Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Metal Black

The Taito arcade game Metal Black came out in 1991. Originally it was to be billed as Darius 3 though in time it came to be known as Project Gun Frontier 2. Fans of the original Gun Frontier will note that it has little if anything in common with Metal Black. I'm not here to make sense of it all I just want to talk about the game itself.

The superb intro covers everything you need to know. In the year 2042 an Alien Menace attacks earth and nearly wipes humanity out using beam weaponry powered by something called "newalone". To fight back humanity develops a ship called the Black Fly that uses the same beam weapons. However the earthlings decide against using the weapon and instead seek out peace with their invaders. Eventually one man decides to fight back and makes off with the prototype Black Fly ship, hoping to put an end to the alien menace.

Even if you haven't already played this game I'm sure you can figure out that this is a 2D shooter. Your ship can be destroyed in a single hit and yet you're expected to defeat an entire alien armada by yourself. Despite the odds 2D shooters tend to be fair and well designed, they feature strong mechanics and sensible placement of obstacles so that the player never feels cheated. 

Your one and only weapon is your laser cannons. You can hold down the fire button for autofire but you have to depress the button every second or so since if you leave it held down your rate of fire drops. At the start of the game these lasers are quite weak and have very narrow range. However before long you'll come across the only powerup in the game...newalone. Looking like a tiny collection of three electrons the newalone can be found everywhere. Typically you'll always have more than you'll need since your weapon maxes out fairly quickly. This of course implies that there is another mechanic involved. By pressing an alternate button all of your beampower is released in either a single focused blast or spread out in all directions. Aside from doing immense damage this also allows one to get out of bad situations(though this doesn't make you invincible unlike most other 2D shooters with "smart-bomb" mechanics).

As typical of the genre you go through six stages that take place in a variety of locales and face off with a boss at the end. However as mentioned before game design is all about identity and Metal Black does more than enough to carve out its own niche in a very populated genre. 

Feel free to use this video to follow along (Credit to Mamescore and Louthrax):

You'll notice that as the game begins the first ships the Black Fly encounters look to be human. Obviously they're no match for the Black Fly but it is rather chilling that they've been sent out to prevent the peace agreement from ending due to a single ship. You'll also notice the newalone floating around. Clumps of this stuff float around almost entirely through each stage so liberal use of the special beam powers is encouraged. 

The remains of an old battleship prove to be nearly fatal when a giant hermit crab rises out of the sand. Situations like these tend to be popular in older shooters where if you're at the wrong place at the wrong time there's little you can do to avoid being killed. Personally I think this is poor game design if the game does not give adequate warning. On the other hand one could argue that the very sight of a large battleship taking 2/3rds of the screen should make anyone wary. 

The video doesn't quite catch it but if you leave the firebutton alone for a second you'll notice a single frog-like creature jumping out before followed by hundreds. This popular aspect of game design is in nearly any game you can imagine. A new object of interest whether it's an enemy, a powerup, or etc. is seen alone and by itself, in a way that can only be described as an introduction. Since with most games these "new" objects are eventually rolled in with objects we're familiar with. Interestingly enough however these frogs don't put up much of a fight and the player won't see them ever again after the first stage. Metal Black does this quite a bit as even for a game that's around 20 minutes long they're focused on almost constant variety to the player's encounters.

The first few enemy ships that come along arrive in standard 2D shooter formation. Course when you destroy the entire line of them you aren't rewarded with a powerup. I guess this was Taito's way of showing how unconventional this shooter is since it ignores one of the more popular aspects of the genre. These first few enemy formations don't fire at the player but this will change by the next stagee. Also note how the walker-enemy stops before firing a shot. This is a constant in Metal Black so that players are given ample warning when particular enemies are about to attack so they can prepare accordingly. 

The boss of this stage and nearly everyone afterwards can actually feed on the newalone to powerup their own attacks. Thankfully the creatures/appendages sent out to feed on newalone can't harm the player's ship. It should be noted that purple is the standard color for most enemy fire. Most shooters especially more modern ones rely on easily identifiable colors for enemy fire. In Metal Black however as already noticed with the missiles not everything that can kill you is purple. 

