One hurdle when making games for the iOS platform is creating controls for an entirely touch screen interface. Often, the simplest approach is the best, and it doesn’t really get much simpler than single-tap gameplay. That is the approach taken in Space is Key [99¢] by ChrisJeff Games, which was recently released in the App Store. Space is Key started out as a popular Flash game, which is another platform that is well-suited to single-button mechanics. Because of this the game translates extremely well to iOS, and offers a fiendishly difficult but strangely captivating arcade experience.
Space is Key is a series of 43 single screen challenges distilled down to the basics of running and jumping. Your tiny square character handles the running part automatically, entering from either the right or left side of the screen. Your job is to tap the screen to jump at just the right times to clear the obstacles in each level and safely make it to the other side of the screen.
That may sound simple, but Space is Key is anything but. If your square so much as grazes an obstacle, you’re instantly killed. This is a game where you will die no matter what, and you will die often. There’s no avoiding it, and that’s really the point of the game. Your score is calculated as the amount of times that you end up dying after a straight run through all 43 levels. So yes, we're all going to die when playing the game, but let's see who can die the least.
The margin for error when trying to successfully navigate past obstacles is razor thin, and the difficulty can be erratic. A certain level you might completely nail in just a few short tries during one play through, then the next time that same level might take you a hundred tries or more (literally). This makes it difficult to get too excited even if you are doing particularly well, since it can all come crashing down at the drop of a hat, but that also adds an intensity to the game which I like.
This sort of masochistic gameplay ends up working because Space is Key is so darn quick and easy to play. Upon death, your restart is instantaneous and automatic, to the point that many times you haven’t even processed that you’ve screwed up before you’re already off and running into a new attempt. This means it's incredibly easy to just waste lives with reckless abandon when becoming particularly fixated with passing a certain level, and if you aren't careful, a potentially good score can slip away in the blink of an eye.
At first blush, Space is Key might look like nothing more than an early Atari 2600 title. That’s basically correct, but little flourishes like cool particle effects and a kick ass chiptune soundtrack give it a modern touch that would never been possible on that old hardware. Despite the retro aesthetic, the game has a lot of personality. This is mostly due to the humorous messages that pop up throughout the game that are designed to teach, praise, and pester you along the way.
The only downside to Space is Key is that it doesn’t have a whole lot of lasting appeal. I played it pretty obsessively for a few days until I’d achieved a decent score, but after that there’s not much reason to revisit it. A global leaderboard and 25 well designed Game Center achievements extend the experience, but I’d really like to see some more levels or possibly some additional modes down the line. Hints on the game's Facebook page lead me to believe that we'll see such things in the future.
While the gameplay on the whole is a bit thin, Space is Key is pretty entertaining for a 99¢ title. At times you’ll feel like breaking your device over your knee due to the difficulty, but completing the game is a fairly quick and satisfying experience. It’s hard to not want to keep replaying through the game hoping for that “one perfect run” where you get an insane score. As infuriating as it can be at times, when you do finally have a great run in Space is Key it makes all the pain worth it.
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