Depth and Redemption

(Editor’s Note: What follows is the original review written for the first version the author played. Since then, one or more major critiques have been addressed by the developer. For a list of these, see “Addendums” below the original review score at the end of the article.)

When a coin-op game gets a little too real and his brother sucked into an arcade cabinet, Eddy has no choice but to grab a light gun and dive in after him. The first rule of retro games being that the person you’re trying to rescue is rarely in the first place you look, Eddy will have to extend his journey from cabinet to cabinet, literally becoming an Arcade Jumper (Out Now, $1.99)!

Black Hive Media certainly take the arcade theme seriously here! The player actually swipe-inserts a coin into an arcade machine when Arcade Jumper! fires up. In addition to the main platforming campaign, the game features three minigames where the player can win tickets, and a kiosk for exchanging the winnings with prizes that feed back into the campaign. Spending a little time with the minigames before diving into Arcade Jumper! proper, I was impressed with their respective interfaces and tongue-in-cheek titles: “Skeetball”, “Pongchinko”, and “Space Frantic.” The portmanteaus of the first two readily reveal their nature, and the third plays like whack-a-mole, but with Space Invaders enemies and multitouch. While these are no more involved than what you’d find at a fair stall, I was just thankful to see an app where the minigames aren’t the main show!

As for Eddy’s arcade-hopping journey, it plays like an unabashed mashup of Super Mario Bros. and Mega Man. The hero can squash enemies or bop items out of floating boxes and he gets a gun on top of that — doubtlessly fulfilling many a gamer’s childhood dream in the process. The player’s goal is to get Eddy to one end of the level – where a warp-activating token lies – and then make him trek back to the beginning, so the arcade machine sitting there can zap him to the next retro-inspired level. As Eddy gets further into his adventure, the required number of tokens rises, leading him in one direction or the other as they spring up one by one. Every third level treats the player to a boss battle where Eddy hunts down the ghostly antagonist responsible for his little brother’s kidnapping.

For better or worse, Black Hive Media takes the level-based platforming experience in a very peculiar direction. There are no checkpoints – even the level divisions don’t save the player’s progress – so if Eddy’s small health bar depletes or he just makes a bad jump, it’s Game Over. And I mean, “let’s take it from the top” Game Over. The one exception is a Continue earned for every 25,000 points the player scores for taking out enemies and collecting items, and this first happens about one-third of the way through the campaign.

Retro platforming fans may not take all that kindly to this purposeful quirk, and it certainly isn’t to my own preference, but it’s hardly an invalid design decision. If the level markers were removed and the side-scrolling only went in one direction, we would call Arcade Jumper! another infinite runner, after all. It does leave Arcade Jumper! susceptible to the major drawback of infinite games: if the player slips up in the more interesting later sections, he or she has to slog through the less impressive early segments again and again, and again. 

And that’s exactly the crux of my complaint with Arcade Jumper!’s design — the first zone is too basic to be interesting for the number of times the player will be revisiting it. Stages are fully randomized in an attempt to keep things fresh, filled with nostalgia-inducing nods to everything from Donkey Kong to River City Ransom, but the player can only hop over so many run-of-the-mill platforms and take out so many one-shot enemies before the experience grows tedious. Later zones fare better, offering up all manner of rotating vector landscapes, giant mashers and disintegrating platforms.

Another issue I picked up on during my playthrough was odd collision detection with the floating boxes the player can bash in for power-ups and extra tickets. If Eddy happens to collide with one of these boxes on his way down from a jump, the game engine will still act on the player’s button press by adding the interrupted horizontal displacement after Eddy’s landed. In essence, if the player isn’t very careful when jumping near these, he or she will notice Eddy shifting uncontrollably when he’s back on the ground — a rather inopportune event in cases where the game’s randomization places these item boxes very near platform edges. The auto-shift also occurs if the player’s still holding a directional button as Eddy collides with an enemy.

The auto-shift is only a slight nuisance compared to my greatest complaint with Arcade Jumper! Well into the campaign and about to earn that coveted first Continue, I checked on my email as I usually do during my review playthroughs — life doesn’t stop when you’re playing games, after all. That accomplished, I returned to Arcade Jumper! and found myself dragging that coin into the arcade machine again, a sinking feeling in my gut as I realized my hard-fought progress had just been wiped. Arcade Jumper! lacks multitasking ability at release, and this is the single most critical issue I hope to see addressed in updates. Its importance to the iDevice owner can’t be overstated; these are the digital Swiss army knives of players’ lives, not just substitutes for gaming consoles.

For what it’s worth, Arcade Jumper! does a good job keeping track of the player’s tickets despite all the progress resetting. This is fortunate indeed, because the in-game bonuses available at the ticket redemption kiosk are very compelling. Arcade Jumper!’s most impressive assets are its multiple player characters, which include Mr. Destructoid and J3ST3Rx, the game’s composer in digital form! More important than the zany identities themselves are their floats, double jumps, charge shots, and other properties that inject some replay value into the platforming mission. While there’s still more depth to be gained in exploring the multi-character concept further in future iOS platformers, Black Hive Media has done something truly commendable in being the only developer among this week’s packed genre lineup to broach the subject.

Also available at Arcade Jumper!’s redemption kiosk are a pinball bumper that can save the player from falls and a comically undersized shoot ’em up fighter plane that circles Eddy or his stand-in for extra firepower. Arcade Jumper!’s interface provides another area of strength. Any problems the player has maneuvering are due to the uncanny auto-shift mentioned earlier, rather than the nice, big virtual buttons on offer here.

When it comes to aesthetics, the only thing that will surprise retro fans is the odd vibration of the player character’s sprite while it’s on the ground — perhaps another collision detection issue. A few standouts in J3ST3Rx’s chiptune score are sure to reach out and grab gamers who took up the controller during the NES/SNES/Sega Genesis era, thanks to the musician’s creative use of familiar sound effects samples. Arcade Jumper!’s levels go by quickly, so a perfect run through the game should clock in a little under one hour. Naturally, much more time will be spent on retries and collecting enough tickets to unlock all the game’s bonus content.

iFanzine Verdict: Lacking multitask ability and suffering from a few technical oddities beyond that, Arcade Jumper! feels very rough around the edges at release — and bear in mind, the player would have to approach its pseudo-endless design with an open mind to begin with. Ultimately Arcade Jumper! is redeemed by its multi-character system, which adds a facet of depth the more polished genre exemplars still lack on iOS. That alone makes it worth checking into for forgiving platforming fans.

[xrr rating=3/5]

Addendum: Multitasking enabled