My old (but never officially deceased) band didn’t really do covers, but one night we were invited to headline a Beatles-themed gig in Bedford, I guess in 1996. This was a big annual event and was a bit of an honour, especially given we were at the more alternative end of the alternative spectrum the venue catered for by then; we’re talking Britpop-era, so not only was everyone suddenly into The Beatles again, but also into that kind of mundanity they were still inspiring in general! Anyway, as the event approached, we learned that one of our two guitarists unfortunately had to travel to a family funeral – we were at that age where everyone’s grandparents were suddenly dying. The format was a few of your own songs then a Beatles one, and we were able to choose some stuff our lead guitarist could manage on his own but our mostly improvised, goth-punked up version of Eleanor Rigby (I think!) really needed a rhythm guitar so I decided it was time to make my live guitaring debut! I could play a bit but being in the presence of genuine greatness in our band (as well as my embarrassing beginner’s electric guitar) always put me off even thinking about playing live, but needs must and this didn’t seem too taxing so I practiced like hell for a few nights and I was feeling pretty good about playing it… At least until the soundcheck at about six, when the vodka came out! We came on around ten, by which time I’d long since finished the bottle of vodka and was working my way through a crate of this weird Japanese beer the venue gave us to try, together with a few amyl nitrate chasers. That was all par for the course though, and we went on as usual and debauched our way through our set, and right at the end there I am with my crappy guitar, trying to remember the words to a Beatles song I didn’t like, and in a fleeting moment of miraculous sobriety I realised I was way too drunk to play a guitar, so I turned it down and waved it around like Nigel Tufnel out of Spinal Tap for the duration of the song instead!

And what on Earth has this got to do with Metal Slug? Well, nothing yet, but the point is I could play guitar up to the point I could just about concoct the occasional melody to wrap around my words that I could then pass on to the bigger boys in the band and never have to worry about again; even sober I couldn’t play live though. But I could, however, play the entire keyboard section to Light My Fire by The Doors on a 12-string acoustic, always to the astonishment of my bandmates who were good enough for proper famous bands to try and poach them but apparently wouldn’t dream of attempting that! I’m sure they could if they tried, but the thing is, that took no talent – just hours and hours of bloody-mindedness because I decided I wanted to play my favourite band’s best-loved song on my guitar. And eventually I could do it with my eyes shut. Literally. And to finally bring us back to video games, I reckon my level of play is at a similar level to my guitaring – not very good – but let me play Out Run for the best part of forty years and I’ll make you believe I know what I’m doing on there!

Oh, what a sad and tragic waste of a young, attractive life, when the best you can come with is having seen every finish in every version of Out Run! Anyway, what’s of interest here is the total opposite, and all of this you’re reading about now actually originates from a recent game of the not wholly unrelated After Burner II on the Sega Mega Drive Mini II! You see, everything I just said about getting good at something because you’ve done it for so long rather than having any actual talent does not apply here… Sega might have blown us all away with Out Run when it hit the arcades in 1986, but they really, really blew us away with After Burner the following year! This thing was actual Top Gun come to life, just like Atari’s Star Wars arcade machine had been back in 1983, with you rail-shooting in third-person behind your supercool F14-Tomcat fighter plane after launching off the deck of an aircraft carrier then unleashing hell through eighteen stages of insane dogfighting! This thing was beautiful, full of realism and danger but mostly speed, with sprites and surfaces rotating everywhere, not to mention the cabinet itself if you were really lucky! And if I was really lucky, I might see two of those stages. Three at a push. To this day! For a game that’s actually as shallow as it is mind-blowing, I am totally useless at it and after all this time I guess I always will be. It’s funny because I’m alright at Sega’s not dissimilar Space Harrier but this one is just a case of random motion followed by panicked motion, holding down fire on my machine guns and never using the heat-seeking missiles because I might need them later! A true game I’ve been playing for decades but am still useless at… Which is the cue for Metal Slug to finally make its entrance!

