In the wide spectrum of games that I’ve thus far reexamined in a modern context, none have yet to have their roots in the arcade. I suppose I grew up long after arcades had died in the slow march of technological and consumer evolution, but a new form of this antiquated model is starting to appear once again with free-to-play and microtransactions. And just like how those business models are focus their efforts on getting you to pay just a little more money to succeed, so did the arcade machines.
Now to be fair, I’ve introduced myself to Metal Slug, by 2D powerhouse SNK, on the PlayStation 1. The local Round Table Pizza that had a Metal Slug machine closed its doors years ago and I can’t think of any other places to go to even try to find another one. But Metal Slug X still plays with the same model intact, just without the need to constantly feed quarters, so today I’ll be talking not only about Metal Slug itself, but also about that old, yet beloved form of game design and how it can be applied to the modern FTP format.
SNK is an interesting developer with a rich past of strong 2D sprite based games. During the SNES/Genesis era of gaming, they trounced the competition… in console power only. No, the Neo Geo was not likely a huge financial success, but it showed the world what clean, beautiful, and well put together games could look like when not stuck on the more limited (but still very good looking, to be fair) consoles on shelves at the time.
SNK was, of course, far stronger in the arcade realm. With titles like King of Fighters and, of course, Metal Slug, many got addicted to the insanely detailed sprites and backgrounds tied to the smooth gameplay. While many of their games tended to be fighters, competing with the likes of Street Fighter and Tekken, Metal Slug managed to be a little more unique. Perhaps classifiable as a Mega Man-y shmup with co-op, Metal Slug set its players against armies of Nazi lookalikes, aliens, zombies, mummies, Middle Eastern rebels, Japanese rebels, drones, Aztec tribesmen, insects, and many more zany creations, all vividly animated with near perfect finesse.
The weapons also provided the game with extra eccentricity, as they progressively grow and expand in power and audacity. Everything, truly, is centered around hooking you with as much forward force as possible. And to be fair, the original reasoning was in pursuit of sound business. Of course Metal Slug is balls to the walls crazy. Of course the enemies zing and dance and jiggle. Of course the weapons make you feel like the most powerful human beings who ever lived. Because when you lose, those eccentricities make continuing the game your single, primary directive. You’ve gotten a taste of insanity, and you want more.
And I did want more. Every time I died the small amount of waiting I had to do felt like an eternity, as my partner was getting kills and items and weapons that could have been mine if I only hadn’t died. I always like a co-op game with a competitive edge. Sure, my friend and I were technically racing the length together, relying on our combined strength to plow through the experience, but there was a more subtle, internal conflict between us. It went (mostly) unspoken, but at the end when our final scores were drawn and we discovered who was in the lead and who fell behind (I honestly can’t remember which of us pulled ahead) we knew that Metal Slug was, in a small way, a fantastic test of our friendship.
To be fair though, I could honestly say that it was a surprise to both of us that we even finished the game at all in a single sitting. It certainly wasn’t planned, and I doubt either of us carried the initiative to do so when we started. I had just randomly purchased the game at a small local independent game shop near by (shout out to Planet Mix on El Camino!) and felt like seeing it, so we popped it in a dusty PSone and were instantly drawn to the world, laughing at its awe-inspiring audacity and cataclysmically funny ending (a single reference joke to a bad American film is what awaits you at the end of your storied journey). When the game was completed, my friend merely said “wow. Can’t believe we just started and beat Metal Slug,” or something to that tune.
Playing a retail copy of what was made for arcades is an odd thing. For one, it’s nice to be able to experience such a title on your own time in your own space. Hanging out at the local place with arcade machine, especially today, often leads to gross rendezvouses with nefarious individuals. But one has to wonder. Are the games really going to be fun when you suddenly no longer have to pay to continue to play? Won’t it just be an overload?
This makes Metal Slug feel like one of the most extreme visual experiences I’ve ever had. But even without some sort of friction it never crosses the border into sickeningly so. Sure, my friend and I kept playing with nothing more than a raw desire to continually be fed insanity, but not having to keep feeding the machine quarters almost felt freeing. Suddenly the difficulty didn’t matter, because the game just let us play it. When we died, there was no stressful internal debate over whether or not the playthrough would be worth another investment, one that would have grown and grown to horrendous proportions.
But there’s something to be learned from the model that Metal Slug built itself around. Playing it freely as we did exposed what it was built to tease and feed, all in the name of your mom’s quarters. It’s funny that no one looks back to arcade titles with their somewhat child’s attention-exploiting practices with anything less than nostalgic appreciation. And then simultaneously, everyone seems so quick to demonize free-to-play and micro transactions despite using much of the same tried knowledge.
I had a brief stint with a free MMO called Perfect World several years ago, and what that game taught me was how not to be exploited. How to not look at a free powerup granting fairy gifted to me by the developers and not fall into a reliance that would result in real money being spent. I would, however, not have been so strong as to avoid paying upwards of twenty dollars on a run through Metal Slug had I been given the chance way back when. The difference, in my mind, is that while most free-to-play games today run on the basis of money for items and powerups, few give pure eccentricity through a drip feed, making you truly feel like you’re missing out by not constantly paying and playing. It runs the risk of dangerously addicting players to something purely visual, but it works. Metal Slug showed me that even when given I didn’t have to constantly reevaluate my interest compared to how much I was willing to spend moment to moment, the visual gags and supreme animation were enough to keep playing all the way to the end. And goddamn did I enjoy myself.