Metal Slug is widely regarded as one of the best run-and-guns of all time. Filled with outlandish humour and boasting brilliantly animated graphics, it remains one of the best franchises on the Neo-Geo and delivers a satisfying amount of 2D carnage. Here we speak to Kazuma Kujo and discover how he created the iconic blaster.
Although now easily available thanks to several mainstream re-releases, Metal Slug has long been a focal point for the hardcore. Developed at a time when 3D was usurping sprites both in arcades and at home, it showcased what was still possible with 2D. It was also developed for SNK’s Neo Geo hardware, which epitomised rich and cool. Even when ported elsewhere, such as to Sega’s Saturn, it required an additional RAM cartridge to function, reinforcing the fact that it was special. Whether in arcades or as a console port, Metal Slug is something that today remains aesthetically and functionally beautiful.
Metal Slug’s incredible graphics instantly made it stand apart from similar games.
Yet for a long time we didn’t really know who made it. While Metal Slug has become synonymous with SNK, it was actually developed by the mysterious Nazca Corporation, an offshoot of Irem that was later absorbed into SNK, and a company that many know little about. It’s also hard to even get interviews via SNK Playmore, as many of the original developers no longer work there. Further complicating things is that the original series is credited only to a series of mysterious pseudonyms: Kawai, MeeHer, Akio, Susumu, Cannon/Max-D, Tomo, Kuichin, Andy, Seeker and Hamachan. Also, with the exception of a transcript in the Metal Slug Anthology release and a surreal Q&A with MeeHer on Metal Slug Database (mslugdb.com), there don’t appear to be any interviews with the team – at least not in English.
A breakthrough was made when previously unpublished excerpts from an interview with Irem’s Kazuma Kujo were leaked on the old Insert Credit forums. Detailing his background, Kujo revealed that he wrote the original concept for In The Hunt (aka Kaitei Daisensou) at Irem and oversaw its development, later helping to form Nazca and taking charge of the Metal Slug project. But to fully understand Metal Slug’s creation, you need to go way back, since in many ways it’s an evolution of scrolling shmups such as Irem’s R-Type, rather than traditional run-and-guns like Contra.
After joining Irem, Kujo’s first job was helping playtest R-Type II, though he wasn’t involved in design. His first creative role was on In The Hunt, which was released in arcades in 1993. It was an extremely detailed 2D shmup featuring submarines, a simultaneous two-player option, and the ability to manually move the play area forwards.
Some bosses are quite tough, making a second player very handy.
All of this, according to Kujo, owes something to the vast range of other shooters available, including Irem’s own R-Type: “The plan to make a ‘shooting game’ had already been decided, but also, at the same time, I had decided to make the game for two people who could play simultaneously. However, I did not like that in shooting games there was forced scrolling, so the screen would just keep on moving even if one of the players was out of the game. Also, most shooting games were set in outer space, and I wanted to make something different.”
It certainly was different, with a tremendous amount of personality in the submarines you controlled, enhanced by detailed animation for everything on screen. The inspiration for the submarines may come as a surprise, though. When asked, Kujo laughs: “Well, for a long time I could not come up with any good ideas, and for about a month I would sneak out of the office every day to think in the park. One day I was dozing on a park bench near a fountain, and, hearing the sounds of water, I had an inspiration: ‘Water… like a submarine!’ And so I decided to make the game using submarines.”
From here, things get complicated, since the following year Irem released GeoStorm (aka Gunforce II) in arcades. This played and looked like a prototype Metal Slug, with a visual style similar to the preceding In The Hunt but containing no developer credits. Several other Irem games, such as Undercover Cops, also had a similar style to what would later be seen in Metal Slug. We ask Kujo if he was involved with any of these, specifically GeoStorm. “I was not involved in those,” he replies. “My colleagues made them.”
Early artwork showing off the titular Metal Slug tank.
Rattling off the names, we ask if he remembers people such as Akio, Susumu, MeeHer and Hamachan, plus who they were and why no one was named. He explains: “Yes, I remember them. At that time, Japanese game companies were very cloistered, like a closed society, and to announce their real names was prohibited. Therefore, we used our nicknames instead.” Unfortunately, he refuses to give up their identities.
Equally as clandestine is Nazca itself, which was allegedly formed from Irem as a result of the company’s inactivity. Kujo confirms this: “It is true. Nazca was founded with around 15 employees from Irem. [At that time] I served at Nazca.” Of course, he has officially only ever been employed by Irem, implying that his role on Metal Slug was a case of moonlighting.
Like many run-and-guns, Metal Slug is best player with a pal.
If In The Hunt was an evolution of galactic shmups like R-Type, Metal Slug started as a direct successor, albeit with tanks replacing submarines. It isn’t until towards the end of the interview, when we ask Kujo about what challenged the team most, that this bombshell is dropped: “The most difficult point was significantly changing the configuration of the player. Originally, the combat vehicle was the only character you controlled. However, when we did location tests, we did not get a good response from customers playing. So, we changed the game so that the soldiers were the central characters you controlled.”
When asked about other changes, Kujo’s memory is blurred: “I think some parts of the stages were remade, but I cannot remember it clearly.” However, the team transcript in the Metal Slug Anthology reveals that after changing the characters, other things had to be altered: “In order to create and release one game, tons of ideas or designs are born and destroyed. In the first title, there was a stage [on which] we had to redraw almost half of the background graphic because it ended up not matching our direction as development progressed.”
It’s astonishing to think such a radical change had to be made after the game was already complete and being location tested. Unsurprisingly, the personality of the eponymous Metal Slug tank was well established. The Anthology transcript reveals that the team had found inspiration in several sources: “Well… We want to say, ‘It’s an original idea and we didn’t get any inspiration from anything!’, but actually we came up with the design from various manga, animation, movies and other places.”
Metal Slug may have been inspired from many other things, but that didn’t stop it having a distinctive style of its own…