When the realisation came that I’d never be any good at After Burner no matter how much I tried, I pondered other games that I’d similarly played since the time of the ancients but was similarly useless at, and the answer that came back was always Metal Slug! And when I say “Metal Slug” I mean the series as a whole rather than any particular entry. We’ll come back to the series in a sec and the game of the same name (almost) later, but in the unlikely event that anyone who’s persevered this far will be unfamiliar, it’s stylised military-fantasy run and gun arcade action, originally from Nazca Corporation before they got sucked into SNK around the same time as the first game appeared in 1996. And that game is where we’re going to focus shortly, but while I have been Metal Slugging for a long-time now, it’s elsewhere in the main that I’ve be doing it the most…

Unusually for me I don’t really have much recollection of when and where I came to Metal Slug, but while I’m convinced it was earlier, the evidence suggests it was Metal Slug 3 on PlayStation 2 on 2004! However, that’s certainly the game – albeit the Xbox 360 version on my Series X this time – that prompted the mini-odyssey I went on with the series of late, which in turn prompted spending a bit more time with the first game that brings us here now. While I’ve always thought the third game to be the best-looking of them, once you’re past the first stage and all the cool killer crabs, now that I’ve long since been around the block with most of them I think it’s the least fun too – the zombies are just too hard! Having re-established that for the umpteenth time, I remembered there were a bunch of old SNK games given away on Amazon Prime Gaming recently, and found several Metal Slugs on there waiting to be installed on my PC. We’ll come back to the original – which of all of them is the one I’ve played the least over the years – but having been quite taken by it of late, from there I jumped to 1999’s Neo Geo Metal Slug X, which, bizarrely, is the one I’ve played the most of them all, but on iOS of all places! This one is a remake of Metal Slug 2 and had always been my favourite – another looker (and sounder), great sense of humour and painfully addictive, chaotic gameplay.

My journey then took me handheld, to Metal Slug Advance on the Game Boy Advance. Quite the little marvel it is too, at least until you start hitting brick walls a few levels in! This one was an all-new entry in the series for the handheld in 2004, and the tried and trusted run and gun gameplay works great on there. There’s some new mechanics too, with a health bar replacing lives and a kind of RPG-system where you collect stat-boosting cards as you play. Lovely raucous soundtrack and some gorgeous atmospheric and wildly detailed graphics, especially in the opening area, but it just gets so, so hard a couple of levels in. Okay, as we’ve already established, I’m not great at these, but there’s sometimes a bit too much here that’s a bit too big to handle, especially when everything you just killed is respawning every time you retreat a bit. Great fun while it lasts though.

Lastly, staying handheld, a quick shoutout to the two Neo Geo Pocket Color versions, which I went back to on SNK’s Neo Geo Pocket Color Selection Vol. 1 on Nintendo Switch. They’re both shrunk down and simplified, but the format works perfectly, with all the atmosphere and polish you’d expect from the series in 1999 (1st Mission) and 2000 (2nd Mission) – just a bit different! To me though, the first game feels a bit more Mega Man than Metal Slug where the second feels just right. Both good fun though, especially the tiny big set-pieces! Just to complete the picture, I’ve never really played Metal Slugs 4-7 before but did spend a bit of time with the PSP version of Metal Slug XX – the revised version of the Nintendo DS-only seventh game – a while back, and its hardly groundbreaking but is definitely Metal Slug…

And it’s high time we properly talked Metal Slug, or Metal Slug: Super Vehicle-001 to give the properly groundbreaking first game in the series it its full title! The game is set in the year 2028, when a ne’er do well by the name of Donald Morden is out to start a New World Order with his rebel scum army, and to make matters worse, they’ve made off with a load of your experimental SV-001 and SV-002 tanks – known as Metal Slugs – although they subsequently seem to have been pretty careless with them given the frequency you’ll be coming across them to jump into! Anyway, you’re going to need all the help you can get as you take control of Peregrine Assault Force super-soldiers Captain Marco Rossi and Lieutenant Tarma Roving (if you’ve got a friend to play with) to put a stop to them. This is going to involve non-stop running, jumping, crawling and especially non-stop shooting your way through six missions, taking in jungles, snowy mountains, decimated villages, canyons, forests and military bases, all jam-packed with soldiers, artillery, tanks, aircraft and all kinds of mechanised giants for bosses. You’ll be picking up weapon upgrades and more on the way to help you out too, as well as a ride in those Metal Slugs to give you a serious boost in both firepower as well as defence against this fast-paced, relentless onslaught. Those tanks were originally more than supporting cast though – they were actually the stars of the show in the moodier, less elaborate and much slower-paced original concept, which got as far as location testing before it was deemed a bit crap and got totally overhauled into what we eventually got!

I think you need to head back a few more years to 1993’s In the Hunt to discover the end-product’s real pedigree though. This was a spectacular underwater horizontal shoot ‘em up developed and published by Irem, of R-Type fame, and designed by the very group of devs that would go on to form Nazca Corporation and come up with Metal Slug a few years later. Admittedly, the submarine’s movement could be considered a little tank-like, but apart from that you’re seeing the first hallmarks of Metal Slug everywhere – the emerging anime-inspired art style; the crazy number of enemies on the screen at once; the massive explosions everywhere; the set-pieces; the bosses; the general chaos and a fair bit of the humour that would define Metal Slug too. More than anything though, it’s the attention to detail absolutely everywhere you look, with things going on in every inch of the screen.