At the end of this stage and stage 3 the player enters a bonus round. Essentially you move a cursor around to target the nearest alien and unless an entire payload of missiles. It looks more like something Taito did to show off the impressive(for 1991) scaling effects but luckily there's only two of them and they're good for points.

Like the frog in the first part of stage 2 we notice a rather large missile cruise innocently by. However the next missile unleashes a wave of shrapnel. This method of familiarization is quick and to the point and since there are no other enemies in the vicinity it's pretty clear the designers wanted the player to focus on this missile as it will show up later. 

A couple of new enemies are introduced in the standard way. This is keeping in mind with the design since as the stage progresses these enemies will make further appearances in combination with others. It is also noteworthy that the shape of the enemies is a good visual indicator of what they're capable of. The drill-like creatures move forward, ones that look to be facing a certain direction will fire in said direction, etc. 

In another break from convention the enemies in Metal Black tend to have unconventional methods of attack. The enemies that drop those floating orbs for instance. The orbs can't be destroyed but they can be a nuisance as they take up space and can wipe out the player if they're led into them by enemy fire. The large yellow creature with the swirling tail makes another appearance later in the game.

The missiles return with a little twist. The player is led to expect the missiles will fire shortly after arriving. However this one waits until the other has arrived before firing. It's a minor thing designed mostly to trip up the player. One could wonder if this contradicts the enemies that always pause before firing. How can the player be expected to accurately predict dangers if his enemies ignore the "rules" they're supposed to follow? That is one of the challenges in game design. Every aspect must have a sensible explanation and nothing should be left to question. In this case one could simply say that the very first missile never fired at all, thus nullifying whatever rule the rest of the missiles were supposed to follow.  

At this point the player decides to use his special weapon. As noted earlier it spreads out destroying everything in the vicinity and reduces his beam gauge back to level 1. I would have figured he'd do this later but it's possible he did this to showcase his skills at dodging everything. This shows that even if the beampower is improperly handled there is still enough room to get by on pure dodging skills. While the road to mastering a game may have only one or two paths the road to survival should have a multitude of ways to get out of every situation(again as long as they're sensible). Again notice how within seconds of meeting the boss the player has already maxed out his beam power.

The orbs that the second boss releases are used to reflect and change the direction of the laser he fires. Of course as you can see in the video he triggers his beampower again practically nullifying the boss's strategy. Again this is unconventional for the genre and helps to lend the boss fight a bit of personality. Most of the time 2D shooter bosses are simply huge objects with heavy firepower and all you can do is pluck away at it until it goes down. In Metal Black you can actually defeat certain boss attack patterns by destroying particular objects. 

Stage 3 introduces the latest in line formation enemies. These guys don't even wait to comple their rounds before firing off a wave of projectiles. This indicates a clear sense of progression. As the Black Fly makes it's way through the alien armada the aliens respond with intensified attacks. Unlike most shooters it's not the same enemy just firing more bullets, it's a new enemy with a new challenge to overcome. It wouldn't be a stretch to say that these creatures are evolving in response to the player's skill and familiarity. This is not to say that shooters that feature the same enemies but with more firepower are bad because at times that's not what is required. At times these familiar ships are important because there are other aspects to them aside from being fodder. The Cave shooter Dodonpachi for example tends to feature a number of similar enemies that behave similarily to foes destroyed in the past. Dodonpachi explains this with the chaining system, where you get more points for destroying many enemies without too long of a time between them. In game design as mentioned before it's not about making a game better it's about giving it a better identity. 

Part 2:

These ground-based enemies create a little wall that's invincible to bullets. The solution is simple enough as the player can simple destroy the creatures themselves..taking the wall with them. However this isn't always applicable and the player may become anxious and end up trapped. Situations like these tend to be more popular in horizontal shooters. Horizontal shooters also tend to be more cinematic(I hate to use the word guilty but Metal Black is certainly guilty of this as there tends to be stretches of empty space as if we should be taking a break from blasting aliens to follow the story). 

