Friday 26 June 2015

Mercs for the Sega MegaDrive/Genesis

This is like writing about a piece of my childhood. Mercs was acquired around Christmas time 1991 and cost forty of my pounds from In Toto, a long-disappeared indie computer shop in Derby. And, good grief, wasn't this game played to death. Every difficulty, every type of weapon, every secret, the whole bloody thing was mastered again, and again, and again. I would note with satisfaction how my high scores crapped all over those printed in the likes of C&VG and Mean Machines. Every now and then I would return for a quick blast long after I'd more or less stopped playing games. And, unsurprisingly, when I disinterred my MegaDrive from the spare room's digital graveyard a few short years ago, Mercs was one of the first cartridges slammed into the slot.

Mercs was a Capcom coin-op released to arcades in 1990. As the follow up to the classic Commando, it kept to the formula of a lone soldier marching up the screen and shooting all-comers. Albeit with some contemporary touches. Up to three players could dive into the action simultaneously. There were power-ups and different weapons dotted about the game in destructible crates, and each level climaxed in a face off with the customary boss. Mercs was very well received, did quite well and received home conversions to most computer formats. Sega snagged the console rights and subsequently released the game for the Master System and MegaDrive. The latter, of course, being the best version by some distance.

While lacking the multiplayer options of its arcade parent, MegaDrive Mercs is a superlative product. The game is faithfully replicated within the the machine's technical confines. The bosses are as big 'n' beefy. The animations are all present and correct, including the satisfying fiery deaths when enemy soldiers are touched by your flame thrower. And, if anything, the music is slightly better with a greater range of tunes. The gameplay is the same too. Just waltz up the screen, shoot people, collect power ups, weapons, and health - what could be simpler. Except Mercs allows you to commandeer enemy vehicles. Jeeps, motorised dinghies, gun emplacements, even a tank can be seized hold of and turned against their owners. Thought Halo was the first to do this, eh?

The arcade game is a straightforward, mindless reflex-fest. It doesn't take too long to beat, especially if one can't avoid the temptation of using the generous number of continues. In all an average run-through takes about 25 minutes, and so it's good to return to if you fancy a short-lived but satisfying blast. That said, £40 for such a game 20-odd years ago is a touch steep. However, Sega avoided this problem by including a totally unique and exclusive iteration of the game on the same cart. The 'Original Game' has you soldiering your way up the screen, but with something of a different pace. Here the emphasis is on methodical progression as power ups and other goodies are often hidden off screen, or tucked away in secret places. You also collect medals and these double up as currency that can be traded in for nice things in the shops that appear halfway through each level. And, more interestingly, rather than picking up different types of weapons you collect other mercenaries. Each have their own unique weapon, two of which - laser and homing missiles - don't appear in the arcade game. Getting yourself through various situations means making strategic use of your men, and deciding who should receive what power up. Your men can be killed off too (though are able to be revived via expensive elixirs available at the shop), giving you incentive to master each one. And this game is much harder than the arcade version. No continues for starters, and the enemies are more vicious. Enemy bullets have a longer range. Baddies are handier lobbing grenades. Rocket launchers fire poison gas. Bosses are tougher. And there are no continues. It would probably be fair to say the arcade mode acts as a trainer for this - it took me much longer to crack all those years ago.

In all, a superb game. But as with nearly all games, there are some interesting readings to be made. The first are the in-game plots. In arcade mode you're secretly tasked by the US government to rescue the ex-President (on the boxes of the computer conversions, he bore a passing resemblance to Ronald Reagan) who's been abducted following an attempt to broker peace in a fictional African country by the name of Zutura. In original mode it's come to the attention of the US government that the rogue Caribbean island of Quira has acquired the capacity to build intercontinental ballistic missiles, and is feverishly assembling such a stockpile. The Merc has to go in and destroy their capability. Two things here. The first is the acceptance that the US has the divine right to intervene where it sees fit, thereby naturalising it. The second is that despite the action taking place in Africa and the Caribbean respectively, all of the enemy soldiers are white. There was no suggestion the two fictional states featured were stand-ins for South Africa and Cuba. An early attempt by Capcom and Sega to avoid provoking a racial controversy? Or, as is more likely, a reflection of the fact black people were virtually invisible in Japanese culture at the turn of the 80s?

Another thing Mercs accomplishes wonderfully is to concentrate superhuman attributes and effortlessly confer them onto the player, as per the neoliberal cult of the individual. In this game specifically, you are a muscle-bound aryan monster who, unlike your predecessor character in the original Commando, can soak up the bullets and the explosions. This marks you out from the thousands of enemy soldiers you encounter. All it takes is a mere brush of your weapon to see them off. So in the on-screen action, your attributes differ from the faceless mass you're warring against, it's your superhuman individuality that allows you to progress regardless of what the enemy throws at you. Of course, it's a common enough game mechanic that renders action games enjoyable and challenging, not impossible experiences. Getting through Mercs without taking damage would require a lot of practice. Yet what it can confer/reinforce is the neoliberal commonsense that you, as an absolutely unique individual, find your special qualities reflected and positioned in the character you're controlling. In this case you're a pumped up military strong man, but it can apply to virtually any other action game that has ever been created. And, of course, as such an individual you naturally fight under the colours of the United States, the ideological champion of such things.

As a teen dosed up on Hollywood militaria, post-apocalyptic science fiction, and the quatrains of Nostradamus, I concocted my own cringe-worthy narrative that played in my head alongside the on-screen action. It involved, basically, a genetically modified super soldier I had sent into battle against the forces of evil. Through that hokey fantasy, my own agency as someone who could impose their will on the world was affirmed.

Or perhaps my chin-stroking musings in 2015 are reading too much into it.

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