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METAL SLUG 3

Old-school fun and honor

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OK, I’ll admit it again, I am a sucker for well-made old-style games. The “Metal Slug” series is not especially old, but I love the way it has refused to adapt to the brave new world of 3-D gaming.

“Metal Slug 3,” a new game for Xbox from SNK, is a rare return to the nonstop, two-dimensional, side-scrolling arcade action of the early 1990s. It is a game with a sense of humor and a sense of honor; the kind of game that challenges players without being hard simply for the sake of being hard.

In “Metal Slug 3,” players lead one of four soldiers as they battle entire armies of enemies. Don’t attempt to conserve ammunition in this game, the enemies come in all forms and they definitely keep coming.

You’ll fight enemies of the human, monster, machine and bio-mechanical persuasions. Some die from a single shot, while others absorb bullets and grenades as if they were made of mochi.

The game begins with your soldier storming the beach. Remember, this is an old-fashioned side-scroller — almost the entire game is spent running toward the right edge of the screen. So you head right, and giant crabs attack you. Get through them, and you start to face choices.

You can commandeer a submarine and scroll through the terrors of the deep, or you can push on above sea level. On land you will encounter more crabs. Under the sea you deal with giant eels and jellyfish. Either way, the enemies keep coming.

So do the laughs.

The best part about these alternative routes is that they add a lot of replayability. “Metal Slug 3” is already the kind of game you play more than once — especially as it supports both single- and two-player action. The main arcade game only has five levels, but unlockable worlds and modes have been added, too.

Throughout the game, you will run into prisoners and victims whom you free. In exchange for freedom, these prisoners will give you bombs, grenades and other power-ups. My favorite power-up is a machinegun-toting orangutan that becomes your wingman for short snatches of time.

Perhaps the most popular power-up will be the “Zombie Mode,” in which the player becomes temporarily undead and indestructible.

Along with power-ups, “Metal Slug 3” presents the player with a number of vehicles that add joy to the ride.

As mentioned earlier, there is a submarine. Fans of classic arcade games may recall “In the Hunt,” in which players piloted a point-and-shoot submarine through perilous waters. Controlling the sub in “Metal Slug 3” is similar, but this game also includes a tank, robotic armor, a jet, a helicopter and an elephant.

All of this equipment is presented with exaggerated cartoon humor. So are the settings and the enemies. There’s plenty of gore in the game, but it’s silly cartoon gore. Everything in this game is highly stylized and fun.

When I first started playing “Metal Slug 3,” I was astonished by how fun it was considering its old style of play. Age has not been kind to “Pac-Man,” “Pong” or “Space Invaders” — all historic games that launched empires. In their original states, those games look like antiques, something you might play out of intellectual curiosity or a longing for nostalgia. Updates have not managed to restore their luster.

But “Metal Slug 3” is not as old or as classic as “Pong” or “Space Invaders.” “Pong” was introduced 32 years ago; the first “Metal Slug” came out in 1996. I think that is the secret to “Metal Slug 3’s” playability. It is not an old game or a remake of an old game; rather, it is a new game that deftly uses classic mechanics.