Friday, May 12, 2006


Merchant Galactic

As I mentioned in my review of the Flashback 2, one of the biggest problems with reviewing a compilation of games is that they're often taken as a whole, and the strengths of any particular game in the package aren't brought to the forefront. If most of the games in a compilation are crap, but one game is really, really awesome, the overall value of the pack goes down, even if that one game would be worth buying alone. What's more, you have the same problem that you get whenever you buy more than one video game at a time: one of them will grab your attention, and you'll forget that the other one (or several) even exist.

So although there is something to be said for Ultimate Arcade Games (released for the Game Boy Advance) as a whole, today I'd rather just talk about one game in the package: Merchant Galactic.

Not Quite the Classics

Okay, maybe just a bit about the package as a whole to give you a little background. None of these games have actually appeared in an actual arcade. Instead, we get very generic games that reproduce the gameplay of some classic arcade (and home console) games, but with a twist here or there.

Merchant Galactic starts with the gameplay from Lunar Lander. The "arcade" aspect of the game involves trying to gently land a space vehicle on a predetermined "landing strip" on one of several planets and moons. Gravity differs from location to location -- sometimes you'll be struggling to keep your lander from crashing, other times you might have to give yourself a blast toward the planet's surface just to get yourself going.

But why are you travelling to these other planets and moons? Exploration? Nope -- profit. You're an interplanetary trader, and you've just inherited a trading ship -- the Lightspeed Nebula. Unfortunately, you've also inherited a debt along with it, and to pay it off, you'll have to travel between planets trading five commodities: food, clothes, metal, weapons, and stimulants. (That's right, black market drug sales. Edgy!)

Part of the reason I took to this game so readily is that I've been infatuated with interplanetary commodity-trading games ever since Seth Able's Planets: The Exploration of Space. And although Merchant Galactic doesn't match the depth of Seth's indy project (no, seriously), there's still some fun to be had here.

The Joys of Broken Gameplay

It's hard to say that Merchant Galactic is a classic because really, it's not. This is most apparent in the number of options available to the player. There are eight planets (all from our solar system) for you to visit, each with multiple colonies to visit, but you have to buy the proper license before you can land on a planet. Every colony has different prices set for the five commodities, and many will only have one or two available for purchase. Market prices fluctuate. There's an insane number of upgrades you can purchase both for your lander(s) and your mother ship. You can even get a license to act as an interplanetary taxi service.

But you don't need any of it to win the game. In fact, you can win the game faster and get a higher score if you ignore it all. In fact, when you get to the point where you've got enough money together that these business options start to become viable, you've already won the game. In fact, Novice mode can be won with just one landing if you pick the correct port and fill up on the correct commodity.

You see, the object of the game is simply to earn sufficient funds to pay off the bank. (The exact number depends on the difficulty level.) If you have enough on hand, the game automatically ends. Even worse, you don't even have to have liquid assets to win the game; your cargo is counted into your worth at some unexplained general market price. (See the "fill up on the correct commodity victory", above.)

I'm left with the general impression that this game wasn't tested very well. Technically, everything works correctly, sure. But the market system doesn't encourage the player to explore or take advantage of all of the options. There's no reason to leave Earth when you can make a killing moving weapons from Australia to the Moon.

So why do I love this game so much?

Again, a lot of it is the influence and romance of Seth Able's Planets that's rubbed off on me. There's a certain Monopoly-styled appeal to the game -- the way your trading empire slowly expands through investment. The lunar lander gameplay is rock solid and challenging. And the music is nicely atmospheric.

Perhaps I keep playing because of the freedom. Yes, I know the best way to quickly rack up the bucks, but as I gain more cash, I'm free to leave that behind and just mess about. It doesn't take very long to play the game from beginning to end (and there's a "vacation" option to save your place if you can't do it in one sitting), so every time you play the game, it's like a different experience. One time I made it my goal to visit every single planet and see if I could land on each and every colony, no matter how wonky the gravity or terrain might be. (I got as far as Saturn before I carelessly lost my last lander -- someday.)

I might just find the inclination to write about the rest of Ultimate Arcade Games someday -- Treasure Hunter is a likely candidate -- but for now, I'd just like to let Merchant Galactic stand on its own.


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