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In Memory
Sean Pettibone


The Laser Guide to Video Games

Metal Black - Ving/Taito - Saturn - 1996

Traversing through some of the more innovative and creative levels in the shoot-'em-up genre for the classic Sega console, Metal Black takes players on an unforgettable battle against an conveyance of unpredictable and engaging enemies. Structured in traditional form, the action implements a fairly straightforward approach. You're piloting a single fighting space ship fighting along horizontal lines against an massive number of foes. Most of these opponents attack in relatively clear patterns, making their assaults simple to counter for the most part. Earlier areas provide good places to practice maneuvers and learn their patterns. Most standard enemies can be dispatched with a single shot, though some require multiple-hits before they're taken down. The players' ship offers a standard fire mode that can be quite effective for these opponents, but making further incursions requires stronger firepower. This is where Metal Black diverges from expectations. Instead of a traditional power-up system, players collect small, tri-colored pods that bounce along the screen. These resemble spinning clasps of DNA energy. As you gather these pods, they bind together and gradually increase the strength 2of standard shots. The energy your ship accumulates is tracked and indicated at the bottom of the screen. The downside to this system comes when you lose a life, the power you've built is reduced significantly, requiring you to collect numerous additional pods in order to rebuild the ship's energy.

Each level adds additional abilities. You move from gaining rapid-shots to procuring a steady stream of fire that destroys everything on its line. This can be quite devastating to anything in your path, cleaning out the immediate area of anything threatening your position. As you build your shots to full-strength, you can enable and discharge a massive bomb that explodes across the screen in a huge explosion that shakes the level to its base, momentarily. This unique system makes an appealing play-mechanic that allows you to build capabilities and power in a satisfying manner that feels intuitive while adding a significant layer of strategy to the proceedings. Choosing to use massive weapons is a key element to survival. Its tempting to unleash these all at once immediately, but a superior strategy is to hold on to them. Saving these extremely powerful, but limited attacks to use during the dramatic boss battles that unfold with pronounced energy against sub-bosses that show up at the halfway point makes sense, giving you the ability to defeat them swiftly. Even more impressive bosses then follow-suit appearing in massive, screen-dominating form at each stage's conclusion. Beating these opponents is an impressive accomplishment but you're not finished. Once you've defeated an intimidating boss character at the end, you're not done. Metal Black then unexpectedly switches to an elaborate bonus stage that takes a completely divergent approach.

Switching to a first-person perspective, players need to target enemies that appear on-screen, scaling and moving according to different patterns. You have to move quickly during these short intervals, since they're time limited and challenging, allowing for only a few limited shots in their short duration. You need quick reflexes, but successfully shooting down enemies gives you a generous increase in bonus points and other rewards such as extra lives, deepening on how accurate your shots are and how quickly you shoot down opponents. This mode seems counter-intuitive and strangely disconnected from the main game at first glance. However, it effectively breaks up the intense action and marks a type of mellower reward, giving players a relatively calmer interval between stages where they can catch a respite from the otherwise relentless pace. These sequences share a similar visual style to the main game, blending together with the preceding stages effortlessly.

From an aesthetic standpoint, Metal Black creates a uniquely innovative field. Basic elements are rendered impressively on the 2D plane with a good attention to detail evident in its elaborate designs. Taking a bio-mechanical approach, level designs range from a desolate home planet earth over-run by massive mechanical bugs who appear out of nowhere from beneath air0craft carriers or emerge suddenly from deceptively constructed moons. The ship moves across the field smoothly with fluid animation and pacing that makes for an invigorating experience with consistent momentum, its standard shots flow effortlessly, but are smartly accented with brightly-illuminated firepower as you build its energy field. The vibrant beams at their apex bring an impressive flourish to the design, giving it a unique style.

Metal Black's impressive boss encounters are appropriately elaborate but instead of merely exploding, they burst into a strange dimensional form, that appears to float beyond the normal parameters. They appear to dissolve into fiery silhouettes with flames surrounding them, spinning around in all directions before vanishing. This is an impressive effect that gives the visuals an unexpected, year welcome punch that goes outside expectations. Underlying Metal Black with an impressive layer of techno-sophistication that marks an impressive divergence from standard visual approach. Aurally, the game's driving soundtrack accompanies that action at a consistent rate, effectively adding tension and momentum to the gameplay in appropriately pronounced, relentlessly driving fashion. Visually, this creates a coherent style that creates an appealing and somewhat daring visual approach that brings a level of sophistication not attempted by many other mainstream shoot-'em-ups. Metal Black's elements combine seamlessly and converge in impressive fashion; the game brings engaging play mechanics, an innovative power-up structure, challenging sequences with impressive boss-encounters to create one of the Saturn's most engaging and enjoyable sci-fi shooters.

- Michael Palisano