Prior to the PlayStation, which got ports of games like Command & Conquer and Warhammer: Shadow of the Horned Rat, military strategy sims are in short supply, and good military strategy sims are rarer than Detroit Lions championship rings. That’s not to say they don’t exist on the 16-bit machines, but task a gamer with naming a really good one from that era and see what happens. You might hear Herzog Zwei and Powermonger on the Genesis, or Populous and Super Conflict on the SNES from casual players, and Ogre Battle: The March of the Black Queen and Tyrants if they’re into the genre hardcore. One game you’ll almost never see discussed, however, is Namco’s Metal Marines, and I’ve no idea why because it’s ridiculously good.
Metal Marines mixes the technology of “Mobile Suits Gundam” with the real-time point-and-click elements of Starcraft, but while Starcraft and its ilk are constant click-fests as you deploy units, mine resources, and build new structures, Metal Marines takes a step back from micromanagement. It’s hard to explain until you start playing, but there will be times you’ll scramble around handing out orders like you’re the only cook during the lunchtime rush, and others when you’ll be able to kick back in your virtual commander’s chair and watch the carnage unfold:
That video links to a 30-episode Let’s Play of the game by GrimithR, but you obviously don’t need to watch the whole thing to see how Metal Marines handles.
Metal Marines, as most RTS games do, tasks you with recon, active offense, and passive defense. Unlike others, Metal Marines is more focused on base development than it is unit management. To that end, reconnaissance isn’t performed by sending in scouts or flying over with drones, but rather lobbing missiles and seeing if you explode anything interesting. You start off with single-fire capacity, but you can upgrade them to twin-missile launchers for additional boom-booms.
Naturally you aren’t the only one heaving rockets around the map. Your enemy will be busy doing the same, and since missiles are both how you see and how you attack, they’re also your primary means of defending yourself. It’s just like real life! You have anti-aircraft missiles to shoot down incoming attacks, and radar stations to improve their accuracy, and just like your offensive weapons, you can upgrade them to double their effectiveness.
If that was all there was to Metal Marines it would get boring quickly, but there’s a much deeper game in there than that. There’s also a resource management component to consider: building structures and upgrading units pulls money from your War Funds chest, and launching attacks costs Energy, so you can’t just fart out a continuous diarrhea-stream of explosives to rain death on your enemies and call it a day. Instead of harvesting limited resources on the map like Command & Conquer or Warcraft, you build structures that increase your production capacity. There’s no need to worry about emptying the gold mine or defoliating the local forest, which is nice, and you don’t have to worry about drones idling about with nothing to do either.
While missiles are your primary means of dishing out destruction, your ultimate goal is to obliterate all of the enemy’s bases on each map. This, in fact, is the sole victory condition of every mission: if either you or the enemy have no bases left standing, you’ve lost the scenario. Bases, however, are constructed underground and missiles do little to damage them. Once you’ve found a base, it’s time to send in the game’s title characters: the Metal Marines.
Metal Marines are big, lumbering mechs of the battlefield, think Terminators from Warhammer 40K, deployed from a drop-ship if it penetrates the enemy’s air defenses. Once on the ground, they kick ass and take names in a limited radius for sixty seconds, and they’ll easily overrun buildings with their heavy firepower. Your primary defense against Metal Marine incursion are your own Metal Marines who will scramble to meet an enemy assault, and gun pods which are useless against incoming missiles but when stationed in a wide enough area will mow down any ground assault groups daring to get near them.
As you progress further into the game, the difficulty ramps up with the enemy commanders deploying more resources, employing better tactics, and forcing you to engage in some serious uphill battles where brains, not brawn, decides the victor. New strategies, such as deploying decoy bases, or hiding a real base with an overlay of trees to conceal it from view, come into play for both sides, and while the earliest battles require you to find and destroy one enemy base among one small island, later ones task you with destroying multiple bases, often spread over a wide swath of territory, hidden all over the map. There are also land mines which make short work of any Metal Marines which stomp over them, and the godlike ICBM which costs a crap-ton to build but launches missiles that cannot be shot down by anti-missile measure, and wreck destruction on a level that would make even Kim Jong-Un’s toothpick-sized dong hard for a few seconds.
All told, Metal Marines offers a full-length campaign of twenty missions and while the first one is a nearly impossible to lose warm-up, the second mission ramps the difficulty enough to be obnoxious, and by the time you hit the seventh, it’ll be nearly impossible to recover from lucky enemy strikes. Making it to the halfway point is quite an accomplishment, and only supreme luck and flawless tactics will result in your domination of the last mission.
If you hate RTS games either because you don’t care for the genre or because you could shame a black hole with how badly you suck at them, then Metal Marines is not the cart for you. However, if you’re the sort who has de-populated Populace, leveled Sim City, and tyrannized Tyrants, maybe, just maybe, you have what it takes to bring Metal Marines to its knees.