I never poured quarters in a Neo/Geo machine for “Metal Slug” action in the 1990s. I was always too busy playing the “Ninja Turtles” arcade game a few cabinets down.
But the Konami Code is etched in my memory forever from bouts of “Contra” on the Nintendo Entertainment System, and the side-scrolling platformer has always been a favorite of mine.
Enter “Mercenary Kings,” the love song to “Metal Slug” and the old-style shoot ’em ups. Developer Tribute Games, makers of the beloved “ Scott Pilgrim vs. The World RPG,” have lovingly recreated what gamers loved about those titles, while also carrying over the baggage that can make them frustrating slogs at times.
The game’s oh-so-good retro soundtrack is on display from the loading screen, welcoming you to the action with an explosion and guttural “Mercenary Kings!” that will warm the cockles of your heart every time you log in. From there, you pick a male or female character model and jump right into the thick of the story with up to three friends in couch co-op. Internet co-op play is available, but a bit confusing to launch.
The ridiculous plot, introducing you to over-the-top characters like a coffee-addicted general and a sentient helicopter, is really just a means to the satisfying end of gunplay in the title. Retro sound effects can be grating at times but generally serve their purpose. Though the game leans heavily on its 16-bit forebears, the art style – like in “Scott Pilgrim” – is charming and will grow on you during the 10-plus hour campaign.
What won’t grow on you is the need for backtracking and the maddening migration of stage bosses. You’ll wear out a giant mechanized foe (evidenced by the genre’s must-have flashing-red cue), then stand by helplessly as it retreats to another part of the game’s relatively few maps. All the stages take place in the same (approximately) eight environments, which means you’ll become bored with the scenery rather quickly as you work to complete the title’s 112 main story missions.
The monotony is offset somewhat by the ability to completely design your weapon. Want a shotgun-style firearm that delivers devastating, icy blows but long reload times? Go right ahead. Prefer a fiery machine gun with a barrel that resembles a beehive? You can do that, too. You’ll earn cold-hard cash in each mission that can be spent on weapon and cosmetic player upgrades that mince enemies more quickly (in glorifyingly gory ways) and build toward trophies. There’s also an in-game resource system that allows you to unlock more weapon types and accessories for your character.
While it won’t suck your time like “ Destiny” or “Grand Theft Auto V,” “Mercenary Kings” is an excellent complement to an early-adopting PS4 gamer’s library if only because it offers one of the console’s few satisfying couch co-op experiences.
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