Project Mercury

words manifested by: AJ Johnson

A game by Raxasoft Games for PC, originally released in 2017.
Most neo-retro games adhere to the 8- or 16-bit era of console gaming, while only a few seek to approximate the DOS era of PC gaming and its limited CGA and EGA graphics, with standout examples including VVVVVV, You Have to Win the Game, and MURI. Project Mercury falls into this category with its 256x224 resolution, 5-channel chiptune soundtrack, miniscule color palette, and 4-color sprites.

The game begins by explaining that an elite commando unit was sent to investigate strange creatures known as Mercury, but contact with the team has been lost. You take on the role of a laser-wielding warrior on a mission to discover what happened to the team and to put an end to the threat of Mercury. You must dash through eight enemy-filled areas, speed across the landscape on a hoverbike, climb skyscrapers, descend into a Mercury-infested cave, and face off against nine boss creatures, picking up weapons from your fallen companions along the way.

The first level introduces the player to the basics, offering a split between on-foot and hoverbike sequences. While on foot, the player can aim and fire in eight directions, duck and fire, and lock his position to fire without moving. Aim lock is needed frequently as the player’s narrow laser beam makes it difficult to hit enemies unless they are standing right in front of him.

Jumping is also quite rigid, with a 1.5x nonvariable jump that has no inertial effect, so the player character simply moves upward at a set speed and then reverses direction and falls down at the same speed, which is representative of many DOS-era games. The rigidity of the controls poses little trouble during platforming sequences, but it does make precision targeting difficult when facing mobile foes.

Level designs consist entirely of 90-degree angles, offering clear communication to the player as to which platforms can be mounted, and plenty of leeway when jumping across gaps. For tall platforms, the player is able to cling to the side and move freely up and down, and it’s also possible to aim in eight directions while climbing, but he cannot move while firing. Since the player’s laser fires through solid objects, he can cling to walls and shoot at enemies on top of platforms or on the other side of walls, clearing the path forward.

Levels are entirely linear, offering left-to-right movement and no way to backtrack. This also means that once an enemy is scrolled off the screen, it is no longer a threat, making avoidance a key strategy in some cases, especially with fast-moving enemies. Most enemies take three or four hits to destroy, and some take many more, so if an enemy comes running at you, it may be better to jump over it than try to blast it, lest you take contact damage as it passes.

You begin each level with 12 units of health and a stock of three lives. Health is lost in single-unit increments, so there’s a fair amount of room for error. However, there is only one checkpoint per level, around the midpoint, so getting killed requires that you cover a lot of the same ground. Even getting killed at a boss returns you to the mid-level checkpoint, and losing your entire stock of lives returns you to the start of the level.

Health can only be restored by killing enemies, which occasionally drop pickups that restore two units each. Lives are not restored between levels, so if you finish a level with only one life left, you can kill yourself without penalty to restore your three lives.

After completing the first level, the player is free to tackle the next four in any order. Level 2 takes place entirely on the hoverbike – except for the boss encounter – where Level 3 is entirely on foot, and Level 4 mixes the two. Enemy patterns are very similar between each of the hoverbike sequences, so you’ll be performing the same actions from one to the next, but they do become somewhat more challenging with faster enemies and higher enemy counts later in the game. Mobile enemies are all but impossible to kill on the hoverbike with your default weapon, so you will spend most of your time avoiding enemies during these sequences.

Level 5 changes things up entirely by introducing a forced-scrolling climbing sequence that has you ascending a gigantic building while flying enemies enter the screen to attack. Some enemies fly in simple formations while others specifically aim toward your position, requiring you to move up or down to dodge out of the way. Here again, it’s difficult to actually kill any enemies with your default weapon, and even when you do kill enemies, you won’t benefit from health restorative drops, as they’re impossible to reach while clinging to a wall. The boss encounter of this area also takes place while clinging to the wall.

From here, the player takes on the final three levels in a specific order, alternating gameplay between on-foot, hoverbike, and climbing sequences, with the exception of Level 7 which features a controlled descent into an enemy-filled cave. It’s difficult to do enough damage to enemies to actually kill them, so you’ll once again be dodging foes rather than engaging them, and speeding or slowing your descent to avoid lasers.

Throughout the game, the player unlocks two additional weapons, with the first coming in the form of a more powerful laser with a longer beam, and the second in the form of a 3-way shot. These are found on the dead bodies of the commando unit that was referenced in the game’s opening sequence. Both of these weapons have limited ammo which can only be refilled by the occasional enemy drop. Around the game’s midpoint, the player acquires a powerup that increases the ammo capacity for these weapons, but both draw from the same meter. The player can use these weapons during the levels if he likes, but they are best held for boss encounters.

Boss patterns are fairly simple, but each boss takes a lot of hits to destroy, so using these more powerful limited-ammo weapons helps to drain their health more quickly. If you manage to get to the boss with a significant amount of health remaining, it's difficult for bosses to do enough damage to kill you, as a full health meter allows you to sustain a dozen hits before falling.

In a couple of levels, you will face variations on previous bosses with differing attacks, but having access to more powerful weapons later in the game means that later bosses are no more difficult than earlier ones. Some bosses have support enemies that can drop health when killed, making these fights a bit easier, and the final boss is quite easy due to the sheer number of health restoratives dropped during the fight.

Project Mercury was developed by Rexasoft Games. The studio also developed Mobile Astro, a retro-style twin-stick shooter.