Don't underestimate the puzzle game! In many ways it's the most accessible of game genres (yet ironically appealing to hardcore gamers at the exact same time), and Tetris selling the GameBoy is just one of its achievements. Years later, it was the humble Chu Chu Rocket that SEGA chose to demonstrate the Dreamcast's groundbreaking online capabilities, the whimsical Fantavision that stood out as the freshest of PS2's inauspicious launch titles, Super Monkey Ball that became the first great GameCube game. And now we find a new breed of super-polished puzzlers appearing in their element at the vanguard of a new handheld generation: Meteos, Lumines and Archer Maclean's Mercury.
In essence, as with the familiar single-screen action of Lumines and Meteos, Awesome Studios' contribution to this new wave could be accused of conservatism. Core gameplay involves completing maze-based goals by safely guiding a globule of mercury up ramps, around nerve-jangling precipices, along conveyor belts, over bridges, through cog systems, across precarious platforms, etc., and all within a time limit. We've been here before of course (Marble Madness, Super Monkey Ball) but, in keeping with its artful puzzle peers, there's a canny next-gen kick behind Mercury in the form of the exquisitely modelled mercury itself.
Aside from its delicious movement and ruthlessly accurate physics, the game's playable puddle star can (and must) be split into multiple blobs by attacking a sharp enough edge or corner, whereupon the game's difficulty also multiplies as the player attempts to shepherd unwieldy blobs around the arenas with the limited agency of a single control scheme—as in Monkey Ball, the player controls the terrain itself, not the objects they are trying to guide. Challenges are split into three equally weighted types: Race levels (hit the finish marker as quickly as possible), Percentage levels (complete the level without losing a set percentage of mercury) and Task levels (activate all nodes on the level). The last of these focuses most heavily on Mercury's central puzzle mechanic: activating color-coded switches and gates by rolling (does liquid metal "roll"?) into them with the corresponding color of mercury. Color can be changed via spray paint stations or, more demandingly, by joining different blobs and blending their colors as appropriate for the task at hand.
As you might imagine, the need to balance these various factors on the fly and with the clock ticking grants potential for a truly daunting difficulty curve. However, contrary to what I had read about the game, Mercury's severity did not seem so unreasonable to me. The game eases you into its rule sets extremely benignly., In fact, the first three or four worlds were surprisingly painless and perhaps even too easy-going for the game to truly live up to its genre's rubric. The levels are essentially miniature mechanical assault courses and ultimately require more control dexterity than tactical nous; exact, predetermined routes around each course is the blanket rule—bar daring short-cut strategies—and once they have been unravelled, the player's task is to "merely" follow them to completion.
Which is where the challenge heats up of course, and fearfully so in the later stages. I can't imagine Mercury's sixth world ("Nano") will fail in its mission to bring most gamers to their knees. Beyond that (if you make it beyond that) bonus levels and sufficiently enticing high-score boards await the addicted, and round off an accomplished and superbly realised package.
Visuals are sleek and spit-polished, and audio is moody, fitting and unobtrusive, pleasingly free of the noisome little ditties that provide such a grating soundtrack to frustration in many other puzzlers. Indeed, Mercury is not only a strikingly well presented puzzle game when judged shoulder-to-shoulder with its forebears, but is yet another example of the dauntingly high production values that are being reached even at this early stage in the PSP's life,. Ironically (and perhaps this is a first) for a handheld puzzle game, it is the camera that falls down the most, requiring almost as much attention and constant tweaking as does the mercury itself.
Nevertheless, excepting its peach-perfect fit on the young platform, Mercury is hardly mind-blowing—how many puzzle games are?—and can't match Lumines for sensation and impact. This is simply a very good puzzle game conceit that's been unassailably well implemented into a sensibly balanced and handsome title. Whilst other developers are straining to squeeze their existing console franchises onto a UMD as quickly as possible, Awesome Studios has amiably approached the format with more dignified designs and graced it with a solid, sobering reaffirmation of the puzzle genre's worth. Don't underestimate it!