A new and mysterious enemy approaches. The worm-like creature attempts to destroy the player by crushing him between the floor and ceiling. However due to the shape of the ship and player's knowledge of the game he knows exactly where to fly to avoid this fate. How would someone who never played this game before handle the situation? Well that worm creature can be destroyed before it brings the walls down(though most likely this will require using the special weapon though since the orbs block many of the player's shots). Here we see enemies that were introduced in stage 2 working in tandem with a unique creature in an attempt to defeat the player. It's simple really but in my opinion stuff like this gets ignored for the big picture.

The boss of this stage resembles a dung beetle. In fact its main source of firepower is an easily destroyable sphere. Needless to say as long as one can keep that sphere out of commission this boss will fall rather easily.

Exclusive to stage 4 are the bubbles. These won't destroy the player if they touch him. Instead they will encase the player preventing his weapon from firing until the bubble is destroyed. This can be dangerous in certain situations(it also helps to make stage 4 different from every other stage). We're also introduced to minor enemies capable of collecting newalone. Notice how the serpent creature fires a dangerous set of missiles if left un-disturbed for long enough. 

Note the bubbles working with the destructible walls to give the player a hard time. Throw some enemies and bullets flying around and it could become quite troublesome. Also important is that as the laser powers up it's sizable range allows players to attack enemies directly above and below him(provided they're close enough). This is another reason players may want to hold onto their fully-powered weapon as it can provide in certain scenarios. On the other hand since bullets of any size can get caught on walls sometimes having smaller bullets to get those harder to reach places is important. Metal Black doesn't dwell on these aspects too much(and the developers never really considered this for any sequel/future game) but it's still noteworthy.

Surprisingly the player gets killed by those flying blue ships that reflect his shots back diagonally. For the longest time I thought the reflected shots were simply window dressing or some special effect instead of a credible threat to the player. Fascinating. Another thing I think deserves mentioning is that enemies will observe the layout of the stages and navigate them to the best of their ability. This isn't like many shooters where enemies constantly fly through obstacles that would destroy the player. It doesn't make Metal Black a better game but it does show that the designers were thinking of everything when they put this title together. Another thoughtful inclusion is the second serpent going after the newalone the first serpent left when it was destroyed by the player. 

A wall of orbs followed by a wave of enemy fire. The player's bullets can't reach the enemy ships to stop them from firing, and it gives the enemy the opportunity to fire directly at the player. We've seen that before in stage 2 right? Nice to see the enemy develop some sort of strategy instead of existing to be mere fodder for our amusement. Of course one could simply use the special weapon to cut through the entirety of this situation.

Funny how the gigantic 4th stage boss leaves just enough room for the player to slip by. Notice how the enemies have dropped all pretenses of imitating the creatures of earth. We went from giant crabs and frogs to demonic-looking things and now we're down to space cruisers filled with flesh. Oh and in case you're wondering those screws can kill you.

Some shooters incorporate a rule where if an enemy is past a certain part of the screen it will cease firing. I guess this was done because there were so many complaints from gamers getting shot in the back by enemies that had long since disappeared from the screen(or more realistically it was done to save on memory). Either way the player should have been paying better attention in this instance.

Part 3:

Feel free to skip ahead to the boss fight here. You've already seen the giant laser attacks the bosses have done in the past so here are the results of the player firing with their own fully-powered special. As the two lasers collide they form this ball of pure violet energy that does immense damage to the enemy(that is if the player has the upperhand, if the enemy does a reddish sphere will be created instead that will destroy the player). The developers of Metal Black went on to use this feature in a simpler manner in G. Darius and Border Down(also using the huge lasers in those games gives the player more points, thus creating a greater incentive to use them). Again like most of the other foes these little buggers can't fly through walls. Even in a genre where you die in one hit the game continues to make sure there's no cheating. 

Part 4:

Shortly after the beginning of stage 5 a seemingly unavoidable wave of creatures clings to the player's ship. Most of the time dodging them is out of the question and worse as they gather on the ship they slow it down. This is compounded by a new type of enemy that fires large lasers from directly above and below the player(as well as all the other stuff we're familiar with). 

