If you played games in the late 80's and 90's, Mercenary Kings will blast you in the face with hollow-tipped nostalgia bullets. It's an era-authentic shooter that takes its styling and action cues from some of the greatest run-and-gun platformers of all time - like Metal Slug and Contra. Yet while superficially looking like it should be playing from an AES cartridge stuck into the top of a Neo Geo, Mercenary Kings adds layers of depth and sophistication, ensuring its old-school facade is the gateway to new-school action.
When I first parked my butt in front of the game, my immediate expectation was that I would be running to the right in traditional arcade fashion, joyously murdering all and sundry with whatever weapons I happened to pick up along the way. But what wasn't the case. Instead, I found myself running around an eight-way scrolling environment joyously murdering all and sundry. Similar in some respects to the original Bionic Commando arcade game that's also of Mercenary Kings' faux-era.
But the game had yet another surprise up its sleeve. Mercenary Kings also has a soupcon of Metroidvania delicately stirred in. The linear levels you'd normally expect to sequentially work through in a typical platform shooter are actually areas where missions take place - which start from a central hub that's basically an RPG style inn masquerading as a stylized, pixelated mini-military base. From here, the player can choose which mission they'd like to try, and success is rewarded with money, materials, and rank points. The latter is essentially a leveling system that enables players to tackle increasingly tougher, but more rewarding tasks. The former two items underpin a customization system in which new weapons and player augments can be bought and created.
This is the layer of sophistication I was referring to earlier. The game plays out like an authentic run-and-gunner, but its non-linear missions and character customizations elevate it from its traditional old-school roots to something that plays out in a far more contemporary fashion. Even if its absolutely gorgeous pixel art is telling your eyes otherwise.
This framework certainly has all the makings of a classic retro game, but unfortunately not all is good. Right out of the gate, I just didn't particularly like the feel of the character's jump and movement. This is nitpicking to the nth degree, but when it comes to the feel of platform games, I am a brutal nitpicker. In Mercenary Kings' case, the main character doesn't have enough weight, and doesn't move fluidly. Jumping feels mathematical, not gravitational. The result is a character that feels stiff and linear, and consequently doesn't deliver much in the way of visual feedback to the player. It certainly doesn't make the game in any way unplayable, and you get used to it quickly enough. But it just doesn't have that involving "feel" that makes truly great platform game characters like Super Mario so rewarding and enjoyable to play.
Mercenary Kings' mission structure adds a novel twist to the arcade action, and lets you tackle things in the way that you want. You can have a quick go and walk away feeling satisfied, or you can sit down and go on a campaign spanning many missions. However, either way you play, the proceedings do become somewhat repetitive and predictable after a while. There are plenty of different missions and types, but many of them feel like minor iterations of others, almost like they're padding the game out to make it feel bigger. The boss battles, though, are terrific. Almost all are exciting set pieces that will elicit creaks and groans from your increasingly tightly held controller as you fight your way through them.
Like its missions, Mercenary Kings' customization aspects also feel somewhat stretched out. The game packs plenty of action and comes across as immediate and arcadey, so it seems a little incongruous to have to spend time grinding for specific bits and pieces to make whatever it is you want to make. This is a shame, as some of the weapons and items you can build are entertainingly inventive. I'd prefer to see a little more focus on giving the player more toys to play with, rather than them having to play more to gather gear to make those toys. I don't mind working for a reward, but when you combine this aspect with the somewhat repetitive nature of the missions, the specter of tedium begins to loom.
The multiplayer mode does take the edge off this somewhat. Players can split up and go their separate ways when tackling a level, and all items acquired are shared amongst the team. This helps speed up the acquisition of items considerably. Having some additional players along for the ride also makes the game much easier, especially since the team's cooperative arsenal can help lay waste to advanced mission enemies for more quickly than if you tackled them on your own. Multiplayer is definitely where Mercenary King is at is strongest - especially when you're playing side by side on a couch (or are playing with friends and can chat).
Ultimately, Mercenary Kings has everything it needs to be a truly brilliant game, but it doesn't quite come together to be a true classic. It's very close, but it just needs to be tightened up a little. Sometimes less is more, and in the case of this game, fewer levels with more variety, and compressing the time and effort required to customize and build items might have made it a little more rewarding to play. That might sacrifice its longer-term appeal, but I'd much prefer to have a shorter, absolutely top-notch experience than a longer one where you just feel like you're having to over-play the game to get the most out of it.
It's still tremendous fun, though. It looks wonderful, features an absolutely knockout soundtrack, is presented in an enjoyably humorous, utterly silly 90's style, and certainly delivers on the action and excitement. I think many who grew up playing through the period Mercenary Kings mimics will really enjoy what it has to offer, and the even harder-core players who love games like Metal Slug might not even notice the game's more repetitive aspects. I just wish I were one of them.