Amiga Nostalgia Weekend part 2
As WoSblog iPod Week and Amiga Nostalgia Weekend draw to a simultaneous close, we've got a little treat to finish on.
Alert viewers will know that one of my favourite games from the Amiga era, and perhaps Team 17's one genuine original classic, was Jamie Woodhouse's lovely little Bubble Bobble-inspired platformer Qwak. Actually born on the BBC Micro, Qwak has gone through several very different forms in its life, and last week its latest incarnation appeared in the App Store.
That means it's both much prettier (it looks stunning on the little screen, alive with glowing colour and cuteness) and considerably more knockabout – whereas avoiding enemies was an achievable goal in the Amiga version, here each stage is so jam-packed with them that you'll almost inevitably get hit a lot more, but can collect plenty of shields to alleviate the situation.
(Grab the demo from the link above to get an idea of how New Qwak rolls – the full version is also currently on offer at a half-price £6.49, which is a bargain. And then compare how crammed the levels are with the screenshots from the AP review linked slightly further above.)
The claustrophobic effect is greatly magnified by the zoomed-in nature of the iPod screen, which only shows you about half of a level at a time, scrolling both horizontally and vertically. The scroll area includes a helpful extra bit of screen height which ensures the action isn't obscured by your thumbs on the buttons when you're at the bottom of a level, but it would have been much nicer to have a zoomed out option showing a lot more of the screen.
(Donut Games' likeable Gold Miner Joe shows how well iPod platformers with little graphics can work.)
The close viewpoint isn't Qwak's biggest problem, though – that's reserved for the controls, which are terrible. Virtual joypads are a long-standing weak spot for the iPod, but Qwak's is particularly unfriendly. The directional controls are fixed buttons – rather than employing the more comfortable relative-analogue that many platformers now use – and are a little too widely spaced, but they're absolutely heavenly compared to the jump and fire buttons.
Positioned far too far apart, and set in a horizontal line (rather than vertically or diagonally aligned as they would be on a physical joypad), the jump and fire buttons come close to rendering the game completely unplayable. It might be different if you have hands like builders' shovels, but my little mitts were constantly falling short of any kind of natural position, meaning that I either fired when I wanted to jump, jumped when I wanted to fire, or fell into the dead spot between the buttons and did neither, inevitably leading to yet another death that I didn't really feel was my fault.
The clumsy controls combined with the high speed, intense action and scrolling screen turn the game into a slapstick farce with very little opportunity for any application of skill – you just blunder through levels, hoping you run into enough shields to plough recklessly through the enemies, because you've got little chance of reliably avoiding or shooting them.
Perhaps oddly, that doesn't make the game very hard. Shields and lives are so plentiful that the bull-at-a-gate approach will get you through an awful lot of levels, especially if you use the two continues you get per game, and you shouldn't have too much trouble reaching the checkpoints from which you can subsequently start a new game. But doing so is a hollow, unsatisfying kind of victory that you don't feel you've really earned.
So far so negative, then. But the glory of the iPod market, of course, is that such things can easily be fixed with an update, and the tantalising thing is that Qwak is just a handful of small tweaks away from being the brilliant game that it is on the PC, and that its Amiga predecessor was.
Visually and technically it's simply in a different league to most iPod platformers, it's lightning-fast and super-smooth, and the level design is excellent, on the rare occasions you get to stand still long enough to take it in. (The only hiccup being the collapsing platforms, which are a bit too dark and very hard to see in the heat of the action.) When the controls work properly, you can zip through a stage in about 10 seconds (sometimes less) and feel extremely pleased with yourself.
So here's hoping. Much better controls, brighter collapsing platforms, ideally a further-out viewpoint and (in a perfect world) a one-life mode providing the sort of punchy quick-game experience that iPod gamers love (at the moment you better set aside at least 10-15 minutes if you want a meaningful run, and you better hope you don't have to quit out in the middle to answer a phone call or something, because the game doesn't save your progress, which is borderline unforgivable) and you could have an unmissable purchase which would deserve a lengthy residence at the top of the App Store charts.
(Online leaderboards wouldn't hurt either.)
Qwak 1.0 has a lot going for it, but comes with a lengthy list of fairly serious reservations, most of which seem to have been caused by bashing it out on the iPod without really stopping to think about the specific needs and possibilities of the platform. With just a little care and attention, though, Qwak 1.1 could be one of the finest games of the year.