And these things all moved a step closer to Metal Slug when its real spiritual predecessor, GunForce II, appeared out of Irem in 1994. This is a post-apocalyptic run and gun for one or two players with some mad dual-wielding weapons and some almost-familiar vehicles to get into, and everything I just said about In the Hunt applies two-fold here! Metal Slug Zero? Probably! This heritage is what would set Metal Slug apart not only from the likes of Contra, which, we should remember, had been around for nearly a decade by now, but more importantly all that 3D stuff this new 2D relic found itself competing with both in the arcades and on the Neo Geo CD in 1996, and even more so on the PlayStation and Saturn the following year. I’m sure going back to the drawing board from a finished game was heart-breaking at the time, but you’ve got to pay attention to the baying onlookers when you find yourself in the that kind of bear pit, and I guess the success of the arcade cabinet then six sequels, a remake and four spin-offs probably means it was worthwhile in the end!

From the very outset, Metal Slug is a frantic game. You’re dropped into the action by parachute, in front of some ancient monumental head, and within seconds you’ll have blown the hell out of the first wave of enemies (as well as various farmyard animals), picked up a heavy machine gun, blown the hell out of a load more and not had a chance to even question why you’re now blasting at the next lot as you run across the overgrown hull of a huge shipwrecked submarine casually resting among the jungle ruins of the first stage! It’s a bonkers thrill-ride within the first thirty seconds that won’t let up for the duration, and now it’s ramping up even further as the explosions start in earnest through the stilted-huts of the military camp on the river, where you’ll find your first tank to jump into and as if by magic a helicopter gunship appears for you to give its firepower a proper workout with!

As spectacular as GunForce II was, I never properly clicked with those multidirectional weapon controls, but they’ve been simplified and refined as a result here, whether you’re in the tank or still on foot. And I think that simplicity of control lies at the heart of Metal Slug, and the fun it has in store once you’re beyond the spectacle. Aside from that, nothing else is going to work because as being that frantic might imply, this thing’s a killer, and in my case not so much about one credit clears or even my usual several at best, but how far below twenty or so of the penalty-free continues I can see the end in! Anyway, it’s press down to duck, one button to jump, one to fire left or right or up and down (if you’re airborne one way or another), then another to chuck a grenade. Jump into a tank and it’s the same, although with full directional control now and a cannon rather than a grenade, and there’s also the added bonus of going kamikaze with a press of both fire buttons at once, where you jump out and it explodes into whatever you’re attacking! Back on foot, there’s an automatic stab when you get up close and a bit of platforming as you take the fight upwards in a couple of stages, and its looseness will certainly lead to at least a couple of frustrating deaths as you fall to what would usually be an unrealistic death due to a bit of water or the short distance you’re falling to just being off the screen by now, but it’s mostly there to up the ante even further as you try and deal with screens full of stuff shooting at you.

Before we go any further, I want to quickly head back to that initial jungle stage I just talked us through and look at just one example of the astounding attention to detail that permeates the entire game. By the time you approach the first tank, you’ll have already noticed the flocks of birds flying by and the destructible sections of environment and the realistic splashes as stuff hits the water after it’s exploded. You might have also noticed the helpless shock on the faces of the enemy as you blow them to oblivion! However, just before that tank you’ll notice a fish hanging down above the water from one of the straw huts up on a bamboo platform, no doubt waiting to be cooked once the local destruction has subsided. As the bullets start flying around it though, chunks of flesh start to drop off and gradually start revealing its skeleton; and by the time you’ve taken down that helicopter, it’s going to be no more than head and tail and bones in-between or worse, but as impressive as that dynamic obliteration of a piece of decoration is by itself, look closely and you’re going to see flies buzzing around what’s left of it too. I could go on and on with examples like this – things as simple as bits of metallic rather than fishy shrapnel coming off enemy vehicles as you shoot them, through to ceiling fans still spinning as they hang from what’s barely left of the building they’d been cooling. Then there’s the innocent cars on the road in the town later on falling victim to your tank tracks and slowly being crushed as you unceremoniously clamber across them, eventually popping out their windows with a spray of glass… And that poor old lady holding her cat as the world literally falls down around her! When I said this was groundbreaking at the start, it was specifically this relentless level of detail I was talking about, although you could probably level the same at the overall chaos it represents too!

