Strategy is a somewhat niche genre among gamers. While there have been excellent strategy games released on consoles - turn-based RPGs like Fire Emblem to the RTS-style Swords and Soldiers series come to mind - the gameplay has always lent itself more to the PC, where players can be more methodical and control units with relative ease, thanks to the humble mouse. It's to Namco's credit, then, that their SNES real-time strategy/base-builder Metal Marines translates quite well to console. While the presentation is dated and the game rules can be obtuse and unclear, Metal Marines does provide a satisfying experience for those who like methodical attacks and tactical planning.
There's a story in Metal Marines, but it's 16-bit silly. Players command an army battling an alien force that has taken over Earth following a catastrophic and devastating "antimatter war." The Metal Marine, a powerful Mech with various combat abilities, is the primary attack unit used to fight. Throughout the game's campaign, various poorly-scripted enemy commanders send threatening broadcasts to the player. Oddly, the over-the-top presentation of the villains bring to mind Punch-Out!! in their cartoony, one-note look and feel. Of course, the difference here is that players won't be facing these commanders head-on.
Each stage features two large islands. One is controlled by the player, while the other is controlled by the enemy. The objective of each stage is simple: destroy the enemy bases. Players begin each stage by strategically placing their bases and units around the island. Units include the Metal Marines, gun pods that attack incoming enemies, land mines, missiles, factories for increasing energy needed to act, and a supply HQ that increases the speed of money replenishment, which greatly speeds up the amount of units that can be built. When ready to attack, the player aims where they'd like to shoot their missiles and send their Metal Marines. Early attacks are important, as they gather intelligence about the enemy island, which the player can't see until an attack happens.
All this may sound very complicated, and at first, it is. There's no tutorial to ease the player in; a mostly useless "advice" feature gives general hints about how to go about fighting each battle, but we had to use the e-manual to learn how to play. That's fine - we'd imagine that's how it would be done if this were the SNES era and we just purchased the game - but for gamers used to being taught how to play in-game, this is a bit jarring. Additionally, we didn't get much context on Metal Marines' story until we let the title screen sit for a few moments. Again, it's hard to fault Metal Marines for its presentation flaws since it's a game from the early '90s, but some of the quirks will frustrate newcomers.
Metal Marines is no looker, either. Don't expect a colourful, explosive array of pixel art and sprites while playing Metal Marines; while the portraits of the villains are big, anime-style caricatures, the actual game features a lot of dull green, blue, brown and gray. The music is rather repetitive and the audio is generic.
Luckily, the gameplay is a lot of fun and makes up for the other shortcomings once you get used to it. It's satisfying to take down enemy structures and bases, and there's an upgrade system for making units stronger. The controls are pretty simple, too, and while we did instinctively attempt to use the touch screen to control the game at first - thank modern gaming for that - there were no instances of controls getting in the way of our masterful strategizing
Metal Marines is a good game, and fans of strategy will find a lot to like here. The bland presentation and initially confusing gameplay date this one a bit, but get past the fact that Metal Marines is a (charming) relic of the past and there's a fun, challenging RTS waiting in the eShop.