The good news about mobile games in 2011 is that virtually anyone can develop one. Unfortunately, that’s also the bad news: anyone and everyone can develop a game, and those games can become a massive cavalcade that makes the average consumer’s head spin. The results are predictable: there are a few winners and a whole bunch of losers. The winners – Angry Birds, Tiny Wings, Fruit Ninja, Cut The Rope – routinely sit atop the best seller lists, bring in millions of revenue with little cost, and serve as the inspiration for most of the losers looking to make a quick buck. The things that seem to set apart most of the big iOS games are cute graphics, a recognisable mascot, and a simple way to play the game that makes it easy to pick up but hard to master.
The latest in this category of games is from a company that’s a bit of an exception to the mobile norm: they actually have a diverse, high-quality lineup of games as it is. Korean-based Gamevil is admittedly one of my favourite publishers, cornering the market with what I feel is the best sports game on my iPhone (Baseball Superstars 2011), as well as the best RPGs (the Zenonia games). Now, they’re taking aim at the big guns in iOS gaming with Air Penguin, a tilt-controlled game.
There’s not much depth to Air Penguin. You’re a penguin who’s trying to save his stranded family, and to do this, you have to literally bounce from ice island to ice island without falling into the water, with the goal of landing on a large ice structure that has a flag on it. The closer to the flag you get, the more points you get, then it’s off to the next stage. Along the way, you’ll run into sharks, swordfish, seals, and other aquatic wildlife that will either knock you into the water, eat you, or otherwise get in your way. In addition, there are friendly animals, such as rideable turtles and a whale’s blowhole, that will help you out. Along the way are five goldfish per stage, which act as both a means of scoring points and as the game’s currency, which can be used to remove obstacles in the stage. For example, ten fish will allow you to come back from being sunk once, or thirty fish can be used to keep a squid from obscuring your view with ink. All controls are used by tilting the iPhone in the direction that you want the penguin to move. The penguin can change direction mid-air, and can bounce on something to get back into the air, making the ends to the means the ability to properly judge when the penguin is going to land, and how far you need to tilt to get him (or her) there. Think of Air Penguin as a branch on the Labyrinth evolutionary tree.
Most of the stage layouts are very well done. There is a progressive difficulty that builds on things that previous stages spend teaching, and some of the later levels can require some pixel-perfect precision to get through them. However, it’s very rare that there’s any stages that have only *one* way to go about them, so in most cases, players can build their own strategy, whether they want to take it slow or go helter-skelter. Later stages require leaps of faith, however, as well as some very quick tilting to make larger jumps, so a bit of memorization is in order.
Tilt controls can be hit or miss because they’re very easy to screw up, but they’re done well here. Tilt distance is consistent for whatever you need to do, and within a minute of picking the game up, everything will feel second nature. The only real problem with the tilt controls is that if you change the position you’re sitting in, your tilt will get screwed up, but this is fixable by pausing the game and resetting the tilt. Another issue is that in later levels, the amount of precision required can wreck havoc on someone with shaky hands, since it will be extremely hard to properly place jumps that need both speed and timing, or to race the turtle in tight spots.
In addition to the story mode which will see the vast majority of gameplay, there’s a survival mode that allows you to test how far you can get and how many fish you can pick up. I was done with this mode within minutes. The stage layout is always the same, and has the same difficulty. More levels in this mode, or even some varying obstacles would make this a lot more entertaining. The big reason to play survival mode is to be able to post results to Twitter or Facebook. This only really helps to either help Gamevil sell the game or enable someone to brag to others that own the game, because there’s no leaderboard support, so the only people that will get anything out of this are people who like to boast about their video game achievements on social networks.
As stated previously, fish can be used to purchase power-up items that render objects or obstacles ineffective. The in-game items are reasonably priced, since most players will be building a stockpile of fish in the first two worlds. For those that don’t have enough fish, Gamevil gives the option of purchasing more, like they have been in most of their games lately. Unlike some of those games, there’s no need to buy anything with real world money. Gamevil does a good job of getting newcomers started with 50 fish (I got the reward twice), and fish are easy enough to get in the earlier part of the game that it’s not necessary to buy any. For people that use a lot of power-ups, it’s there if you need it, but Gamevil’s usually pretty good about running specials where they give away in-game currency, which is a positive for them. Furthermore, I always felt bad when I used an item to get past a troublesome spot; it felt like I was cheating myself. So I have quite a stockpile of fish, meaning I should never have to buy any. Every stage is passable without using any items; it’s just a matter of skill, and one thing going in Air Penguin’s favour is the fact that whenever you die, it never feels cheap. For me, it always felt like it was my fault, and that I just didn’t land my jump or move in the right way. That speaks to a well made game.
In the end, Air Penguin is right up there with the other casual behemoths in terms of quality. The $1 price range is definitely right, and at 125 levels (I’m assuming world 5 was added post-release), there’s a lot to do for that one dollar, with Gamevil being known to update their games for free often. Air Penguin is easy to learn, hard to master, and an excellent addition to anyone’s iDevice library.
* Simple and well done controls
* Excellent stage design
* Outstanding value for $1
* Adorable aesthetics
* Runs well on older hardware
* Won’t keep the “core” gamers interested for long
* Requires too much memorization as stages advance
* Spotty height detection, can cause issues with the sharks
* Children, elderly and disabled might not have the motor control for the harder stages
FINAL SCORE: B
Disclosure: Air Penguin was provided by the publisher, Gamevil, for review purposes. At the time of press, the reviewer reached level 3-19. This game was reviewed on an iPhone 3G. Due to this, Game Center integration was unable to be tested. All screenshots were taken personally by the reviewer.