GUN FORCE 2: BLAZE OF GLORY, starring Daniel Pesina and Cynthia Rothrock.[“Might Have Been” is a sorta bi-weekly column by Todd Ciolek that explores the ways in which promising games, characters, and concepts failed. This edition looks at Irem's Gun Force 2, released for the arcade in 1994.]

Metal Slug shouldn’t have succeeded, considering how games were in the mid-‘90s. Amid all the 3-D polygon revolutions and flashy new consoles and PlayStation ads with a blocky Russian dominatrix alienating female customers in droves, there wasn’t much room for Metal Slug, a side-scrolling Neo Geo action/shooter with a violently cartoonish streak and strictly 2-D gameplay. But it worked. Through either its own charms or the blind love of Neo Geo fans desperate for something that wasn’t King of Fighting Samurai Real Bout Ragnagard 3, Metal Slug did well and kept on doing well, to the point where it’s now arguably SNK’s biggest series.

Metal Slug wasn’t an SNK creation, of course. The series was devised and, up until the third game or so, developed by a smaller group called Nazca, which, in turn, had been started by programmers from Irem. Metal Slug fans were quick to uncover evidence of this in old Irem arcade games that use the same grimy, carefully detailed visual style later defined by Metal Slug. Undercover Cops, In the Hunt, Cosmic Cop, and even R-Type II all have the look, but there’s one old Irem title closer to Metal Slug than any other.

Women crying. Yep, this was made in Japan.Metal Slug Zero

Irem’s original Gun Force was a response to the Contra series, albeit one lacking the impressive bosses, smooth controls, unique weapons, and all of the other things that make Contra fun. For the sequel, Irem’s future Nazca staffers enhanced just about everything. Gun Force 2 ("Geo Storm" in Japan) was still a walk-and-fire Contra clone, but with much more impact.

Granted, most of that impact comes from the fact that everything looks so much better. The scenery brims with details, from the blackened husk of a train engine to the walls of the expected last-level crawl through an Aliens-inspired hive. It’s a dirty, burned-out, and weirdly interesting world. And, best of all, everything blows up real nice: flying bombers spew gouts of flame as they sink from view, a jointed mech boss sets a forest on fire, and boxcars go up in screen-filling blazes. And that’s just the first stage.

Irem also re-thought the game’s controls and came up with something odd: instead of basic single-gun armaments, the stars of Gun Force 2 (the man’s Max and the woman’s Lei, judging by the default name-entry screen) each carry two machineguns. One’s aim is directly controlled by the player, while the other just sort of tags along, sending its shots either a little higher or lower than the main gun. It makes for some creative, if unwieldy, firing patterns.

The cyborg bug apparently has a ponytail fetish.No elephant, though

If there’s one thing that sets Gun Force 2 above its predecessor and other Contra swipes, it’s the vehicles, and the fact that you’re almost always driving, riding or flying one of them. The original Gun Force had many such diversions, but none controlled well. The sequel features much more manageable minigun platform, turrets mounted on helicopters and trains, a clanking bipedal mech that spits gunfire-showering remote missiles, and flying robotic armor which you can keep it for most of the fourth level, if you're good enough. One jeep model even allows one player to drive while another mans the turret, predating that fancy Halo feature by about seven years.

The game’s best moments, however, come when Max and Lei hop on motorcycles and race down a mine shaft, chased by an enormous jointed centipede (yet another game boss inspired by Hayao Miyazaki’s Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind). It’s a spectacular boss battle, with everything speeding and jumping and shattering and exploding all at once, and even the game’s last level, in which you stalk a giant alien grub through a collapsing building, feels just a bit dull in comparison.

that boss takes FOREVER to kill i mean what the hell IremAnd you can’t turn into mummies or snow-people, either

With the vehicles, the rampant explosions, and the rich visual style, it’s very much the prototype for Metal Slug. Nazca’s later creation even borrowed some of Gun Force 2’s sound effects and its habit of rescuing shackled prisoners, though Gun Force 2’s hostages are all identical women who resemble Marian from Double Dragon and moan appreciatively when saved, instead of Metal Slug’s lovable bearded POWs.

In a few ways, Gun Force 2 is actually better than what Nazca later devised. Though it’s been around for over ten years and nearly as many titles, Metal Slug still doesn’t let its characters fire diagonally, something Gun Force 2 never has a problem with. The vehicles here also control a little better than most of the lineup in Metal Slug, which, one must also note, has never featured a motorcycle-centipede chase down a mine railway.

Yet Gun Force 2 remains a prototype. Metal Slug not only has fairer challenge thanks to its smaller characters, but it’s also far more appealing. Aside from a half-amusing boss fight where Max and Lei are aided by armed versions of the hostages they’ve rescued, Gun Force 2 is largely devoid of any real personality, lacking the cartoon exaggeration and background humor of the Metal Slug series. The weapon selection’s also much better in Metal Slug, which trounces Gun Force 2’s paltry, underused arsenal of missiles and flamethrowers.

He needs a ROCKET LAWNCHAIRPut it on the Exidna, Irem

If Irem intended to make Gun Force 2 a springboard to greater things, the chance never came. Shortly after the game arrived in 1994, Irem’s low profits led them to cease all game-related projects, effectively driving away the same programmers who’d form Nazca.

Would Metal Slug be better if it had started at Irem and evolved in line with Gun Force 2? Probably not. While Gun Force 2 still serves as a solid Contra clone with a few spikes of pure destructive joy, Nazca was right to move on. Metal Slug’s success stemmed as much from its goofball atmosphere as its level design, and the filthy, grim-toned environs of Gun Force 2 don’t have the same appeal.

Still, it’s a bit of a shame that that Gun Force 2 is often overlooked, legally locked out of any of SNK’s Metal Slug anthologies and denied a place in Irem arcade collections. Any fan of Metal Slug should have this on hand, just to see where it all began, and how it could have gone.