In the past, I have described my love for old Namco arcade games. With good reason, they all rule. However, Namco is not the undisputed king of the arcade. Right next to them, there is Taito competing for that title, going hand-to-hand, blow-for-blow.
Taito’s biggest strength was more than simply making a good game, but making a wide-range of them, all different in their own way. Taito gave us Space Invaders, but then they also gave us stuff like Bubble Bobble, The Ninja Warriors, and Darius. Taito didn’t just make different types of games that were all great, but they were also not afraid to get real weird with it; so many games, popular or otherwise, loaded with surrealism and really artistic themes. Sure, there was also trend-chasing bull shit like Thunder Fox and Chase HQ, but let’s not talk about those.
This game, Metal Black, is this wonderful, challenging, fun, thought-provoking piece of work that I feel like talking about today.
The story of Metal Black is that aliens from Jupiter have violently taken over the Earth, leaving humanity at the brink of extinction. The world’s military have managed to reverse engineer one of Jupiter’s weapons and implant that power into a fighter jet. However, the UN has refused to let the jet be used in combat, as it will lead to an all-out war that Earth will absolutely not win. In response, you, the player, goes rogue and steals the fighter, going on a suicide mission to save what remains of Earth.
Metal Black came out in 1991, that magical time before video games got all political. The first level, Earth, has become a sand-blasted wasteland due to climate disaster and unending war long before Jupiter came along, with the only remaining vestige of humanity being an electronic advertisement billboard. Oh, and the boss of this level is named “Apartheid.”
Something that Taito was very good at, was establishing a mood. They were great at making cutesy, colorful shit. However, they were just as good at making really dark, depressing, unsettling post-apocalyptic games. This is the same company that made a game about killer robots overthrowing the United States, which had since devolved into a full dictatorship, rather than the implied one we have now. Metal Black is a fucking dark game. It has that opening stage on Earth, what with all the death and destruction I pointed out earlier. Just you, on this one-man operation for the sake of a dead planet, complete with this incredibly atmospheric track by Zuntata, probably the best in-house band gaming has ever had:
The rest of the game, admittedly, is not as atmospheric as the first level. However, finally reaching space is when the shit starts getting weird. No longer is Metal Black focused on a dying world. It is instead focused on the most surreal, dreamlike depiction of space that very few games have ever had. Fighting a large, snake-like creature that hatches from a fake moon, set to a backdrop of brightly-colored constellations. Flying through an abandoned, destroyed space station surrounded by what looks to be large molecules; the kind found in a human body. Navigating an uneven series of stalagmites and shifting rocks, then being assaulted by a large battleship that quickly sheds its manmade machinery to reveal the alien life form underneath. Cruising on a Gradius-inspired alien planet, before having a rematch against “Apartheid” in an asteroid field. Then finally, going to Jupiter, before fighting what I can assume is the leader, while you are bombarded with digitized images of cavemen, war, and devastation. Needless to say, it’s all very cool.
I do need to make special mention of the loud, scary death cry that every boss makes when killed, followed by the screen exploding with a rotating map of Earth superimposed over it.
Needless to say, Metal Black absolutely shines in the audio visual department. Its style is so thoroughly beyond being cool. So many modern games, built with million dollar budgets and a team of over 100 different rapists, and so many of them cannot make something as aesthetically solid as an arcade shooter from 1991. Do you want to try telling me that Assassin’s Creed looks better than this?
Actually playing Metal Black is also pretty interesting. Unlike most shooters of the era, there’s no selection of weapons or power-ups to pick up. You get one weapon for the entire game, and it gets stronger as you pick up “Newalones,” the energy source that powers Jupiter’s weapons, and Taito’s attempt at pronouncing the word “Neurons.” The more Newalones you get, the better your bullets. Newalones also let you use your super beam, and of course, the more power, the better that is, too. Your ship moves slowly, and never gets faster. To make up for it, your bullets, especially once you’re hit power level 4, are bigger than your ship, meaning that a lot of encounters can be survived by jamming on the fire button. This does not make the game easy, mind you. Metal Black is still a really fucking hard game. There are only six level, and once you hit level three, you need to be ready to be attacked on all sides. Shit will come at you from the front, behind, above, below, often two or more directions at once. Metal Black is not impossible, though, it a challenging game; the kind that you practice and memorize over and over until you can get that much desired 1cc. Unfortunately, I’m not quite there yet; still working on memorizing the best routes.
Metal Black is a simple, pared down game, mechanics-wise. Yet, the very small move set actually works really well in this case. There has never been a time where I thought that maybe there should be a homing laser, or a downward-sloping bomb, or anything like that. Every level is designed around this lack of options, and is a better game for it. Plus, thematically speaking, it would make sense that an untested, experimental weapon thrown together by a devastated world would not exactly be loaded to capacity with guns.
What I appreciate the most about Metal Black is that, yeah, it’s a cool looking shooter that’s fun to play. But it does all of this, and has this dark, post-apocalypse story that’s surprisingly cool for its time, and tells it almost wordlessly. There’s an opening cinematic crawl, then some ending text, and nothing else. It’s up to you as the player to piece everything together by looking at the environments and see what is happening, the epitome of show, don’t tell. Despite being a visual medium, doing this in video games is actually a lot harder than you would think, so I’m impressed every time Taito pulls it off.
Like here, let’s take a look at the ending. You defeat the final boss, effectively saving the Earth, right?
No, the Earth is split into two after the war is over, literally this time. Then you float in space wondering if everything that’s happened is a dream. Now, if you get a game over on stage 6, there is a bad ending where the Earth’s military coup’s the UN, sending mass produced Black Fly’s to Jupiter, where they will probably also be killed. That one’s interesting, if only because of a badly translated line that makes is seem like the aliens can blend into Earth’s society, They Live style. I honestly think that this is one of the few times where the overplayed “you were dead all along” theory actually applies. I think that the main character was killed during his fight on Earth, probably before he even hijacked the first Black Fly, and the rest of the game is in fact a dream. The opening does sort of imply the whole “dying in the fighter hangar:”
I’m pointing all this out because I think there’s a tendency to take retro games like this for granted. We, as a general rule, tend to look at shooters as these mindless diversions where you mow down aliens and unnamed enemy armies. The most thought you put into them is in the bullet patterns and enemy spawn points. Not putting thought into this surrealist take on war and humanity’s place in the universe. In 1991. Yet, here I am, doing exactly that. It’s very cool. Metal Black is very cool. A shame that Taito’s current place in the industry is nothing more than a third wheel in the Square-Enix merger, because in their day, they were kings.