Metal Slug’s pixel art is a masterclass in design, and is without doubt a primary reason for its survival as a 2D arcade experience in 1996, way before you started noticing the mad genius at play within it, or, indeed, the sheer joy of shooting at it! I’ve been hearing references to Studio Ghibli, the Japan-based animation studio, for years without having the foggiest what they’ve ever produced – having looked them up just now I’m still not really any the wiser, but I do know that they were co-founded by Hayao Miyazaki, a Japanese animator, author, filmmaker and manga artist whose work is apparently a big influence on what we’re talking about here! And we’re talking about a dense, heavy-set and incredibly vibrant cartoon art style that couldn’t be more suited to the game’s clash of organic and mechanised violence! That detail in both the sprites and the backgrounds is nothing short of luxurious, and almost as richly shaded and lit too, resulting in a varied series of ramshackle biomes that are as convincing as they are ludicrous! And those wonderful fire effects! And the explosions! And the blood! And the washing hanging off the surprisingly gorgeous ropes that are also precariously tying some massive steampunk cannon to an even more precarious dilapidated wooden scaffold! And the ridiculous grin on the face of a hairy prisoner as he proudly reveals a new power-up as a reward for his freedom!

The facial expressions and the depth of character animation is a huge part of the ever-present humour too, veering from the slapstick to the gutter to the downright bizarre, and as said before, that crazy attention to detail is also ever-present – get too close to the edge of a broken bridge and stand still and you’re little guy will start to over-balance in this over-the-top full-body animation that’s topped off by a huge length of snot hanging out of his nose that might well be the final straw in his bid to stay out of the water! And unless you’re trying to get a screenshot for something like you’re reading now, I’m not sure you’d ever even see that! I’ve said similar already, but none of this is one-off – it’s everywhere, from start to end, and it’s just fantastic!

While it’s always going to be in the shadow of how Metal Slug looks, the sound design is also a work of art! Like the visuals, it’s all about density, with the soundtrack, sound effects and speech samples constantly combining and intertwining to create an alternative helping of total chaos! The music behind each stage would be equally at home in the climax of an episode of The A-Team, after B.A. has turned the van into a makeshift wrecking-ball or something! It’s all big instrument and big sound dramatic military fare, driving you ever forward for one last push. And on top of that are the pummelling rhythms of the massed gunfire happening most of the time you’re playing, conducting its own orchestra of pistols, machine guns and rocket launchers, interspersed with sirens and alarms and the widely varied screams of the dying. And a “thank you” every time you free a prisoner! Actually, the speech is probably the weakest part; it’s fine but just a bit repetitive, although the Rambo-style grunts never get old! Rambo is a good analogy for the sound design overall though – play the first three movies side-by-side all at once and it would probably sound something like this!

I reckon I’ve been pretty positive – to the point of gushing – about most aspects of Metal Slug so far, and I think we’ve now covered most aspects, so how come neither this nor any of the sequels we took a whistlestop tour of earlier have ever really clicked with me, by which I mean inspired me to get to the point where it’s not taking me twenty credits to see the end? Well, one thing I just realised I haven’t really covered here yet is bosses, and the more I think about it now, the more I wonder if they’re my problem? As much as they’re as imaginative and equally full of all that glorious life we’ve described for everything else already, gameplay-wise I just find them a bit uninspiring, at the same time as usually being more than a bit punishing… Unless you’ve got a decent grenade or cannon stock, depending on your vehicular situation, in which case most can be taken down before you need to worry to much about their simple but annoying patterns of aggression. Without some decent backup firepower though, firing a pistol at an oversized tank or two is exactly as effective as you’d imagine, even when you’ve worked out where you need to be standing. That all results in mildly exhilarating but without much challenge or, more likely when you’re as not great at these like I am and so don’t sit on explosives, just getting in the way of what’s really exhilarating and not much fun. An intrusion to the real fun I can do without, I guess… Like your wife coming in and talking about holidays when you’re watching the football!

Having spent far more time now with the original Metal Slug than I ever have before, I’m not as convinced as I was at the beginning that the series hates me as much as I thought – not like Afterburner! I think a lot of that was to do with stuff like Metal Slug 3 seducing me with its looks before quickly throwing brick walls at me, as well as what I’ve just mentioned about bosses here, which applies even more outside of this game with the likes of Metal Slug Advance. But while it’s definitely winning me over, it’s still way down the pecking order of anything I want to spend copious amounts of time getting good at, and until that’s the case it’s probably going to be something I think of fondly and will always have a go at when I notice it in a Prime Gaming library or similar, rather than being an all-time favourite. Which is fine because if everything was a favourite then I guess nothing would be!