I Woke Up Today, And It Was 1994?
A flashback to the early 1990's, Mercenary Kings is a side scrolling shoot-em-up, hearkening back to a time when all a game had to do to was be brightly colored, offer a lot of action, and throw in visual comedy to hold a child's attention. But is it fun? Yes, you can easily kill a few hours at a time playing this game. However, does it capture the feeling of those old games you played with your brother on Saturday mornings after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles or Spiderman had gone off the air? Almost, but not quite.
Welcome to Mandragora Island!
As you boot up the game, you are treated to a lengthy cut-scene, skippable of course. During this scene, I had some very mixed feelings of childhood nostalgia reminiscent of the Metal Slug series (but with more text-based talking and an actual attempt at a story). You're presented to a buildup of a gung-ho band of mercenaries, sent on a mission to Mandragora Island after a so-called Mandrake Project at Project Labs has been seized by the evil terrorist group known as CLAW.
Well, let’s just say that initial touchdown on the island does not go well for our heroes. When all is said and done only two of them are left alive. In a scene reminiscent of all those action movies from the 80's and 90's where the heroes somehow avoid death (taken to an extreme, considering the two 'survivors' were shot in the head and stabbed brutally through the heart) King and Empress awaken and are ready to kick some serious butt! You pick one of these characters to play and customisation is limited to their names and colour selection.
The first issue I had were the very awkward controls. Your movement is with the W,A,S,D keys but when I found myself trying to jump, I was very confused when my space bar was used for reloading instead. As it turns out, your gun-key is J, your melee key is I, and your jump key is K. So after that minor confusion was sorted out, I proceeded through the very brief tutorial level which was mostly a bunch of jumping and one nice pixelated explosion.
You then reach the base camp, the hub of the game world, and you're introduced to the supporting cast of characters. None of which are memorable, but that’s acceptable as the focus is on old school arcade-style action.
Lock and Load!
After the tutorial is done with, it is up to you to get missions from your commanding officer and get the chaos on the road. And it is a sweet, sweet experience. Each and every mission is a sprawling two dimensional battlefield ripe with enemies for the destroying, loot for the taking, and weapons for the crafting. While I found myself using my knife and pistol more than anything else, the developers have hit the nail on the head by capturing the frantic shooter experience.
The weapon crafting feels like it was more of an afterthought rather than a selling point. Perhaps it's because I'm too used to games throwing in a form of crafting whenever they get the chance after the success of such games as Minecraft and Terraria. I never really found myself making that huge push for materials to make some new über weapon. My pistol and knife may take a bit longer but most of the time simple bobbing and weaving is enough to get you through even the most teeth grinding situations. That's most of the time. Sometimes, you will want to have that special weapon of yours, no matter what it may be, ready to unleash a rain of fire on your enemies when you find yourself outnumbered and outgunned.
Something that needs to be noted is just how fantastic the in-game music is. I found myself bobbing my head as I fought my way through the waves of enemies, and none of the tracks I heard managed to become annoying in the slightest. That's rare in any game for me, as I usually find myself turning the music off after an hour or so.
The Smoke Clears...
As a whole, Mercenary Kings is a very well put together product. It has almost everything that a retro-esque shooter should have. You have your enemy variety, colorful environments, entertaining yet basic combat, and you even only have a certain amount of lives to fulfill each mission. So, why is it that this game falls slightly short of its mark?
Simply put, it's not the fault of the developers, but of the times that we live in. As gaming advances, more and more titles like this are being overlooked, and it's not because they're bad games at all. It's simply because most gamers aren't looking for something that we played when we were children, we keep looking ahead and to the advances in technology, and it takes more than a story and a crafting system to put a fresh coat of paint on the older style of games.
Despite this, games like Mercenary Kings still continue to do well in sales. They remind us enough of the 'good old days' to suck us in for at least a short amount of time. The replay value for Mercenary Kings isn't great, but for that initial ride it's been a great throwback to my childhood. While the developers may have missed their overall mark of mixing retro style with a story and a crafting system, what they did manage to pull off was the core game itself. That's more than I could ask for in an era where it's rare to find a game that is worth your time.
Frantic arcade style action, a great callback to early 1990's gaming. Easily a good way to kill a few hours.
The story presented feels like it's trying too hard to be funny and relevant. Crafting isn't prominent enough to feel like it's necessary to the game.