Good to go!
The Army Men rollercoaster is a ride I’m very familiar with. Wait, “roller coaster” is maybe a bit too generous. What is mostly down rather than up? A log flume. I’m very familiar with the Army Men log flume. I can assure you, there is a high and a lot of lows as you get splashed in the face with gross amusement park water. I’ve covered some of the lows, but how about we climb the conveyer belt to take a good look at the parking lot.
In terms of the series’ majestic views, Army Men Sarge’s Heroes is what I typically peg as the best. It was decent but janky on the N64. While the cameraman is a drunken hog, the level design is pretty fly, the gameplay is uneven but fun, and the concept itself is a winner. Weirdly, it was revisited on the Dreamcast, the only Army Men title to land there. It took what might be the best Army Men game and made it better.
Importantly, Army Men Sarge’s Heroes is a port of the N64 version. There was another version released on PS1 and PC which was substantially different and tangibly not as good. The only benefit in that version that doesn’t land on the Dreamcast is pre-rendered cutscenes. The N64 used poorly pantomimed cutscenes, and the port carries them over, including their strange motion quirks. The cutscenes are voiced over now, but it would have been nice to have the nicer pre-rendered ones.
Aside from that, it’s the N64 version. Helmed by Michael Mendheim, his idea for the series was to introduce a more character-based framework. True to its name, this was the title that introduced mainstay protagonist Sargeant Hawke and his company of… heroes. All of them were voiced by Jim Cummings. Many future games in the franchise would revolve around these characters; everything from Army Men: Air Attack to Army Men RTS.
The Army Men series has almost invariably revolved around the war between two factions of mass-produced plastic men: Green and Tan. The original Army Men game just had you traverse environments that were in scale with you green dude: the plastic world. Army Men 2 introduced the concept of our world – where the plastic figures are only a few centimeters tall – existing as a parallel universe.
Army Men Sarge’s Heroes continues this concept while taking things into the third-person perspective, and the use of the other world is well done. You catch your first glimpse of a gigantic bathtub in the third level, then they’re sprinkled in occasionally before the game ends with a grand finale through someone’s house. It helps keep you going, if only to see the next other world level.
The level design is fantastic; easily the feature of Army Men Sarge’s Heroes that holds up today. While the levels play out in a rather linear fashion, they’re peppered with nooks and crannies where you can stock up on ammunition for your more exotic weapons. The use of the other world is phenomenal, as you climb their impressive verticality and meander through environments that would be mundane if they weren’t massive.
As a third-person shooter, Army Men Sarge’s Heroes is almost delightfully straightforward. Maybe not as straightforward as something like MDK, but generally, you point your good man at the bad men and fire and everything gets taken care of.
The AI is a special kind of dumb. To be fair, I think there may have been some steps taken to improve it from the N64 version, but it is still extremely basic. A lot of the time, they’re just triggered to spawn and run to cover. Then their feet are just glued there and they won’t move until they die. Walk towards them with your flamethrower blazing and they’ll just stoically watch, popping off the odd shot.
You can still get yourself killed pretty easily, but this mostly happens when you don’t take a moment to look at your surroundings. It can be hard to tell which of your opponents is wielding a bazooka or knee-mortar until it’s too late. Death can come quickly in Army Men: Sarge’s Heroes, and when it happens, it’s back to the beginning of the level. The stages aren’t exactly marathons, but it can be a bit of a pill when a helicopter sneaks up on you.
Speaking of helicopters, some of the more charming bugs of the N64 version remain. Most happily is the one where, with some careful manipulation of the joystick, you can reverse Sarge’s strafe so he starts moonwalking. It’s the funkiest way to show an enemy your superiority.
On the other hand, the collision detection isn’t quite so warming. At a basic level, vegetation and other oddly shaped objects in the environment will just block shots that should clearly pass through. The strangest examples, however, are with vehicles. The hit detection extends a fair distance above and below tanks and helicopters. You can launch your bazooka well above the top of a tank’s turret and it will register as a hit. Same goes for helicopters.
What sucks, however, is that vehicle wrecks have been added to this version. On the N64, a vehicle would explode then quickly disappear. On the Dreamcast, a twisted version of their model is left behind, and they feature the same hitbox. So if a helicopter goes down between you and the enemy soldiers, you’ll just be hitting the wreck instead of your intended target. It’s a cool aesthetic addition, but also a pain in the butt.
Where Army Men Sarge’s Heroes is most successful is how faithful it is to the pastime of playing with toy soldiers. Magnifying glasses and firecrackers show up. There’s even a Creepy Crawlers oven that is used to melt toy soldiers into spiders, which I tried when I was a kid and that doesn’t work. The oven just uses a lightbulb that doesn’t get hot enough to melt a plastic soldier.
There’s a lot of care taken to replicate the look and feel of the toys. The Dreamcast version goes a bit too far in its graphical overhaul. In the N64 version, Sarge was a normal-looking soldier with Sarge’s face pasted on it. Here, he’s the barrel-chested dude he appears as in cutscenes and promo art. Likewise, a lot of the environment textures have been redone, and they change the feel of some of the levels.
Still, this is the best way to experience Army Men Sarge’s Heroes, if only because you don’t have to deal with the sluggish camera of the N64 original. It takes what was already great about the N64 version and polishes out some of what wasn’t so great. It’s the best way to play the best game in the series.