Tuesday, July 4, 2017

An All-American Tribute to MERCS!

Looking for a most-excellent way to celebrate July the Fourth?  There may not be a more American way to honor the holiday than firing up this nearly 30-year-old Capcom arcade killfest ... and here's the proof.

By: Jimbo X

Although it may seem odd to celebrate America's founding by paying homage to a nearly 30-year-old video game designed by the Japs, if you've ever actually played Mercs, you already know the classic Capcom coin-op is pretty much the most American thing ever invented that isn't actually American. 

Do you think all of those Japanese game designers in the 1980s secretly wanted to be Americans just like you and me? Go ahead, take a gander at the panoply of arcade classics - Final Fight, Contra, Double Dragon, Rush'n Attack ... all games where the main character wasn't some pencil thin rice eater, but some musclebound, wide-eyed Caucasoid-American death machine. For fuck's sake, those programmers admired the Americans so much that when it came time to make a game about the Battle of Midway, they chose to let you play as the people who royally fucked up Japan instead of the people who were trying to defend it.

So even in the heat of battle, you're never too far 
away from Fred Flintstone food.
In that, Mercs may represent the absolute apex of Japanese game developers' obsession with testosterone-addled Americanism. Originally released in arcades in 1990, the game - which was a sequel to the 1985 coin-op Commando - came out right when the roided-up, Ruskie-hating awesomeness of the Reagan Years was being supplanted by the sad-sack, self-loathing not-so-awesomeness of the Clinton Years. In ten years' time, the unrepentant masculinity of Ah-nold and Rambo would be a thing of the past, and the era of the effeminate and effete - why, hello there Keanu Reeves! - would become the archetype for action heroes across all forms of media, video games included. That makes Mercs something of a last hurrah for the muscular, hyper-violent manliness of '80s gaming, and to say it goes out with a bang isn't just an understatement, it's ... well, a really big understatement, I suppose.

Mercs was one of those games that kinda sorta fell through the cracks back in the day. It came out in that weird coin-op dead zone period between Final Fight and Street Fighter II, and since Robotron and Smash TV style kill-a-thons were starting to get passe, I suppose it makes sense that it was relatively forgotten by retro gaming enthusiasts. Although I played it and enjoyed it quite a few times in my youth, I really couldn't appreciate the game for its instant gratification genius until recently. Not only is this one of the greatest top-down arcade shooters ever, it might just be THE BEST top-down arcade shooter ever ... and trust me, that is some lofty praise, indeed.

There aren't a whole lot of retro arcade games I find myself emulating repeatedly, but Mercs, for whatever reason, is one of those rare titles I just have to play through a couple of times a year. Barely 20 minutes long, the game is perfect for pick-up and play, blast-the-shit-out-of-everything fun, and I can't tell you how many times I've killed time waiting for emails and virtual conferences to start by plowing through Mercs as fast as humanly possible. I'm hesitant to declare anything truly timeless, but if the game remains just as ass-kicking a quarter century down the road as it did when it was brand new, I reckon that's pretty dadgum close to being timeless, ain't it?

Let's start with the basics. Mercs is a game that allows up to three players simultaneously (and yes, each character has a different canonical name, but like you really give a fuck.) You've got one joystick with eight-way movement, one button that shoots and one button that detonates a screen-clearing bomb. And that, kids, is all there is to it. Each stage is littered with enemies, bullets and tons of shit that can be exploded real good. Pretty much everything in the game - from walls to crates to bamboo huts to enemy vehicles - can go boom, and the designers of the title have given you four distinct tools of mass destruction to tinker around with:

This is actually the game's idea of taking it easy on you.
The Assault Rifle - your standard all-purpose killing implement. Each shot fires off a steady stream of bright blue laser beams. A pretty good weapon for when there's a whole bunch of stuff onscreen you want to kill in one fell swoop.

