There aren't many strategy games currently available on the Wii. Oddly enough, half of them come from its Virtual Console service. Metal Marines, originally a SNES game from Namco, offers a peculiar strategy experience for 800 Wii points, with real-time gameplay interrupted by a separate battle mode. It's got limitations and frustrations that will limit its appeal to the average customer, but strategy buffs will find enough to like here--provided that they can dig past its oddball structure.
Each of Metal Marines' 20 missions takes place across a pair of islands--one occupied by you and one by your opponent--presented in an isometric grid. The goal is to destroy all enemy bases. You never access the opposing island outside of combat: There's no spying on or expanding into enemy territory. You and your opponent are limited to building in your own spaces, so the focus is really on preparation from afar. It just feels restrictive knowing that you can never overwhelm and occupy your opponent's space.
Missions begin with you placing your three bases across your island in strategic locations. You're free to take as long as you need to consider the best spot to park your bases. When you're finished, the real-time portion of the game begins. You'll build defensive turrets, antiair missiles, attack missiles, and mechs known as metal marines, among other things. Only an ever-accumulating pool of cash is necessary to build, so there's not much resource management save for building structures to speed up cash flow. Energy, which is required to execute an attack, is the only other resource and accumulates in the same way as cash.
When an attack is initiated, everything under construction stops and whoever's being attacked can't do anything until the assault ends. This feels somewhat cheap when you're on the receiving end, though for some, this leads to a sense of urgency that may be exciting. When you initiate combat, your viewpoint shifts to a top-down map. You can only attack with three weapons: missiles, a rarely-used nuke, and walking mechs known as metal marines. Missiles are always launched first. Because you can't see enemy territory at the outset, firing the first few salvos of missiles feels like Battleship--you hunt and peck until you get lucky. Furthermore, missiles launch sequentially instead of in parallel, which makes them easy targets for antiair turrets. You'll have to target areas surrounding these turrets to pick them off slowly, one by one.
After the missiles, a dropship deploys up to three metal marines (if you've chosen any). These are limited to 60 seconds and a 6-by-6 area--which barely takes up half of the screen--in which to raze whatever's in sight, before returning home. It's pretty silly to drop your mechs close to a valuable target, only to be blocked off from it because it doesn't fall within the limited area. You can, however, use this limitation to pick off a large crop of defensive units one at a time, provided you have enough energy stored up to call for multiple strikes.
As far as your arsenal goes, you're stuck with the same structures and weapons available in the first mission throughout the entire game. There are no tech trees to learn and no snazzy new units to buy. Despite this, the elements necessary to a good strategy experience are there: prioritizing your targets, the makeup of defensive arrangements, and exploiting weak flanks, among other things. True, it's all basic stuff, but it's still engaging because of the terrain variety and the game's challenging--if frustrating--opponents. Don't be surprised when a single enemy missile somehow zooms past all of your antiair defenses or when your well-hidden bases are found and assaulted within the first minutes of a match. Some missions can take well over an hour to complete. But even if you fail a mission, it's often clear where mistakes were made and how to improve your tactics for the next go round, goading you into giving it another shot.
Metal Marines hasn't aged well, and its odd segmented structure and sluggish combat require some saintly patience to appreciate. If you're a strategy enthusiast who wants a solid challenge, you'll likely be able to look past the game's age, welcome the difficulty, and ultimately find the game difficult to put down. The rest of you wanting to partake in more streamlined strategizing will want to check the Virtual Console for Military Madness instead.