Review: Merger 3D

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Hey, party peoples. It’s time to first-person shoot like it’s 1992 all up in here!

Throwing all the way back to a time when Apogee Software and id Software were rocking the shareware scene with classics like Wolfenstein 3D and Blake Stone, Merger 3D is an old school first-person shooter to the last pixel. Counter to the current indie gaming trend where the pixel art motif is used mostly for a retro effect to go along with more modern design standards, this game unabashedly embraces its genre roots for a thoroughly archaic gaming experience. Needless to say, you’ll love it or hate it for that very reason.

Technically, the game could run on a Windows 98 machine–the system requirements are a meager 128 Mhz processor, 16 MB RAM, 32 MB video card, and 10 MB install size. You’re given viewing formats of 4:3 or 16:9 (the settings are actually reversed at the moment, so you have to choose the one opposite to what you want until an update fixes it), but don’t expect any HD resolutions or configurable bells and whistles. Enemies are flat, two-dimensional sprites populating three-dimensional environments coated in smudgy-looking textures. By contrast, the gun models do look pretty damn impressive, smooth, nicely detailed, and distinct in the their visual design. The enemy death animations also add some nostalgic sprite gore, accompanied by a satisfying gushy splat.

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As a single page of text sets up at the very beginning, Merger 3D takes place in 2048, in a near future sci-fi setting where humanity has become corrupted by bioterrorism. You play as a mercenary on a mission to fight human experimentations by destroying Project Merger, some thing the bioterrorists are working on. The synopsis provided on the game’s Steam page is more in-depth than what is presented in the game proper, so don’t pay much attention to the story, because the plot is just there to give you an excuse to plow through the game’s 15 missions of labyrinthine, pixelated corridors.

Forget everything currently built into your muscle memory by modern first-person shooters, because Merger 3D takes gameplay back to the barest of minimums. Crouching, reloading, iron sights, alternate fire modes, grenades, headshots, regenerating armor/health–this game has none of the stuff we now take for granted as expected features in all shooters. The game even pre-dates the whole color-coded door and keycard level design trope. There are no objectives other than to kill whatever mutants are encountered as you search for the exit hidden somewhere at the end of the maze, and then rinse and repeat for a couple hours.

Instead, you can only move, turn, strafe, shoot, and open doors, walking over medkits and ammo packs to refill as needed. That’s it. Shooting takes place on a single horizontal axis, which means you can aim left and right on a fixed plane but not up, down, or diagonal with a full range of movement. You simply turn until your electro-claw, pistol, shotgun, plasma blaster, or rocket launcher is lined up with the target at the center of the screen, and then click to fire pixel bullets.

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True to the classics, strafing is your best friend. Recklessly charging into a room is a sure way to get dead as enemies are quick to overwhelm from all sides. Due to the lack of clear hit detection (the screen doesn’t even flash red like in Wolfenstein 3D) your 100-percent full health bar will become vaporized before you’re able to look around to see where you’re getting hit from. Therefore it’s best to move into a room or around a corner just long enough to draw aggro from any enemies lying in ambush, duck behind the wall or back out through the nearest door to create a bottleneck, and then strafe in and out of cover to avoid taking continuous fire. Don’t forget to pause and manually save at regular intervals (any time you can kill a few enemies without taking a lot of damage is a good time to save), because there are no checkpoints or auto-saves. Use the four save slots carefully, though, because health percentage and ammo supply carry over between missions and there is no level select, so it can be easy to lose large chunks of progress if you save a game with low health in a bad spot.

Mechanically, the most sophisticated feature in the game, compared to the old games it’s emulating, is the newfangled ability to use the scroll wheel to quickly cycle weapons. A targeting reticle is provided, but since aiming is confined to a single axis it’s entirely superfluous. It’s a shame there is no option to play with a keyboard-only control scheme in true old school FPS fashion, because aiming with a mouse is at times too fast for the engine to keep up with, interrupting turns or causing the camera to stop moving if the mouse is scrolled too quickly. This is one FPS where it’s actually a disadvantage to play with a high end gaming mouse.

Beyond the inherent limitations that come with authentically replicating how games were made over two decades ago, the game does suffer from some legitimately poor design even by the standards of the past. The most frustrating is the way enemies are able to cheaply shoot through certain walls or barriers that your bullets do not penetrate. This combined with the lack of hit detection I already mentioned leads to frequent scenarios where you’ll just start taking damage out of nowhere while spinning around to see where the fire is coming from. After a few reloads, you’ll finally spot through the murky pixels that an enemy is pelting cheap shots at you from some hidden wall nook or behind a gate of lasers. The draw distance is awful as well. In the larger rooms, you can take a step forward to see enemies pop into view ahead, and then step backward and watch as they immediately pop out of view again. Sometimes it seems like enemies suddenly spawn behind or in the periphery where they weren’t visible before.

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Merger 3D literally is a blast from the past. But is it a blast to play? Not exactly. If you grew up gaming in the 21st century and are accustomed to the luxuries of modern FPS play, this game will be very difficult, perhaps even impossible, to adjust to. Shareware first-person shooters were my bread and butter back in the day, and even I struggled big time when I first started playing this game. However, after a few levels I was able to retrain myself how to play under the limitations of yesteryear and settle into a proper groove. With an open mind and a nostalgia for 90s era gaming, there is a like-the-good-old-days quality to the game that carries with it a certain appeal. The game’s unashamed by its crudeness, crustiness, and clunkiness, which you’ll either find entirely repellent or fun in a trip down memory lane sort of way.

TryIt

Pros:
+ Authentic replication of early 90s shareware first-person shooters

Cons:
– Authentic replication of early 90s shareware first-person shooters

Game Info:
Platform: PC
Publisher: Sometimes You
Developer: Mahhaon, Art-Arcade, Sun Pixel
Release Date: 9/29/2016
Genre: First-Person Shooter
Players: 1

Source: Review code provided by publisher

Buy From: Steam for $1.99 or itch.io starting at $0.99.

About the Author

Matt Litten is the full-time editor and owner of VGBlogger.com. He is responsible for maintaining the day to day operation of the site, editing all staff content before it is published, and contributing regular news, reviews, previews and other articles. Matt landed his first gig in the video game review business writing for the now-defunct website BonusStage.com. After the sad and untimely close of BonusStage, the former staff went on to found VGBlogger.com. After a short stint as US Site Manager for AceGamez, Matt assumed full ownership over VGBlogger, and to this day he is dedicated to making it one of the top video game blogs in all the blogosphere. Matt is a fair-minded reviewer and lover of games of all platforms and types, big or small, hyped or niche, big-budget or indie. But that doesn't mean he will let poor games slide without a good thrashing when necessary!