First Impressions: Muscle March

Namco delivers possibly the most bizarre game to come from Japan in years.

If you've gotten into the Japanese import scene at all you've probably discovered that there's games released in Japan that never see localisation outside of Japan. Japanese game developers have a knack for coming up with some pretty unusual game concepts and Japanese publishers seem to be willing to bring these to a Japanese public which seems eager to play them.

Muscle March stands out for several reasons. First it's a port of an arcade game (anyone know what the cabinet for this looked like or what the controls were like?), second it was published by Bandai-Namco, one of the largest and oldest Japanese game publishers, and finally it involves guiding a bodybuilder (or polar bear) in pursuit of a protein powder thief through openings in walls made by said thief, through a variety of landscapes, by adopting different body-building poses.

After starting the game you've got two menu choices (and the array of player-controlled characters to examine in all their overdeveloped muscle-bound glory): ‘Play The Game’ or ‘View The Credits’. Viewing the credits gives you some terrific techno music and production/development credits against a randomly chosen character dancing over and over and over again. The characters are impressively animated and seem to have been motion-captured and their physique is so over the top as to be ludicrous.

The game itself has two modes: arcade mode and time attack mode, the latter of which can be played with 1-4 players. I mainly played arcade mode. First choose your character. Characters represent a range of nationalities (and species) and different walks of life. Each of them have names and other vital statistics and each of them are massive body-building fanatics -- well, except the bear, he looks out of shape. As you highlight each one's face you're treated to them dancing as in the credits. Tony is the American boxer (or is that an American Football helmet?) and Branda is the British female bodybuilder. There's also a Russian punk complete with nose-to-ear chain, headphones and mohawk, a Japanese bodybuilder with a crazy topknot and swimming goggles, a Spaniard with tophat, twirly moustaches and rose between his teeth, a fellow from Ghana with a giant afro and a large rubber duckie sitting on it, a Norwegian polar bear in trunks and presumably other unlockable characters, though I've yet to get far enough to find out. You then have a choice of three stages: City, Edo (this takes place in medieval Japan) and Space (naturally). You're then shown the four moves you need to do in the game with the Wii Remote and nunchuck -- no stick use or buttons required; this is all motion all the time -- both up, both down, and then Wii Remote up/ nunchuk down or nunchuck up/Wii Remote down. Press A to start and then prepare to be blown away!

The story is gripping and the gameplay straightforward: it seems someone (the person changes depending upon the stage, City has an American Football player, Edo a purple turtle-looking demon, haven't tried space yet) has stolen the protein powder from our muscle-bound friends and they are naturally ticked off and seek to retrieve their precious body-building magic dust. In the course of his escape the fiend smashes through walls and runs at breakneck speed through the environment into buildings, over rooftops and through the air. Every time the thief busts through a new wall he creates a pose which must be copied by his pursuers lest they bounce away out of action. You start out at the back of a queue of your muscle-friends who will gradually blow it, leaving you alone to copy the moves to pass through the shapes, each success meaning an increase in speed until the side-on finale where you perform rapid up-down movements with the Wii Remote and nunchuk in a final sprint to tackle the offender (at which point several of your pals also pile on). Then in a dramatic turn of events the protein powder is launched into the hands of a...SPACE ALIEN!!! And the chase continues; apparently with a 3rd and final hand-off to come. Sadly I've yet to see the finale as the allotment of five failures wasn't enough for my first time playing the game, and I...failed!

Clearly with a motion-controlled game the controls will be the make-or-break issue and Namco's done a pretty good job with this. Your left and right arms are mapped to the nunchuck and Wii Remote respectively and you simply move them up and down as required with your character's arm doing the appropriate movement on-screen. The sensitivity seems to be a bit on the high side so moving to a neutral position (which causes your character to switch to holding big, red dumbbells whilst running) doesn't seem to be a good idea as you can register a false positive direction when say switching from nunchuk up/Wii Remote down to the reverse pose. I've found that keeping the last pose puts you in a better position to respond and when the game gets towards the tackling phase reactions will definitely be a factor! One problem I have yet to overcome is the impulse to exactly emulate the on-screen pose, though I was impressed I did manage to keep my shirt and trousers on throughout the game.

Timed mode sees from 1-4 players pursuing what looks like, um, a gold-suited muscle-bound Teletubbie, up a rainbow spiralling around a giant beanstalk against a star-filled background (honestly, you couldn't make that up!). Every wall you pass through increases your speed from a starting 5kph to FAST. The best I managed to do was 45kph and that was pretty mental! These scores are recorded, though there's no online leaderboards and you don't record your initials. There's potentially other content I've yet to see, but more play is required to see if that's the case.

The obvious question is: will Muscle March get the worldwide exposure it deserves? I wish I could answer that, but honestly I have no clue. Until Nordcurrent released Minon: Everyday Hero I wouldn't have thought Go! Go! Minon! would be released outside of Japan; likewise I was so convinced Let's Tap! would be a Japanese-only release that I made that my first Japanese pre-order. This game has gotten enough attention that it's possible, though I think the fact that Cho Ainiki got a Hanabi Festival release, but Ai Cho Ainki, the more over the top sequel, did not could mean this also stays in Japan. I certainly cannot see Bandai-Namco USA localising it, but definitely some smaller publisher in Europe might take the plunge. Cross your biceps in hope!

The game is 800 points and if this was less crazy it certainly wouldn't be worth it, but if you have the means to play this game do yourself a favour and get it!

Check out the video below to get a full appreciation for the muscle-bound madness on offer: