Who knew that transition metals could be so much fun? Apparently, Archer MacLean did. Known mostly for his work on billiards games of varying degrees of notoriety, MacLean (and his team Awesome Studios) has branched out into the world of handheld puzzle games with Archer MacLean's Mercury. It's sort of a Marble Madness or Super Monkey Ball-esque puzzler that replaces your typical sphere with a blob of mercury. Conceptually, Mercury is certainly a strange one, but the way in which the game presents its gelatinous centerpiece and allows you to twist it to fit its wide array of crazy obstacles and traps is really something else. And while Mercury may prove a bit too esoteric and periodically infuriating to be appealing to just anybody, you can't help but appreciate what this game manages to pull off.
At first, Mercury seems like it would have all the makings of a neat tech demo, but not much more. You're presented with a blob of mercury (or, in some cases, multiple blobs), and you'll tilt the platform on which it sits in any direction via the PSP's analog disc. The game starts with only one available "world" unlocked. This world consists of a number of tutorial stages where you can learn about the various pitfalls and obstacles you'll encounter while playing. Stages themselves are armed with a wide variety of crazy contraptions, like moving platforms, conveyor belts, launch pads, jagged corners that split your blob into multiple pieces, and even electric bolts and evil little gremlin spheres that take away some of your blob's mass. The basic objective of each level is usually to light up a series of switches, or even just get to one switch at the end. However, how you get from beginning to end often requires quite a bit of concentration, skill, and luck.
There are really only a few specific types of objectives you'll have to meet to beat a given stage. Either you'll have to get a certain percentage of your original blob to the end of a level, light up a specific number of colored switches by turning your blob each of the required colors (via little color-changing stations scattered about a stage, or in some cases simply by mixing two colored blobs into one), or a combination of both. You'll always be under a time limit, so you can't just sit around trying to plot out your next move. This can be a bit of a hassle when you're first learning a level, because the game never does a remarkable job of showing you what to do before you're dropped into a stage. Apart from a quick spinning camera shot of the stage, you don't often get to see what obstacles will be coming your way, meaning you'll find yourself dealing with a fair amount of trial and error. However, the trial and error isn't really that bad, since you'll inevitably have fun practicing each stage and trying to figure out all the little quirks and possible paths that will lead to the conclusion. The bonus of the time limit is that it keeps the pace of the game brisk, without just blatantly rushing you through each stage.
A game like this wouldn't be worth anything if it didn't control well, and thankfully, Mercury handles nicely. The analog control can be a bit touchy in certain situations, but for the most part, you can easily tilt the world around without losing control of your blob. The blob itself moves around in what feels like a very realistic fashion, so it'll split up when stretched too thin, reassemble itself when squeezed together, and just generally move around like the blob that it's supposed to be--and it actually looks pretty impressive doing it. Though occasionally it is possible to lose track of where your blob is going, there are enough variable camera angles in the game to allow you to pretty much see what you're doing at all times. The one issue is that when you get multiple blobs going, if they spread too far apart from one another, the camera will simply zoom out as far as possible, which in some cases can be quite far. Perhaps a little picture-in-picture window might have been a better solution. But, as it is, the camera zoom isn't too terrible.
With six main worlds (along with an unlockable bonus world) and 72 stages to play through, Mercury features quite a bit of gameplay, especially when you consider how crazy a lot of the later worlds get. The first handful of stages are an absolute breeze, but that breeze quickly turns into a gale-force wind that is working against you by the time you get deep into the second world. The game is by no means impossible, even at its most difficult, but the scaling of the difficulty might seem a bit much at first, as the game pretty much throws you off the deep end almost immediately after you've completed the idiotically simple tutorial.