When I think 'Mercenary', I think along the lines of the only game I know of with that theme - Mercenaries 2: World in Flames. A bunch of hardened former military folk blowing everything up because it's all part of the job; something like that. This is Mercenary though, which is quite different and much older.
You're not a gruff mercenary in the same sense, but you can certainly make use of your ships weaponry against the locals, be they on the other side or on your side and in your way - it doesn't matter, you just want to get off the planet you've crash landed on, which means I've got to crash land and see what this game has in store.
Mercenary has quite the following, and all the series is available as part of a freeware clone, so playing it should be a doddle. After an intro cinematic of sorts, you find yourself on the planet Targ. It's bright, but you don't see much at first, apart from a ship sticking out of the ground - yours - and a ship sitting on a runway - soon to be yours.
Messages come through to tell you that you can purchase that ship immediately, and then suggest that you head off for the location designated 09-06. After a little fumbling with the controls, I flying all over the place.
The view isn't exactly crammed full of things to see, but your ships controls are nice and responsive, with the ground below moving according to your speed and heading as you'd expect any flight simulator to move. Whatever catches your eye - often a single white pixel floating in the middle of nowhere - you can speed towards to investigate. You're free to do what you want, when you want, and are encouraged to explore.
This of course means that I got lost. Hopelessly lost. So lost that even following a guide I got lost, practically immediately. But I took a look at the other areas of the Mercenary fan-site, notably scans of the instruction manual, and by golly did I try to explore further.
I found myself lost in a hangar complex, I think. Somewhere in here is a meeting room for my first mission, should I have chosen to follow that message hint at the start of the game, and blindly opening doors into different coloured rooms should take me there eventually, right?
While finding this wire-frame table furthered the story, it didn't really further my progress. I was still lost in a hanger, itself lost on the surface of a planet and I was soon losing the plot. But I like it, now that I have a slight clue what it's about...
Mercenary doesn't exactly throw you into a town under dragon attack (though it does crash land you on a planet I guess), but it does allow you to go anywhere you like and do anything you want early on - so long as that involves flying ships and picking up items.
I assume there's more to it than that. There probably is, but I'm utterly stumped without a guide and rather stumped with one. I could easily see hours spent getting nowhere with this game, which - while an adventure in itself - would be a bit of a problem in adulthood. I don't have hours any more, not in whole chunks at least.
Until I make any sort of progress beyond pressing 'Y' to buy a ship and then getting lost, I can't really comment too much about Mercenary beyond what I see. Make no mistake, what I see is great. You could call it Elite with a bucket-load of colour and I for one wouldn't argue.
It controls well too. I don't know how slow it may have performed on the computers of old, but it certainly feels good in MDDClone, once you remember which key does which action - and there aren't too many of them to remember either (yes, I forgot them when first starting).
Mercenary is a world of promise which probably does meet that promise, it's just that I've not got a clue what I'm doing in order to see it, which is a shame. The fan-site contains a wealth of information though, and looking through the maps and layouts of the locations, reading through the hints (that I'm too much of a dunce to follow) and seeing the number of different ways you can complete the game is nothing short of impressive.
When the time comes to try again, I'll endeavour to try harder, and as I say, with the entire series freely available, if I find Mercenary worth sticking with then there's plenty of content to last a while.
Italian gaming website Zzap! reviewed Mercenary IV: The Eleventh Planet in 1998, proving the series still had some life in it. Except that the game was non-existent and the review was an April Fools prank.
Mercenary, developed by Novagen Software, first released in 1985.
Version played: PC, MDDClone, 2007.