Publisher: Ignition Entertainment
Developer: Ignition Entertainment
Release Date: October 3, 2006
One old adage about the games industry is that for every truly great title, there are several sequels, many more imitators, and few indeed that meaningfully improve on the original. One rather surprising counter-example has been the lineage established with Marble Madness; many an independent game has done it with hamsters, marbles, and a couple with non-marble-like objects, but the core concept remains the same. Tilt the stage (or use an unknown physical force) to move a ball from point A to point B, with obstacles C through ZZZZZ in the middle. Mercury Meltdown, the sequel to the moderately successful Mercury, takes the lineage established by Marble Madness, Hamsterball and Monkey Ball and finds a unique twist on it.
Mercury Meltdown, at its core, is a version of Marble Madness which emphasizes puzzles. You are still trying to roll your way from start to finish, evading a variety of obstacles, only instead of moving a ball, you're rolling a rather a large blob of mercury (Periodic Table symbol "Hg"). It's funny how a little blob of poisonous pseudo-liquid metal can exude just as much personality as one of Super Monkey Ball's monkeys, when taken in the context of the game's rather crazy environments and theming. You basically try to move through 256 levels of 16-board "labs" by collecting mercury through completing the stages, and the more mercury you collect from each board, the better. There are also bonus tokens in each level; getting enough of these can unlock mini-games, including multiplayer ones via ad-hoc networking.
The game differentiates itself from its lineage by taking advantage of your being a blob of mercury, and allowing you to mess with the physical properties of it. Depending on the elements available within each level, you can split the blob into multiple smaller blobs; merge said blobs back together by running them into each other; color the blobs red, blue, or green; combine different-colored blobs to form secondary colors; heat the blob, which makes it fall apart and slide around very quickly; cool it, which makes it move more slowly and difficult to split up; solidify it, which turns it into a marble; etc.
Mercury Meltdown's boards use a variety of singularly defined puzzle elements, so you can always rely on a specific element performing a specific action under a specific pattern, unlike the moving floors that define Super Monkey Ball. Compared to most of the Marble Madness lineage, the combinations tend to require less precision and more thinking, emphasized by being able to push the Select button to pause the game and freely look around the stage. This is not to call the title easy, as some puzzles are quite fiendish; since every stage has three separate objectives to fulfill, you will often play a stage multiple times to get as much mercury as possible, get the highest score, and get all of the bonuses. I spent two hours working on a stage that is pathetically easy if you just run through, but it had some truly mean placement of obstacles if you want to get all the bonuses or the high score.
Mercury Meltdown is one of those titles where presentation come second to the gameplay, which is a good thing, as the controls, physics, and elements are all neatly tuned to perfection. The game comes across as one where you could imagine the same puzzles being workable in the real world, if you wanted to take the time to build them. The graphics somewhat shift this illusion. This is not to say they're bad; they look excellent, neatly taking advantage of the PSP's polygon-pushing power without feeling as if they're using it just for the sake of using it. Rather, it's the cartoony feel, with smiling and sleeping blocks that need to be pushed onto pressure plates, evil-looking creatures that eat mercury, and some truly crazy-looking laboratory-on-acid backgrounds. There are certain titles that are just trippy in appearance, and the freakish lab backdrops, creepy boards, and stylized menus — complete with dancing mercury blob — manage to attain this quite neatly.
Sound effects are, in a word, nice. You really don't need them, but you're not going to be annoyed to the point of reflexively turning them off, either. The music is simple but surprisingly attractive synth-work which is lightly influenced by several genres, and sound effects purposely avoid a realistic feel. The results have a surprising amount of punch, from the sound of mercury falling off the board (which almost sounds like a squeaky version of Darth Vader's scream from "Episode III"), to the bubbling of your mercury splitting and reforming, changing properties, and otherwise interacting. You get the idea.
The game's stylized, kind of freakish menus and lab theming neatly tie into its bevy of unlockables. There are five mini-games to unlock by collecting bonuses, eight labs, skins for your mercury blob, and there are probably more secrets that I haven't uncovered yet. May it also be noted that you are definitely earning these bonuses, and the ones I managed to get by review time are fun indeed. There is also apparent support for downloadable content in the future. Needless to say, there's a lot of well-tweaked play here.
Mercury Meltdown is kind of difficult to accurately summarize. If it were for the PC, it'd be the type of thing you would find on independent game sites with a three-level demo to try it out. As it is, it's a beautifully made, unique, and sadly under-the-radar title; it's exactly the sort of unique experience the PSP needs, and something I can't imagine the DS quite matching (sorry, Super Monkey Ball: Touch and Roll). Unfortunately, not everyone understands unique experiences, and Mercury Meltdown is, in its simplicity, perhaps difficult enough to throw off some Monkey Ball fans. If you get a chance to rent it, find it cheap in the used bins, or a friend grabs a copy and lets you borrow it for an hour, I wholeheartedly suggest you give it a try. If you like it, then please buy a new copy so that Ignition and Sony know we want more offerings like this.
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