MetalFRO's Blog

Posted on Aug 8th 2021 at 08:00:00 AM by (MetalFRO)
Posted under Mercenary Force, Game Boy, game review, shmup, STG, shooter, shooting game, Meldac, Tenjin Kaisen

For some reason, Meldac decided the mercenaries
needed to look like firefighters.

In the early '80s, as Atari VCS/2600 units were flying off store shelves, a lot of companies jumped on the video game publishing bandwagon. The glut of terrible software in 1982 and early 1983 created a situation where too much supply met waning demand, and the North American video game market bubble burst. In reviving the market during the mid-late '80s, Nintendo was careful to try and exercise better control over publishers to ensure that the software met at least some bare minimum standard before it could be licensed for the console. While the rest of the world had no such "crash" regarding video game sales and their viability as a vertical market, a lot of Japanese companies tried their hand at video game publishing to expand their portfolio. Some flirted with the idea briefly; others went all in and managed to create another business line for themselves.

Meldac was sort of an example of the former, entering the video game market in 1990, and exiting promptly by 1994. The company was also a music publishing outfit, and when they decided to get out of the business of video games, they stuck to music publishing and have since worked with a number of notable artists. They published a small handful of video games via their North American division. Of those titles, one is a more mainstream title, that being US Championship V'Ball in 1989 on the NES. Their other notable NES game is the rather odd shooter Zombie Nation, which is getting a revival shortly thanks to Japanese publisher City Connection. They also published a pair of Game Boy titles, one of them being the very unique Mercenary Force, which was developed by Lenar and Live Planning.

This is how you do a title screen! Show me ninjas, samurai,
and monsters, and I'll press Start on that screen quickly.

The game has the usual setup, with a twist: instead of a ragtag group of mercenaries going off to fight aliens or military, your Shogun-era fighters must confront the myriad foes controlled by the "Dark Lord" to fend off their advance upon the Japanese countryside. Apparently, famine, plagues, and pestilence are not good things. Shogun Tokugawa has a vision of mighty warriors rising up against the evil, which is where you come in. You'll select from a batch of 5 mercenaries to team up and take on the minions of darkness and rid the land of their foul presence. You can select up to 4 of these fighters to join your squad.

At its core, this is a side-scrolling shoot-em-up, but with people walking along the ground instead of flying or piloting some kind of craft. Each mercenary has its own attack style, whether that's forward-firing in a diagonal fashion or vertical fire. Depending on how you approach a level, and where you feel you need coverage, will determine which mercs you choose and in what order. Do you opt for a lot of forward-firing team members to create a powerful frontal assault? Or do you mix and match, so you can have a wide-ranging attack? In this game, the choice is yours, and it's a big part of what sets this game apart from other shooters.

Choose your team members wisely - you have 5 choices,
but only 4 openings, and a limited amount of Yen to spend.

One of the interesting mechanics in the game is the ability to set up your team into 1 of 4 different formations. There's the Formation of the Wind, which is a loose cluster of people that will make up a diamond shape when you have a full team. Formation of the Forest is similar, but a tighter formation with more of a square shape, and your mercs closer together. Formation of the Fire creates a bit of a straight line on the horizontal, with the 2 members in the back stacked together so your formation resembles a flame. Formation of the Mountain puts your team into a vertical line, so you all walk along in a straight line and attack uniformly but have a lot of exposure to enemy fire. Which formation you use most frequently will depend on your playstyle somewhat, but generally speaking, you'll want to find a way to balance exposure to enemy attacks while maximizing your attack power, so a combo of formation choice along with fighters chosen and their order will help you determine that.

As you fight enemies, they'll drop 10 Yen coins you can collect. These don't stay on screen very long, so you need to be quick about grabbing them. This is a risk/reward scenario of course, because enemy waves often come together in groups, so as soon as you take out a small batch of foes, there's likely to be another just behind it. Merely touching an enemy means the team member who gets hit will take damage and lose a "strength" point for each contact. Likewise, getting hit by enemy projectiles will cause you to lose a point for each hit sustained. Obviously, care must be taken to balance how aggressive you are with collecting coins and how many hits you take, so you're not damaging yourself more than you can mitigate later.

Formation of the Wind gives you a balance of power and
size, but it does spread you out enough to make you more
susceptible to enemy attacks than tighter formations.

Along the way, you'll encounter shops in each town where you can power up a bit. You can buy Sushi, which restores a single strength point for each team member, Medicine, which restores 3 strength points for your leader, or Tea, which restores 3 strength points for all members. In a couple of the shops, you'll also have the opportunity to buy Scripture, which has a chance to upgrade your lead party member to a higher class. You'll also encounter a gambling game in stage 2 where you can take a chance and win a potential prize to be revealed later in the game. There are a couple spots where you can enter a shrine and be granted extra strength points for your team members to aid you on your journey. And once in the game, you'll encounter the Daibutsu, who you can pay to win a chance to resurrect a fallen warrior. The more you spend, the better your chance, though it's still a crapshoot since you have to choose a tile after paying. If you have the Mystic in your party, your odds will improve.

