Mercenary Kings – PAXtravaganza 2013!

Mercenary Kings Logo

Is Mercenary Kings a SNK rip-off? I’d call myself a rather large fan of SNK. For those not familiar with the arcade scene, SNK created the Neo Geo arcade system, a revolutionary idea at the time to release a home console and an arcade board simulatenously with the exact same capabilities. Of course, the system for the home market came at an exorbitant cost, but arcade operators loved the Multi-Video System Neo Geo cabinets because they could swap carts for the system at will. Most of them would require you to buy an entirely new cabinet, yet SNK simplified the process and made lots of money as a result.

SNK became responsible not only for hardware innovation, but software innovation as well. Their reams of fighting games, shooters, side-scrolling beat’em ups and puzzle games transformed the market. Although they competed with Capcom for a share of the fighting game pie, they created tons of franchises and even had some hits. Samurai Shodown became popular for its more patient and less combo-focused take on the genre, while Fatal Fury and King of Fighters established increasing competition to Capcom’s Street Fighter series. SNK even took up other genres that, during the late 90s, basically disappeared, providing us with some of the most intense run and gun experiences on an arcade machine.

Enter Metal Slug. Taking Contra to new heights, Metal Slug recast the serious “war” setting into a fun and cartoonish locale. As well, it threw enemies at you in unbelievable numbers, forcing lots of thinking and spatial awareness as the situation changes; it’s a hard series of games, and with all the animated explosions happening (which look amazing, unsurprisingly), you’ll not be wasting your time playing its hyperkinectic brand of arcade action.

Tribute looks to recreate this same style through their new title Mercenary Kings. Tribute Games, an indie game company located in Montreal, seeks to create a game in the same vein. Now, you’ve no doubt heard the myriad comparisons to Metal Slug, and while there’s an aesthetic similarity here, I don’t think this is all that favorable to Mercenary Kings as a whole. Sure, in both games everyone IS a mercenary in some respect, but there’s definitely a different vibe in Metal Slug. MS gives us a much more violent setting, for one; you can shank soldiers with a knife, and appropriate animated bleed effects pop out (probably in the Japanese version for the most part, but relevant enough here). The first game don’t involve much, if any, of the crazy UFO/sci-fi/supernatural stuff that later games milk to the fullest. And, just by a cursory look at the trailer, you can compare and see the pacing’s not even close. Maybe with four player co-op it will change, but I think it hearkens more to the constant stream of sidescrolling shooters released on the SNES in the early 1990s than Metal Slug. Aesthetically, yes; game-wise, no.

So let’s do a little video comparison, shall we? Here’s the original reveal trailer footage:

And then the four player co-op:

And let’s compare this to Metal Slug:

Clearly, there’s a different set of influences at work here. If we make the wrong comparisons, we’re bound to find ourselves disappointed with the main product in question, so let’s avoid doing it. So what is a good comparison, you might ask? I would say Turrican. And what is a Turrican? One of the most popular and notable Commodore 64 games of all time, of course! I’m assuming that most of my audience comes from the United States, so allow a little European flavor in here. Turrican came from the mind of Manfred Trenz, a German computer programmer mostly known for the Super Mario Bros. ripoff Giana Sisters, as well as other games that required legal action on the part of Japanese companies because the clones were so close to the original. Turrican combined two different styles – Metroid and Contra – and put them together. From one end, we get the sprawling and non-linear levels of a Metroid game; just take a look at the trailers, and you’ll see that Mercenary Kings doesn’t bother with fixed scrolling and lets you explore around the area. On the other hand, you’ve got Contra-esque action which requires keen and steady nerves, and maybe a little dexterity to aim correctly. To give you a taste:

Now THAT looks a lot more like Mercenary Kings, correct? Not only does Tribute’s latest retain that same vibe, but it also tries for the slower exploratory segments more than the constant high-octane action of Metal Slug. It gives us long, open levels with challenging bosses at the end to test our skills. Of course, there’s modern-day buildings and cities instead of creepy alien creatures on a foreign world, but the game looks remarkably similar to the style of Turrican, especially with the platforming. Given Tribute’s location in Montreal, it’s not at all surprisingly that European tastes made their way to the French-speaking Quebec.

