Review by Meho Krljic
Developer Namco Bandai
Publisher Namco Bandai
Released May 26, 2009
Available for Wii (WiiWare)
Time Played Half an hour (seriously)
Verdict: 2/5 Rotten Egg
“Not even its awesome gay power is able to save this barely-there game from spiraling down in flames and imploding with crushing boredom after the magic of its surreal beauty evaporates. Most people will last fifteen minutes.”
So, yeah… Some time ago I was recorded, by this very website saying something along these lines: “THIS is what not just justifies owning a Wii and enduring silly people saying silly shit about it at every occasion, but actually makes one feel SMUG about being a Wii owner.”
Not so smug now, eh?
Well, it depends. It really does. Muscle March is not a very good game. But then again, it’s such a thrilling, surreal experience for the fifteen minutes or so that you will be spending with it that it comes really close to justifying the money you spent on it just for the damn weirdness factor. It’s strange, campy, weird, charming and really fun just to look at and reminds one of what videogames can achieve: blending impossible with improbable and making it all work within a system that makes perfect sense even though it could never exist in the real world.
Muscle March, a WiiWare release by Namco Bandai is simultaneously embodying two main things that characterise Nintendo’s current gaming platform.
Thing Number One
This is the quintessential party game. It is extremely easy to pick and play, requires only basic skills but forces you to become better with time and communicates its objectives with superior ease. No one, no matter how drunk or inexperienced they are will struggle with Muscle March‘s control scheme or unclear winning conditions. At the same time, it is such a pleasure to look at and listen to that it simply seduces people into playing.
No, this is definitely not interactive art or something that academics will want to write long dissertations about, Muscle March seduces by winking at you perversely and then going the whole nine yards and over the top. It grabs you by being unashamedly and flamboyantly queer in such a disarming, joyful way that even the grimmest of homophobes will be cracking smiles at it after thirty seconds. It’s a spectacle of lights, colours, shapes, sounds, music and movement that shortcircuits brains and makes one’s palms itch to play. It is a videogame made for good times with friends (or total strangers), for laughs and giggles (well, and shits I imagine), for gamers and non-gamers alike, an experience that never pretends it’s anything else but a videogame. Muscle March is not a film, it has no literary ambitions, it is not trying to build worlds or treat the player as its co-creator. It doesn’t toy with your emotions or intellect. It is not Half-Life, Ico, Little Big Planet, Heavy Rain or GTA. It’s a silly, explosively friendly videogame about a bunch of bodybuilders (and a polar bear for Allah’s sake!!) chasing after a protein-shake thief across surreal cityscapes, making man-shaped holes in the walls as they go. And if that last sentence doesn’t get your heart to pump a little bit harder, your heart was probably made out of a piece of charcoal to start with.
Thing Number Two
So, yeah, that’s the Wii experience as it was originally advertised right there: funny and fun. Surreal and seductive. Original and unprecedented. Easy to pick and play and friendly towards gamers and non-gamers alike.
But what you also get is the Wii experience haters have been describing since the day the awareness of Nintendo’s evil plan dawned on the gaming population. The plan to suck your mothers, your fathers, your grandparents and your pets into the gaming world. The plan that, many people claim, ruined our games for us. The plan that created the casual-hardcore gamer divide in many people’s brains.
Because, you see, Muscle March is also the quintessential casual game. In the worst possible meaning of those words. Yes, it’s easy to pick up and play, easy to understand and control but it is also shallow, extremely restrictive and frankly, so thin on content that it is OK to feel insulted that Namco would want you to pay 800 Nintendo points for it. It is the epitome of a cheap cash-in on Wii’s popularity among, shall we say less learned gamers, by offering very little game under its seductive presentation.
(But, hey, at least you get really outlandish presentation which is far more than can be said for many “casual” games made for Wii.)
So what’s it all about?
March of the Mighty Muscle
Basically, Muscle March is a kind of a racing game. But you don’t control cars, airplanes, robots, motorboats, m0t0r81k35 or any kind of an engine powered vehicle. Instead, you control a bodybuilder, swimming trunks, oiled skin and all. Some of the bodybuilders you can pick at the start of the game have additional garments, such as a helmet (looking like something a hockey player would wear: Steerpike pay attention!) worn by the American bodybuilder Tony, a top hat worn by the Spanish guy (who also carries a rose in his teeth for that extra charm that makes all the difference between “hey this guy has style” and “I wonder what our babies might look like”) and a mohawk-facechain-headphones combo on the head of the Russian contestant.
