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Monday, January 26, 2009


MERCS is a Commando-style “run and gun” shoot-em-up from 1990, released in the arcades on Capcom’s CPS-1 hardware: the hardware behind some slightly better-known arcade hits such as Strider and Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts. It has a thoroughly ridiculous premise: a band of African terrorists (who, bizarrely, are all white, and have heavier weapons than most regular armies) have captured the former US president and are holding him hostage to facilitate their takeover of the fictional African nation of Zutula (which has a strange amount of medieval European style houses). This is a plain and simple excuse for you to wade in with your lone mercenary gunman and mount a very bloodthirsty rescue mission …

MERCS Sega Master System
MERCS was ported to many platforms, including an arcade perfect version for the Sega Saturn. Here is what the site Hardcore Gaming 101 (viewed 26/01/09) has to say of the Master System version:

“The Sega Master System version isn't bad, but it's most certainly inferior to the arcade game. The gameplay is reasonably close to accurate, but it looks pretty poor.”


Here, I feel a need to contradict …


As someone who has played through an arcade-perfect version and the SMS version, I can honestly (and obviously) state that the SMS version is significantly cut down. The highly organic and detailed backdrops have been simplified in order to fit all the levels into the reduced memory, sprite animation has been cut (the main sprite, for example, now shuffles rather than runs), and very complex and large sprite effects (such as level 4’s tank ride) are missing altogether.

Judging these as 8-bit graphics, however, and comparing them to other 8-bit versions of MERCS as well as other games in the genre (such as any version of Commando), they are still very good indeed, and preserve the original settings. Large background elements, such as the houses, planes in the airfield, and the static (but intimidating) tanks, are impressively detailed.

mercs sms 8-bitThe huge bosses are particularly impressive, and comparable in terms of graphic detail to the arcade versions, though their attacks have been simplified. This is a necessity, as they are rendered as large movable backdrops with sprites only used to represent their moving parts and weak points (A resource-saving technique also used to great effect in the SMS version of Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts). Even so, though they are easier than their arcade counterparts, they still provide a dramatic and satisfying conclusion to each level. Level 5’s “battle train”, though of questionable military value (how hard would it be to blow up the track in front of it?), is probably the highlight: an enormous, multi-screen boss that no-one would have thought possible on a 8-bit system, and with its arcade attacks very accurately depicted.

The intro and end sequences from the arcade are also present, with only small amounts of animation (and parallax effects) cut out. The detail on the cliffs at the end sequence is almost photographic, albeit repetitive (but so it was on the arcade).

In spite of the in-game animation cuts, and some rather weedy explosions, there are also some neat animation effects such as the enemy flamethrower death, the wading in the swamp, level 4’s waterfalls, the jeep and boat rides, the missile shadows in the battle with the warship, and the (slightly blocky but still satisfying) smart bomb explosion.

95% (It may seem a little extreme to some, but I can find very little fault with these, judged as 8-bit graphics. They are a triumph of resource-management, capture the essence of the arcade game, and do in fact provide some jaw-dropping moments.)


No in-game music except for a short riff before the bosses, which is an annoyance. There is title screen music, end sequence music, and a between-level fanfare. These are passable imitations of the arcade tunes, but during the game you will only get functional sound effects (and the “pop” of your standard gun is nothing special).

A few points are won back, however, for the boss sequences, which try to provide appropriate noises including a jet engine whine for the harrier and the clatter of wheels on the track for the train. Unfortunately, the tank and warship both get an undistinguished low rumble. There is also a nice (if unamazing) rushing water sound effect for the waterfalls in level 4.

50% (Definitely the weakest aspect.)


The game is fast-paced, driven by a tight (but fair) time limit and with a constant stream of enemies that gives you limited time to stop and think. Even so, if you know the arcade game you will inevitably notice that many of the enemy types are missing from this version, including the motorbikes, enemy jeeps, sniper towers, rocket launcher soldiers, frogmen, and the soldiers who slide down the slopes in level 4. That still leaves the tanks and APCs, (they don’t move, but it makes little difference as they weren’t very mobile in the arcade version); gun emplacements; torpedo boats; mines; force fields; planes; and all of the bosses; but the bulk of attacking duties are handled by the standard enemy soldier. However, they do at least retain their grenade-throwing abilities.

Variety has, however, been preserved by sticking to the essential level designs (minus level 5’s tank ride, which would probably not have worked too well). The jeep ride and boat ride sequences provide nice distractions, and dodging artillery fire, navigating the deadly force fields (in level 6), and fighting the bosses, means that in spite of being an easier game than the arcade, it is not possible to wade through it without occasionally considering your strategy.

The arcade game, in fact, was extremely difficult, throwing so much flak at the player that it required vast amounts of continues in order to have a realistic chance of seeing the end. There are no continues in the Master System version, but it is eminently possible to finish the game on the one life given: perhaps a little too possible, but it is rather pleasing to have a version of this game that is winnable without “cheating”, and in which a single stray rocket or electrical blast does not mean instant (and very frustrating) death.

There is, sadly, no two-player mode, though this would probably have worked the game beyond the sprite capabilities of the SMS and led to unacceptable slowdown and flicker (not that this stopped Double Dragon or Bubble Bobble … ). There is, however, the full selection of weapons from the arcade, and all have their different merits (though I would recommend the green spread shot, as it takes a lot of stress out of aiming). The fact that the game is easier also means you can consider just upgrading the power of your normal rifle rather than replacing it with the flashier alternatives: not a risk worth taking in the arcade version (in which the best hope of survival was to get the flamethrower and hold onto it like grim death).

This is also one of the few versions of MERCS to use the whole of the playing area, rather than cluttering it up with score panels and displays. Your time, energy, and smart bombs are unobtrusively shown at the edges of the screen. Your score isn’t shown at all, for some reason (but if you should get a high-score, you’ll find out at victory or death).

80% (Very noticeable cuts, but still manages to be among the most adventurous and impressive run-and-gun games for an 8-bit system, easily beating its C64 counterpart or the much-loved but horribly frustrating Ikari Warriors. All criticisms aside, I actually quite like the fact that this game doesn’t make you sweat too hard to see the end sequence, while still managing to feel pretty tense and exciting. All in all, it doesn't compromise much more than the Amiga version does, and even does a few things - such as the jeep ride - rather better.)



Points off for having too few enemy types (if C64 Commando could handle a few motorcycles, surely this could have done) and no in-game music. But this is still an impressive conversion to 8-bit, and shows – along with Ghouls ‘n’ Ghosts – how the Master System could handle these seemingly impossible ports from the CPS-1 hardware. I only wish the same conversion team had been given the task of making the SMS version of Strider …


gnome said...

Another brilliant write-up! This time on a rather impressive game too. Excellent stuff Anthony!

Anthony Burns said...

You're always welcome. :) I seem to get defensive whenever I find a negative review of a Master System game that doesn't bother to take into account the system's limitations (of which I have seen a depressing amount, and likewise for most 8-bit systems).

gnome said...

Pah, that's nothing. You should see me defending the Atari Lynx version of Rampart and Raiden. Now, *that* is defensive. And slightly unnerving I guess. ;)

Anyway. I absolutely agree. A game's technical achievements have to be judged according to the platform it has been released on.