Of course, their game adds other elements from “modern games”, not the least of which is the gun customization system. We can just call it crafting for the sake of this article, and leave it at that; I imagine each one requires searching for items, grinding them out through enemy kills, or simply finding them somewhere. As well, there’s the hint of “rpg elements” wherein you buy upgrades, equip new body armor, and buy knives. So, and this is my intuition talking, it appears that gun customization will determine the game’s challenges from the get-go; you’ll bottleneck based on the supplies you have, and craft a gun accordingly. Then, you’ll go and finish the boss. I can’t imagine anyone passing up a military-themed sidescroller with platforming, gun crafting, and exploration. I just hope they can make it as excellent as their (guessed) inspirations.

Tribute made a fine game before this, Wizorb, that convincingly took the Breakout/Arkanoid model and turned it into a blisteringly difficult RPG hybrid (in spots, anyway). You’re a wizard, you talk to townspeople and do all those traditional JRPG things, but the meat of the game come from Breakout-style levels. I’ve enjoyed Wizorb because it adds elements to the basic formula (bounce ball on bricks, don’t lose ball), and these elements enhance the framework. For example, one of the perpetual problems of that genre comes from hitting that LAST LITTLE BIT OF THE STAGE WHILE WILL THESE PHYSICS NOT LET ME HIT IT OH NO GAME OVER. That tends to wear on your mind after a while. Wizorb gives you skilled-based magic to take out the guesswork. Need to move the ball left or right? Use wind! Need to just blow up something on the stage? Use fireballs! That blocks, chests, and enemies drop potions and RPG currency (for progressing in the game) integrates all the elements together. I especially like that each “world” acts like a continuous arcade experience – lose your lives, and end up at the start. Some lament that it’s too slow, but I really like Wizorb’s take on this very specific game type.

This gives me hope for Mercenary Kings and its weird style. It’s not so much a “modern version” of Metal Slug (sans the Active Reload stolen wholesale from Gears of War, but that’s a different discussion for a different day) as it is a new version of Turrican/Metroid games in a different aesthetic setting with the artwork of Paul Robertson (of Scott Pilgrim video game fame) thrown in for good measure. Perhaps I’m the only one concerned with this specific misperception, but I think it warrants discussion. I want Mercenary Kings to succeed on its own merits, rather than being compared to an SNK classic, unfairly AND inaccurately.

Let us take heed of I Samuel 16, then, when making note of judging by appearance or seeming aesthetics alone:

The Lord said to Samuel, “How long will you grieve over Saul, since I have rejected him from being king over Israel? Fill your horn with oil, and go. I will send you to Jesse the Bethlehemite, for I have provided for myself a king among his sons.” And Samuel said, “How can I go? If Saul hears it, he will kill me.” And the Lord said, “Take a heifer with you and say, ‘I have come to sacrifice to the Lord.’ And invite Jesse to the sacrifice, and I will show you what you shall do. And you shall anoint for me him whom I declare to you.” Samuel did what the Lord commanded and came to Bethlehem. The elders of the city came to meet him trembling and said, “Do you come peaceably?” And he said, “Peaceably; I have come to sacrifice to the Lord. Consecrate yourselves, and come with me to the sacrifice.” And he consecrated Jesse and his sons and invited them to the sacrifice.

When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.” But the Lord said to Samuel, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.”

To know someone is to know them, not how they look. To know a video game is to play, not merely watch it. So it is in video games, so it is in real life.

About Zachery Oliver

Zachery Oliver, MTS, is the lead writer for Theology Gaming, a blog focused on the integration of games and theological issues. He can be reached at viewtifulzfo at gmail dot com or on Theology Gaming’s Facebook Page.