Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Early Bird

Over the last few weeks, I've been playing a lot of iPhone games. They largely fall into two categories: ports of console games and bite-size touch screen games. There is intense, brutal competition in both, and the cream of the crop tends to be both genuinely enjoyable, replayable, and extremely cheap, ranging from $1 to $5. But not every game is healthy fare, and that's where Early Bird comes in.

Early Bird is clearly inspired by the smash hit Angry Birds, where a swipe determines the angle and force of your projectiles as you attempt to knock down buildings for points. Early Bird similarly tasks you with carrying the bird to its destination via swipes, with various bonus points awarded for side goals like "bounce really high on this coiled spring." The cutesy art style, help-a-baby-bird and bouncy sound design are similarly echoes of Tiny Wings, but touch the ol' heart strings all the same. Like seemingly all iPhone puzzle games, there are lots of levels, each of which can be completed in 5 minutes or less, organized loosely by theme. An additional charmingly unique factor is the end-of-level report, where a surly worm (presumably, the one you just enabled the early bird to get) congratulates you in semi-ironic fashion with messages like "Yippee."

Unfortunately, this attractive package is wrapped around a vicious shell of bad design that hollows out the game in a way only veteran players will spot. It is the Hostess Cakes of bird-based puzzle games: tastes great, no filling, leaves you sick to your stomach at the end. This is a serious charge, so I'll detail my reasoning:
  1. The scoring system (from 1 to 3 stars) is completely broken. There are lots of small, inventive bonuses that make you feel good about finding the right solution, or salve you for getting stuck in a bad situation, adding up to ~4000 points per level. There is a time bonus, to the tune of ~1500 points. There is a bonus of 5,000 points for a bullseye. Then each unused swipe gives you 10,000 points. It takes 20,000 points to get the maximum 3 stars, and each level is designed to be solvable with 2 unused swipes. I like to call a scoring system like this Quidditch Syndrome. Lots of things are happening, but every game is won or lost by Harry Potter. This removes the rewards they carefully built for the player in favor of a single metric that is the same for every level. In other words, it removes strategy and variety, without providing any benefits, in a system that is very easy to fix.
  2. The level design is extremely linear and holds the player's hand to an astonishing degree. The ideal path for every level is marked with floating bugs in the exact arc the player should swipe, and other paths are carefully blocked off. Usually, there is a complicated series of springs, fans, bouncers, etc. that can be completed in one perfect swipe or 5 smaller ones, and the ideal path will hit every single one of them - there are no red herrings. In later levels, instant death spikes adorn areas next to your target path, removing what little leeway you have. Because of the scoring system above, there is no chance of success with anything but the fewest possible number of swipes, so you are basically riding the Early Bird train every single time for 100+ levels. This is probably a deliberate design decision, but it could also be simple incompetence.
  3. The "pinball bumpers" mechanic, appearing at level 25 or so, seems designed to bring tears to the eyes of easily frustrated players - you know, the kind who would appreciate all the hand-holding and simple score system I discussed above. In a momentum-based game, tightly spaced obstacles which give you lots of negative momentum can range from a +1 swipe tax to instant death depending on the level. Only a perfect shot will get through them, and because the levels are bird-powered Rube Goldberg machines, you usually can't even see the proper shot before you make it. This trial and error instantly sapped the remaining fun of the game from me. Again, it is easily fixable simply by increasing the space between bumpers so that a shot at 40 degrees instead of 45 would still make it past.
There is room in the iPhone market for a bird-based puzzle platformer. Early Bird is not this game, and the tragedy here is how popular and acclaimed it is, largely because it is so easy. Almost every review mentions either the cute graphics or the surpassing lack of difficulty, or both. It's just empty video game calories. Hey, at least it doesn't make you grind for points!