It's been a long time since a game made me sweat and gave me the shakes. The last one to do it was the original Ridge Racer, released way back when. Beating the supernatural black Lamborghini in the final course is one of my fondest gaming memories, though I suffered through countless defeats to achieve it. That same feeling of overcoming impossible odds to revel in a satisfying victory has finally been repeated with SNK's shooting masterpiece, Metal Slug 3, and this is a good thing.

Metal Slug 3 features fast arcade action taking place on a 2D plane. The plot, definitely not a major element of the game, revolves around four soldiers who mount an assault against an army in league with extraterrestrial forces. Players can take the Rambo route and go solo, or spray some lead accompanied by a friend in a rousing co-op experience. Advancing through the game is achieved by running from left to right while jumping, dodging fire, and using every weapon at your disposal to eradicate all opposition. A good way to sum up the Slug experience for newcomers would be to say that it's like Konami's seminal Contra, only with better animation and a great sense of humor.

Like Contra, the game takes place mostly on foot, but also includes several types of transportation besides standard-issue combat boots. Featured are the eponymous Metal Slug tank, the "Slugnoid" (a jumping mecha-suit), the "Slugmariner" (a sub), and my returning personal favorite, the Camel Slug. Once you master the controls and get the hang of using vehicles, the game is about one thing and one thing only: firepower. It's a simple formula but there's something pure– something so right about the kind of gameplay happening here that it's impossible to resist. If you've ever wanted to play the definition of "old-school cool," this is it.

I'm sure there are gamers out there who turn their noses up at anything limited to the 2D plane, but anyone who can't appreciate the amazing animation and execution of Metal Slug 3 has got no business playing games, in my opinion. The visuals are just flat-out beautiful, and people who revel in small touches will be in heaven. The characters and vehicles have seemingly infinite frames of animation that move and flow with total grace. It's a pleasure to play through the different areas just to see what kind of crazy or comical animations the next enemy will have, and I shudder to think how much work must have been put into it. Thankfully, the Xbox's beefy hardware has no problems pushing the sprites, so there's not even a microsecond of slowdown or flash to be seen. The game's difficulty is incredibly steep, and will undoubtedly destroy those with low tolerances for frustration. But with practice and memorization, even the fiercest bosses can be overcome. I'll admit, there were a few times when I wondered if I actually had the skill to finish the game (which I did), but the thing that kept me going was that I could see my chops visibly improving with practice, getting a little further after each restart. With perseverance, the credits rolled and the disc was put on my shelf with a loving pat and a warm feeling in my heart. It may have taken me three times longer to finish the game than expected, but it was worth it.

Unfortunately, that extended completion time is due solely to the new "no continue" system that forces you to bring your "A" game every time. Past Metal Slugs let deceased players pick up right where they died, and try again as many times as necessary. Folks without willpower may have groaned about the short lengths, but this enabled less-skilled players to enjoy the game, and also meant that it was the perfect chill-out after a long, stressful day.

With this new inferior system, there are only five lives per play. Once they're gone you start back at the absolute beginning of the level. There's a stage select to skip levels already finished and a trick to get an extra five lives using the second controller, but even with these aids, it's still an incredible challenge. Stage 5 (of 5) will have you pulling out your hair. I don't want to dissuade anyone from giving the game a chance, but I have to be honest in saying that taking away the continues was a bad idea, and makes the game far more difficult than it needs to be despite the masochistic pleasure of meeting the challenge.

Additionally, those with fingers that tire quickly should know that Metal Slug 3 doesn't have a rapid-fire option available. I generally prefer holding down a button instead of tapping like a madman, but it's do-able if you keep some ice handy afterwards. Also, the game's extras are pretty lean, only featuring two short minigames that pale beside the plentiful bonus challenges and artwork that came with the PlayStation's Metal Slug X. I'm disappointed, but I'll live.

Metal Slug 3 may seem like an odd anachronism besides the techno-wizardry of the Xbox's countless first-person shooters and racing games, but from where I'm standing, it's exactly the kind of release that the system needs. Greater diversity is always a good thing, and if there are more quality gems like this on the way, then I'll be quite happy holding a Controller S for some time to come. The rating is 8 out of 10

Disclaimer: This review is based on the Xbox version of the game.

Brad Gallaway
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