Metal Black
by sunburstbasser

Metal Black is a horizontal shmup which has a story involving blowing stuff up. With lines like "The beam was the thing which made good use of energy" you know that this game's plot is going to be deep and meaningful.

Metal Black was originally conceived as Darius III. Somewhere along the way, the style started veering away from the first two Darius games, and Taito branded it as Metal Black instead. The game still has some of the Darius qualities, like the speed of the gameplay, great bosses, and even a few mechanical fish.

The story line delivery is far more entertaining than the actual plot. Aliens have invaded Earth, and only a new super fighter can fight back. The new super fighter uses the same Newalone system as the aliens.

The controls are basic. The A button shoots your gun. As you hold the button, the rate of fire slows so you must continuously press the button to keep a good rate of fire. Occasionally you'll see little particles floating around, which power up your gun when collected. These are the Newalone particles. As you collect them, a gauge in the lower left fills up. Pressing B fires your hyper beam, which can be a thick laser or if you let go of B it can shoot lightning all over the screen. Beware, once you tap the B button you will use up all of your Newalone energy, and collecting more while your beam is going will prolong the duration of the attack.

Metal Black only has one ship and besides powering up the guns by collecting Newalone particles no other weapons are available. Your shots reach their highest power at Level 3. They power down slightly at higher levels, but their width allows you to hit enemies above and below you.

Metal Black has no scoring system beyond killing enemies, and while a very mild rank system is present it doesn't have much effect on gameplay. Bullets can go a little bit faster, nothing more.

The game looks very good especially for it's age. It runs on Taito's F1 board, a flexible board that allowed extra chips to increase it's power, sort of like SNES cartridges. Metal Black gets an extra scrolling plane and sprite scaling effects on top of the standard F1 features. The effects are almost on par with Konami's Xexex, but not as flashy and creative.

Zuntata's soundtrack is great. Many of the songs switch between intense beats and the atmospheric, sparse melodies that Taito shooters all seem to have (see Darius II). The ending credits theme is particularly cool and has similar sounds to any number of Genesis games. If any of the songs really stand out to you, their titles appear in the lower right of the screen to help track them down. The sound effects don't quite match up, with thin explosions overall. The sound of your gunfire can get old, too.

The first level takes place on a shattered Earth. Sand dunes and the wrecked skeletons of buildings make up your background. Mankind's strongest weapons, like nuclear submarines, lay beached and broken. This stage reveals Metal Black's Darius roots early on, as an aircraft carrier grows legs and backs away. It's Yamato, originally a late-game boss from Darius II. He doesn't do much here, and goes down easy. The entire first stage is really not too hard, in contrast to the rest of the game.

The first boss is really a training boss. None of it's attacks are hard to get by, but every one of them will show up again and learning them now will help you survive later. Newalone particles will drop from the top during the fight, and he will grab at them with a claw. He can fire palette- swapped versions of your bullets, which can be destroyed. He fires a three- bullet arc, with the center bullet aimed at you. He also uses the game's most distinctive trait, the Newalone beam. When he shoots his beam, get out of the way. You can shoot yours and have a beam duel, but you'll lose all your weapon power. Weigh each one and decided which is better for you, though I recommend keeping your weapon power up for the next stage.

After the first stage, instead of going straight to the second stage you'll get a bonus chance. Move the targeting reticle over an enemy and press fire, and you'll get to watch as you fire missiles at the enemy. They can't shoot back, so it's all for points.

Moving into outer space, the second stage is appropriately titled Cry For The Moon. Don't sit on the far left of the screen, as this stage has some huge missiles coming in from that side. In the background, the moon sits unmoving. As the stage nears the end, the moon starts zooming in. Oddly, the moon is also moving in from the right.

Turns out that stationary moon is actually the boss, and he breaks out of his moon egg ready to fight. This space snake uses the whole screen and will likely run into you if you don't have it's patterns memorized. It shoots out little gray orbs. It'll then fire a pink laser at one orb, which can then either shoot at you or another orb, creating an impassable wall. If you can get the movement pattern down, this boss won't be as hard as the level preceding it.

