Duck! Incoming awesomeness.
In my preview for Duckers, I sang developer Retro Dreamer’s praises as the bonafide Atari of the App Store. I made no secret of my love for the indie duo’s previous projects, and shared my high hopes for their, shall we say, down to earth marathon title. Now that they’ve released it into the wild, the only question is: what’s more embrassing? The fact that I was dead wrong about this one, or the fact that I actually loved it and you believed me there for a second?
In their continued service of the coin-op glory days, Retro Dreamer return to the well of classic arcade gaming with Duckers, pulling inspiration from from motif of the Dig Dug series. Duckers also exudes the same spirit as mobile staple Doodle Jump, challenging you to dig as far into the earth’s crust as you can while avoiding a slew of obstacles and enemies. You know, the usual: energy cannons, electrical trip wires, spiked cement blocks.
Make no mistake though; far from copying and pasting, the duo at Retro Dreamer branches out and innovates. Like a martini with a twist of lemon, the game effortlessly mixes what’s traditional with what’s fast becoming tradition, adding gameplay and mechanics that are tailor-made for an iOS experience. Homage and imitation are separated by a fine line in a mobile environment where cloning runs rampant, but these guys have mastered the art of never detracting, and always leaving the things that inspire them better off for having been toyed with.
Here, that means doing away with the sense of constant pressure or head-on attack and replacing it instead with a feeling of intrepid exploration. Navigation of the earthen depths is controlled by casually moving your finger back and forth, finding the perfect spot for your targeting arrow to rest, and sending Duckers flying in that direction. And in essence, that’s what the game really becomes about: navigation.
With gems, coin bags, and treasure chests all stopping you in your tracks, Duckers fast becomes a careful balance between zooming forward to grab goodies and letting yourself miss out on better bounty so you can hit a stopping point, reposition, and make it past a dense minefield of obstacles. In true “revenge of the retro” fashion, one hit here means it’s game over. Say goodbye to your high score and try again.
And believe me, you’ll be trying again. And again. And again. It’s a special type of mobile game that you look to to fill quick ten minute periods of down time or boredom, and find yourself shooting up from only once the battery on your device is running low. Because Duckers is devoid of any “external” pressures like a time limit, moving screen space, or enemies at your tail, and packed instead with “internal” pressures, you’ll naturally start to challenge yourself. All the pitfalls are right there in front of you, and duckers moves at the perfect pace to let you really feel the moment just before you hit those spikes when you realize what you should have done instead. And of course, doing it is only a click away.
As a freemium title, Duckers makes a great argument for the use free-to-play as more than a tool for unlimited income, but instead something to design around. Each play through will earn you anywhere between fifty coins for a sloppy effort to two or three hundred for something more substantial. As a byproduct of your natural self-challenging itch, you’ll notice yourself racking up enough coins to purchase new characters, new levels, or power ups for an upper hand.
In a move that really respects the player, however, Retro Dreamer has made each new level and character an adorably designed version of what you play at the start, with very few mechanical changes. Even the more “crucial” purchases – extra hearts for no-penalty retries feel like the modern day equivalent of purchasing tokens at an arcade. In that way, they’re relying on the core gameplay to be so fun that all purchases can act as supplementary rewards for diehards, and in my opinion, it works like a charm.
And ultimately, that’s the stock and trade of Duckers: plenty of charm. Retro Dreamer has traded highly nostalgic visual design in for squeal-worthy adorableness, and jumped on the freemium bandwagon, but like the era to which they pay homage, some things always stay the same: great gameplay drives this studio, and this title is no exception.