impressive system for it's time, with arcade-perfect home ports (because the home system was architecturally identical to its stand-up counterpart), with games so packed with chips that they could weigh upwards of 3 lbs!

You wouldn't think that a game this old could be undone by a modern video game system, but Nintendo has gone out of its way to make sure that it does! Well, to be fair, this collection's failings aren't all Nintendo's fault, but they're certainly not helped by it!

Okay, so my setup is pretty straightforward: I have my systems (including my Wii) connected to a 22 inch 1080p television, because I don't have much room and because the TV was cheap. The Wii offers no HDMI connectivity, so I am forced to use the best that it can: component video cables. With this little $3 eBay number in place, I can make use of the Wii's HD capabilities... That is to say, 480p instead of the standard 480i. Sigh. Well, this collection doesn't even use that! When the game starts it will go into 480i mode right away, and I can only guess that this is because the arcade games weren't released during the HD age, and whoever put this collection together couldn't be bothered to optimize them. That's fine, really, it doesn't affect my enjoyment of the game at all.

What does affect my enjoyment of this game? Control. Right away things are problematic, at best. Like most side-scrolling games on the Wii, you hold the Wii Remote sideways in order to mimic an old arcade controller. "But ARCWuLF," you'd say, "that seems completely reasonable and sensible in every way imaginable." Well, you'd be mostly right, except that a standard NeoGeo controller (the kind used in the arcade and NeoGeo home systems) has four action buttons. "But ARCWuLF," you'd say again, whining, "Even if you don't count the "+" the "-" and "home" buttons, the Wii Remote has four buttons to use." "Ah," I'd reply, "then you're already SMARTER THAN THE PEOPLE WHO MADE THIS GAME!"

If you've never played any of the Metal Slug games, they could be best described as tough-as-nails side-scrolling platform shooters. That is to say, you control a soldier from a profile view and advance to the right of the screen while shooting enemy combatants and dodging bullets. Now when I say that Metal Slug is "tough-as-nails" what I am referring to is the fact that it only takes one enemy bullet, knife, missile, background object, or a slight breeze to kill your character. What this means for the player is that tight, responsive controls and a good button layout is important, and this is what the game fails to provide.

You see, I have tried all of the button layouts, controllers, and combinations that this game supports, and here is what you have to remember:

  1. Analog control sticks are slow and imprecise when playing side-scrollers that have no need of speed control.
  2. It is really hard to use buttons and a digital pad while shaking a motion controller.
  3. In Metal Slug, you NEED to use your bombs.

In this compilation, even though you have perfectly serviceable "A" and "B" buttons on the controller, you cannot (while using the Wii Remote) assign them to use bombs. You MUST shake the controller in order to throw bombs. What does this mean? It means that you will throw bombs when you don't mean to (wasting them), throw too many bombs at a time (you have a limited supply), or get hit by incoming fire because while shaking the controller hard enough to throw bombs using the D-pad is difficult, if not impossible. Not only that, but navigating the menus with the Wii Remote is a chore because the programmed the menus to work with the Wii Remote held vertically, while the game uses it horizontally. Why they bothered at all is the bigger question, because the game makes no use of the Wii Sensor Bar, only the accelerometer.

So, profoundly frustrated by this, I turned my attention to the GameCube controllers that I have plugged into my Wii at all times (hey, the Nintendo Wavebird was the first good and is still a really good wireless controller, deal with it). This failed to solve the problem, however. You see, when using the GC controller, with it's perfectly-good-even-if-it's-a-bit-too-small-that's-what-she-said D-pad, the game forces you to use the analog stick, which is... let's just say "interesting." Not in any way good or accurate or fun, but "interesting."

Having recently acquired a "Classic Controller Pro" for my Wii, I decided to connect it and see. SURPRISE! You can't use it if there's a GC controller connected to your Wii. So, after unplugging my 4 Wavebird receivers from their awkward position on my Wii, which is inconveniently behind my television set, I find out that it doesn't support the D-pad on that either. These are not things that you can change in the settings, mind you, but we'll get to that.

So, looks like I'm stuck with the Wii Remote if I want any semblence of accuracy. Fine, because the game gives you infinite continues.

I have taken heat before for complaining about hard games, and it seems as though the Metal Slug Anthology people realized these games were too hard because they have broken it. Free Play is unlocked from the beginning, and by a play-through of any of these games you will soon see why. History lesson time, children! Gather 'round! 'Cept for you, Billy, get back in the corner and put your nose to the chalkboard!:

Once upon a time, there were places called "arcades" that existed in magical places called "malls." In these arcades there were "magic boxes" that could take you anywhere and let you do anything that you desired, all for the price of a magic token. Eventually, one magic box that let people beat up other people mano-a-mano became so popular, that it was the only magic box getting magic tokens. The people who made the magic boxes began making magic boxes of only this new popular type, and very soon began to find out that only a few people were still coming to the arcade to play these games. Desperate, the people who presided over the arcades began to increase the number of magic tokens that it took to play even the most unoriginal magic boxes, which caused even fewer people to visit the arcades. Then, one wise maker of magic boxes said, "No more! We will make a magic box like unto the magic boxes of yore, and it will cost only one magic token or two to play." The people rejoiced, never realizing that simply by the power of variety, the magic box maker had tricked them into playing a game that cost them ten times the amount of magic tokens as the others. Soon, all of the people were out of magic tokens, and the arcades closed their doors and were lost forever. THE END.

Wasn't that a great story kids? The lesson here is, of course, that this game is really, really hard. The player starts with 3 lives, and those will be gone in the first two minutes if they're lucky. There is so much going on on-screen that there are times that a player simply has no time to avoid enemy attacks. While playing, you save prisoners of war, which is how you're judged by the end of the stage, but if you die you lose all of them -- not just lose all of your lives either, JUST ONE. My play-through of the first game forced me to continue 37 times. Metal Slug X (actually the 3rd game in the series, but not to be confused with Metal Slug 3) was a little harder, coming in at 48 times.

Why is this important? With unlimited continues, the game is just a time-consuming cakewalk, with literally no challenge at all. It does let you turn on "limited continues" if you're a hardcore crazy-person, but with just 3 continues you will see practically NONE of the game.

The graphics are some of the best sprites ever made, and lots of 'em, but this is also a double-edged sword, as you never know what is a hazard and what is a harmless background object. There are spots in the game where it looks like you can stand on platforms, only to fall to your death because they are just part of the background, Even though most bullets are flashing white and red dots, there are missiles and other weapons that are the same gray-brown as many of the stages, leading to further confusion; It's when you're on your game, feeling good and invincible that something random will do you in.

The Wii's loading times hurt the game's flow slightly too, as once-seamless arcade transitions are now broken with loading screens (something alleviated slightly on better video game systems), but remains a stark reminder that you are playing a less-than-perfect port.

I don't hate this game, per se, but it does leave me wanting more, and it's not quite the bargain I thought it would be. Ah, well. Maybe the new Contra Hard Corps game will calm my nerves.


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DAMMIT!

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