You are free to pick any of these guys at the start of the game basing your choice purely on visual preferences because in terms of control or performance it makes no difference who you play as. If you feel really confident about your sexuality (and there is no reason you shouldn’t be: after all it’s the Xbox 360 crowd with their Gamerscores who feel the need to wave their e-penes around. The Wii owners have graduated to being cool and unmoved somewhere around the time their future console was renamed to sound like a small, non-threatening phallus), you can choose to play as Branda, the British female bodybuilder, or as a polar bear.
Yes, a polar bear. And if this didn’t make you think “damn, more games should let you play as polar animals (just think how much more awesome Gears of War would be if Marcus Fenix was actually a really pissed off sea lion!)” then I am afraid you’ve let your Gamerscore take over your higher intellectual processes.
Anyway, the plot is straightforward and also makes a lot of sense in that usual videogamey way: someone (and this someone can be a space alien, an American football player or a pair of weird cosplay-addicted, piggybacking teenagers) has stolen a can of protein powder. You know, that thing that bodybuilders put in their food to make their muscles even bigger, without giving them a skin condition and shrinking testicles. So, the perpetrator has the can of protein powder and is making a beeline across town with it. Where are they trying to get with it and what will they do then? Heaven knows, for what we can tell, they are just running in circles to annoy us.
Annoyed or not, all the bodybuilders in the game will start chasing after the thief, in a tidy line, one after the other. The player controlled character will be at the end of the line as the pursuit starts and the objective of the game is to catch the thief.
So far so simple, yes? Well, it gets simpler as you go on. Unlike other racing or pursuit games, Muscle March doesn’t bother you with accelerating or steering or braking. There is no overtaking or tactics of any kind. No, the main game mechanic is in line with the silly premise it supports and basically boils down to this:
The thief, leading the line, will be crashing through walls as he runs onwards and, depending on the position of his arms, the holes in the walls will be of a different shape. The only thing the player has to do is make sure their character’s arms are in the appropriate position for the hole the character is supposed to run through next. This is in turn done by moving a nunchuck and/ or Wiimote up or down slightly and the grand total of possible combinations is four: both arms up, both arms down, left up-right down and vice versa.
And that’s it. The skill the game demands from the player is as basic as that.
So how do you win? Well, as you run across town, the AI controlled bodybuilders will be gradually making mistakes (stepping on banana skins and the like) and dropping from the race. Eventually, you will be the last… er… man (or woman) (or polar bear) standing (that is to say: running) and the game will give you the opportunity to do a finishing move and take the thief down. This demands some quick alternate moves up and down with the nunchuck and Wiimote, simulating the running and is as close to “hardcore” gaming as Muscle March will get. However, if you fail in increasing your runner’s speed sufficiently, there is no real punishment. You’ll get to try again in a minute. After you take the perpetrator down, you will be treated to a very nice animation of a bodybuilder pileup and then it’s off to another race.
Now, the game is fun for a while because of the pure surrealism of its premise, its silly presentation and because gradually, the speed of the events increases and your eye-arms coordination has to become better.
But then the fun stops. Sadly.
Fifteen minutes of flame
Muscle March is really great for the first fifteen minutes you play it. And if you have a spouse or a friend or a very intelligent cat around, it can be even more fun for some more time (let’s say thirty minutes) because in addition to the arcade mode there is a time-attack mode that can be played by up to four players simultaneously.
However, those fifteen (or thirty) minutes will pass quickly and your giggles (and, OK, shits) will be replaced by frowns (and… farts I guess). Muscle March is just very shallow. At first it is extremely easy to play. And then it becomes just impossible. There is no way to react in time with the Wii’s slow, imprecise motion-tracking controls once the game picks up speed and what was at first a joyride through beautiful, campy environments becomes a procession of collisions with walls followed by the quick game over. And this is where the game’s simplicity (that served to charm anyone with a pulse into wanting to have a go at it half an hour ago) turns into crippling limitation. No, you can not really get better here by outthinking the game or by developing some kind of a tactical approach. And really, this was something you actually had in the earliest of commercial videogames, like Breakout or Space Invaders or Pac Man. Muscle March simply gives you nothing to work with. Just make sure you see the shape you have to assume and react in time by moving your arms up or down. Do it in shorter and shorter times until you simply can’t react quickly enough any more or, more likely, until Wii’s motion sensing becomes too crude for the increasingly demanding game.
