Pass the Assault

Metal Slug Advance

For the uninitiated-


Er, I mean- for the uninitiated, Metal Slug is one of gaming goldmine SNK's longest standing arcade series. Even though the name brings to mind some sort of futuristic garden defending adventure, MS can be best described as a cartoonishly violent video game of the Contra persuasion, with lovingly detailed, hand-drawn graphics. Also worth noting is that unlike most of SNK's big fighting franchises, Metal Slug actually started good with a basic scheme that could be carried over mostly intact from game to game without seeming too rehashed.

Even though the games themselves are solidly designed, it can't be denied that a lot of Metal Slug's attraction comes from the sheer visceral appeal of the graphics and sounds. The generic soldier enemies alone are somewhat well-loved among gamers for their tendency to be seen sitting down on the job, gossiping, laughing at your fallen body, then shrieking like little girls when your next man drops down from the top of the screen. The sound is rich, with satisfying explosions and various slashing and screaming sounds to break up the rat-a-tat-tat of your Heavy Machine Gun. Each level concludes with an over-the-top fight with some oversized hunk of enemy hardware. The game artists put an impressive level of detail in the bosses to the point you can make out the specific components among the scrap that falls off them as they take damage and finally explode, leaving a burnt-out husk your character promptly dances on the grave of to the gung-ho style "MISSION COMPLETE!" theme. And then there are the vehicles, probably the 'gimmick' that the original team used when pitching the idea as more than a Contra clone. The titular Metal Slug is a mini-tank with killer hydraulics and a main gun with slightly impotent range. The other vehicles over the years have included everything from a Harrier jet to a camel with Vulcan cannons on its saddlebags.

So, Metal Slug comes at last to the GameBoy Advance, at about the time of the DS's debut, still going the tried and true route of tacking the word 'Advance' onto its title. First off- it's a great thing that SNK games are getting better distribution in the States at last. The PSX incarnation of Metal Slug X still retails for around 25 bucks used. (AgeTec's load-a-riffic version of KOF '99, however can be found for about five bucks.) When I heard of Metal Slug Advance, I thought, naturally- "Metal Slug. For my portable of choice. Sounds nice, but who are these strangers on the cover? And what's this about a- card system?" My mind boggled back and forth a little trying to make the connection between the "Gotta catch 'em all!" mentality, and... METAL SLUG. I retreated to the Mark-Cave to research the all-knowing GameFAQs review boards and other irrefutable sources of information to decide if the game was good.

The story behind the game, like it needs one, is the training/initiation mission of two new squad recruits, the blue haired slack jawed Walter (who seeks to prove himself, meaning he's a dork), and redheaded Tyra (whose bio card describes her uh, inventively as a "Do-gooder who really hates evil-doers.) So, we're giving up the established Slug team for a couple newbies. On a training course. Which sort of screamed "watered-down," but long story short, I buckled and got the game under the idea that "I don't care, so long as it plays right," and the backup mantra of "It can't be much worse than SFA3." (As wonderful a port as it may be, the GBA's design abhors a six-button fighting game control scheme, and the music makes me long for the synthesizer power of the Game Gear.)

Lo, I say unto the skeptical, that Metal Slug Advance is truly worthy of the name. All the gleefully brutal sound effects, a sup rising amount of animation, and most importantly the overall feel of the series is preserved on the itsy-bitsy screen. And more. Slugvance allows players to backtrack in a level, as opposed to the arcade game's steady rightward march. This means a lot less annoying falling deaths, plus more chances to collect items or even, if you like, to save a weapon pickup for when you may need it later on. Granted you can't go back between new areas, but the freedom of movement is really nice for a change. The hidden Dungeon level is totally open for exploration, and you'll need it to snag up all the vital cards. The biggest problem the new-found freedom presents though, is a hideously efficient respawn rate for enemies. Even more aggravating is the tendency of some enemies to vanish when scrolled away then back, especially when you make a courageous leap and waste your last bit of special ammo.

The other biggest change to the gameplay besides the exploration angle afforded by both the save games and free scrolling is the addition of a life bar- something hailed by many as blasphemy. Sugar coating. Well, you'll be happy to know it doesn't help you all that much, since you have but one life to give, virtually, for your country. You will curse the life bar whenever an enemy hit causes you to go flying backwards into an instant-kill pit. At the same time, you can replenish your health by collecting the formerly useless food items. (You don't get Fat Mode though- Walter and Tyra must still have their youthful metabolism.) The life bar, in effect sort of adds a survival aspect to the game that the usual fragile one hit kill system just didn't. It does allow you to fudge a little here and there since a hit no longer means losing all your amassed hostages and weapons. You can continue from the last 'new screen' as many times as you want, but much like the classics, you lose all the hostages and items you've amassed up to that point, encouraging you to finish it all in one shot, just like old times.

I still don't understand the need for recent games to fixate on collectible cards, but here it's more of an obsessive drive to utterly master the game. The card system here is thankfully more of an add-on than a hard and fast rule, even if it's a little passive aggressive about it. ("Sure, go ahead and beat the next level. You did miss the card that doubles your machine gun's paylo- ah, nevermind. Go ahead. I don't care.") Some of the cards are simply there for the sake of collecting- the character cards have short blurbs on classic and new Metal Slug cast, the food cards you earn simply by picking up one of the common items for the first time, and cards chronicling your accomplishing things like clearing each mission or saving/killing so many soldiers/prisoners. Respectively, that is. Then there are cards which actually help you out- each special weapon has an ammo-doubling and power-boosting card, there's a whole set of enhancements for the tank, and even cards that transform the Metal Slug into other vehicles like the badass Black Hound.

Again, Metal Slug Advance isn't just a lame cash-in. There are a lot of graphics and themes that are recycled from the Neo Geo games, which isn't necessarily a bad thing. Some of the more impressive encounters of the arcade series like the larger bosses are probably beyond the GBA's power (the tower-chomping boss from MS2 comes to mind), and of the recycled bosses I can't help but thing that the oversized Metal Slug that serves as the level 1 boss isn't quite as massive as it used to be. But you just can't go and change those goofy soldiers. Think of Metal Slug Advance then, as sort of a side story, a re-mixed homage featuring a mish-mash of things from throughout the series. My only complaint as far as the recycled enemies goes is the lack of those wacky tentacle aliens.

Get Metal Slug Advance whether you're a self-professed 'real gamer,' a long-standing Slug fan, or just someone who likes to blow stuff up. Like any good shooter, as long as you keep playing, no matter how aggravating the enemy, you'll remember the attack patterns and learn how to make them pay in a satisfying blaze of glory.



Granted they're no Marco and Eri. Hell, they're not even a Trevor and Nadia. But they'll grow on you.

The hangar stage in Level 4 is a prime example of the new, more 'open' level designs.

This part is actually easier without the tank, for the record. Just remember to hit down+A instead of the 'ditch tank in a fireball' button.

Screens swiped from Gamespot, as if the logo wasn't a big enough giveaway.