The hectic jumping and shooting in a setting reminiscent of the ol' Donkey Kong, the endless quest to collect crates and the short lived adventures of a micro hero can only mean one thing: the Dutch indie studio Vlambeer has completed and launched its award-wining survival platformer on the App Store successfully.
Super Crate Box [iTunes Link] originally debuted on PC as a free game gaining the respect of the gaming community and industry accolades. The biggest recognition comes, however, from fellow iOS developers inspired by gameplay mechanics. Muffin Night and Ninja Fishing by Angry Mob Games and Gamenauts respectively seem to distill ideas from the Dutch duo. But that's a different story.
After this long wait and only after the App Store submission orgy that is December, we get the iOS port out of nowhere. The first impressions count, and seeing iCade compatibility on the description is always encouraging for retro heads. The pixel graphics are welcoming and the newcomer could never guess the survival challenges, frustrations and difficulty ahead. I never played the Mac or PC versions, so I was technically a virgin too.
Super Crate Box simply throws you at it: a simple scenario where mindless creatures fall from top to bottom down to a pit. No instructions given. Only you and a gun. And some wooden crates with mysterious contents.
The moment you start moving is the beginning of an anticipated extremely short game and without doubt, the first of many. The goal of the game isn't killing enemies but collecting crates. Jump around killing or avoiding enemies to pick up those wooden boxes. The reward? A randomly assigned weapon. The varied arsenal has its pros and cons, so learning the best uses is a huge element of the game. All those grenade launchers, disc guns, katanas or mines are unlocked as you reach game achievements, ensuring you have enough time to familiarise yourself with them.
And there you are. Without questioning the high score mechanics of the game or the destiny of those monsters falling in the pit, you keep frantically respawning, cursing and probably hurting your thumbs. And this brings me to the frustrations, anger and adrenaline that go with it.
As a Universal release I preferred to play this on my iPad rather than the iPhone's small screen. The touch controls on the latter are rather small and the characters themselves are tiny anyway. For a game where a single millimetre - say pixel - divides life from death or the fact that with one hit you die, the touch controls have to be spot on.
Unfortunately, I just seem to run in fake attempts of jumping, incongruent shots or running in the wrong directions way too often. I. A newbie with the game, but picking the 1,058 crates that my stats reflect could have been easier and frustrations free if I knew the controls weren't letting me down.
The developer is willing to keep updating and refining the game, which s excellent news. The first update including switching A-B control buttons, which is also a big deal for the adults of the Gameboy generation. Despite the limited amount of scenarios (a disappointing three), the update includes new character to unlock that will certainly motivate you to have one more go at it.
Super Crate Box isn't the best example of a well done port to iOS - just see those black bars top and bottom fill in the 4:3 space. The controls are nothing like the advertised "the most accurate touch controls available" and they ruin the experience at least a couple of times every time you sit and play. Even the pixel style is missing the crisp colours and shading that worked so well in games like Mage Gauntlet.
Overall, Super Crate Box hides most of its misses with a "let's try again" factor that will keep man hooked. It's fast, hectic and cruel in certain ways. I acknowledge the challenge of porting the experience to touch screen devices but it just doesn't work as well as I could have expected. I feel like I'm playing an arcade machine that is unfairly taking my money because the joystick is broken. It's only a matter of time until you move to the next one to check if it's you or the game that is broken.