Monday, April 2, 2012

Muchi Muchi Pork! (Xbox 360)

Checkpoints OFF
4 Difficulty levels
5 Stages (loopable)
Ship speed fixed, selectable at start
- - - - - - -
Developed by Cave
Published by Cave in 2010

Most Cave fanatics went nuts when the Muchi Muchi Pork! & Pink Sweets bundle was announced for the Xbox 360. Designed by Shinobu Yagawa (of Battle Garegga fame), both games were highly anticipated by shooter addicts. The package is irresistible for any fan of the genre, even though the retail treatment it received is somewhat lacking when compared to all other Cave ports for the Xbox 360. Exhibit #1: graphics were not redone in high definition. Exhibit #2: awkward interface that cripples a few peripheral aspects of an arcade game (attract mode, high score initials). Verdict? Still a great purchase, full of value despite the rumors that both games had been designed with an XBLA release in mind, in line with what had been previously done with Guwange.

The lack of HD motivated me to dig out the composite cable for the 360 and hook it to my 29" CRT. Don't get me wrong, the games are perfectly playable on an HD set, but to enjoy them to the fullest a CRT is undoubtedly the best option. It's still necessary to set it right though, going down at that first selection screen to find and change "Wide mode" to OFF and get rid of the horizontal bars. Once Muchi Muchi Pork! was selected (left) I just had to go to the options and adjust the screen size to the orientation I wanted to use. The game looks great in whatever setting you choose (YOKO/TATE), but the interface menus might appear slightly chopped. It's a bit annoying but it's nothing gamebreaking. Real loss is reserved, as mentioned above, to the attract mode, which is shrunk in a mock-up of an arcade cabinet. It's not possible to see it in full because once you choose the game mode the screen zooms in directly to the character selection.

Muchi Muchi Pork! is best described as a colorful steampunk styled cute'em up bullet hell. It's filled with extremely detailed and animated designs, weapons and bullets, the typical shooter eye candy one would expect from Cave. Pacing and bullets aren't exactly fast, the game prefers to overwhelm the player with several layers of slow bullet clouds intertwined with lasers, mines, flamethrowers, all sorts of thin projectiles and kamikaze planes for a great destruction spectable. Every once in a while, mainly on bosses, bullet fountains will flood the screen as you try to deal with them armed only with a main/regular shot (A), lard shot (B) and bombs (X). That's all that any of the three pig-transformed fat chicks can count on to battle an alien ruler who's about to take over the world. The girls are surely heavy, those flying bikes they pilot must have very good propelling engines.

Momo takes on the first hateful enemy!

Rafute (yellow) is the fastest but less powerful of the girls. She fires a straight shot and her lard shot is a ball of energy that latches on enemies. Momo (pink) is the most balanced one, she fires a spread pattern with a wide laser beam as lard shot. Ikuo (blue) has laser trailing options that home on enemies and her lard shot is an impressive drilling laser. Rafute's bomb has the longest duration of them all, Ikuo's the shortest. After a few tries I decided to go with Momo. Her speed suited me better, as well as the wide reach of her fully powered lard shot. Unfortunately Christina Ricci's Penelope isn't in there. Even though she's not chubby she'd make a great fourth character, wouldn't she?

Getting acquainted with the game isn't as straightforward as chosing one of the characters. Muchi Muchi Pork! has a very pleasing and engaging scoring system, but it takes a while to fully understand it due to the amount of details involved. If you want to score higher the first thing you need to learn is the interaction between both types of shot. Destroyed airborne enemies release P items and parachuting piggies, ground enemies release crawling piggies. Collect Ps to power up the main shot and piggies to fill the lard gauge. Note #1: if you're using regular shot parachuting piggies within a certain radius are automatically sucked into the ship. Note #2: piggies will only add to the lard meter if you collect them after having used or while using regular shot (button A). Note #3: you need to get a minimum number of Ps to start using lard shot (button B), and to activate it at least one little bit of the lard meter must be filled. All enemies killed with the lard shot produce cubes/medals that get sucked in when you switch from lard shot to regular shot. Successive waves of cube-sucking will increase cube values in the following manner: 100-200-...-900-1000-2000-...-9000-10000.

On 1000 cubes get bigger, and when 10000 is reached all cubes will turn into precious gold snouts - that's when the scoring adrenaline rush starts. Raising cube value as fast as possible is a must, but beware: if one cube falls away and there's no other cube on screen the chain value is reduced to 1/10 of its original value. Note #4: it's the act of switching from lard to regular shot that makes the cubes get sucked in, not the act of using regular shot. Note #5: cubes are also absorbed if the lard meter gets depleted while lard shot is being used. Note #6: when used with an empty meter, lard shot results in a weaker piercing stream whose sole advantage is to produce more piggies than usual. Note #7: new cubes increase value only if the screen is empty of previously released cubes (wait until a cube wave has been totally absorbed to "lard" cubes of higher value).

