A number of excellent iOS games have come out recently that can be summarized by the following: “Here is a thing that is fun to do. Do it while we try to kill you. Your performance will be judged on how many times you do the fun thing before you die.” (Now that I’ve written that out, that’s sort of profound.)
Of these, Canabalt is probably the best-known. Bit Pilot is no slouch, either. Super Crate Box has been turning a lot of heads over the past couple of months. Bumpy Road and Pix’n Love Rush probably fall into this category, too. Tim Rogers, who writes about games and is probably a smart guy because he gets made fun of in the Kotaku comments section a lot, has long argued that an infinite mode, with no apparent rewards other than being able to continue playing the game, is the sign of a truly good central mechanic. He’s created a game that falls roughly in line with those mentioned above. It’s called Ziggurat.
Ziggurat casts the player as a human atop a mountain tall enough to reach above the clouds. The rest of the human race has been eradicated by “alien freaks,” and it’s up to the player to kill as many of them as possible before dying. It’s no surprise that the aliens wiped humanity out: Their touch is fatal, and they can (presumably) only be killed by the effects of the player’s energy gun.
The gun fires balls of energy. They can be charged by holding a finger down on the screen. The gun is aimed by sliding that finger from left to right, and fired by removing the finger.
The best part: When charging the gun, you can’t just keep your finger parked on the screen until the perfect shot presents itself. As it’s being charged, the gun gets stronger, reaches its strongest point, then gets weaker again and stays there until it’s fired. The amount of charge time required to fire the optimal shot is excellent. It’s somewhere between three-and-a-half and four beats, just awkward enough that muscle memory will resist learning it, thereby keeping the player on his toes. (Muscle memory, timing, and video games: The fact that many people of a certain age group can, to this day, make Mario fly in Super Mario Bros. 3 with their eyes closed and the television on mute.)
The two most common types of alien have heads that oscillate in size. If you shoot an alien with a sufficiently-charged bullet, they explode, killing aliens within the blast radius. The size of the explosion is a function of alien head size vs. energy ball size. Big head + big energy ball = big explosion = more dead aliens.
Some types of aliens are immune to explosions caused by other types of aliens. Some types of aliens are immune to explosions entirely. If most types of aliens walk into the energy ball while it’s still attached to your gun, they will die but not explode. The most infuriating type of alien can’t be killed until it hurls itself towards you from across the screen, faster than anything else in the game can move.
Ziggurat thrives on these types of edge cases. Keeping the action set minimal while providing a wide variety of gameplay situations forces the player to get creative. Even in a short burst of play, it’s pretty easy to discover a permutation of the gameplay that had previously gone unnoticed.
This sort of design restraint is admirable: It demonstrates a trust in the player by encouraging improvisation, and God knows it’s all-too-easy to ratchet up complexity until you’ve got an otherwise-good game that’s completely ill-suited to the typical iOS scenario. (Just ask the guys who made 100 Rogues.) It’s much more difficult to balance features and gameplay until everything the player does seems to progress the game in some meaningful way. This balance is where Ziggurat excels, and why it retains a type of replay value that practically all of its iOS brethren lack.
When a game of Ziggurat begins, the sun looms high in the sky. As the player dispatches the alien freaks, the sun slowly sets. If the player lives long enough to see the sun disappear, the moon begins to rise. Besides creating a neat sense of grim inevitability, the motion of the sun and moon also telegraph a sense of progress to the player. If you’ve played ten total minutes of most other small-setting, high-score-based iOS games, you’ve played the entire game (not a bad thing). Ziggurat, by contrast, has an achievement for staying alive until the end of the universe. I haven’t made it far enough to know what that means (not even close, I imagine), but Ziggurat’s constant insistence that there are parts of itself I haven’t experienced is driving me nuts. For a certain type of mind, these sorts of challenges are irresistible. (Read this review eight hundred thousand times and it’ll bring Aeris back from the dead.)
Ziggurat does have its flaws. The sound effect that plays when you die is ambitious (RIYL “Little Mac getting knocked out”), but doesn’t quite hit the mark. The way highly-charged shots bounce off the side of the mountain isn’t quite as predictable or satisfying as it could be. It is not quite as immediate as its peers.
However: Like sex (and most good video games, I guess), Ziggurat’s unique greatness only becomes clear once you get sort of good at it. Like a Dorito (and most good iOS games, I guess), it’s defined by an extremely focused shallowness, targeted entirely towards getting you to dive back in. Ziggurat costs a dollar. It has a great knack for creating itches and then permitting you to scratch them, if you can. It is one of the best iOS games I have ever played.
Joe Bernardi’s words have appeared in Dusted Magazine, the Boston Phoenix, and Tiny Mix Tapes, among other places. Follow him on Twitter at @blurstoftimes.