There are no special moves. There are no collectibles that let you unlock alternate paths or reclaim some of the lost continues. There really isn’t anything in this game save for the need to react quicker and quicker until you lose. Muscle March was started as an arcade game but Namco ditched the idea and released what it had on WiiWare. It certainly does look like a proof of concept for an arcade game but it misses everything else. There is no smart scoring system, no intelligent ways to master the game, not even a proper competitive mechanic. Muscle March is just about speed and nothing else.
Add to this the sparseness of content on offer for extra insult. There is the grand total of three (yes, three) stages that you can race through. One is a modern day city, the other is medieval Japan and the third one is space (naturally). Yes, they all look lovely with tons of cute detail throughout but, seriously, three stages? God damn 3D Grand Prix on my Amstrad CPC twenty three years ago had, what, fifteen stages? Twenty?
Now, I realise that this is a WiiWare game and as such, it had to work around the size limitations this service imposes. And Muscle March uses huge, colourful graphics that look 3D (even though in reality are probably mostly 2D) and likely eat a lot of space, but still, three stages? Now, if there was an option to purchase more stages (player models and… other things) through downloads, I’d scream and stomp my feet and call Namco greedy and all, but that would at least demonstrate some kind of business strategy, some kind of ambition to make Muscle March into anything but a fifteen-minutes-of-fun-and-then-an-eternity-of-sorrow affair. But… nope. No, Namco obviously couldn’t be bothered. Even the scoring system hints that no one expected you to play this game for real. You can’t upload your scores from time attack mode to any leaderboards on the Web. You can’t even record them in-game. It’s as if Namco is saying to you: “who cares? This is a party game for people drunk enough to forget about playing it the morning after (and they’ll wonder why they dreamed of bodybuilders and polar bears). You want depth? You want persistent scores? More stages? You know what? Fuck you buddy!! We gotcher money!”
And then they’ll laugh, because they managed to seduce you into buying this by making it look irresistible. And you’ll hang your head in shame because you thought you were better than that. You thought “I am a Wii owner; I am not like those silly Xbox and Playstation people. I play games because they are fun, not because they have great presentation. I am able to see through the Veil of Maya that modern gaming has created with their graphics accelerators and quad-core CPUs” Yes, you thought all that and yet you fell, like they all fall in the end.
But it was a glorious looking fall, there is no doubt about that.
Romancing the stoned
Because Muscle March is a beautiful game to experience for those fifteen minutes before you get annoyed with the (lack of) gameplay. It’s colourful, it’s fast, it’s crazy. The characters are huge, wonderfully modelled and fantastically animated (my wife was amazed with the way the bodybuilders shake their hips as they run and I am wondering whether I should practice new ways of walking in secrecy). The environments are insane with detail, made of LSD fantasises featuring aliens, penguins and all imaginable colours of the rainbow. Inevitably, you’ll want to compare this game with Katamari Damacy because of all the visual excess it throws at you even though the latter game had the trivial addition of a genius gameplay to keep you coming back to it.
Muscle March doesn’t have genius gameplay but where the game designers failed, the graphics designers shine. Not only that art direction is wonderful, the game is executed fantastically with a great sense of speed but also wonderful animation, timed perfectly for comedic effect.
And it sounds great too. The music is thumping and bleeping its way to insanity in perfect sync with the rest of the game. I won’t say that there are Katamari-level smash hits on offer here but Muscle March‘s music is nonetheless catchy, crazy and infectious, just the way it should be. You will smile. You will feel good. Don’t doubt it for a second.
In the end, though, Muscle March is a curse inside of a blessing inside of a curse… inside of a blessing. It’s seductive, it’s joyful, it reaches the camp heights we have longed for since Cho Aniki but after the intoxicating first fifteen minutes it reveals that beneath the flashing surface and cheap thrills it hides nothing. Absolutely nothing. You can not hate it because it’s so handsome and silly and quick, but you can’t love it either because Namco never gave it any tools to make love with. Flamboyantly sexy but ultimately neutered, this is, some people will point out, a metaphor for Wii as a phenomenon too. And even while I wouldn’t agree with it, I have to say that in this particular case, after a truly smashing one night stand, perspectives of a long term relationship between me and Muscle March are very slim.
Because… There are games that you play but you don’t show to others (because how could others possibly understand all the depths and inner beauty of Shining Force or Final Fantasy IV?) and there are games that you play and show to anyone willing to watch (Shadow of the Colossus). Muscle March is the third, unloved category of games that you will be showing to other people but will not be playing yourself. And, yes, you will feel guilty even though it is not your fault.