Coming out in the wake of the Game Boy Color and only two years before the Game Boy Advance, it’s no secret why the Neo Geo Pocket Color enjoyed limited success in America. While largely ignored on its original release, gamers have since picked up the handheld console and begun to experience the unique features it has to offer — and for good reason. Much like its arcade/home brothers, Neo Geo Pocket Color games have aged incredibly well for a fourteen-year-old handheld system. As the majority of its library can be picked up loose for under ten bucks on eBay, Pocket Power (using only original hardware/software) is devoted to guiding new and old NGPC collectors alike before prices rise and availability lowers thanks to nostalgia-hungry collectors.
Outside of the fighters, nothing better epitomizes the Neo Geo brand than Metal Slug. Even though it debuted in 1996 — a full six years after the console debuted — Metal Slug quickly became representative of the brand. As such, when the Neo Geo Pocket Color was released three years later, there was no question that it needed to launch with a Metal Slug title. The problem then became that out of all of the Neo Geo games, Metal Slug was one of the most graphically intense. A far cry from the days of Magician Lord, the Metal Slug series was known for its lush environments, creative sprites and screen-filling assets. On a two inch screen with a limited color palette, capturing the essence of the arcade titles must have been quite the daunting task. While Metal Slug 1st Mission doesn’t perfectly replicate its forerunners, it’s hard not to admire it for trying.
Metal Slug 1st Mission offers a whopping seventeen missions, which is pretty impressive given that the arcade titles usually clock in at around six, making it and its handheld successor the longest games in the series. A first for the series, the game offers multiple pathways that are opened up based on how you do in the game. Getting shot down in a Slug Flyer or blown up in a Metal Slug won’t kill you, but instead take you to a prison camp or smaller area where the mission must be finished in a different manner, resulting in an incomplete mission. This will lead to a different set of levels and progression, sometimes outright skipping four or five levels. It’s a bit of a double edged sword as while it increases the replay value by adding multiple ways of progression, it’s very jarring to realize that by simply being shot down in a plane, you won’t see the next level. Those who enjoy replaying games multiple times will love trying to discover every level (as it’s certainly not clear how to get to them), but those more into playing straight through might be alienated when they never see half the game. It’s sort of ironic that in the AES era, SNK was content with releasing a half-hour long game and slapping a $300 price tag on them, but with thirty dollar handheld titles, they were worried that players would grow tired of them too quickly.
Instead of being able to select multiple characters as in other Metal Slug games, there’s only one playable character in 1st Mission until you beat the game and unlock a woman (who plays exactly the same and doesn’t alter the story/progression). While both the game and manual don’t name him and refer to him as literally “Player Character,” it’s clearly Marco, which is absolutely bizarre. Did SNK temporarily lose the rights to the name? Did they want to create their own continuity. Did whoever designed the game/manual not know his name? It’s baffling.
Story-wise, it’s pretty non-existent and boils almost verbatim down to “you’re a soldier, go kill the bad guy.” Of course, that’s fine as Metal Slug games have never been known for their story. instead told through the action going on in the game. Of course, that leads to one of the biggest shortcomings of the game which is its limited graphical capabilities. Environments are fairly rudimentary and don’t feature a lot of the humor that the series is known for. There’s no soldiers enjoying barbecue or fathers randomly scolding their kids for bad report cards and there’s not nearly as happening on screen as in the console versions. Of course, that’s not for lack of trying, as it’s seemingly impossible to do more graphically as was done here. This is evidenced by multiple instances of slowdown, which is nearly unheard of it any other Neo Geo Pocket Color game. To help make up for this, elements of platforming are added that do a lot to make this seem less like an arcade game and more like a full-fledged release, and in that sense, it succeeds.
The controls are replicated almost exactly here, with the devastating exception of the grenade button. As the NGPC only has two buttons (a stupid design oversight given how many console/arcade Neo Geo games utilized three or more buttons), grenades are selected by hitting option and then using the fire button. When you want to return to firing, you hit option again and the fire button shoots ammunition from your current firearm. While this control scheme is something you get used to, it prevents playing the game in the same manner as the originals, leading to grenades to be subjugated to only the most necessary situations. Thankfully, they got the firearms right and 1st missions offers many of the weapons that make the series so memorable, including the machinegun, shotgun, special shot, rocket launcher and various slug weapons. They don’t quite make the impact they did on a bigger, more colorful screen, but do a lot to make 1st mission feel like a proper Slug.
While it’s easy to point out shortcomings of Metal Slug 1st Mission, at the end of the day it’s sort of like criticizing Citizen Kane for not being in 3D. This is a fourteen year old handheld game on a 16 bit console that does practically everything it can to live up to the AES/MVS versions of the game. It hasn’t aged as well as those versions and there’s issues that were always present (like hiding levels via multiple branching), but thanks to its unique gameplay and the handheld’s fantastic controls, it and its sequel are arguably the best way to experience the series on the go.
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