iHook has what so many other better-dressed, better-funded games don’t: fun.
Most iPhone and iPod Touch owners have by now run the veritable gauntlet that is the App Store. It can be very difficult to pick out the gems from the rubbish, particularly these days when it is all too easy to gussy up a mediocre game with flashy graphics and nice icons, only to find that all those layers of gloss and glitz have been applied to a boring or malformed concept. iHook is a rare occurrence – a really great gameplay idea, hidden beneath a pile of badly translated English and 80s arcade-style graphics and sound.
Played in landscape mode, iHook presents the player with a stubby little ship that has a maneuvering deficiency. Namely: it has none. The ship flies in a straight direction and can only be tapped to reverse its path. In order to change trajectory the player taps on green circles scattered throughout each level, which act as spoke-points around which your attached ship spins. Arranged around these spoke points are the “fuels” icons that must be collected in order to open the exit and complete the level. You are permitted a few glancing blows off of the scenery provided you are not flying at anything directly, otherwise a headlong crash into an inanimate object will destroy the ship instantly.
The iHook craft can fire up to two of these grapnels at once, allowing the player to conceive of some very tricky flying. Because the ship never slows its acceleration, timing is everything. Tapping a green grapnel node releases your hook from that spot immediately. Grabbing two such spokes allows the player to catch their breath every so often by coming to a dead stop, tethered between two attached points. Although beware – the disengagement from such a position is fraught with peril, since the physics of the hook shots are somewhat springy, and releasing one tether in a bad spot can easily send you flying into a nearby wall with barely a moment’s notice.
As the game progresses it does a nice job of pacing out the various wrinkles in each level, and introduces the player gradually to additional concepts. This is great design, although again it must be said that the English in the game is quite poor, with barely a tutorial clue going by without some kind of hilarious spelling or grammatical error. Even so, the instructions were clear enough, so I leave it as an exercise for the reader to decide if this aspect is annoying or charming. After the first few levels the player is shown how to grab and fling other objects using the hook shots, which is required in order to activate switches in the later levels and proceed. Some objects are actually dangerous, like floating bombs, and can be flung to open new spaces or cause other reactions.
In terms of game play, iHook is very polished. You can tell that a real admirer of old-school, classic arcade design is at work here. It feels great to watch a well-placed hook twirl your ship around it’s target, picking up icons with satisfying pinball sounds and moving at a very smooth frame-rate. The visuals are decidedly “classic sprite” in their interpretation; they resemble the sorts of pixel-art designs that we used to be very familiar with back in the original Nintendo days (think Gradius or R-Type, if you’ve ever played those).
At the same time, if you have played those games you remember how punishing they could be, and iHook does not deviate from that space. Apart from the unlimited lives, it plays and behaves exactly like your quarter-sucker of yore would, which is to say that you’re going to die. A lot. Split-second timing is required beyond the first few tutorial levels, and the unrelenting nature of it means that this will drive more casual players away. Some levels of iHook seem downright terrifying at first, eliciting a response of “of you have got to be kidding me” from this reviewer. Practice does make perfect, however, and if you stick with it, you will feel rewarded in a way that isn’t particularly common in video games these days. There’s no Easy Mode to iHook. It’s do or die.
Feature-wise, the game is a mixed bag. There are no iPod audio controls, and the in-game music (appropriate but forgettable) and sound effects can simply be toggled on or off. iHook uses the AGON system to track online progress and awards, although I didn’t unlock any while playing that I could see, and the system seems somewhat half-baked. As of this writing, the game also doesn’t support iOS 4 fast-app switching.
For the low price of $1, it’s hard to say anything bad about iHook. Sure, the language is poor, and the presentation isn’t exactly cutting-edge, but this game has what so many other better-dressed, better-funded games don’t have: fun. It’s really fun to spin your ship around and it feels great to pull off an amazing sling-shot into the intended target. If you can get past the difficulty curve, there’s a nice little game concept here. I hope Top Evidence Studio continues to iterate on the game and bring the other aspects up to a level that the core game deserves.