I have two strong memories regarding Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes. The first is having spent a lot of time playing with a very good friend of mine who I’ve barely talked to over the last decade. Thinking about it makes me a little sad about how I lost touch with many of my friends because I’m so self-centered and bad at taking initiative.
The other memory is of having finally beaten the game after a rental or two on Halloween night. I remember battling my way through the final stage while my brothers were out trick-or-treating, and having to take a break to watch the new Treehouse of Horror. Also gorging myself on treats stolen from the bowl meant for trick-or-treaters. Sadly, it is the stronger of the two memories. Probably because of the whole “I’m so self-centered” thing.
Anyway, that’s why I chose this game to play in October. For whatever reason, Sarge’s Heroes and Halloween are inextricably linked in my mind. Go figure.
Playing Sarge’s Heroes again seemed like a bad idea at first. My nostalgia for the game left a very nice impression in my mind, even though I do seem to recall it being pretty janky even at the time. And janky it is. It lacks a lot of handy features and smooth edges that we’ve gotten used to in modern games, but I would wager that back in 1999, it was still passable. Possibly even good.
Controlling Sarge is the biggest problem with the game. He moves at a brisk pace, but the game works on a tank-like control scheme where pressing the control stick to the left or right will turn Sarge in that direction, not move him that way. Unlike Resident Evil and other games that use this control scheme, Sarge doesn’t have to stop to turn; you can swerve him to either side while moving forward. It’s not perfect, but it’s something.
There are also no camera controls, so you’re stuck hoping for the camera to swivel in the direction you want it to. Most of the time this amounts to you running around blind for a moment while you wait for the camera to get behind Sarge. There isn’t even a button to quickly snap it behind him like in 3D Zeldas. You can press the first-person aiming button to get that effect, but you’re stuck going into first-person mode for a second that way.
Strafing is a skill that can help you to deal with these issues, but it’s the kind of strafing where you hold a button and then Sarge walks sideways instead of turning. And it’s on the Right C button for some reason. Sure, it’s the best you can do without a second analog stick, but it’s still not ideal.
The most important thing I want you to take away from this review is this: if Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes had a modern control scheme (including camera control), it would be a considerably better game. Let me play it with a dual-analog controller of some sort and my opinion of it would be very positive. I don’t even care if the graphics are crummy and the gameplay is simple. I like it that way.
That said, it’s still actually pretty fun. The game is made up of fifteen missions, each of which drops you on a reasonably-sized map with a big X marking your destination, and lets you come up with your own way to get there. Some maps are less open than others, but they’re all fairly unique and give you plenty of opportunities to goof off and explore.
Some missions simply require you to get to the X. Sometimes you have to destroy a certain thing, and sometimes you’ve got to escort someone. The escort missions aren’t nearly as bad as you might imagine, as most of the time your ally is smart enough to hide from enemy fire. Occasionally they won’t though, and they do get shot to bits pretty fast if you aren’t keeping tabs on them.
One of the modern conveniences that Sarge’s Heroes lacks is checkpoints. All missions have two or more objectives, and there’s no saving between them. If you get killed, it’s back to square one. It’s a bit of a pain in the behind, but most missions are fairly short, and if you know what you’re doing, they generally won’t take more than five to ten minutes.
Enemies function exactly as you imagine they would in a game from 1999. They’re either sitting in one spot, waiting endlessly for you to get too close, walking a predetermined sentry path, or set to appear when you trip an invisible switch. Their AI is pretty pitiful. Once they spot you, they’ll either charge straight at you or stand perfectly still and fire a shot every few seconds. No cover, no dodging. It’s pretty much a shooting gallery. The only time enemies get any more dangerous is when they’re packing better hardware. For example, shotgun troopers deal heavy damage and flamethrower guys can melt you pretty much instantly.
Tanks and helicopters can be incredibly dangerous foes, but they can also be handily dispatched by figuring out their range of vision and picking away at them from just outside of it. If you know where they show up and how they move, they shouldn’t cause you much trouble at all. If they catch you off guard though, about the best thing you can do is to run away like there’s no tomorrow.
Sarge has a fairly wide array of weapons with which to stop the Tan army. Most of the time your M16 is more than enough to handle the situation, but you also have access to sniper rifles, shotguns, grenades, rocket launchers, flamethrowers, and… a mine sweeper? Each weapon functions pretty much exactly as other video games have taught you. The bazooka you obviously want to save for tanks and choppers, but the sniper rifle and grenades are fantastic ways to clear out enemies without getting your hands dirty. They’re almost too effective…
The one thing that really, really irks me about the gameplay is how enemies show up on the mini-map. Tan blips don’t appear until you’re close, which I can understand. Don’t want to make it too easy, you know? But they also don’t disappear until long after you’ve already killed them, which is annoying, and means that you’ll be waiting around for a few seconds after every encounter to see if you’re dispatched all the nearby foes. It’s really not a huge issue, but it still bugs me way more than it should.
There isn’t a lot to be said about the music in Sarge’s Heroes, as it’s mostly cheesy faux-military sounding stuff. However, there is one track in the game that is so very similar to Van Halen’s version of “You Really Got Me” that I’m sure a few people didn’t notice that it was just a ripoff. There may be more “borrowed” tracks in the game, but I didn’t recognize any during my time with it.
Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes isn’t really a great game, as far as the average video game enthusiast’s standards go. It’s got a lot of rough edges, but there’s a fairly solid product under there. I really like it, and if I were able to maneuver Sarge around a little more gracefully, I think it could be a contender. It even makes me want to seek out and play some of the sequels, but word on the street (Wikipedia) is that Sarge’s Heroes 2 is good and then it’s a steep downhill plummet from there.
In any case, it was a breath of fresh air after Donkey Kong 64.