Metal Max - Import Retroview  

Slightly Rusty
by Michael Baker

20-40 hours
+ Unlike anything else of its generation.
- Command menu outdated even for its time.
- Limited inventory space.
- Serious cashflow issues.
- Unbalanced internal stats.
- No friendly puppy dogs.
Click here for scoring definitions 

   There's always a certain danger inherent to revisiting the first game of a series, especially one that's survived and evolved for decades. Coming hot off the heels of the sixth iteration, I was reluctant to start up the original Metal Max, even though I knew that I'd like it. As expected, this first title was a very rough and raw experience, even as it showed all the quirks that would go on to become the hallmarks of the series.

   Let's start with the setting, because that's the majority of the game right there. Some unknown period of time after a massive war wracked the world and brought civilization to its knees, the region known as Crime Country struggles to recover. Its four corners are periodically ravaged by decrepit war machines, feral robots, bizarre mutants, and the old-fashioned cruelty of fellow man. Unknown to virtually everyone, the supercomputer NOAH, author of World War III and all around genocide, still resides in its base, occasionally manipulating the world to suit its purposes.

   But seriously, that's about it for the story. No mention of NOAH appears anywhere in the game until not long before the very end, and while its influence might be implied heavily by all the impact craters and shelled out buildings, its presence is nowhere to be seen. The game's only real plot thread focuses on the famous hunter Wolf and his quest to rescue his lady-love from the villainous Bad Valdez, but even that receives little attention for most of the game. Even the hero's two allies, the Mechanic and the Soldier, get only enough story to justify their decisions to join the party. For the player, the game begins when the main character gets kicked out of his own house. It seems his father wants him to take up the family business and be a grease monkey in the garage, but he has different aspirations. There are monsters out there in need of slaying, and he dreams of being the hero for the job. Dear old dad thinks he's just suicidal. The game ends when the hero returns home to apologize and retire from the monster-hunting business, which could be anytime the player wishes. It doesn't really matter how many of the game's eleven Wanted monsters are brought to justice, how many towns are saved, or how many tanks are found, it all ends with the hero swallowing his pride and coming home. Whether it's before the first dungeon of the game or after the defeat of the great NOAH itself, the credits won't roll until that apology is made, and they don't really change much aside from one line at the end. There's nothing to pull the player through this game from beginning to end except a perverse desire to see what's beyond the next hill. While this works, sorta, it's a massive departure from everything the industry considered normal for RPG storytelling circa 1991.


   In fact, many parts of this game's interface seem antiquated, even in comparison to its contemporaries. For example, the primary menu must be opened to speak with people or check things like doors or computers, and these two actions take separate spots on the menu. When selling things in stores or putting them into storage, each item must be selected individually and then the whole process must be done again from the very beginning for the next item. The equipment menus are not as bad about that, but the individual carrying limitations bring more challenge than anything else to this game. Why such limitations even exist for human-use items in a game full of combat vehicles is a mystery, but inventory juggling is part and parcel with the Metal Max experience.

   The game's battle system is antiquated, in more ways than just being strictly turn-based. The Hero, Mechanic, and Soldier rely completely on their personal firearms and personal inventories for survival. There are no special skills, and the equipment choices are very limited on attack types, especially when compared to later games in the series. Even when CreaTech gets experimental with the game design, problems happen. While the three party members have the usual set of RPG stats listed on the menu, there are three extra numbers that are uniquely important to Metal Max: Drive, Fix, and Fight. These are the skill stats. The first factors into the damage output, accuracy, evasiveness, and defense in tank battles. The second increases the odds that attempts to repair parts in the field will be successful. The third, obviously enough, relates to personal combat. All the party members gain points in these skill stats as they progress in level, but each character also has a specialty that is reflected in their stat gain. At level 30, when it is likely that the player is preparing for the final level, a character's main skill stat will probably be about twice that of the others, and the differences are striking and frustrating. At this point in the game, it is quite common to see enemies take no damage from most attacks, with only the Hero (vehicular combat specialist) or the Soldier (personal combat specialist) getting any hits in at all. Often, the discrepancy can mean that the specialist is doing three or four hundred in damage while his compatriots are doing one or two points of damage, if any at all, with the exact same weapons. The game does try to balance this out some with attack items and special shells for cannons, but even those are often at the mercy of the skill stats and inventory limitations, which preclude them from being used regularly.

