The Appeal of Metal Slug

I debate the true appeal of a legendary arcade series, and argue for fancy visuals in games.

Lately I’ve had the financial opportunity to collect Neo Geo MVS games, including the Metal Slug series. Some of my earliest gaming memories were playing the original title in the arcade, and after arcades disappeared it was never hard to find a cabinet with one of the Slug games at any movie theater or bowling alley. Returning to these games years on has confirmed that yes, they are still extremely enjoyable run and guns with beautiful graphics. But Metal Slug’s visuals stretch beyond simple eye candy to a tangible reward that encourage exploration and offers replayability.

As a kid I would pump endless quarters into beating each Metal Slug. As I return to these games as an adult, spending quite a bit of money for the arcade hardware that grants the ability to insert credits for free at the push of a button, I play conservatively to “get my money’s worth”. What’s the point in clearing each game on the first go? I want to savour each moment, get a little further on a limited number of credits, master each challenge, and be rewarded with more detail.

I don’t have to tell you how good Metal Slug looks. As with any arcade game, Metal Slug rewards player knowledge and experimentation with extra points and powerups to tackle each challenge. But Slug also rewards you in raw detail. Trees shiver in the breeze. Signs in Arabic translate to silly non-sequiturs. You can throw grenades at a baby to make it fly around harmlessly. Each entry is stuffed to the bursting point with detail across their brief campaigns, and it’s too much to take in at once. The experience of consuming Metal Slug unfolds across many playthroughs. It’s emblematic of a kitchen sink-era of game design: as the platform holder and publisher, SNK controlled its own budgets and deadlines. So while the gameplay was simple, the Metal Slug team had the luxury of spending time on art and code that would be extraneous in today’s game development climate.

Metal Slug also benefits from a breadth of gameplay concepts compared to its contemporaries. One level may have you scaling a mountain or train while the next will be underwater or a shmup homage. Levels themselves are mixes of shooting and platforming, with many encounters designed around gimmick weapons like the drop shot, or flanking the player with enemies while you shoot a door open. These, as with everything else in Metal Slug, are presented with a signature style of violence and humor. These are games where you play to see what the developers have thought up next.

In many ways Metal Slug 1 is the best designed of the bunch. It offers a fair challenge, with enemy bullet patterns in reasonable amounts and ammunition in high supply. As a kid I could eventually clear it in a few credits, which may have only gotten me to the end of the second stage in Slug 3. And yet the consensus among even the general crowd is that Metal Slug 3 is the best in the series. Why? Because it has the most detail. It introduced a ton of original spritework and it’s by far the most content-packed in the series. It has a long playtime and radically different paths in each stage, meaning a bevy of new content to explore every time. Slug 3 also has the highest “bullshit!” ratio of any Slug game. Difficulty and balance is not an issue to players when it looks this damn good and feels good to play. Unlike console games, any difficulty can be overcome by brute forcing credits into the machine. On the flipside, Slug 4 is considered the weakest entry, despite being designed much fairer than 3. Its only sin is being made of recycled sprites from previous games. I have little interest in Metal Slug 6 and 7/XX, largely because the new spritework and audio clashes with the older assets.

Graphics can make a game. Symphony of the Night may happen to be one of the better Metroidvanias out there, but the reason why it’s *the* Metroidvania doesn’t just come with its innovation or design but its maximalism, the way every pixel feels built with purpose, and the way there’s a new secret waiting to be found on each playthrough. Metal Slug is proof that simple gameplay benefits from variety–the Slug series would not be nearly as fun without vehicles, powerups, transformations, and smart level design that mixes up the pacing and gameplay.

While I was writing this article, I replayed Metal Slug 3 for the nth time. I found a route in a level that I’d never taken before. It’s not like I’d kept track of every path I’d taken as a kid. It blew me away to have new content in a cherished game. And you know what? This area kicked my ass, and I credit fed it. I wanted to see it all, in that moment. I can always return to it later to master it.

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