After seeing the ho-hum critical response to Metal Slug 7, I decided to give the title a look in the ol' shovelscope in order to further explore how critics' scores can heavily affect our perceptions of a game before we're ever able to form our own opinions. Plus, I just wanted an excuse to talk about it.
While the Metal Slug series doesn't have much mainstream recognition, it's generally regarded as a well-kept secret amongst 2D enthusiasts. Furthermore, it's near-gospel to fans of side-scrolling run and gun titles, such as Contra and Gunstar Heroes. The original title is interesting in that it served as a glorification of 2D gaming right at the exact time when 3D gaming was taking over. It looked and played like a 16-bit title on steroids. Its characters were cute, its colors were bright, but the game orchestrated sprites into an all-encompassing celebration of hand-drawn beauty and retro charm.
And with great fandom comes great pressure. Let us not forget the support of all things SNK by the company's monomaniacal fans, a group arguably more devoted than Nintendo's fan club. Although SNK must greatly appreciate the support and instant-buzz generated by the fans, they are also subject to very high expectations.
The Critics Said ...
While the critics weren't overly harsh or brutal towards Metal Slug 7, the title does seem to have been met with a resounding "meh." This is arguably more harmful than an outright failure, as a bomb usually grants a developer the chance to "recreate" a series (see Sonic and every title post-Adventure 2 stating "no, seriously, this is the game that returns Sonic to his roots!") But indifference hints that a series is past its prime and ready to head out to pasture. Imagine if New Super Mario Bros. had received mediocre reviews ... I bet we'd have seen a lot less 2D platforming in Super Mario Galaxy.
To be specific, IGN stated that "when you're finished blasting through it in an hour or so ... there's almost nothing left to see." Does that stop any of us from revisiting other classic titles? I'm not suggesting that Metal Slug 7 is on par with Super Mario World or Metal Gear Solid, but it's still a valid point. Nintendo Power noted that "it lacks the ingenuity of the better games in the series." 1up coyly hints that the series is better suited to a home console: "the upcoming Xbox 360 version is certainly something to think about." While that's a fair argument to make, it shouldn't affect the score of a portable edition. The reviewer didn't explicitly state that this is in fact what happened, but I'm left to wonder if the score would be any different had SNK not announced the 360 version at the time of the DS version's review.
It's difficult to get a grasp on what the reviewers were expecting and what other factors influenced their decision. 1up at least noted their interest in the 360 version. This doesn't just apply to Metal Slug 7, but rather all games and reviewers.
I decided to skip the "Rap Sheet / Silver Lining" segments in favor of a simple observation of the game. I then decided to compare my notes with what reviewers said. Here are my notes; check out the deduction for my afterthoughts.
Umm ... this game is awesome. Seriously, it's a huge improvement over Metal Slug Advance, and very successfully ports the arcade experience to the handheld. The graphics are a little smushed for this reason, but it's a necessary sacrifice in order to keep the DS's lower resolution hosting the large action occurring on-screen.
The controls are super-tight. It might look simple on paper to sufficiently create a comfortable 2D playing experience, but it surprisingly doesn't always turn out that way.
Nearly all of the reviews I read complained about the game's length. While the game isn't the 50 hour+ RPG you'll find in other titles, relatively short games were a staple of 2D gaming. The main quest in older titles usually didn't retread the same territory using different objectives or goals to boost replayability (i.e. Super Mario 64's star collection). It was usually just very difficult, and required multiple playthroughs. Even the ultra-tricky Contra 4 is somewhat short once you can get the feel of the entire game. Thankfully, like that masterpiece, Metal Slug 7 features "challenges" to add replayability.
I've talked at length about it before, but it's still quite a fascinating topic: critics and word of mouth in general can greatly shape our opinions. Is Bomberman Act: Zero really as bad as everyone said it was? Is Gigli really the worst movie ever made? Is Mountain Dew really an awful tasting beverage? I'm not saying that I'd prefer any of those items, but it's interesting how the group mentality can push something from mediocrity or apathy into the territory of universal loathing.
While none of the reviewers completely tore apart the title and most had some positive reactions to it, the score would lead one to believe otherwise. I've often wondered how a standardized 0% - 100% / A - F / 0 stars - 5 stars rating system can be applicable across all games. If a reviewer gives Metal Slug 7 an 70% score, does that mean that 70% of the entire population can enjoy it? 70% of gamers? 70% of fans of action games? 70% of Metal Slug fans? Does it mean that the game could have been 30% better? Does it mean that 30% of the game feels missing or poor?
I know I'm reaching a level of cantankerousness, but I question if we truly need an absolute scale with which to judge all games. Are straightforward text reviews not enough? I understand that everyone doesn't always have the time or effort to read through eight pages of an IGN review, but would a simple one sentence summary work better than a mathematical score? Perhaps I'm being too idealist, but I can imagine a world where we don't have the need to be able to atomically pit games against one another.
In gaming, the term shovelware refers to any game in which time and effort were eschewed in favor of turning a quick profit. Bury the Shovelware takes a closer look at these titles, typically those that inhabit the lower end of metascores. It attempts to: 1) find out where and how the developer went wrong 2) identify common traits present in most shovelware 3) measure how long the game can be suffered.