One thing handheld consoles always do well are puzzle games. They kill time like no other, require deep, concentrated thought, and can be put down when needed. That's essentially the portable experience. Archer Maclean's Mercury is an odd, addictive, almost indescribable title that fills each criteria required of it while providing a unique gaming experience on the go.
While most gamers are familiar with Marble Madness, Mercury is bit deeper than that, even if it borrows certain mechanics. Since the player-controlled blob (blobs in some cases) can shape itself just by touching a wall, it requires a near ridiculous amount of precision to maneuver through the mazes to the necessary goal. If part of your ooze drips over the edge, you've lost it.
Nearly every stage requires a certain amount to stay connected, or the task is not complete. These range from races against a brutal clock to certain tasks that challenge your gaming expertise as far as it will go. There's not a single maze here that doesn't feel intimidating. The variety in the 70+ stages is excellent, enough to make each level jump seem fresh.
The difficulty ramp has obviously been worked out to a point where you're trained early, drawn in quickly, and so hooked by the end, you can't stop playing. It's a classic case of "you can't put this down" syndrome, even in the later stages where it almost becomes "throw it into a wall due frustration" syndrome. Saving is available after every stage, so if you're stuck and late for work, you have plenty of opportunity to pick up where you left off.
It doesn't take long to really begin grasping the game. The analog control feels smooth as you tilt the table to move the mercury between various obstacles in hopes of not being chopped in half or zapped. Stages that feature multiple color-changing, separated pieces require everything gaming skill you have to make it. The slowly counting down timer only adds to the stress levels. You need to think about each individual stage layout before making any movement.
Morphing and manipulating your liquid goop is mesmerizing. The way it bobs and squishes is unlike anything you've ever seen in a video game. The stages all have themes and static backdrops, but the highlight always remains a drop of goo. You almost wish there was some sort of free roam mode just so you could stare as it moves about. It's an impressive technical feat and it shows just how easily a gamer can be entertained.
At the very least, you could watch a friends move about in the disappointing multi-player mode. Instead of going head to head, you simply race against a ghost of your opponent's best time. It's almost a waste, especially considering how much potential was here.
After realizing how cheated you were in the multi-player aspects, you can calm down to some of the light music in the background. There are few stages with upbeat, faster paced tracks, but for the most part, it's all soothing and relaxing. That's because the developers don't want to responsible when you're new handheld is tossed across the room in frustration. There's little in the way of sound effects, not even a satisfying liquid splashing effect.
While it can't compete with Lumines, it's not particularly fair to draw the comparison either. They're radically different games, each offering their own experience. However, Lumines just seems more polished overall. Moreover, trying to carefully move your mercury through a maze during a bumpy car ride just isn't possible. This would arguably make a slightly better home game, maybe even with a level creator. That would give gamers something extra to do besides beat high scores.