Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Cut the Rope (ZeptoLab, 2010)

Mobile games are a strange beast. Genres that thrive on consoles and PCs fall flat in the mobile market, and the unlikeliest of ideas can become a sensation. Some revile mobile games as the death of the hardcore gaming market, others revere them as a breath of fresh air desperately needed by an industry drowning in a sea of copycats and endless sequels. Whichever view you take on the subject, it's indisputable that it's a growing part of the video game landscape that is only increasing in both size and influence. Considering that only a decade ago most cell phones still struggled to play Snake in monochrome, yet today's high end smart phones have specs rivaling home computers, it's clear that mobile gaming is growing much faster than any other branch of the industry.

But what kinds of games are there? Well, at first they were mostly watered down versions of console or PC style games. Virtual D-Pads and well marked hot zone buttons tried their best to emulate gamepads, providing all of their limitations but none of their tactile benefits. Eventually, game designers started to figure out what could be done with a touch screen that couldn't be done any other way. Instead of working around the platform's weaknesses, these new games played to its strengths, while catering to a distinctly different gaming appetite.

One of the most popular new gaming experiences is the physics puzzle genre, with such hits as Angry Birds, Where's My Water?, and this review's subject of choice, Cut the Rope.

Some games have you questing to save a princess, some to defeat a great evil, and some to clear your name and avenge your family. In Cut the Rope, you quest to feed candy to a little green monster named Om Nom. It's a simple idea, but in much the same way that Tetris took the world by storm in the 80s, sometimes a simple idea is all you need. It also doesn't hurt that Om Nom is one of the cutest little game characters I've seen in quite a long time.

As the name implies, you feed the candy to Om Nom by cutting ropes, which is accomplished simply by swiping your finger across it on the touch screen. Cutting these ropes causes the candy to react to a surprisingly robust 2D physics system which you manipulate to move the candy to the welcoming open mouth of the always stationary Om Nom. The early levels ease you into the mechanics gradually. First, the candy is above Om Nom, and cutting the rope drops it into his mouth. Then it's held off to the side by two ropes, and cutting one of them lets it swing to the side. The levels get more interesting and complex as they go.

Getting the candy to Om Nom will get you to the next level, but to really master the puzzle you'll want to collect all of the stars. Each level has three stars distributed throughout. Unlike the star systems used in other games such as Angry Birds, the stars aren't awarded for scoring an arbitrary number of points, they are floating in the level in plain sight for you to form a careful strategy around. To collect these stars, you'll need to find a way to move the piece of candy into each of them, and then get the candy back to Om Nom. It sounds simple at first, but some of these puzzles will try your patience as you try to unlock their secrets and figure out their tricks.

There's more to do than just cutting ropes though. Throughout the game, new gadgets are constantly being introduced. Bubbles let the candy pieces float up into the air, whoopee cushions blow air to redirect the candy, elastic bands can propel the candy far across the board, magic hats can teleport the candy across the screen, and my favorite one, the gravity button, can actually reverse gravity from down to up and back. All of these are extremely useful since you can never directly control the candy itself.

I was surprised by how much variation there was in play style throughout the game too. Some levels have the patience of a chess match as you stare at the board and carefully work out what order to cut the ropes in. Some rely on precision aim and timing as you swing and drop the candy between moving contraptions. Some scroll multiple screen widths or heights allowing a limited sense of exploration uncommon to puzzle games. Still others are purely speed based as you rush the candy around the board trying to outrun candy hungry spiders or collect the timed stars before they disappear after a set number of seconds. The sequence of the levels also does a great job of keeping the game feeling fresh as you progress through the levels in a linear order.

The presentation is just oozing with charm. The 2D sprites are cartoonlike and everything is well animated giving the game a sense of life. The music and sound are simple, but carry the mood perfectly with a style that combines cartoon fun and classic gaming with a light orchestral bounce. However, the obvious star of the show is Om Nom himself. Even though he never moves from his spot on the board, he is constantly animating and emoting as he reacts to your performance. Get the candy close to him and he opens his mouth wide in excited anticipation. Take too long on a board and he hopefully points at his mouth to remind you of your destination. Drop the candy off the screen and he stares at you in pure disappointment that just begs you to try again. If you've ever had a pet, you should recognize the behavior of a hungry animal trying desperately to cute its way into a meal.

If you're trying for a perfect 3 star game then some of the levels will frustrate you. There are some that took days of trying to get past. Some require the precision timing and reflexes of the toughest action games, and others are pure brain stumpers that will have you scratching your head for hours until the "aha" moment finally arrives. It's definitely a mixed bag, but one that has a little something for everybody. There's even a free version with all of the early levels so you can see if it's for you before making the purchase. So if your looking for a clever well polished mobile game to keep you addicted while on the go, then this just might be the game for you!

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