Over the years there has been a handful of puzzle games that involve rolling an object through an obstacle course. You can go as far back as the arcade classic Marble Madness or as recent as the Super Monkey Ball series. Though it has failed to generate similar name-recognition, my favorite from this sub-genre has thus far been Mercury Madness Revolution. Mercury Madness is available for the PSP and PS2, but do trust me on this: the Wii version is best thanks to the excellent control scheme.
I should mention that though my last review was for “The Seventh Guest” (an old-school PC puzzle game), I am not a puzzle game purist. I generally prefer action-adventures, side-scrollers, platformers, RPGs, strategy games, empire-builders and FPSs. So when I thumbs-up a puzzle game, it generally means I think it has some cross-over potential for those who occasionally like to dabble in the best of the puzzle offerings.
Let me be clear, though, that the Mercury Madness Revolution (MMR from here on out) is a pure puzzle game. Both casual and hardcore gamers are invited, but those with absolutely no interest in non-narrative straight-up puzzle-play shouldn’t even bother to show up. This is not Zelda or Vagrant Story where puzzles are a single factor of the game. Nor is this an eye-popping graphics showcase for your next-gen system: you can expect just pleasantly tasteful cel-shaded visuals and innocuous techno music that falls short of catchy. It is, however, one of the best of its breed.
MMR takes place in fairly simple 3D environments. You play a blob of mercury and you try to navigate it onto a finishing square. You control your movement by tilting the Wii controller, which in turn tilts the entire environment. This creates slopes down which your mercury will slide.
Sounds simple, right? Well, it gets plenty more interesting.
MMR hasn’t just thrown in switches, doors, mazes, moving platforms, escalators, jumps, air-jets, fans, pushers and the usual traps and trappings of obstacle course design, they’ve absolutely flooded the game with complications (introduced at a gentle pace). Different types of material change the friction, which affects both your speed and your ability to stick to steep angles. Your semi-solid form can ooze, stretch and split and many of the puzzles require you to simultaneously steer multiple blobs at once and even to synchronize your arrival at multiple finishing lines. Spray paint beacons can change the color of your mercury to activate color-coded switches or pass through color-coded force fields. You can combine portions of different colored mercury to get new colors, and often this figures into the challenge of solving a puzzle. You can even change temperature and become a solid frozen ball to roll along rails or simply to increase and decrease the ease with which you split. There are even occasional cameos by other creatures, like pacman-esque ghosts that swallow pieces of mercury, explosive ghosts that shatter your mercury and cute little cuboids (occasionally less-cute poisoned cuboids) that have to be guided onto switches.
You get a good mix of mental and dexterity challenges. About 70% of the game consists of action-puzzle skills like hand-eye coordination, timing and reactions. 30% of the game is geared towards static-puzzle skills like problem solving, path-finding, advanced planning and color combining. Usually each level is a combination of the two, in which you spend a minute or two trying to figure out how to solve a level and the majority of the time trying to execute the solution. Very few puzzles feel like repeats of challenges you’ve already done, and many playfully remix the mechanics into surprisingly fresh variations.
Several subtle gameplay touches prop up the pleasure factor and limit the potential frustration. For instance, most levels can be completed so long as you have at least 1% of your starting mercury remaining. This means that if a bit of mercury drips over the edge or gets eaten or vaporized, it isn’t the end of the world. The Wii controls are simple, but superb; they feel far more responsive and better-implemented than, say, Zack and Wiki, Super Monkey Ball: Banana Blitz or Cooking Mama. You don’t have to hold the controller perfectly level to stay in place. The environment only begins to tilt once you’ve made your intention clear and then it does so smoothly and to just the degree you specify. Occasionally the camera can be a pain to rotate (throwing off your sense of tilting direction), but you often don’t even need to change the camera.
Another nice feature is that worlds (called Labs) are always opened with 16 new levels available at once. This way you are rarely stuck trying to play the same frustrating level over and over again just to move on. I skipped tons of levels that I felt were too hard, too long or too boring and the game never made me feel guilty about it. The total amount of mercury you have collected in all levels opens up successive labs, and you only have to collect about half the available mercury to move on.
With more than 150 levels and a palatable difficulty curve, the game seems more inviting to tackle than many more daunting puzzlers. There are plenty of auxiliary challenges, like trying to finish within time limits, beating high scores and collecting bonus items (which open up optional mini-games). Most of these are mild distractions that will please hardcore enthusiasts and can be safely ignored by casual players. Some of the mini-games are actually kind of fun. Of all things, I found myself enjoying their 10-course MMR-version of curling.
Many critics have complained about the lack of multiplayer, but I don’t really it really needs it and I doubt it would have been much fun. Puzzle games just don’t stir the hunger for aggressive competition in the way that sports, racing and FPS games do. This is really more of the type of game you play alone. However, I did feel it lent itself decently to tag-teaming while my friends and I tried to co-operatively open up the final labs.
If there is one feature I really wish would have been included, it would be a level editor and a system for exchanging custom levels online.
At $60 or even $50, this would be a risky investment, but the game is usually available new for only $20. MMR has actually relieved me of more hours than many bigger-name Wii titles that cost me upwards of twice the price, though if you tend to give up easily, you are likely to find the game less time-consuming (and less rewarding). I’d highly recommend MMR for anyone interested in a sophisticated and varied puzzler.