Stage 3 is named Dream Land, and has some funky background effects to match. The opening of the stage has a smashed space tube in the background, which is stretched to give it some depth. Once it passes, the level proper begins. One section that gets me killed takes place in a narrow corridor. A little blue worm begins crawling along, taking a lot of punishment. Wait too long, and it'll grab the ceiling and smash it and the floor down. They don't touch, but if you don't kill the worm you'll have zero vertical space to move until you get out. The level also has a short section with vertical scrolling right before the boss.

I'm not sure what Taito was thinking, but the stage boss appears to be a dung beetle. It grabs a mechanical heap of poo, pushes it up a slope with it's back legs, and then grabs another. The boss itself isn't that dangerous, but the poop wheels can shoot bullet spreads and a Newalone beam at you, and if you don't block the beam with your own you will die since the ball drops the entire screen while shooting. A claw also appears grabbing Newalone, but you can fly through it without hindrance.

Following that encounter, you'll get another bonus round. The enemies move a lot more this time, and there are more of them. And check out that cool background! Am I the only one who misses pulsating 2D backgrounds like these?

Stage 4 takes place on Krypton, but is named Crystal Lize. All of the terrain is formed from crystals globbed together. A common enemy in this stage is the bubble. These don't kill you, but they prevent you from attacking and need to be shot through. Spider enemies line the floor and ceiling. The terrain moves in this level, and the room left over is just barely enough to squeeze through. Oddly, the music for this level is very sparse and ends before the boss fight.

And what a boss fight! Taito tries their hand at making a Giant Battleship in the R-Type vein. The boss is a rocket or missile that is so big, when it enters the screen you'll have to sit either at the extreme top or bottom so it doesn't run into you, and it's about three screens wide. The weak point is the far left. When you reach that point, you'll blow off the metal casing to reveal brains. The brains don't appreciate this and shoot off two Newalone beams plus some bullet spreads between them. The boss circles around, attacking you with missiles, lasers, small enemies, and even huge screws. This might be the first Giant Battleship fight that Taito did, and later they would surpass even Irem's R-Type in that department.

Stage 5 is Nemesis Crisis, an attack in Jovian space. At the start of the stage, Jupiter is far in the background. Most of the stage is spent with an organic fortress between you and Jupiter. In shmups, sometimes an enemy is made to hinder you rather than outright kill you, and they end up more annoying because of it. This stage has lots of little red bugs that slow you down when they attach to you. Combined with your already low mobility, they make you a sitting duck.

The boss from Stage 1 returns, with a new tentacle and a new paint job. He can now teleport around the screen as well. However, despite being a more mobile, meaner boss, his primary attacks are the ones that you can shoot through. He actually goes down pretty easy, perhaps as a reward for getting through the level.

A Mirage of Mind Gaia is the final level. It starts with some cool background scaling, and then moves to a corridor with a galaxy visible in the background. This stage has lots of enemies with fast vertical attacks. It also has green mines that create more mines when they are destroyed, as if they were appearing out of nowhere. The Stage 1 boss appears yet again, though just as a midboss and it dies quickly.

The final boss is on par with the strangest bosses in the R-Type series. It's form is somewhat fishy, but instead of a solid object it is outlined like an amoeba. The only part that kills on contact is the heart. The tail can shoot a Newalone beam, but if you dodge it it'll spit out Newalone to smash the heart with. The boss's primary attack is to send out orbs that follow you, leaving a trail behind them. When they reach a certain length, they retract. They die pretty quickly to a Level 3 weapon. As the boss takes damage, the song playing will change and the background will change. The backgrounds are the kind of stuff people come up with while listening to Pink Floyd and trippin' balls. Cavemen, dolls, and a cat with an intense stare are just some highlights. The ending text is just as insane, and the crazy translation doesn't help it to make any sense.

As the credits roll, the game is credited as Project Gun Frontier 2. I don't really know why, as Taito's Gun Frontier has nothing at all in common with Metal Black. It's much closer to Darius, just check out the High Score board.

Metal Black is a pretty good game, very hard, and with some cool stages. It was released years later on Saturn and is currently available on Taito Legends 2 for multiple systems. It also plays great in MAME. If you want something a little different from the standard Konami/Irem side scrollers, give it a shot.


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