Let’s begin with some light animal cruelty. In The Walking Pet, developers Ketchapp have taken a selection of cartoon critters, replaced their naturally flexible back legs with stilt-stiff ones and hauled them upright to see how far they can make it on just these new, humorously unstable hindquarters.
Each of the unfortunate animals totters along like a WAG emerging from a wine bar and it’s your job to keep them vertical and moving forwards by tapping the screen. Tap too slowly and they’ll topple forwards; too fast and they’ll end up flat on their back. You’ve heard of endless runners, well, this is an ephemeral walker.
Most journeys last less than a dozen staggered steps before, either painfully quickly or agonisingly slowly, catastrophe strikes. The entire experience is like a visit to the rehabilitation wing of an RSPCA military hospital. In fact, it’s a less frustrating, slightly more slapstick reanimation of Set Snail’s own iOS game, Daddy Long Legs.
The single joke stretches just far enough thanks to the tiny ramps placed cruelly in your path and the regular arrival of new creatures to snigger at. For all the gentle fun though, my abiding memory of TWP will be the look in the eyes of each of the accursed beasts. It’s not one of great pain, just sad resignation and powerful disappointment that you’ve chosen to put them through all this for a couple of minutes of your own idle amusement. It’s tragic comedy with you, the all-conquering human, making the animal world march to the beat of your thumb.
Monsters Ate My Metropolis is the new game from PikPok and Adult Swim, and initially, it looks very similar to their previous collaboration, Monsters Ate My Condo – A hyperactive, interactive Saturday morning cartoon engorged by explosions of colour and unhealthy levels of artificially flavoured freneticism. The kind of experience that requires a post-play hosing down from a pressure washer filled with pure Ritalin.
Whereas Condo mixed Jenga with a match-3 game and involved the panicked flinging of pre-fabricated building units, however, Metropolis is actually a more considered turn-based card-battler. Like most free-to-play deck building games, it involves an essential amount of grinding. Where MAMM succeeds, is in the way it manages to hide this tedium behind its’ gargantuan beasts and the clouds of destructions they create.
While the creatures themselves may be small in number, they’re big on charisma (and urban regeneration). Ranging from something that looks like a giant My Little Pony with anger management issues, to a mutant crab sporting a shipping trawler trilby, the comic book battles they engage in against the sentient cities are riotous, last thing standing clashes enlivened by an arsenal that includes alien cat attacks and giant disco ball ripostes.
Amidst all the chaos, there’s a surprising level of strategy here. Not least because you’re required to build and maintain two decks of cards; one to assist your own monster in reducing other players’ cities to rubble, the other to protect your own home town from other competitors’ rampaging creatures. A rock, paper, scissors-like hierarchy system to the different colours of card adds further tactical nuance to fights, as do the frequent quick-time events. Despite appearances, MAMM is the thinking monster’s game of mindless destruction.
It says something about the increasing notoriety of software bugs that they’re now starting to get their own spin-off games.
PAC-MAN 256 is a tribute to possibly the most famous gaming glitch of all time. The one that makes an impassable mess out of the 256th stage of the Pac-Man arcade machine by transforming it into something resembling a 1980’s Matrix prequel – Which is basically the same thing as the 1990s Matrix, just with Agent Smith played by Alan Sugar.
The game plonks everyone’s favourite pizza-inspired, competitive eater into an infinite extension of one of his normal Pac-Man mazes. As you desperately swipe to move Pac in different directions, devouring dots and avoiding ghosts, you’re constantly pursued by a frothing wave of disintegrating code. Your only goal is to stay alive for as long as possible, accumulating as high a score as you can along the way.
The whole thing is another clever piece of post-modern programming from developer Hipster Whale, whose last game was the excellent Crossy Road; a similar reimagining of another retro classic, Frogger. All the essential Pac-Man trimmings are present, from table-turning power pellets to score-boosting collectable fruit .There’s even a limited number of new weapons, including lasers and bombs, to bolster your Pac attack.
Unfortunately, while the in-app purchases in Crossy Road were all for optional cosmetic items, in Pac-Man 256 they’re essential to any prolonged success. That may be more in keeping with the money devouring motives of both the original coin-op machines, but it’s still a little hard to stomach. And it leaves the player with a choice as to how they consume Pac-Man 256: As a free-to-play hors-d’oeuvre or reasonably priced main course.
Prune is the striking, minimalist new creation from designer Joel McDonald. Part puzzle game, part interactive arboretum, it doesn’t so much require you to bend your mind as ask it to flex with the suppleness of a sapling in a summer breeze.
Each level begins with you casting a seed into a decidedly unfertile looking tract of soil, then beavering away as your tree sprouts upward with Triffid-like determination, chopping back all the errant growth, training it towards the light. Bathe enough of the branches in direct sun and you’ll be rewarded with the precious blossom you need to progress. Think of it as a Fruit Ninja knock-off made by the Forestry Commission and you’re basically there.
Actually, that’s extremely unfair. Prune takes a tired touch mechanic that’s been commercially over-exploited and has it flourishing again with a gentle artistic and contemplative flair. There’s such a holistic approach to horticulture here, it’s basically Monty Don in app form.
As the game progresses things do become decidedly more abstract. Red and blue energy spheres that infect and invigorate your tree respectively are joined by tripwires, trigger gates and, eventually, branch-thirsty buzz saws until Prune basically end up as Limbo for the lumberjack fraternity.
All the time though, the focus remains the same: striving for that successful partnership between nature and nurture. The trees you create don’t have perfect trunks or picture book canopies; instead, they have a brutal beauty to them, one you admire for what they’ve sacrificed to survive.
McDonald previously worked on the Call of Duty games; which probably makes him the only person in the games industry to have swapped spawn camping for coppicing. Prune is a short game, but it’s a memorable one, nonetheless. A tree surgeon simulator that removes all the dead wood. Joel McDonald, take a bough.