Mad Acorn misses a few beats, but is a step in the right direction for rhythm games on iOS

Rhythm games are a strange genre in that they fluctuate between two distinct forms from year to year. For every insurgence of a strict “hit the notes” series like DDR and Guitar Hero, there’s an equivalent surge in quirky rhythm titles like Elite Beat Agents and Rhythm Heaven.

The App Store has been loaded with over a dozen of titles from the first category thanks to the Tap Tap franchise, but ADP aims to usher in a long-overdue batch of unique rhythm adventures with Mad Acorn.

There’s a reason I mentioned the Elite Beat Agents and Rhythm Heaven series’: Mad Acorn attempts to take the best from both worlds. From Elite Beat we get comic panels to frame the story, and Rhythm Heaven-inspired interactive segments drive the gameplay. While Mad Acorn isn’t as deep as either of these titles, it certainly sets its ambitions in the right areas.

Despite the comic book panels, the entire story can be summed up in a single sentence: the titular Mad Acorn is a starving detective/super hero, and it’s up to the power of rhythm to help him defeat the city’s major threats. Whether it’s a giant gorilla, mutant sewer rats, or an enormous Big Daddy-esque iron man, it’s up to the world’s funkiest squirrel to save the day.

Each stage offers a variety of aesthetic changes, but gameplay remains extremely simple. Mad Acorn will always run horizontally at a constant speed, and a well-timed tap will perform an action (either punching or jumping) to clear obstacles. Perfect reflexes will award you with more points and combos, while each miss will deplete a heart from your health. Run out of hearts, and it’s a failed mission.

Mad Acorn

At it’s best, Mad Acorn does what Rhythm Heaven does best: it masks rhythm within simple gameplay mechanics, allowing even the most tone-deaf of participants to create complex drumming patterns through basic reflexes. There’s a pretty strict timing required in order to get good scores on each tap, making things easy to learn, but challenging to master. Plus, it’s undeniably satisfying (and hilarious) to supplement music with the percussion of a squirrel beating the tar out of his foes.

The music itself, however, is pretty bland. There’s some decent hip-hop, disco, and electronic songs across Mad Acorn’s 16 tracks, but none of it emerges as memorable or catchy. I could tell you the lyrics of my favorite songs from the 15-year-old DDR and PaRappa the Rapper, and even whistle the melody of the lyric-less titles of Rhythm Heaven. I can’t say the same about Mad Acorn, a title I’ve just played for a handful of hours.

Aside from the forgettable tunes, there are two special mechanics to Mad Acorn that perplexed me. The first, “hidden beats”, allows you to hit hidden notes throughout each song by tapping along to the song’s rhythm. The concept stems from good intentions – the developers want players to explore complex rhythms on their own – but it’s baffling that hitting them doesn’t seem to increase your score. A “hard mode” for each song seems like a much better way to implement a complex beat, rather than encouraging players to find them on their own with zero reward for doing so.

Mad Acorn

The other mechanic, “final beat”, is just straight-up frustrating. During the game’s four boss fights, each level concludes with a final note that players must hit in order to complete the stage. Not only is separating a single note from the group to end a song a fairly unnatural way to conclude streams of rhythm, but it’s very odd to pass or fail a song on the merit of a single action. Nothing is more infuriating than going from a 300-note combo to failing a stage out of nowhere.

It might seem like I’m being hard on Mad Acorn, but it’s only because great interactive music titles are nearly nonexistent on iOS, and the genre is capable of so much more. Mad Acorn might have a generic soundtrack and strange mechanics, but it serves as a fantastic example of a budget rhythm-based game that captures a few elements from the all-time greats.