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(Note: this is a review of the Sega MegaDrive version of Mercs. For some reason, Dooyoo insists on putting all MD games under Amiga. Clearly I need to visit Dooyoo HQ and educate them on retro gaming!)
I've said it before and no doubt I'll say it again, but In the 8 and 16 bit era, games were a lot simpler and (to my mind) a lot better
. There were no fancy HD graphics, little online gaming and few achievements, unlockables or trophies. Nor did they bother (for the most part) with complex stories and characterisation. You just got basic outline of what you were there to do and left you to get on with it. Games were simple to get into, rock hard to play and fiendishly addictive. All of these things apply to Mercs.
In Mercs, for example, the former President of the USA has been kidnapped by terrorists. For various unspecified reasons, they cannot send in the US Army to rescue him and so have hired you - a mercenary - to bring him home.
You can probably see how this translates into actual gameplay: it's an unapologetic, shoot-everything-that-moves game. The action is viewed from above with you soldier at the bottom of the screen. Your objective is to move through each level shooting all the enemy soldiers as you go. Along the way, you can also shoot wooden cases and bits of scenery to reveal helpful bonus items like food (to restore health), smart bombs (to destroy all enemies on screen) or extra lives. If you've ever played Capcom's Commando, you know what to expect.
If this is Commando, though, it's Commando on steroids. Commando itself was a tough little shooter, but Mercs is even tougher. There is scarcely a moment's respite in the action and right from Level One, hordes of enemy soldiers are thrown at you. This is one seriously well-equipped bunch of kidnappers too. Not only do they have a seemingly endless supply of soldiers at their disposal, they also have tanks, missiles, jeeps and planes which they will happily use to stop you rescuing Mr Ex-President and which require multiple hits before they are destroyed. Thankfully, you are reasonably robust yourself with a health bar (so can sustain a number of hits before you actually die) and three lives.
As you might have gathered, Mercs is tough; very tough. It's true old school arcade gaming where you really needed to be a superb gamer to stand any chance of ever seeing the end screen without cheats. However, it's also very rewarding. Even getting to the end of early levels is a real challenge and you need to be constantly moving to avoid collisions with enemy soldiers or their bullets. As if that wasn't enough, when you reach the end of a level, you enter into a boss fight against a tougher enemy (often a machine of some sort) which requires multiple hits to despatch. The placing of enemy soldiers doesn't change from game to game, so each time you play you can memorise the attack patterns, making it easier to get yourself into the right position to pick them off before they have chance to cause too much damage.
Mercs is very much an on-rails shooter. Your route through the game is determined and you are guided down particularly pathways - there's none of this modern "free-roaming" nonsense to be seen. That's a positive, though, since it's impossible to get lost or find yourself going down a blind alley. It also gives a real sense of progression, as you can see yourself moving further and further into a particular level. The gameplay may sound rather simplistic, but it's also a lot of fun. There's no objective other than to survive and reach the end of the level. However, it's also very well-designed so that each time you play you get just that little bit further. Sometimes, this "progress" is literally a few millimetres further than you got last time... but that doesn't matter, because it gives you the incentive to hit the Start button and try again. Eventually, with a lot of practice, you may find that you are able to beat Mercs, but it offers a lot of game time before you get anywhere near that stage.
Of course, there's not much variety, with every level following a similar format and that does mean the attraction can wane if you play it too often for too long. If you're more of a casual gamer and don't enjoy tough games then the repetitive blasting action of Mercs could soon wear thin.
Graphics are well designed (for the 16 bit era at least). The game is viewed from a top-down perspective with a pseudo 3D effect. This means that you can see plenty of the gaming area and pick out upcoming threats to try and deal with them as quickly as possible. Enemy sprites and vehicles are well designed and clearly defined against the background colours and easy to spot, although in the frenzy of action, it can sometimes be a little tricky to pick out enemy bullets (white blobs). Backgrounds in the game are also nicely drawn and help give a strong sense of progression throughout the game, since they change from level to level.
Sound is exactly as you would expect: a pulsing, adrenalin-pumping tune accompanies each level, whilst various explosion noises add to the on-screen mayhem. They might not be the massively realistic sound effects we've come to expect from modern games, but they suit the game and do their job well.
Controls are also well implemented and highly responsive. There's none of this nonsense you get with modern games where each button has about 27 different functions, depending on context. In Mercs you just need to remember three controls - the D-Pad for movement, one button to fire your gun and another button to explode one of your limited number of smart bombs. These controls don't vary throughout the game, you don't suddenly get extra abilities to learn; it's just up/down/left/right and fire. That makes the game incredibly easy for anyone at all to just pick up and start playing. That instant appeal pulls you in, whilst the frustrating, yet addictive gameplay keeps you hooked.
Thanks to the responsive controls, your mercenary proves to be a nimble little chap and, with practice, it's possible to get yourself out of some seemingly impossible tight spots or to sneak up on the enemy and ambush them. The key to success in Mercs is to master them lies in getting complete control of your soldier - something which will take quite a bit of practice, but is well worth the effort.
One minor niggle is that there is no indication on screen of the number of smart bombs that you are holding at any one time. This can be crucial, as deciding when to use them is an essential part of the game. It's always good, for example, to have at least one held in reserve for the end of level baddie (to soften him up a little and reduce the number of times you need to shoot it), but there are also times when the screen is so chockfull of baddies that you need to use one just to give yourself a moment's respite. Not knowing how many bombs you have left makes it rather tricky to decide when to use them to best effect.
Mercs is not an expensive game to buy, nor particularly difficult to get hold of. A boxed MegaDrive version in good condition will typically cost you less than a fiver. Providing you don't mind the simple gameplay and repetitive shooting action, then it's a great game and well worth adding to your collection.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012
Released back in 1990, Mercs is a classic top-down shooter in which you play the part of a mercenary taking on an entire army consisting of myriad troops and varied military hardware.
You have a varied range of weaponry at your disposal, including a plasma gun, laser, rocket launcher, homing missiles and flamethrower, and each of your weapons can be powered up multiple times throughout the game, increasing strength and range. The animation is rather nice, and enemies have multiple death animations, falling to their knees in a ball of flames when attacked with a flamethrower or flying up into the air and landing in a crumpled heap when killed by rockets.
The level settings are varied, as are your opponenets, with rocket and machinegun troops pouring out of tanks and apcs and the huge end of level baddies including a harrier jet, gunboat, attack chopper, tank, and a missile battery. The graphics are colourful and appealing, with plenty of large scale explosions and general wanton destruction throughout, and the entertaining sound effects and dynamic music complement the visuals nicely. Gameplay wise its nothing startlingly new, but remains a great arcade blaster in the vein of its predecessors Ikari Warriors, Who Dares Wins and Purple Heart.