Metal Black - Taito


1991 - Taito.

Reviewed by A.S.Rajkumar (with some invaluable help on the game's origins by Randorama)

I am a bit over fond of analogies, so let me try out a new one.

Shmups can be compared to women*. There are the  acknowledged and undisputed beauties of each generation (tastes may vary from generation to generation), somewhat more 'perennial' beauties, the plain ones, the ugly ones with a moustache to beat Hercule Poirot's, the ones we love so irrationally (love is blind) and the frustrating ones which manage to force us to love 'em. One's tastes also depend on where one will draw the line between attractive and unattractive...and here I break off the analogy. The last two categories I've listed are highly subjective and ultimately tell us what we prefer over Smith, Lopez, or Hasegawa. Or even the accepted canon of good taste. But let me get back from my Annual Reviews in Gaming mode to the Shmupping Reviews mode. On to Metal Black.

Darius, Rayforce/storm/crisis, the Toaplan collaborations and not to forget the almighty Space Invaders...Taito certainly has contributed a lot to the genre of shmups. But...Metal Black? It was ported to the Saturn, but certainly isn't a very recognised shmup. 

The Plot

Metal Black (aka Project Gun Frontier 2) is set in 2043, where we have run into aliens from a companion star to the Sun called Nemesis (I believe this was a popular theory floating around in the Eighties and Isaac Asimov even produced a decent novel based on the idea). They jump on us and flatten us out using powerful 'beam weapons', powered by a molecule called Newalone by Earth scientists:


(The molecule on the left is Newalone, while I have put a picture of adenosine triphosphate (ATP), the biochemical fuel, on the right for comparison.) 

Thanks to the wonders of reverse engineering, Earth scientists make their own Newalone-powered killing machine called the Black Fly, which suspiciously looks like a sawn-off Lockheed SR-71.  But the project is frozen by a possibly humiliating treaty signed by Earth, and Earth falls into a time of decay and darkness. In the meantime, some bloke blasts off in the Black Fly to sock it to the aliens of Nemesis. 

So much for the story. The actual game is, at first appearance, a pretty but bog-standard horizontal shmup, with a high dose of cheapness. But, fortunately, there is more to that.

One thing you cannot miss, almost overriding the cheapness of level design, is the overall feel of Metal Black. Taito sometimes has a knack at atmospherics which makes its games go a long way; this is at its strongest in Metal Black. There are several truly memorable visual moments in this game: the first stage over dried-up ocean beds (if there was anything left of Greenpeace then, they'd be saying I-told-you-so gleefully), the hatching of the second-stage boss from a Moon-shaped egg, the Newalone beam duels (more on that later), the first-person bonus stages. The Engrish, strangely enough, helps at times. And the music often (but not always) heightens the experience. I could go on for a while, so I will stop here. If there were a shmup Oscar for Art Direction, Metal Black would win it. Nothing I have seen quite matches it.

The Gameplay

is straightforward. Your ship controls fairly well. Weapons-wise, you have a single twin-beam shot which gradually powers up and maxes out as you collect Newalone molecules (which look like this:). In terms of armament, that's (almost) it. And here the gameplay issues begin. Gradius had options, R-Type had the Force and missile pods, Darius had the 'bombs', but this game has nothing to give you protection around the rest of you! The game exploits this fact mercilessly. You will be attacked relentlessly from all directions, and often without warning. To its credit, the cannon can take out enemies a little above and below it. And if that wasn't enough, the enemies get progressively cheaper. From unfair screen-spreading shots to slowing you down, the only dirty trick the enemies don't use is 90-degree lasers!

When your cannon is charged up fully, pressing button 2/B will unleash the famed beam weapon. It packs quite a punch at first; as it loses power, the beam splits up in a lightning-like effect, then finally peters out. The splitting-up can be useful to clear the screen of pesky enemies, but the beam's real purpose is to duel with the games' bosses. During any boss fight, the boss will charge up its beam and unleash it at you. This will knock you flat unless you duck (chicken!) or fire off yours at the same time. Hammering at button 2/B at the same time will cause the formation of a fancy-looking energy ball, and depending on its colour, it will either hit you or the boss (purple is good, anything else bad). Quite nice, and a definite precursor to G-Darius' alpha/beta beam duels. It doesn't kill them as well as G-Darius' beams. But, like the alpha beams, one cannot switch them off.

The Graphics

Definitely a mixed bag. Everything (or almost everything) is a bit pixilated and can get ugly- especially the explosions and the bonus stages. The bosses have a habit of disappearing against a black background in shimmering, rolling colours, and that doesn't really work out either. Your explosion isn't memorable enough for you to really take notice at times, either. However, the backgrounds are quite attractive (Jupiter in Level 5 is gorgeous), and at times approaches a truly organic feel (as opposed to the Giger Grand Guignol we have been brought up on since R-Type)- as if one is inside a living organism. Backgrounds and enemies are often well-animated,  and there are some quite fancy scaling and parallax effects throughout the game. Your ship, though, is quite ugly in profile.

Music & Sound FX

Sound effects are quite bad (something Taito is good at, paradoxically), except for the boss warning siren and the cracking of the boss-egg in Stage 2. Taito often goofs this up, but one can easily overlook this because of the soundtrack. Composed by YACK of Zuntata fame (Taito game, right?), it fits the game's mood and really helps you get involved with the game; much more so than, say, Darius Gaiden's soundtrack. In general it is a rather laid-back affair, with a few more pepped-up interludes. The game is also kind enough to provide you with the levels' track titles! Wonder if this was the first game to do so.


* - Sorry if you are a woman, or gay

 The screenshots are split up into two pages: take your pick!

PAGE 1: Stages 1-3
PAGE 2: Stages 4-6 (and summing-up)


shmups!   © 1997 - 2007  Malcolm Laurie