Control in the game is basic, but adequate. The B button changes the formation of your party, and A is your attack button. A also confirms your selection in the shops, and B will cancel out of a shop. As you move around the screen with the d-pad, your lead character will move fastest, and other characters will lag behind a bit, so be aware of that control quirk. Start pauses the game and starts the next round, after you decide whether or not you want to add another party member to your team. If you press A+B together, you'll activate a transformation where your lead party member will sacrifice themselves and become a "spirit warrior" version of themselves, which provides temporary invincibility as well as other benefits which vary by character, though the Servant has no such ability.

Tea is a great way to quickly boost your team's strength
points up to a high level, so you can take a lot of hits.

Graphically speaking, this is a fairly impressive game for its vintage. Your mercs are easy to identify, and enemy sprites are all fairly distinctive. Character designs on the selection screen are nice, and in-game, scenery is generally well rendered. There are a couple places where it's not obvious what you're looking at, but overall, everything looks nice. The shops aren't something I would have expected to be a shop, and I sort of stumbled across them by accident just by walking into one in the scenery. The shrines are more obvious, as is the Daibutsu. Occasionally, you'll get "stuck" on the scenery a bit, or one of your team members might, and their sprite might jitter a bit until clear of that obstacle, which is a funny consequence of the design. In general, this game looks pretty good throughout, even if the boss designs aren't quite as impressive as the drawings you see in the manual.

Audio is a place where the game falters, somewhat. Sound effects are fine and get the job done. The music is also solid, with a neat opening tune and a decent boss fight theme. The stage music is also good, but the problem is, there's not enough of it! There's one, and only one, stage song that plays during the whole game. Why the development team felt they could get by with that one theme is beyond me, but as far as I'm concerned, it's a pretty big oversight. The music is good and has that ancient Japanese kind of feel you want to help with the atmosphere of the game. But it sure would have been nice if they had given us more music, even if it was just 2 or 3 tracks that would alternate between the game's 6 stages. It would have gone a long way to making the experience less irritating by game's end.

I'm not entirely sure what a Razor Rat is, but this is apparently it.

One of the things that I found while exploring this game, and while we collectively played it for the RF Generation Shmup Club (shameless plug), is that the methodology the game is going for isn't necessarily the best approach. You have 4 slots to hire mercenaries, and the game expects you to do so given its design, but you're not required to. Rather, several of us found the most effective way to approach the game is a more minimalist take where we hire a single Ninja, or perhaps a Ninja and a Monk, so that you have a smaller footprint, and thus, a smaller overall "hit box" for the enemies to exploit. It means you'll probably collect less money, because you'll have to be far more aggressive in taking out enemies in some spots and way more conservative in others. As you go along, you may hire additional mercs to help, but until you get toward the end of the game, you really can do most, if not all, of the game with a single character. It makes the game feel a bit more like a traditional shmup, but of course, it takes away from the core mechanic that's at work here. Ultimately, the game can be taken on with a team and completed that way, but you'll have a fair bit of trial and error along the way as you learn which party members serve you best, and which formation(s) will be your best options.

I do have a few minor gripes. First, the game's scoring seems fairly broken. You can have 2 runs where you do roughly the same things, and your scores between the 2 won't really line up. In conjunction with that, the only time you see your score is while you're playing, or briefly when you die. You get no score report at end game. Also, coins don't count toward your score, so if you're playing in a more aggressive manner, your only real reward for collecting Yen is having more at your disposal for hiring mercs or healing. Second, there are no end credits. You get a fun ending screen with animation, but nothing further. And you have to turn off your Game Boy and back on if you want to play again. Third, there are a few tight areas where you're almost guaranteed to take damage. I realize the game is designed around having hit points, but it's not a welcome mechanic in the shmup world, generally speaking, and it can be a sign that some spots were not as well designed.

It can be easy to get a party member or two caught on
something in the stage, which makes it harder to avoid
enemy projectiles, particularly in the later stages.

One interesting thing of note is that the game has multiple endings. If you beat the game with one or more party members, you'll get the "standard" ending, congratulating you for vanquishing the evil from the land. If you use the level select cheat that you can activate and beat the game, you will see a variation of that ending with goofy-looking monsters and animals in place of the humans in the end screen. And if you can complete the final boss fight with a Mystic in your party, you'll get the best ending, which sees you and your mercenary friends walking off into the sunset to revel in your victory. It's a nice detail, and just enough of a differentiator to give the game a little extra replay value.

All in all, despite my qualms with a few design choices, this is a solid title. It's probably not going to be your favorite shooter, nor do I expect it would even be your favorite shmup on the Game Boy, but it's good enough to be well worth a look. It has enough unique stuff going on, and enough that sets it apart from other games to stand on its own. I definitely had fun with this game and could see myself fire it up again from time to time for a quick play session. It works well enough on the hardware, and especially if you have a Game Boy Pocket, the ghosting isn't too bad because of the relatively slow pace and slow scrolling through each level. This isn't terribly expensive right now either, so it's worth the asking price as of this writing. Recommended.

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I'll have to track this down at some point! Nice review!

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