Big vs. Small
The greatest programmed movement games are nearly always the ones that go all-in on their own eccentricities, mitigating the frustration of planning out everything in advance by casting themselves as exercises in silliness. In Space Alert, that means your star-charting astronauts are afflicted by the space-bends or mere panic; if they should stumble down the wrong corridor or slam the incorrect button when the klaxons are blaring in their ears, who’s going to blame them? In The Dragon & Flagon, your adventurers are blind drunk after a tough dungeon run, so a swing’n’miss is the expected order of things. And the train-robbery-gone-wrong of Colt Express is at its best when the train thunders into a tunnel and your banditos resort to slugging blindly at whomever happens to be standing nearby.
The point is, these games work best when things are going south. Since roughly half of a player’s time in a programmed movement game will be spent screwing up, why not make screwing up the best part? This is gaming as a gag reel. It must be about spinning in circles, wrestling for control, failing to get anything done. Success must be a revelation, as grounded in chance as in anything else. And above all else, your game must be funny.
Fortunately, Mechs vs. Minions understands this principle down in the marrow of its bones.
Here, the gameplay revolves around mastering those titular mechs, with the twist that they’re not necessarily all that easy to control. Depending on the scenario, you must tow bombs, defend against endless hordes of enemies, beat up bosses, or stay ahead of a tidal rush of lava — all sorts of hijinks — while evading, zapping, and stomping the waves of minions sent to pester you. For some, the characters will be familiar, torn as they are from the ever-popular League of Legends. For the rest of us, the Cliff’s Notes will suffice: big mechs good, little minions bad.
What sets Mechs vs. Minions apart from the competition is just how much it relies on its command line. This is the row of commands that your mech will execute each round, and right away there are a few things that stand out about it. First of all, commands aren’t erased once they’re used. Instead, every turn centers around each pilot drafting a single command before executing everything they’ve programmed over the previous however-many rounds. Some commands spit out fire or electricity, some move you forward or spin you around, others act as explosive safeguards against taking damage. But whichever you program, it’s there to stay, at least unless you’re willing to overwrite some of your previous work later on.
What this means is that you’re stuck with your program for a much longer time than even most programmed-movement games are comfortable with. If you’ve set yourself up to spin in circles and shoot off bullets at nobody in particular, that’s what you’ll be doing until you figure out how to overwrite or wrangle your commands into behaving. On the other hand, if you’ve transformed yourself into a moveable feast of napalm and chain lightning, you’ll have free reign to repeat those orders turn after turn, frazzling minions and earning extra upgrades for your team.
That’s the end goal, of course, and reaching it isn’t always as simple as knowing what you’re doing. Since everybody is drafting from the same pool of cards, sometimes you’ll have no choice but to hardwire an unwanted doohickey onto your machine. Then again, it’s also possible to upgrade your moves, transforming a wimpy pew-pew shot into an all-engulfing bullet-hell with a little effort.
As such, there’s a delightful momentum to each battle, ramping from toddler steps to entirely overwhelming. At first your machine might stutter forward a step or two, turn in place, then shoot a single buzzsaw at nothing in particular. By the end of that same scenario, however, you’re launching so much ordnance and steering in so many loop-de-loops that arriving at your goal is about as straightforward as careening a zamboni down a mountainside by strapping rocket thrusters to its sides and hoping to hit a dime-sized target at the bottom.
The dozens of minions that litter the field never present any real threat other than to impede your progress. Your mech is effectively invulnerable, after all. Instead, most scenarios provide a sort of timer. Maybe the minions are attacking something else, or a boss is charging up a super-weapon. Rather than kill you directly, the minions intend to distract you, to poke at the chinks in your armor and disrupt your command line. They accomplish this by handing out damage cards, which range from swapping a pair of your orders to being added directly to your command line and moving your machine against your will. Of course, clever pilots are free to turn this to their advantage, factoring a stuck control’s movement into their overall scheme.
And when things go completely wrong, that’s when Mechs vs. Minions feels most at home. You’ll skirt past an objective, skid across an oil slick, and come to a stop directly in the middle of a pack of minions. And yet failure never feels all that frustrating because it’s always such a delight to observe.
Delightful is the word for it. Like an older cooler cousin’s chest of toys, there are wonderful things to discover in that huge box. Scenarios open with all the fanfare of a legacy game, letting you rip open a folder to reveal new objectives, layouts, upgrades, and challenges. There’s even a boss monster whose appearance feels like the climactic conclusion of any other game, only for the next few scenarios to temporarily toss him aside in favor of spinning ever-cleverer ways to toss wrenches into your clockwork innards.
Bring them on, those wrenches. Mechs vs. Minions is all the greater for them.