The star-shaped enemies that appear give more than enough warning for the player to take them out. This is because they're extremely dangerous if left alone as they can fire lasers in the direction of all of their points. Sure this might not seem a big deal when they're alone but late in the game you'll rarely face anything by itself. Be sure to remember the little fork in the road here. Before long a pair of walkers show up in an attempt to sandwich the player. He manages to break away by taking out the walker behind him using the larger bullets I mentioned earlier. It's a shame he got destroyed by that star laser just as it was about to leave the screen. The little guys wandering on the ground between the two mountains seem to ignore the player until he comes into view(note how they start firing when the player is above them). 

This is a minor thing and probably won't come up in these videos but while using your special weapon you're still free to collect newalone. This keeps the gauge from draining and thus extends the duration of your attack. Course it's up to you the player to decide if this is worthwhile. 

In a rather bizarre design decision the 5th boss is perhaps one of the easiest in the game(he's certainly easier than the 4th and the entirety of the last two stages). This guy sort of resembles a chameleon but it looks more like he uses teleportation. He's a very odd addition to this game yet the designers probably felt that as the various stands the enemy has made have all been met with failure they're left to resort to imperfected technology and experimental weapons in order to somehow destroy the player. It's a bit of stretch but from what we've seen so far it's entirely possible. In keeping with past bosses you can actually destroy his teleportation function...which is really just cruel.

Part 5:

The newest and final gimmick introduced are the multiplying uhh...satellites? Whatever they are they split off and form more if you spread your fire around. Do you destroy them all to get more points or cut directly through them to maximize your safety? 

Little blobs on the ground eventually form into minor enemy ships that we've seen in previous stages. This game certainly shows that we're at the final stage of the game. Oh and yet again we see the player get killed by nearly off-screen star lasers. Sure the player goes on to beat the game without continuing but it's still interesting to see these guys pose such a threat.

Further confirmation that we're at the point of origin of these aliens. One could almost describe these versions of the first boss that keep popping up as newborns. Within seconds of birth they're gunned down from a lone ship. Taito refuses to set the aliens up as being one-dimensional creatures bent on pure destruction. In fact seeing the state of earth in stage 1 one could determine that the aliens themselves are incapable of protecting life. It's possible they destroyed their own planet just like they've ruined earth. Amazing how much depth in the story Taito was able to put into a game that's not even thirty minutes long. Each stage is filled with atmosphere and carries some truly memorable moments as well as show a consistently brilliant sense of art direction. However let's move on.

The final boss in any videogame is where we direct the culmination of everything we have learned in the game into one moment. Metal Black in it's continuing efforts to break all conventions has chosen their final boss to be the culmination of existence itself. The final boss is actually not that difficulty. Certainly it's not as easy as say a Gradius final boss(for one this guy attempts to kill you) but it feels different somehow. This boss introduces a new method of attack and I guess most of your attention is going to be spent on all of the images that appear as the battle progresses. It's certainly a different way to end the game and is consistent with the overall design of Metal Black. 

So where does that leave Metal Black? Well it's not for everyone that much is certain. Everything that gives this game identity might not be worth the time of some gamers. But at times this is what game design is all about. Sometimes the identity that is created is not something that everyone wants, just like how certain pieces of art or particular artistic movements are met with in-difference or even hatred. Metal Black isn't your standard fare shooter and trying to make it something it doesn't want to be will only ruin everything the game has strived for. I will definitely say that this is among one of the most unique games in the genre(especially one that's known for having a lot of the same stuff all the time) and is probably one of the most important games I've ever had the privilege of playing. I'll also say that Metal Black accomplishes everything it sets out to do. Just because this isn't the best game ever doesn't mean it isn't perfect. It achieves all of its goals while at the same time maintaining everything that makes it unique. At this point it's so well put together that even the removal of the tiniest thing could make it all fall apart.

But that's just IMO. Feel free to tell me what you think.

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