A thousand years from now, when we’ve all been uploaded to a giant computer somewhere, archaeologists will term the late 20th century as the BP epoch – Before Polygons. Long before virtual reality, way before textured polygons and anisotropic filtering and enhanced subpixel morphological processing, games were largely comprised of big, blocky pixels, each one carefully put in place by hand.
Looking back, it’s startling just how quickly pixel graphics evolved from cheerfully blocky Space Invaders to the detailed, anime-style combatants in the Street Fighter II games of the late 90s. All of which brings us to Metal Slug 3, an artefact from pixel art’s dying days in the year 2000. In many respects, this side-scrolling shooter from SNK, first developed for the Neo-Geo MVS, represents the artform’s pinnacle: the character designs are beautifully rendered and stunningly animated, every frame packed with care, incidental detail and humour.
By 2000, the Metal Slug franchise was already four years old, and Metal Slug 3 continued its comically violent tradition. It’s a run-and-gunner in the mould of Rolling Thunder and Contra, but with the action cranked up to an absurd extreme: early games featured great armies of hapless soldiers and super-deformed hardware for the player to either mow down or commandeer, but by Metal Slug 3, the grey-and-brown military palette had expanded to include a broader colour palette and a dazzling array of strange enemies.
Even today, Metal Slug 3 looks absolutely stunning. After selecting your player character from the quartet of heavily-armed eccentrics, you emerge on a beach strewn with the carcasses of missiles and dead tuna; as you make your way across the sand, you’re confronted not by soldiers, but by giant killer crabs. From that moment on, the old Metal Slug action never lets up. Your basic gun is capable of firing rapid volleys of shots, while enemies who get in too close are automatically despatched with a swipe of your hunting knife. For bosses and larger groups of opponents, you have a finite number of grenades to throw, plus there’s an array of more powerful weapons to collect by rescuing hostages, Shinobi-style.
The relatively large size of the characters, plus the heavily embellished visuals, create an oddly claustrophobic feel in the Metal Slug games, which is something you’ll either find off-putting or part of their manic appeal. Even with all those weapons, plus your character’s ability to fire in multiple directions as you hop nimbly about the screen, Metal Slug can feel brutally unforgiving for the uninitiated. Enemies are wont to attack from all angles and at ferocious speed, and the lack of real estate on the screen means you’re constantly fighting bosses and waves of attack at close-quarters, meaning you have mere fractions of a second to avoid incoming fire or a killer blow.
Then again, a bit of practice reveals that the Metal Slug series isn’t quite the hostile coin-guzzler it first appears to be. By memorising attack patterns and the locations of hidden weapons, it is actually possible to complete the games without constantly hitting the “insert coins button” – a quick hunt on YouTube for speed-run videos will reveal that some fleet-fingered players are capable of completing Metal Slug 3 on a single credit.
Even without that level of skill, persistence reaps dividends in the Metal Slug games, and Metal Slug 3 contains all kinds of secrets and weird artistic touches to spur you on. From the comical transformations your character undergoes – turning into a zombie, suddenly gaining copious amounts of weight – to such level designs where you fight waves of abominable snowmen and reanimated corpses while riding on the back of an elephant, Metal Slug 3′s one of those games you want to keep playing just to see what’s hidden around the next corner.
It’s also true that, while all the games in the series handle almost identically, the mechanics are so nicely judged that you can’t really blame SNK from resting on their laurels a little in this regard.
As for this Nintendo Switch version, it’s a straight emulation of the Neo-Geo original, with filter options to make the display look like an old CRT television and so on. The only major disappointment is that the emulator doesn’t support an individual Joy-Con controller – meaning Metal Slug 3‘s two-player mode can’t be played without buying an extra pad or pair of Joy-Con.
Otherwise, this is Metal Slug as its fans will remember it. The game may not make much use of the Switch’s design, but then again, its arcade action feels like a perfect fit for Nintendo’s new console. The Switch is one of those systems you can simply pick up and play on a whim, which by extension means it’s fun to just turn on Metal Slug 3 and do a bit of fancy shooting during a five-minute tea break or short journey.
Besides, those beautifully-designed pixel graphics really sparkle on the console’s tiny screen.
ACA NEOGEO Metal Slug 3 is available to download now from the Nintendo Switch eShop.