Claw cranes are interesting machines. They’ve been a staple of arcades and bowling alleys for decades, and are enjoyed by millions the world over despite having a reputation for being almost completely rigged. In fact, Wikipedia tells me that certain places in Canada have banned them altogether. It’s no surprise, then, that several mobile phone developers have decided that the concept makes for a nice fit in the current free-to-play saturated iOS landscape.

unnamedWhat actually is a surprise is that Prize Claw 2 (out now, free) by Game Circus is actually a pretty sweet little game. Not only is it mimicking a notoriously unfair quarter-sucking machine from Hell, it’s also very freemium, with plenty of currencies, timers, ads, and IAPs. It shouldn’t be fun to anyone except gambling addicts and people who have never seen a touchscreen. And yet, it is fun.

The basic idea is you have a typical claw machine filled with stuffed animals and prize capsules. Your goal is to collect as many sets of animals as you can (cats, monkeys, dogs, etc.). If you get a certain number of different cats, for example, you’ll increase the amount of coins you earn from all future capsules. Each set of animals upgrades a different thing if you get enough of them, and it goes a remarkably long way to keep you coming back and feeling like you’re progressing.

There are a few other little hooks to keep you playing as well. You can collect and upgrade new claws with different abilities, and complete missions — three at a time of course — a la Jetpack Joyride. If the game was just mindlessly grabbing prizes and watching ads it would be a pretty horrible waste of time, but these meta systems of collecting, upgrading, and mission-ing add a much needed layer of purpose.

unnamedNot that the actual grabbing of prizes isn’t satisfying in its own way. The physics are floaty and slippery, like a baby trying to pick up greasy balloons, but it works in a cartoon world kind of way. There is a joystick and a GRAB button at the bottom of the machine, but the controls smartly let you drag and double tap anywhere on screen to operate the claw.

All of that being said, there are several annoyances stemming from the game’s free-to-play structure and the more realistic aspects of the claw crane. Each time you operate the claw it costs you five coins, until you run out — at which point you have to wait two hours to play again. It’s actually an interesting riff on a typical freemium energy system, while giving a nod to the penny arcades that gave rise to the machines in the first place. Unfortunately the amount of coins you get don’t allow for very long play sessions, and you’ll inevitably do far more waiting than prize grabbing. One notable advantage to the system, however, is that you can just check in every two hours and keep hoarding all your coins since there seems to be no limit to how many you can keep at once (unlike a typical energy or stamina bar). Another problem is that the more you play, the more grindy it begins to feel as you need to collect ever larger amounts of animals to complete missions and upgrade things. And finally, the claw itself can be frustratingly realistic at times with its tendency to randomly drop things before making it to the chute. But what did you expect?

iFanzine Verdict: Prize Claw 2 by Game Circus is a surprisingly deep game in the same way that a small pothole is surprisingly deep when you weren’t expecting to drive over it. It has barely any right to be fun at all, but it is. Just don’t expect to still be playing it a month from now.