If you’re in the market to make a platformer that stands out from all others on iOS, Bertil and Arne Horberg just made your job way harder. Gunman Clive (Out Now, $1.99) contains every level design trick every platformer has ever done, and then some. “But Sean,” you say, “surely you must be exaggerating. It’s a game set in the 1800s, and it’s about a cowboy. There can’t possibly be, say, reverse gravity, lasers, wind turbines, and huge mechanical bosses.” Let me just put it to you this way: halfway through the game, this 1800s cowboy straddles a rocket – Dr. Strangelove style – and heads for the moon.
Technically Clive takes place in the year “18XX.” That might pique your interest if you’re a fan of a certain mega-popular platforming franchise, and that interest is perfectly justified. With the exception of an Old West-themed intro level, Clive masterfully translates the NES-era Mega Man experience into 2.5D. This is the case when it comes to level design at least, with its gravity shifts, timed blocks, widely varying enemies, and just about everything else you remember from the 8-bit era if you were gaming back then. Clive also uses iOS’ penchant for great physics to bring in things NES platformers couldn’t do. Thus you’ll have to get boulders rolling under Clive’s feet when other footholds are lacking, and grit your teeth while unwieldy see-saws are under foot. Tossing in the occasional surprises, like auto-scrolling mine cart and rocket-riding segments, Clive has the concept of level variety completely mastered.
Clive’s hulking bosses are another highlight. They illustrate a perfect balance between visceral reaction and brain-teasing memorization: you gradually learn how you need to handle each of a boss’ attacks, but which gambit or slight variation it’s about to pull from its deck is anyone’s guess. Much like last week’s Clash Force, Clive handles weaponry from the Contra angle — letting the player collect power-ups that get dropped when the cowboy takes a hit. The game’s first level will mislead the player into thinking only a spread gun is available, but Clive’s arsenal keeps pace with the variety and whimsical futurism of its stages.
It’s important that I highlight a distinction between NES-era and SNES-era Mega Man when I describe Clive’s level design. How I wish this cowboy could dig his heel spurs into a wall and save himself after making a jump that wasn’t perfect to the millimeter, but alas, he must plummet to his doom like the Blue Bomber did in his 8-bit days. Clive is well accustomed to death and resurrection, being done in equally by enemy punishment, pitfalls, and impaling spikes. Checkpoints are distributed with fair generosity considering how massive its levels are, and yet, Clive could still go further in making itself accessible to everyone who really should be playing it. What I’d love to see in updates is an Easy mode that would make every cleared stretch a checkpoint. Challenge seekers will certainly balk at the idea, but the NES approach to challenge here will simply overwhelm the more casual segment of the iOS platforming crowd.
Clive would make any Western action hero proud of the number of bullets it managed to dodge in the interface department. I found its control defaults completely unsuited to its genre and intensity of action, but a little tinkering in the config menu makes the UI buttery smooth. I’d heartily recommend that any new player bump up the size of its virtual D-pad and switch it to static mode.
Everyone will go goo-goo-ga-ga over Clive’s visual presentation, and rightfully so. Its moving-sketch cel shading leaves the game with a really magical “Take On Me” feel. Nevertheless, I would argue that Clive’s visuals aren’t half as critical to the player’s experience as its music. Clive’s soundtrack, a kind of New Age/Western/chiptune blend, carries just the kind of compelling moods and inescapably infectious beats that kept you coming back to Mega Man or Ninja Gaiden back in the day, even when you wanted to gnaw your NES controller to bits.
iFanzine Verdict: Many iOS platformers aspire to the classics but fall short of reaching their ideals; Gunman Clive is not one of them. No platformer on iOS is going to one-up this without placing a heavy focus on character actions and nonlinearity, because Clive has completely mastered the art of level design. It’s just too bad that Clive’s sheer intensity keeps it from appealing to more casual platforming fans for the time being.