Though it was far from an unexpected move, it was a dark, sad day in June 2000 when SNK packed up its NeoGeo Pocket Color and skedaddled out of the handheld market. The company had a huge line-up of games thanks to its NeoGeo arcade cabinets, and the NeoGeo Pocket Color system was, at the time, the only way to score portable versions of these awesome titles. On that system, SNK created two "spin-offs" of its Metal Slug
shooter, mimicking the arcade series' adrenaline-rush game design in the 8-bit color format; the system couldn't exactly offer the same graphics and sound of the arcade editions, but the programmers definitely worked in the title's look and feel regardless.
It's been more than four years after the company hopped out of the market. SNK's presence hasn't been completely removed from the scene, as the company has licensed games like its King of Fighters series for other publishers to helm on the Game Boy Advance handheld. But SNK has returned to the scene, and it's clear that the company's spirit has thrived in the first portable version of its Metal Slug series. Metal Slug Advance brings the charm of the NeoGeo arcade franchise to the handheld, maintaining its appearance in line with past games but adding new elements to make it feel like a "fresh" experience. It's a frantic action title that unfortunately removes the cool two player arcade mode, and even though it's not exactly a "long" game it's satisfyingly fun and fits the GBA market very well.
The one great thing about the Metal Slug series: it's not brain surgery. It's appeal is in its deceptively engaging action that's anything but "mindless." You've got to blast your way through literally hundreds of bad guys to get from one location to the next, but the game puts enemies in places that require just a little thought in order to make it out unscathed. You're never penalized for accidentally blasting the wrong person, and that's definitely welcome considering the game requires you to rescue dozens of hostages along the way. If a blast from the upgradable gun won't do the job in Metal Slug, a lob from the limited amount of grenades sure will. Level layouts may be incredibly linear, the designers actually put a few elements in -- such as hidden collectibles and branching pathways -- that encourage a bit of exploring in the several different missions Metal Slug Advance has to offer.
When the game made its early, in-development debut at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in 2004, its appearance was a little bit of a heartbreak. The game definitely looked the part of a NeoGeo arcade game, with enormous explosions and awesome, smooth, humor-injected sprite animation. But its speed -- a veritable trademark of the Metal Slug series -- had been cut in half to the point that it was nearly unplayable. To those who remember those days, forget 'em. The months in development after its unveiling have done the game wonders; it's back up to speed at a rate that really makes the game follow in the footsteps of the already great Metal Slug titles.
The Game Boy Advance title is only based on the Metal Slug theme. Its development and design are actually completely original to the GBA. Players still have a wild amount of weaponry, they can still pilot enormous tanks, and the rescued hostages still leave the scene after offering up a hearty salute to their hero. But the game's balance has definitely been changed, in my opinion for the better. The familiar one-shot-kill design of the NeoGeo arcade game, where a single bullet can take a player's life away, has been removed in favor of a much more forgiving health bar mechanic. It's a trade off that works, since players are now required to blast through a mission with a single life. Taking damage is still not recommended, of course, and a more careful approach to learning enemy attacks is certainly the way to go. But the player's health can be replenished by finding food power-ups, which are about as in abundance as the 1-up collectibles are in previous Metal Slug games. The GBA cartridge also has unlimited continues, which definitely makes things a little easier since Metal Slug Advance has "checkpoints" within the mission that the player returns to after dying and restarting from the menu. The game does forget the "checkpoint" location if the player turns off the system, so the continue structure is really only useful when trying to complete a single mission.
The GBA cart's save function isn't to keep track of score anymore. In fact, there doesn't seem to be a score tally in the game design, which is a somewhat unfortunate omission. The cart save is used for the game's collectible structure; players can keep track of the different hostages they've rescued as well as the little cards they stumble over along the way. But the hook here is this: you have to get through a mission on a single try. Hit that "continue" option on the menu and any collectible you found is wiped away. It's definitely a neat element that encourages multiple plays through to hone skills for a perfect game. The addition of a second character also adds to the replay factor, even though the two don't really offer anything different to the gameplay other than a different sprite on-screen.
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