How much should a game punish you? This is the question that hangs over Mountain Sheep's Bike Baron [$0.99] but the answer is totally subjective. Me, I can take a bit of brutality. Sadistic level design appeals -- to a point. You'll need at least as much tolerance as I have to enjoy this game, but if, say, Trials HD is your high water mark for cruelty to gamers, you'll find a lot to like here.
Bike Baron successfully merges an excellent interface with charming art and sound design. Those things pull you in, and then the game tries to break you. If you're looking for a casual biking experience where you'll spend a lot of time soaring through the air, look elsewhere. If you get gleeful at the thought of pixel-precise jumps, trial and error, and endless retries, well, you might be a bit mad. Not that there's anything wrong with that -- those are the exact things you'll find in Bike Baron.
Mountain Sheep has built over 40 levels that range in difficulty from easy to extreme. In more practical terms, they range from conventionally defeatable to unreasonably sadistic. All you need to do is get the Baron and his bike across the finish line. The controls are simple -- stop and go buttons are positioned on the right, and buttons to tilt your bike are on the left. The levels are all quite short, and they're absolutely stuffed with checkpoints. You'll need 'em all before long.
Bike Baron comes from the cartoon school of physics. Levels are designed with a certain wackiness, with huge jumps, loops and explosions. But the Baron is slightly more realistic in design. Like most people, he's vulnerable to hitting his head, blowing up, smacking into ledges or crushing himself under his bike. Honestly, if you're going to participate in this kind of extreme biking, you really ought to be made of hardier stock.
But the Baron's fragility is only half the problem. The other half is the level designers at Mountain Sheep, who I've cursed several times an hour since starting their game. It doesn't take long to reach levels that require insane precision. Hit a jump at the wrong speed or angle and you're toast. Heck, a small dip in the road handled incorrectly can leave you little more than a smear across a ramp.
It's a frustrating approach to level design, and its exacerbated by touchy physics and stiff controls. Whether it's a good frustration or a bad frustration depends on how patient you are, how comfortable you are with repetition, and whether you're the sort that will throw your device after getting killed one too many times.
But for all that frustration, Bike Baron is exceptionally well-made. While everything about the game is set up to get you into the action as quickly as possible, it's also set up to ease frustration and charm players in the process. The menus are gorgeous, showcasing some of the game's excellent art. The sounds of fanfare echo organically to celebrate your successes and gruesome deaths. A comprehensive statistics screen shows you just how many times you've won or died, and you can enable ghost mode to compare your attempts.
For the casual player, the level-unlock system is a blessing. Each level costs one star to open, and at first you earn a star for every finish line you cross. Bike Barons doesn't let you off that easily for the entire game, though. Eventually, to earn a star you'll need to make it through under a time limit, collect all the coins, finish without a single crash or flip like a madman. Still, as long as you can pull off enough of those goals you can skip ahead to (nearly) any level you want. With up to three stars to be earned each level, there's (almost) no reason to keep bashing your head against anything you find too frustrating.
Only the best of the best will make it through all seven of the bonus Joker levels, though. Those are only unlocked if you earn three stars on every preceding level. I've only seen the first few, but I've heard that they crank the difficulty level up to 11. Enjoy?
Mountain Sheep is still planning for the future of Bike Baron, but in the meantime you can entertain yourself with user-created levels. The level editor is comprehensive and easy to use. Discovering levels is a bit tougher: you can only share them with level codes. Mountain Sheep has compiled some of the best on its website, and you can find more in our discussion thread.
Difficulty aside, the only serious issue I've had with Bike Baron is the lack of a quick level reset. It's easy to reset back to the previous checkpoint, but depending on the star you're trying to earn that isn't always enough. Occasionally checkpoints also position you in a spot you can't proceed from without awkwardly backing up. It's enough that going to the menu and resetting the level isn't ideal.
The Game Center integration is a sore spot, too. One leaderboard tracks your overall score for all the levels you've played, and there are only three achievements to earn, so all in all it's a bit bare bones.
Otherwise Bike Baron is solid, if you're into the difficulty it puts forth. It's not a type of difficulty that I'm particularly fond of, being as reliant as it is on pixel-perfect positioning. But that's not to say the game doesn't do a fantastic job of it. If you're looking for punishment, you can't do much better than this.
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