Monday, June 18, 2012

Saturn Metal Slug: Another Look

Nazca's first Metal Slug game stands tall as an inherently pure experience.  The numerous sequels added on more and more 'stuff' - new Slug designs, new weapons, new enemies, and even new afflictions like Zombie and Fat modes.  The original game continues to impress even now with its sheer focus.  The levels are short and sweet, with a difficulty balanced so that even mere mortals can attempt 1cc runs.  It might not have as many bells and whistles, but it's clean arcade fun that never feels cheap or bloated.  I might be in a minority when I say this, but I'll take the first Metal Slug game over Metal Slug X or Metal Slug 3 every time.  Since I'm also a huge retro Sega fan and a ardent Saturn enthusiast, it should be no surprise that I've put more than my fair share of time into Metal Slug for Sega's 32-bit console.

You don't hear much about the Saturn port of Slug 1, but when you do you'll usually get a few people saying how it suffers from tremendous slowdown - "almost as bad as Metal Slug 2", they'll say.  I never quite agreed with them, but I could understand where they're coming from.  Anyone who's been introduced to Metal Slug through emulation or compilations on the PS2 or Wii probably doesn't realize how much slowdown there was on the original Neo-Geo hardware.  So when you see Metal Slug Saturn grinding into Matrix-style bullet time halfway through the first level - and you're comparing it to the silky emulation experience - then it can be a big downer.

Pictured above is the way that Metal Slug Saturn was meant to be played.  Thing is, very few people ever actually have!  Most people who are playing Metal Slug on their Sega Saturn are using one of the two expansion cartridges pictured below:

On the left is the official Sega 4MB RAM cart (HSS-0157), created at the request of Capcom late in the Saturn's lifespan.  It provides 4MB of additional memory space for the console to use with intensive arcade ports.  On the right is one of the many variants of perhaps the most popular Sega Saturn expansion cart - the unofficial Action Replay Plus from EMS.  This cart offers import support, cheats, backup save storage, as well as both 1MB and 4MB RAM modes.  Basically everything except burned/pirate game support, all in a single cartridge.  You'll notice that neither of these cartridges is the one that was intended for use with Metal Slug Saturn and displayed in this post's first picture, the HSS-0150 1MB RAM cart:

This cart is almost identical to the 4MB RAM cart pictured above, except that it was created at the request of SNK instead of Capcom, it predates the 4MB RAM cart by a few years, and it offers a fraction of the memory expansion.  Makes it sound like the 4MB cart is better, right?  Well, no.  You see, while most games that work with the 1MB RAM cart also work with the 4MB RAM cart, several games run into problems when they try to address the extra memory.  Some of the games have really obvious issues.  Samurai Spirits III and IV, as well as the Real Bout Fatal Fury games, have corrupted graphics.  You can't miss it.

The Action Replay Plus switches between 1MB and 4MB modes as needed by the game, and it seems to be the perfect solution.  1MB for your SNK games that need it, and 4MB for everything else.  The problem is that when it comes to Metal Slug Saturn, neither the Action Replay Plus nor the 4MB RAM cart work correctly.  Worse yet, the issue that Metal Slug has isn't nearly as obvious as corrupted graphics.  It's slowdown.  And now we come to the reason why Metal Slug Saturn has a worse rep online than it really deserves.

If you're playing Metal Slug Saturn with any cartridge other than the HSS-0150 1MB RAM cart, you're not doing it right.  Both the Action Replay Plus (I own the last revision released, with the dual 1MB/4MB modes and the fixes for Vampire Savior) and the HSS-0157 4MB RAM cart introduce additional slowdown despite seeming to work with the game just fine.  This is really obvious with some simple tests.  Load up the game with a 4MB cart or an Action Replay and check out the slowdown in two crucial areas: the Mission One boss and the section with the boats in Mission Two.  You'll notice how much slower it runs than when you use the official 1MB RAM cart meant for the game.  Here are the areas I'm talking about (click for bigger versions):

Hopefully this clears up some of the misconceptions about the Saturn port of Metal Slug.  It's really a great version, far better than the Playstation version (also on PSN) due to the 1MB RAM cart support and the Saturn's built in memory advantage.  In terms of slowdown, it's actually very close to the original arcade performance - once you stop using the wrong expansion cartridges.  With the AES version of this game selling for $3,000 or more when it appears, the Sega Saturn version of Metal Slug is about as good as it gets if you want a physical, standalone release.  This is especially handy since many retro gamers probably already own a Sega Saturn but might not own a Neo-Geo MVS or CD system.

It's probably important to note that Metal Slug only came out for the Sega Saturn in Japan, which means that running Metal Slug on a Sega Saturn using the intended 1MB RAM cart (as explained in this post) is going to require one of a few different routes:

1) A region modchip installed in a US or EU Saturn.
2) An actual JP region Saturn.
3) A properly region-patched ISO of the game used in conjunction with a backup modchip.

I'd recommend (especially the forums) as a great starting point for any Saturn modding adventures.  A friend and I were able to install a switchless region mod in my US region Model 2 Saturn without too much sweat and blood, and it's definitely an awesome thing to have considering the strength of the JP Saturn library.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

Great post my friend. That explains a lot about SS port.