With the recent influx of indie developed games, classic 8-bit and 16-bit creations have been making a resurgence. While side scrollers have never gone out of style it’s been a while since I can remember seeing something that closely resembled the Neo-Geo classic, Metal Slug. This is where Mercenary Kings comes in. It’s a fast-paced and rewarding side scrolling action platformer with deeply embedded RPG and collectable elements. Borrowing from a variety of sources for inspiration, the game combines loot hunting with cool customizability creating a game that had me engrossed with its smooth controls and wonderful art design. The unforgiving difficulty may be a bit steep, but it’s not as bad as it seems, and it’s surprisingly rewarding, offering players like myself a much needed change of pace over the hand-holding that we’ve grown used to with the majority of current triple-A offerings. Though I faced my fair share of frustrating moments there’s something about this game’s nostalgic charm that kept me coming back.
Graphically the game evoked a sense of fond remembrance as its classic design palate and absorbing color scheme walked me down memory lane. I felt a warm and fuzzy feeling as I recalled my early days of spending my allowance at the local arcade, blasting away at pixelated enemies. Mercenary Kings is perfect at what it sets out to do graphically. Its background art and level design is bright and vibrant, riddled with quirky enemies that clearly communicate their attack types inherently within the character design. The animations–especially the enemy deaths–very closely represent that of Metal Slug. The game ties it all up in an endearing fashion, an ode of sorts, rather than coming across as an attempt to plagiarize due to a lack of originality. Mercenary Kings, even at a glance, closely resembles side scrolling games of old. In fact, people that just brush by it might mistake it for a classic title because of its keen attention to retro-fitted detail.
The game’s player-controlled characters move and behave just like their previous pixel infused counterparts, and all the game’s elements (including menus and layouts) feel like they were ripped straight out of the nineties. The gunplay might take some getting used to, but after a while my reflexes improved and the old school cheese mentality started flooding back to me. Jumping mechanics are precise and require a level-head at points, but overall I found the game to be very fair when it came to controls. My one quip is the fact that there’s no diagonal aiming. It all revolves completely around an X and Y axis. The incorporation of a Z axis would’ve allowed for more precision and less frustrating jump-and-shoot-while-avoiding-incoming-missiles-and-hoping-for-the-best mechanics, but as you get used to the style of game play this becomes less and less of a problem. Mercenary Kings also supports both local and online co-op with up to four people, making this a must have for fans of games like Castle Crashers, that enjoy sitting around in the same room with friends.
Customizability is a huge part of Mercenary Kings’ integral gameplay. In fact, part of the game’s charm is designing and modifying your own weapons. Want a sniper rifle with a huge clip? Go for it. Want a pistol that only has 4 shots but does massive damage? Do it! The game can be customized to your play style and allows for a wealth of options to keep it from seeming monotonous. The loot system compliments the game’s crafting system as well, offering players a fun loot grind in addition to the standard action gameplay. Killing enemies has a chance to reward you with various crafting materials that can be assembled into weapons or weapon parts. The more powerful the weapons, the rarer the materials needed to craft them. It’s all pretty standard, but when paired with this kind of gameplay it spices up the already outstanding replayability considerably.
Mercenary Kings pretty much wiped the floor with me initially, but after a while enemies and their nuances become apparent, allowing me to predict enemy movements and reactions more and more efficiently as time went on. After a while I realized that the game actually wasn’t that difficult. In fact, the problem lies within its stark contrast to the design of modern titles. There’s no health regeneration, spawn points are sparse and dying is a punishment that is frustrating but fair. Enemies respawn immediately once they’re out of your window’s view, which I’ll admit seemed a bit silly and took some significant getting used to, but once you grow comfortable with the way they should be approached this design choice becomes less tedious.
So, that leaves us with the big question: is Mercenary Kings worth your money? Well, considering it’s free for PlayStation Plus subscribers, I’d say it’s an amazing deal. But, if you’re one of those few that hasn’t hopped on the Plus bandwagon then its $19.99 asking price is still more than fair. It’s a fun experience that has fantastic co-op potential and is a total blast to play for a quick jaunt by yourself or for hours on end with your friends. Developer Tribute Games really knocked it out of the park with this perfect blend of challenge and silly fun, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to all who want to revisit the glory days.