   Tank combat is something else. The tanks really are the main focus of this game, as many times the only direction the player receives comes in the form of "There's a tank somewhere that way, I hear." Plenty of thought went into how tanks perform in the field, with realism giving way to convenience and coolness. Every tank has three integral components — chassis, motor, and CPU — as well as the option to equip up to three weapons, though some modifications may be required. Unfortunately, tanks cannot be used everywhere, and personal combat is filled with other little annoyances. The three party members can only use items on themselves, for instance, and the abovementioned limits on inventory capacity can make reliance on in-battle healing a perilous strategy. It also means that the game's sole reviving item cannot be used in battle at all. A slightly more archaic interface issue involves enemy targeting. Enemies often come in multiple groups per battle, with the player choosing which group each character attacks. The computer chooses which exact enemy is hit, however, which can make targeting strategies difficult to implement. Also, if a group is wiped out, then any remaining attacks targeting that group are wasted as there is no defaulting to the next possible target in this game. Finally, a full party wipeout results in the hero being dragged to Dr. Minch for revival, but the other two characters are sent (still dead) to the spots where they were first recruited and must be manually retrieved and taken to the mad doctor.

Caption Be it ever so crumbled...

   One thing the game does get right is the quick-travel options. From the very beginning this series has had two means of traveling quickly between locations: the Teleporter network and the Dog System, which can be carried on tanks. Unlike later games in the series, in Metal Max these options are more limited in the number of places they can reach, but their convenience cannot be doubted. Also convenient is the tank rental shop, which is different from the later games in that it is virtually free as long as the player is willing to chip in for ammo and ablative armor tiles. Since rental tanks do not have to be in the hero's actual possession in order to be returned, they provide the best method of retrieving the player's own tanks from locations where an untimely party wipeout might have left them. Later towns in the game also have better tanks for rent, and such high-class rentals can be used for short-term upgrades in times of need.

   This is important, because one of the biggest problems this game has is its cash flow. Tank equipment is expensive to purchase, maintain, or upgrade, and the regular enemies don't give out much cash upon defeat. Salvageable tank parts are rarely found anywhere besides the last few levels, so the player will have to get his or her money's worth out of the regular shops. The primary source of income in this game is the collection of bounties on Wanted monsters, but when upgrades are required in order to beat those enemies, then the player is caught in a very grindy Catch-22. For at least one major target, it really is easier to bypass him, travel a few towns farther on, and return with a set of powerful rental tanks.

   Tanks also get the best parts of the game's graphics. Their status screen comes complete with schemata, and the in-battle tank and enemies sprites are fairly detailed. The squishy humans come second-best in this department, as they don't really meet the standards of even the first Final Fantasy title. Battles play out on a field of black, without any backdrops or decorations. Little creativity can be seen in the game's locales, most of which could fit in any generic 8-bit RPG regardless of style. Thankfully, the series has progressed since then.

Sadly, HMO care has only improved in the post-apocalyptic years. Sadly, HMO care has only improved in the post-apocalyptic years.

   The musical ties that link this series are well in evidence, as all the better tunes from this game will appear time and again for as long CreaTech continues to develop this series. The lesser portions of the soundtrack of the soundtrack aren't worth mentioning. Satoshi Kadokura did some good work on this one, but he's done a lot better since.

   Despite all the pitfalls, revisiting a series' roots can be worthwhile. It's certainly made me appreciate Metal Max 3 & 4 all the more, and even Season of Steel sits better with me now that I've played its progenitor. Sure, it was raw, unpolished, and a little crude at times, but from such tiny seeds mighty series grow. May this one keep growing for years to come.

   See ya later, steel cowboy.

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