Insomnia | Reviews

Uo Poko


By Alex Kierkegaard

Uo Poko (lots of fish) revolves around the puzzle-solving antics of two cats in a yellow submarine. They occasionally... exit the submarine to solve puzzles. After they've cleared each puzzle they get back in the sub and travel deeper into the ocean. These are some water-loving cats alright. In the title screen one of them is seen wearing a face mask and gaily swimming around. Don't ask me why or what; I've long since given up trying to make sense of the plot.

This is Cave's first arcade game that is not a shooter. Why did a company focused on shooters decide to make something so different from their usual fare? Well, why not? A puzzle game is little more than an idea. Once you have the idea and a suitable theme, designing a few stages around it is not very difficult, nor extremely time-consuming. Besides, with its charming underwater setting, relaxing music, and fairly simple mechanics, Uo Poko makes a perfect diversion between rounds of Dodonpachi madness.

One thing that stands out right away is the simplicity of the controls. If you don't bother watching the attract mode, for the first few goes you'll be wondering whether you can do more than just use down on the arcade stick. The quick answer is you can't. Your cat pulls down a chain which is connected to a plunger, similar to the ones found in pinball machines. Release it and a small sphere is propelled upwards and into a playing field full of similar multi-colored spheres. When you match up three or more spheres of the same color they turn into air bubbles and vanish. Clear all spheres in a stage to move on to the next one.

By varying the spring compression you can control the amount of force used to launch the spheres, and thus the point where they will land in the playing field. For the first two stages the game helps you out by drawing a dotted line, which shows the exact spot where each sphere will land. It is important that you take advantage of this and learn to launch them with precision. Later on, when you are pressed for time and the puzzles grow more complex, placing the spheres should be second nature.

Complicating matters are various spheres with unique properties. For example, some of them possess a hard outer shell, which you have to somehow remove before you are able to clear them. There are also blocks which simply vanish when hit, and others which are indestructible (you don't have to clear these to beat the stage -- they are only there to make your life more difficult). Several more items exist, and part of the fun is figuring out what each one of them does.

The stages are always the same, therefore the emphasis is not on quick thinking, as in Tetris for example, but on more complex pattern recognition. There is of course an element of speed involved, as in all such games. Take too long and the floor starts to rise slowly, pushing all spheres upwards -- when a sphere hits the ceiling it's game over. However, most stages are quickly cleared by some sort of trick, that only becomes obvious after you've figured it out. Therefore, if you manage to clear a stage once, you'll most likely never lose on that stage again. This has two negative consequences: replaying stages you've already cleared is not very fun, and the game can be beaten fairly easily if you devote enough effort (on the other hand, if you don't try to figure out the tricks you'll never beat it, no matter how long you play for).

Uo Poko works; it's fun, well-made and has that one-more-go appeal that is the hallmark of good puzzle games. What makes it stand out from similar object-matching puzzlers, however, is the wonderfully unique two player mode. This is a whole new game, with both cats launching spheres, a wider playing field and different stages. It's also much more difficult because co-ordinating your moves with your friend doesn't come naturally (it is common for both players to launch spheres at the same time, only to have them hit each other in mid air, causing both to land in unintended positions). You really need to take the time and learn to work together, otherwise you have no hope of clearing the stages. I tried it with a friend for a while and we didn't get very far. Only patient players need apply.

As you clear each stage the game tracks your progress on a map, and initially I thought that the objective was to reach a sunken ship. It turns out that the ship was just background decoration. Your true goal lies further down, somewhere in the ocean's dark depths. What are the cats looking for? The answer will be your reward for beating the game.