This Mortal Coil
µcade is (pronounced “mucade”) one of those rare indie games that’s not just a refreshing contradiction to brick-and-mortar releases in the gameplay department, but also visually arresting. It’s a mesmerizing freak of nature. µcade‘s what I expected to see peering down the barrel of a microscope for the first time: extraterrestrial strands wriggling back and forth, coiling around blocks, spraying dots at each other in a bid for Petri dish dominancy. Stare long enough and the game starts resembling spirochetes trying to reinterpret the Cirque du Soleil.
The game lets you play as one of said strands (actually centipedes, according to the website), though you start at the bottom of the evolutionary scale as a mere green blip. With infinite bullets to fiddle around with, the goal is to survive against an onslaught of purple and blue centipedes, which are also never in short supply. Designer Kenta Cho (a Japanese informatics researcher who moonlights as a programmer, releasing a game every six months or so) not only moves the centipedes around with fluidity, but also injects them with tiny personalities: the blue centipedes coil up and try to keep you at a distance. One shade of purple centipede will actively pursue and tackle you; while the other glides around the screen, releasing occasional streams of cannonade.
Screenshots of the game, what with the all-direction bullet assault, appear to categorize µcade as one of those impossible / manic shooters, and it’d be true except you’re impervious against bullets. And so are your enemies. Success doesn’t lie in blowing up the centipedes. Instead one must push them off the square arena with his body or bullets, while preventing the same from happening to him. Each centipede’s body is made of interlocking blocks, and when they go off the deep end their blocks are immediately added to your rear end. You immediately start getting pulled out of the arena if your body exits it. However, as long as your head remains in the arena you don’t die. It’s a fine reversal of fortune: not only are you outnumbered, but your reward for survival is a gaunt, unwieldy body that drags you down out of the arena. However, the points for bumping off centipedes or blocks (which randomly appear on the map) are multiplied by the number of blocks in your body. And the ‘x’ button stands by as your cataclysmic failsafe: pressing it wipes the screen of all bullets and the blocks in your body, resetting the multiplier but allowing a brief respite to move around unfettered.
This kind of game design (see how large you can build yourself) isn’t uncommon. Tumiki Fighters, one of Cho’s previous games, has you guiding a puny airplane that can graft itself onto any number of downed enemies and recycle their firepower. Or take the Katamari series; rolling up objects into an ever-enlarging orb represents this game design in its purest manifestation. But at some point in Tumiki Fighters, you’ll become so large that it’s impossible not to get shot. And in Katamari, the ball can only become as big as the level or timer allows. The King of the Cosmos will always come to sweep you away while babbling nonsense.
µcade isn’t restricted by such limitations. You never think “Well, this is as large as I can possibly get” even as you’re sagging down into the abyss. Or when you’re coiling around the blocks to anchor yourself to the arena. Or even when you have centipedes nestled in your serpentine body, and the only way to get rid of them is push yourself over the edge and then fight your way back onto the map. The possibility of more is always there and it’s ever seductive. Play the game with a drunkard’s delight: see how much you can take in as you push yourself towards ruination. Yet the game never directly challenges you to do so. Instead, it’s a challenge any serious player puts upon himself, a subtle and telling presence of fine game design.
Technically, I’d consider this a masterpiece, but in the face of other modern shooters and Cho’s previous efforts, it does lack accessibility and the instant gratification that the best shooters have. It’s a genre of utmost skill and precision, and µcade is as imprecise as you get. You don’t fly, as much as you ice glide. You don’t dodge bullets; you thrash and ride them like ocean waves. Victory isn’t based on weaving or learning patterns, but never losing the exhausting struggle of keeping your own body in check. It’s fun, but perhaps too anti-shootery and original for its own good. Maybe we need more µcades to get used to this subgenre. Unfortunately, I can’t see one being made better than this.