The Shotgun - don't ask me why, but instead of firing buckshot, it fears big fat globs of green plasma. It's not as fast as the assault rifle, but its bullets cover a wider area. Good for up-close combat. 

The Flamethrower - hold down the "fire" button and you basically turn into an unstoppable death machine. This weapon incinerates all the enemies you encounter, but it doesn't really provide solid cover for your foes' bullets. A good offensive weapon, but it certainly leaves you vulnerable to attacks from the flank.

The Grenade Launcher - basically it fires fast, fat ass missiles. It's faster than the shotgun and does more damage than the assault rifle, but the timing between bullets sometimes leaves you open for a frontal attack. Great for taking down huge vehicles, but not the best for one-on-one firefights.

Throughout the game you can also pick up more smart bombs, and trust me, you will be needing as many of these fuckers as you can get your hands on. Pretty much every boss you encounter needs at least one hit from a smart bomb before you can bump it off, and there's usually at least one or two super heavy duty firefights in each stage before the boss fight where you will have to use up your precious explosives just to save your own rear-end. Thankfully, the game is pretty liberal with the power-ups, with ample cans of spinach and hamburgers all over the place to refill your health. You can also pick up some medals scattered about the playing field, too, but that's only to bump up your high score. And since this is a '90s game, like you give a shit about getting the high score on anything ... you just want to watch shit GO BOOM and GO BOOM often.

This game throws you into the thick of the action from the very first second of stage one. Literally the moment your character pops up there's already a billion dudes on screen trying to shoot your ass, and of course, there are ample power-ups scattered around the bamboo huts to even the odds. Following a rock slide, you cross a bridge and come nose-to-nose with the game's first boss enemy - an attack helicopter. Still have those insta-kill bombs? Good, because you're going to need them. Oddly enough, the entire level can be completed in less than a minute. That may seem like shitty game design at first, but just you wait - Capcom clearly wanted to lull you into a false sense of security, and good God almighty, do they ever crank shit up to 11 in stage 2.

Oh, the irony of napalming some motherfuckers in the
middle of a lake...
The second level begins in sort of a Bavarian-looking village. You get ambushed by some dudes in a Jeep, but wait a minute, what is this little development? That's right, amigos, 11 years before Halo THIS GAME gave you the ability to commandeer enemy weapons and blow da' fuck outta' everything you encounter. Of course, your ride won't last too long, since you're about to find yourself knee-deep in a battlefield glutted with tanks and snipers on patrol towers. So yeah, you pretty much have to use your bombs to escape, and once you do, it's time for a boss battle against an EVEN BIGGER TANK. At this point, even the most hardcore of gamers have already dumped about six quarters into the machine, and trust me, there's going to be a whole hell of a lot more coinage getting plunked in stage 3. 

Interestingly, every stage in the game is twice as long as the one before it. Here, you make your way aboard a naval destroyer, complete with stationary turrets you can man to kill, kill and then kill some more. After monkeying around on some moving platforms, you have a boss fight with a huge ass fighter jet that takes roughly 41,000 shots to kill. Odds are, you're going to die five or six times before you finish off this fucker, so you better have that change purse preemptively pried open.

Stage four starts off in a lagoon, and here you finally get to play around with the flamethrower ( and take it from a retro gaming pro - incinerating foes with this sucker is every bit as enjoyable as charging up the Blue Bomber's arm cannon in Mega Man 4 and blasting a Volvo-sized hole in whatever Robo-Fucker had the misfortune of standing in your way.) There's a new vehicle introduced (a boat) and the final boss fight is against, well, an even bigger boat that has an impossible number of guns on it. Estimated number of quarters you will need to vanquish it: four dollars' worth.

