If you’ll allow me start a review by totally geeking out for a moment: two of my favorite NES games were the G.I. Joe platformers developed by KID. Along with the more well-known classics of that era, they’re paragons I use as yardsticks to measure depth and polish in my review articles for retro-inspired games. The G.I. Joe platformers had it all: not only great level design, but numerous weapons, different mission types, unique playable characters, and even little vehicles those characters could climb into. You can bet I was intrigued by this similarly themed title, courtesy of “bazooka” Ben Chong, when I happened upon it in the App Store. Equally as interesting as the nostalgia factor is its heritage as a very successful HTML5 web game — a programming language we haven’t seen all that much of on iOS yet. So how does the iOS port of Private Joe: Urban Warfare (Out Now, $1.99) stack up on a platform quickly filling to the brim with retro platformers?
In terms of the overall gameplay concept, Private Joe has tons going for it. His push through enemy territory is a one-man operation, but his goals are many: rescuing POWs, blowing toxic waste generators to smithereens, putting down powerful monsters, or merely holding out for a specified time. The player can cycle through different weapons at a moment’s notice, each with its own devoted ammo supply that must be rationed as situations demand. If you try to make Pvt. Joe go up against a tank with a pistol, you’re just asking for it; bring the bazooka or Pvt. Joe’s very own tank instead! The player can use coins dropped by enemies to purchase more ammo in an ever-present shop menu if the rationing doesn’t go so well. Seeing as Pvt. Joe lacks a melee option, there’s the question of what happens when his ammunition stock runs completely dry, but this would be an incredibly rare circumstance in any case.
Private Joe’s physics are something of an acquired taste, but certainly entertaining enough while the player gets used to it. Momentum plays a key role: Pvt. Joe has to get a good running start to make high jumps, and by the same token, it’s harder to stop him once he’s moving at maximum speed. Private Joe increasingly calls on the player’s platforming skills as the hero knocks down its 30 levels, but environment design eases the player in with an appropriate learning curve.
Sadly, Private Joe’s technical implementation on iOS leaves much to be desired. Its bare-bones menu design will be the first thing to irk players. If you think tapping on small text hyperlinks in your iDevice’s Safari browser is a tricky proposition, surprise! That’s how you select missions and sift through your inventory menu in Private Joe, and it’ll leave you thirsty for the satisfying “click” of virtual buttons backed by cocos2d.
Speaking of virtual buttons, the ones used for running, jumping, and firing in Private Joe feel like they’re much too close together. Changing direction also requires great care on the player’s part; the game engine doesn’t register the change in input if the player slides his or her finger directly from one arrow button to the other. Private Joe uses the same ordering for the jump and firing buttons that RobotRiot does, but it feels much less natural here. The key difference is that jumping far outweighs the importance of firing in RobotRiot, but both actions are of equal importance here; when that’s the case, many players will end up preferring that jumps be assigned to the right-most button.
The hero and his adversaries sport excellent sprite designs, and yet Private Joe lacks aesthetic oomph over all. Animations are in all too short supply; Pvt. Joe doesn’t visibly react when he’s been hit, and nor does he skid when asked to stop on a dime. Heavy munitions cause a nice screen-shaking effect when launched but detonate invisibly. Private Joe’s chiptunes probably would have grown on me more if they actually looped — for now, music simply gives way to silence if the player spends long enough in a level for its track to play fully. One really nice touch I did appreciate appears to be a subtle homage to Canabalt: passing warplanes swoop low and cause the ground under the hero’s feet to rumble every once in a while, keeping the player on edge.
iFanzine Verdict: Private Joe feels like a great retro platformer that’s still in beta testing. It shows the same spirit as some of the classics from the late 80s and early 90s, but it’s going to need a lot of tender love and care in updates before it can compete with its iOS competitors in terms of polish. If you’re a forgiving retro platformer fan and like what you see in the preview, it’s worth a go for the amount of content it packs in — or you might want to track down the web version and play it with a keyboard handy instead.