Thursday, 18 November 2010

Arcade Shmups #3

Metal Black (1991)
By: Taito  Genre: Shooting  Players: 1-2  Difficulty: Medium-Hard
Featured Version: Arcade  First Day Score: 98,810 (one credit)
Also Available For: Sega Saturn

One of the great things about writing this blog is that I end up learning so much more about the history of gaming. The most recent thing I've learnt is that Taito apparently made a lot more shmups that I had realised! This one was originally intended to be a sequel to their recently-covered, slightly odd vertical-scroller, Gun Frontier. If you've played both games, however, you'll know they actually have very little in common! Perhaps the most immediately obvious difference between them is that the perspective has shifted to a side view for this game, but the story seems to bear no similarity to the Wild West theme from Gun Frontier either, with Taito apparently settling for a more generic 'evil alien invasion' type story here.

The ruins of Earth comprise the setting for level one...
Using a severe meteor shower as cover, the aliens attacked the already-battered Earth with their powerful weaponry, intending to strip our world of all inorganic materials. These aliens and the star they came from were quickly dubbed Nemesis. Before long, mankind discovered that their crafts and weapons were being powered by an unknown but suddenly abundant molecule called Newalone which they immediately set about learning to harness for themselves. Ten years after the initial invasion, Earth's remaining diplomats were working on a treaty that would allow a peaceful surrender which would see the previously completed 'Black Fly' craft unused. However, Earth's resources were beginning to expire and the population was thinning out. Perhaps it was time someone took control of the Black Fly and struck back.

The level two boss seems keen on fireworks...
Each of Metal Black's six levels has its own title and each sees you gradually moving closer to the aliens home star system. The first takes place over the ruined surface of Earth where the aliens try to use our remaining forces against us, including an aircraft carrier marooned after the oceans dried up. The second sees the Black Fly take to space, fighting the aliens against the backdrop of The Moon, but there's another moon too. Is one of them an alien weapon? The third level takes place amidst the ruins of Earth's satellites and nearby colonies. After entering a wormhole, the fourth level takes place in an alternate dimension before the you leave the wormhole for the fifth level which takes place in and around Jupiter. Last but not least, the sixth and final level takes place at the aliens stronghold of Nemesis as you might've guessed! There is also some bonus levels used to facilitate a couple of long-distance journeys which are viewed from a first-person perspective and require you to lock missiles onto various targets and fire (although these missiles are apparently not available for use anywhen else).

Level three has pretty colours in the background...
You might be thinking that Metal Black sounds, and looks for that matter, like any other generic horizontal scroller, and to some degree you'd be right. However, it does have a slightly unusual weapon system. At the start of the game the Black Fly is equipped with a fairly weak, forward-firing beam cannon which was adapted from the same beam weapons the aliens use. By collecting the abundant Newalone molecules floating around (the little red / orange / blue things in all the shots) it's possible to gradually power the beam up. You can then continue to use the cannon as normal (and, helpfully, you can even shoot some enemy bullets at higher levels), or you can unleash all its power in one Super Beam Attack. This obviously helps destroy larger enemies quicker and acts like a smart bomb, but also reduces your beam level back to zero. However, there are almost always many molecules on the screen at any time so it's relatively quick and easy to power your ship back up after a Super Beam Attack, or indeed the loss of a life, but it's not an idea bereft of problems.

Level four has some particularly strange enemies...
The first thing you'll probably notice is that these molecule's may well power up the Black Fly's cannon, but there are no other weapons available to power up! Actually, there's no collectibles in the game of any kind. This may seem realistic, given the game's story, but it doesn't make things easy. The other problem resulting from the chosen power-up system is that the enemy ships can also make use of the Newalone molecule's to power-up their beams (which makes sense I guess - it is their technology). Okay, not all of them can do this but the bosses certainly can and do, and they can also use their own Super Beam Attack against you! If you use your Super Beam Attack at the same time as they do, you'll enter into a Beam Duel with the more powerful beam eventually overpowering the weaker one. It's an interesting idea and it does add something to the boss fights, but everything else suffers a little from the lack of any other weapons. After all, part of the fun of shmups is discovering all the power-ups and determining which ones to use when, etc, so one without any over-the-top upgrades needs to be extra special to get noticed, and I'm not sure Metal Black is.

The lovely looking level five, set around Jupiter...
The music and sound effects here are pretty anonymous and certainly don't do much to get the game noticed, for one thing, and I'm still undecided about the graphics. They're generally pretty good, with a majority of the sprites being varied and fairly well-animated, it's just a shame that the Black Fly itself looks so mundane. It looks like a knackered old shuttle, and it seems to be flying upside-down too! There's also a bit of a pixellated look to the game and the explosions are pretty poor, but there is some nice parallax and fancy scaling effects. The backgrounds and large bosses are particularly impressive, as are the various beam weapon effects, but I can't help feeling that everything looks a little washed out, much like semi-prequel, Gun Frontier. Still, the game can certainly handle itself when things get busy, and they often do, especially with two-players at once, with an impressive amount of sprites, weapon-fire, moving backgrounds parts, etc, all moving around the screen at once.

Eeek! It's a Mollusc or something on level six...
In fact, much of the game is like that. The six levels aren't very long, but Taito have crammed as much as possible into them despite that. The lack of any fancy power-up weapons here is probably the best and worst thing about the game. You'll rarely get five seconds peace as you're constantly on the move attempting to evade and shoot the enemies who attack from all sides with apparently little regard for the limited range of your main (and of course, only) weapon, while at the same time, the lure of finding and using the various weapons is non-existent here. This review marks my first encounter with Metal Black, and all things considered, the result is pretty positive. Like Gun Frontier before it, there's no major problems here - control over your ship is fine, it has a decent two-player mode, and it plays well enough generally - but it just isn't really special in any way either. I've certainly played better shmups but, in trying something different, this one has neither really succeeded or failed, it's just a bit different.

RKS Score: 6/10

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