How is it that game developers consistently release their best material toward the end of a console’s life cycle? “Experience” isn’t a satisfactory explanation, since in addition to pushing technical limits, these games tend to be more experimental than anything preceding them. Conker’s Bad Fur Day deconstructed the mascot platformer genre, and Panzer Dragoon Saga gave a rail shooter all the breadth of an RPG. And then there’s Metal Slader Glory, one of the more ambitious titles to appear on the NES. I have to admit that what Metal Slader Glory does isn’t completely outside what other games at the time were doing. It changes enough, though, and there’s a lot we can learn about the game by looking at those differences.
A lot of these late-life games were primarily genre experiments, so it only makes sense that one of the game’s more important aspects is how it modifies typical visual novel structures. We generally think of visual novels as a narrative-focused genre, and while the earliest ones still focused a lot on narrative, they weren’t as focused as on it as you might think. They derived their mechanics from Western adventure games, which often used puzzles to bar the player’s movement through the story. Experiencing the narratives in these games was secondary to completing whatever challenges the game had laid out for you. This much hadn’t changed in the transition to visual novels. Players were expected to actively engage with what the game was presenting them, not simply process the events as they happened. (This is to be expected, as many of these games were murder mysteries.) They had to tease out clues in the environment or leads in a character’s dialogue, and then apply that knowledge to advance through the game.
Metal Slader Glory, on the other hand, is more concerned with being a cinematic experience. It could care less about presenting the player with puzzles to solve. If anything, it’s far more concerned with ferrying the player from plot point to plot point. The dialogue makes explicitly clear where you’re supposed to go next, yet even when you don’t know where to go, the game limits your choices so strictly that you’re bound to advance through the narrative sooner or later. Minor changes these might be, but they have a profound impact on how the game unfolds. Without the game locking its narrative behind its mechanics, the player is more free to enjoy what the game presents them (which isn’t very difficult, given the brilliant choices driving the game’s art).
More important than that is how this format influences the kind of story the game tells. It’s the game’s cinematic character that gives the human drama its value. I know how off the mark that sounds, given all the alien wars and space colonies floating throughout Metal Slader, but those take up far less space than you’d think they would. In fact, anything that could lend the game a greater sense of purpose quickly fades into the background. That mystery the main characters are trying to solve? Only occasionally referenced. The huge robot the main characters buy at the beginning of the game? Background decoration until the end. With all the sci-fi elements pushed to the back, all we’re left with are the mundane interactions between the characters.
I don’t say this to criticize the game, but to praise it. It’s as though the game is saying that these small moments hold some kind of intrinsic worth; that they don’t need some sort of outside justification to grab our interest. Indeed, the game’s strengths lie in how organic its world feels. Not in how complex that world is (it and its inhabitants are relatively uncomplicated), but how organic it is. It feels lived in, possessing an existence completely outside you or the characters inhabiting it. Most of its people (plot-important characters especially) work very ordinary jobs, whether they’re mechanics or waitresses. And this world is hardly free from imperfections and blunders. Your little sister proves that quite well when she stifles narrative progression. Even the art frequently reinforces the game’s natural feel. In short, the world Metal Slader Glory presents feels very familiar to our own.
I doubt the game could replicate this with any other structure. At the very least, it would encounter severe difficulty. A lot of video game structures emphasize challenge, and challenge brings with it a pressure to perform. Even adventure games, the closest genre we can fit this game into, put a premium on testing the player’s skills. Yet Metal Slader’s most notable aspects lie outside the kind of performance that challenges demand. So if the game had chosen any other format, then its small moments might have been forced to justify themselves. The sci-fi and mystery elements would surely dominate (as they’re more amenable to the kinds of challenges other games offer), and the game would lose its distinctive character. Fortunately, without any challenge, the smaller moments are free to exist exactly as they are.
For a time, anyway. After an alien creature introduces itself at the start of the third act, the game moves away from the quotidian moments to delve into the aliens and space wars that had previously been mere background material. It’s an abrupt shift in tone, but that’s far from the only problem the third act presents. For one, Metal Slader’s structures aren’t very conducive to the new mystery angle that entails. The player is still just along for the ride, meaning they can’t gather and apply information to advance the story.
Yet what I’m more concerned with is the game’s sense of realism. Everything I’d seen up to this point was telling me that these everyday events were worth focusing on in their own right. By tacking on a grand narrative for the characters to navigate, the game only contradicts that notion. It reeks of unconfidence, as though the game has failed to see the value in its own efforts. That’s not to say the third act completely lacks value. In fact, there’s a brilliantly scripted fight against the alien armies toward the end. But in a game where you spend much of your time scheduling appointments and eating at fast food restaurants, interstellar wars are so outside your experiences that you’re left more confused than excited.
I’m still not sure why Metal Slader Glory feels so uncertain about its situational realism. Even today, that remains one of the game’s greatest achievements. It acts as a link between the murder mystery visual novels, which paired relatable settings with unrelatable scenarios, and the stronger focus on realism that we see in some games today. Granted, that focus is still small, and Metal Slader didn’t usher in realism in games so much as it opened the door for it. Yet isn’t that worth recognizing on its own?