Whenever a bomb is triggered (button X) a bomber character is summoned. During the whole time the bomber is on screen the player is invincible, every bullet/enemy destroyed by its firepower is turned into parachuting piggies and lard shot reaps Ps instead of cubes. Every life starts with two bombs in stock, but it's possible to get more by collecting bomb "hams" to fill a special meter. The catch is that hams appear only from ground enemies destroyed with the lard shot. Once the special meter is full a new bomb is added to the stock. If there are no bombs left and the meter is half full, triggering a bomb will fire a localized blast in front of the character, which is useful for cancelling nearby bullets.

Going from the basics to more advanced gameplay, eventually everybody has to face the nasty subliminar challenge of rank. By default, the Xbox 360 port offers a difficulty gauge that keeps track of the rank for you. As much as I tried to like it there came a point where I couldn't bear to see that gauge max out by the half of stage 4, so I turned it off. It made more sense from a psychological standpoint (not knowing is not worrying about it, right?). From all things that affect rank and tend to make the game even harder the worst one is increasing the number of lives. You earn an extra life for every 10 million points you score, but having more than three lives in stock will send the rank through the roof. The only alternative to this is suiciding, a gameplay aspect that defines shooters designed by this Yagawa guy. He's also responsible for bosses not having health bars, which annoys the hell out of me. Therefore, timing boss kills is imperative if you want to milk them correctly: (1) destroying parts makes them angrier so they shoot more and more bullets, (2) bombing these bullets produces lots of parachuting piggies, which are worth many points, and (3) killing a boss or mid-boss with the lard shot will turn all on screen bullets into gold cubes. It's not easy to do it right, and it's fairly common to ruin a boss kill because of bad timing. The only occasion where dying is irreversibly detrimental to scoring is if it happens during an absorbing animation, because then the cubes will hopelessly accelerate off screen. If you die while cubes are falling (not being absorbed) it's still possible to preserve the combo: quickly get some recover power-ups and hit something to produce at least another cube before the pre-death ones disappear.

My best run on version 1.01

Of course the simple act of staying alive also contributes to the progression of rank. Further detailed strategies consist of optimum paths for cube harvest, a single 1UP if you kill the midboss in stage 3 with lard shot on an empty lard meter, special attention to crucial enemies that must be killed quickly or else will plaster the screen with bullets, targets that release more/less piggies and tricky enemies that can take you by surprise. Some of these tricky enemies are the random fat plane platform on the nose of the first boss, those planes that fire straight bullets first then plummet down on you pretty fast in circling patterns (stages 3 and 5), the powerful bombers that storm into the screen if you kill the second mid-boss in stage 4 too fast, the passage with yellow hatching eggs that explode into blazing fast three-way patterns (stage 4) and the laser turrets in stage 5. Let's not forget about the annoying random cubes that drop from time to time and might break the combo - do a quick shot switch to absorb them on the fly.

Muchi Muchi Pork! is beautiful in its attention to detail, I'm just not a fan of the anime artwork, it feels a bit rushed and unpolished for my taste. However, I absolutely love the uplifting, almost fluffy pop soundtrack. There are lots of great moments in the game, but the section I like the most is the windmill field in stage 4, a level that is in many ways harder than stage 5. One noteworthy conclusion is that the smooth nature and style of the animation makes the game visually less intense than other Cave contemporary titles (it was originally released between Mushihimesama Futari and Deathsmiles). That's why seeing it in action gives the misleading impression that it's an easier shooter. As you start playing you realize things aren't so simple due to the level of control you need to have over rank. I tried to avoid the idea of suiciding but after being crushed over and over for a couple of weeks I finally caved in.

Both games in the package default to the so-called 1.01 versions, which are tweaked takes on the arcade originals. Muchi Muchi Pork! 1.01 is easier than version 1.00 (arcade) because the lard attack lasts longer and the lard gauge refills faster. The looping criteria was loosened completely: in 1.00 you have to 1-life the game with five spare lives to go to the second loop, in 1.01 the entrance to the loop is free (no criteria at all besides 1CCing). On everything else both versions are virtually equal but make no mistake: even with the lard attack tweaks version 1.01 is a hell of a challenge. After selecting ARCADE mode go to the options to choose which version you want to play (1.00 or 1.01) and, if desired, special "courses" Harahara (2nd loop) or Manpuku (enemies shot a ludicrous amount of suicide bullets unless they're killed at point-blank distance). There's also an ARRANGE mode and a MATSURI version accessible with a download code included in the 1st print of the game. The main difference in the MATSURI version is that it adds bosses from Pink Sweets after all regular bosses. A deeply customizable practice option for all modes is included, the only downside is that you can't go directly to specific parts of a stage (e.g. bosses). For more details about differences in modes you can check EOJ's insightful review (unfortunately this review is no more :( ).

Local and online leaderboards for all modes complete the package, with the possibility of recording your runs and uploading replays if you play in SCORE ATTACK mode. Beware of using the X button in local leaderboards and replay screens, since all messages are in Japanese you can easily erase important stuff by accident (happened to me twice!). Unfortunately it's not possible to input initials in the local high score table, which is retarded beyond belief in this day and age. Muchi Muchi Pork! & Pink Sweets is region-free, and the limited edition comes with a double CD with arranged soundtracks for both games. I played the regular 1.01 course of Muchi Muchi Pork! on NORMAL with Momo and reached stage 2-2.

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