If one considers the realm of sidescrolling 2D shooters, the genre choices of very elite and competent titles narrow to a short list of exemplars that have largely defined the experience. The Metal Slug series, started by SNK back in 1996 for its NeoGeo system, is a shining example of how these simple game structures, refined around the art of weapon enhancement and timed jumping, can gather fanboy steam and germinate the fringe status of â€œcult classicâ€. Having traveled across such mediums as the first and second PlayStation, as well as a celebrated Xbox iteration, a new Metal Slug has landed on the Game Boy Advance with the appropriate moniker suffix, revered gameplay intact.
Thereâ€™s some sort of survivor theme going on in Metal Slug Advance (MSA), in which one of two soldiers (male or female, your choice at the onset of the game, with nothing more than an aesthetic difference between them) is placed on an island created to test their skills on their own with scant provisions and only their wiles to get them through to the other side. However, unexpected militant occupiers challenge the player, sending hordes of bad guys streaming through in all manner of weaponry and in a shocking display of character design diversity. The player can expect to face everything from Bowie knife-wielding bushmen to mortar artillery soldier, along with the copious gun-toters and the intermittent tank. Thankfully, there is no shortage of weaponry available to the player, whom will come across everything from shotguns to missile launchers along the way.
What dominates a sidescroller like nothing else? Patterns. Patterns patterns patterns. One more time. Patterns. MSA makes watching for key movements and designing a fighting strategy as important as the simple awareness of your weapon functions and ammo supply. Sometimes it can be as basic as watching the hovering course and bullet dispensation of an attack chopper. Other times, itâ€™s the acquisition and retainment of a heavily armored Metal Slug, a sort of specialized tank, to carry with you through to the stage boss. Itâ€™s a battle of wits in which the mission youâ€™re traversing gradually prepares you, sometimes foot by grudging foot, how the enemy will attack with clockwork consistency and how youâ€™re supposed to confront, remove, and pass them. Itâ€™s definitely not as easy as it sounds.
This is where the difficulty factor comes in, and MSA is not without its super size share of frustration. Even on Normal difficulty, most players will be challenged to get from one end of a mission to the other without putting the game down for the night to get a fresh start after the teeth-grinding has abated. However, once youâ€™ve started a mission, youâ€™ll have to complete it or return to the beginning of the mission. Dying in certain sections during continuous play will put you at the start of that section, but if you turn the game off or quit the mission, all progress in that particular mission is lost. Makes you think twice before quitting, and more often than not youâ€™ll probably keep trying for another 15 minutes before acceding (temporarily) to frustration and hitting the power button.
Level design is subtle, but SNK did a great job of putting together levels of depth and variation without being overt in complexity. The five missions will mainly have you in outdoors settings, running through jungles, mountainous regions, and desert areas, with a few bonus dungeons thrown in for good measure. Aside from exterminating the colorful cast of attackers, the missions are also packed with hostages to be rescued, who will in turn drop power-ups and weapon enhancements such as toast or a rapid-fire machine gun â€“ diverse booty, to say the least. In some instances, cards can also be collected from hostages or for performing certain actions, and are a clever way to instill replay value in a game that would otherwise be relatively short. Though most of the cards are simply achievement markers (viewable from the main menu screen), some will permanently enhance your character statistics in rudimentary ways, such as armor strength, or even the occasional Metal Slug tank augmentation. The caveat to retaining the cards collected in a level is to get through the mission youâ€™ve collected them in without kicking the bucket. While this is no mean task, it allows for a greater play depth and builds upon the already mounting reasons to replay MSA again and again.
Boss fights are definitely worth a quick mention here, as they add to the very high level of difficulty in the game throughout, and particularly after battling tooth and nail to get by the preliminary mission sections. While the mechanized bosses initially feel cheap unbalanced, there is always a pattern involved, and the pattern only requires patience and perhaps a bit of ingenuity. So whip out that attention to detail â€“ the sense of satisfaction is worth it.
Itâ€™s a testament to the Metal Slug series that the movement to the Game Boy Advance, a medium known for marginalizing and, ultimately, diminishing the play experience of ported games, has not lost any substantial quality in translation. The run-and-gun, cartoonish action is as abundant and entertaining as ever. With its feel-good combination of shorter missions and play depth incentive (like the cards or mastering the boss battles), thereâ€™s no reason anyone with an attention span and a sense of pride wouldnâ€™t want to own this. The only count against it may be itâ€™s ramped difficulty, but that is certainly a matter of taste. Old-school combat flavor, satisfying game design, and a sense of humor place Metal Slug Advance in the annals along with its worthy ancestors.