Three games for the price of fun

With Wreck-It Ralph for iOS and Android, Disney find themselves in a uniquely advantageous position. Unlike the plethora of big name tie-ins collecting dust on digital shelves, the source material here begs for adaptation. I mean, a movie that serves as a love letter to the arcade era? You think they’d be able to deliver one good game out of that. As it turns out, you’d be wrong. They deliver three.

In brief, Wreck-It Ralph (which hits theaters tomorrow) centers around the titular character’s quest to escape his typecast role as an arcade villain. A key fixture of the film is “Game Central Station:” a bustling transport hub that houses playable icons both loved and loathed, ferrying them to their game worlds in time to entertain. It’s here that Disney sets Wreck-It Ralph, making a wonderful design choice in the process.

Rather than casting players in the role of arcade goers to shoehorn a freemium “token” purchasing system into the game, they go all-in on the kind of value proposition seen in Where’s My Water? For a $0.99 entry fee, you’re cast in the role of a tourist in Game Central Station, and given unlimited access to three mini-games inspired by the movie’s three main fictional titles: Fix-it Felix Jr., Sugar Rush, and Hero’s Duty.

It’s here that Wreck-It Ralph wisely abandons focus on the movie and instead prioritizes simple, nostalgiac, and addictive gameplay. Certainly, each little title harkens back to something you’ll see in the film, but that’s a natural byproduct of the world Disney’s created. Rather than try to shoot for tag-line-worthy “console fidelity,” The Glendale mobile studio works within the constraints of the platform to deliver experiences with razor-sharp focus, and elegant simplicity.

Headlining the trio is Fix-it Felix Jr., an identical port of the one currently floating around for free on the App Store. And believe me, that’s not a dig. This is a gem that most definitely lives up to the Donkey Kong reference embedded in its DNA, delivering the perfect tension between its simple controls and growing myriad of obstacles. Fixing your first window will have you asborbed; “I can move around and tap, that’s nothing!” you’ll think, as you ascend from story to story fighting off the brick-throwing Ralph. 10 chaotically random, reflex-testing stages later, on the brink of losing your last life, and you’ll be singing a different tune.

Perhaps the most “modern” (and hunger-inducing) of the bunch, Sweet Climber is tasty Doodle Jump; a tilt-powered endless climbing game packed with tantalizing gummies, colorful candy corn, and edible clouds. What may seem like a rote experience is salvaged by refreshingly precise motion controls, surprisingly strategic placement of each bouncing branch, clinch boosts from your soda meter, and the ability to jump Pac-Man style from one side of the screen to the other. I’d wager you’ll quickly think to head for this one less frequently, but give it time: Sweet Climber is easily the hardest of the bunch. High scores here are badges of honor.

Wreck-it Ralph     Wreck-it Ralph

Last stop in Game Central Station? Hero’s Duty. For action-lovers, though, it’s easily worth the download alone. Boiling down the twin-stick shooter to its essence, the game pits you against increasingly dense hordes of insectile aberrations, testing not only your aim and deftness at navigating the screen, but your excitement level for lazers. Oh, and along the way? It teaches a master class in how not to overcomplicate your mobile shooter; variety here comes from well-crafted enemy flight patterns, creative weaponry, and crisp controls.

Arguably, that’s the common thread tying all of Wreck-It Ralph’s micro-titles together. They’re driven and defined by their straightforward execution, and rock-solid design. Each game is essentially asking you to do one thing, but the world built around it makes it feel like a host of options are at your fingertips. And with the primordial high score as the horizon, one quick game will quickly turn into five.

For all their stability in design, however, the games also share an achilles heel: their tendency to shut down. Par for the course with Disney, there are multiple instances of loading every time you boot up or retry, and it proves frustratingly common for Wreck-It Ralph to crash during these momentary downtimes. Then again, that’s the beauty of mobile as the modern arcade: you’re likely to see an stability update some time within the next couple of weeks.

In navigating the tension between reverence for something old in a new package, Disney have done a wonderful job at delivering an experience that deftly straddles nostalgia and novelty. Next time you’re in the mood for some great pint-sized play, save your bag of quarters. You only need four.