One of the less intense moments from Mercs.
Stage five takes you back to the Bavarian village, but now YOU are the one that gets to operate a huge freakin' tank (at one point, you even engage in a tank on tank dogfight, which yeah, I figger is scientifically impossible for the human player to win.) Thankfully, there are ample opportunities to jack some Jeeps later on, and you won't have to wait too long to get your flamethrower back. After dodging some technically impossible to dodge landmines, you're asked to blow up a wall and enter a mysterious elevator shaft, which - naturally - puts you on a railroad to do battle with a giant train end-boss that is literally made up of nothing but impossibly huge guns. Jeez - you think the bad guys in this game are trying to cover up for some genetic shortcomings or something? 

In stage six, you begin by breaking into the enemy stronghold (oddly enough, the game never tells you the nationality of the bad guys, so I'm just going to take a wild guess and assume it's the Germans fucking things up, like always.) You take a trolley ride where you have to blow up these giant robotic tendrils, then you go down a couple of corridors (almost all of which are metal grated bridges hovering over bottomless pits) and blast holes in walls and make a whole lot of dudes die. Then you blow up some more tanks and fighter jets and then you have another boss fight against a giant gun with about seventy smaller guns welded onto it. Yeah, it may be a little redundant, but come on - there's only so much originality you expect out of an early '90s 2D shooter, isn't there?

After that we get a bulletin saying the leader of the Revolutionary Corps. has taken the "former President" hostage in an attempt to flee the country. What does that mean for you, Joe Q. Button Masher? Well, it means we've got ourselves one more boss battle, this time against a giant plane that spans about three full screens and has about 100 different turrets on it. After making it go kablooey, we get a cutscene in which all three color-coded Mercs rescue the former prez (he's white, thin and grey-headed, so maybe he's a stand-in for Ronnie Reagan), and then the screen fades to sepia as text crawls letting us know that while the former POTUS is safe and sound, no official information on the Mercs' top-secret mission was ever published. Then it's time to roll the end credits, as the silhouettes of our three heroes on Jeeps cruise across a giant, Grand Canyon-like background on a loop (which, from my perspective, may be meant to depict the mountains of Afghanistan, but I could be wrong) while oddly soothing music plays in the background. And that, lads and lasses, is all she wrote.

So yeah, you can blast through Mercs in about 20 minutes, but that's hardly a slight against the game. Even now, I consider it one of the best top down 2D shooters of all-time; in fact, I'd put it neck and neck with the supremely underrated Guerrilla War as the frontrunners for the best two-dimensional, God's-eye-view shoot-a-thons ever.

Even now I can't really put a finger on what exactly makes Mercs so awesome. Maybe it's the non-stop action, or maybe it's the bare-bones, ultra-twitch gameplay. Either way, it's a game that totally outdoes Robotron, Smash TV and Total Carnage in the two-dimensional blast-a-rama department, and if you haven't played it, for goddamn, motherfuckin' shame

Beyond the arcade iteration, Mercs was ported to the Sega Genesis, but for some reason, it lost the co-op mode. That said, it's still a damn fine shrunken down version of the game made a million times more awesome by the inclusion of an all new "mission" mode which, effectively, represents a full-fledged, totally all-new, built-from-the-ground-up game. The version that made it to the Master System, however, is pretty disappointing, with crappy sprites and really unwieldy controls. Still, it's probably worth playing through at least once, maybe even twice if you're on some really good drugs. And I'd probably be remiss if I didn't bring up the 2008 Xbox Live spiritual sequel Wolf of the Battlefield: Commando 3, which I've never played but judging from the videos on YouTube, looks decent enough, I suppose.

So here, on the birthday of America (and by proxy, the de facto birthday of freedom, liberty and the right to be as fat as you want), I honestly can't think of a more fitting way to celebrate the Fourth than by cramming a grilled tofu dog down your gullet (with the extra spicy golden mustard, of course), cracking open an ice cold off-brand soda and blasting through Mercs as fast as humanly possible, preferably while Manowar's version of "An American Trilogy" blares at full volume in the background.

Which, come to think of it, might just be the best way to celebrate ALL holidays moving forward, in my humblest o' opinions...


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