The first time I booted up ZiGGURAT [$0.99], I was lying in bed, in the dark. I was hoping for something relatively simple  to unwind with, but the pulsing music and unending creep of monoptic aliens made that impossible. Just playing Ziggurat felt clunky the first time I tried it, forcing me to sit upright in bed.

There's no pause button in Ziggurat, which speaks volumes about its design. Ziggurat demands attention.

Tim Rogers -- a game designer under the Action Button Entertainment moniker and professional Kotaku.com word-puker -- also demands attention, or at least an attention span. His reputation is for sharp criticism (his own reviews site is particularly brutal) buried under sprawling, maximalist writing, but Ziggurat is beautiful in its simplicity. In its own way, it reinforces all of the fundamental, paradoxical truth of the "endless" genre: infinite potential married to inevitable failure.

The best endless games give players just enough atmospheric window dressing to keep them wondering: where did those giant robots in Canabalt come from? What are they researching in that lab in Jetpack Joyride? Ziggurat's pitch: You play a woman perched at the very top of the eponymous ziggurat, armed with a laser shotgun and nothing else. High above the swirling clouds, you can see other structures in the background, each one perhaps topped with another human fighter. It's tempting to hope that, should you actually survive the alien horde, it might be possible to rebuild society in these pyramids, but it's a false hope.

As the sun set behinds her, our soldier is trapped on a few bricks, with no place to go. The only things that move in Ziggurat are the bullets and the aliens; the soldier is firmly grounded. Even before the aliens start climbing up the pyramid, the soldier's sprite falls into a little heaving motion, bloodstream pumped full of adrenaline like a cornered opossum or feral dog. The sprite work in Ziggurat is excellent -- particularly on the iPad -- and it's packed full of small details that reinforce the design of the game.

The detailed sprites are functional, too. As the aliens climb up the sides of the ziggurat, their cycloptic heads swell and deflate; as the soldier charges her shotgun, the energy ball moves through three different phases. A fully charged bullet against a fully inflated alien face sets off a generously large explosion, which can catch other aliens in its blast. Ziggurat is about efficiency and timing, about shooting the least amount of bullets to set off the largest chain reactions possible, about imposing order on chaos by ... unleashing enormous explosions.

The mechanics would be impossible without Rogers' art direction in place, but they also tend to get buried in the explosions, the chiptunes, and the bullets. There's no tutorial, but the game is paced so that players can subconsciously learn the design, even while they're fighting for their lives.

Ziggurat might seem difficult or unwieldy until you realize how the explosions work, until you tap into the game's internal rhythms. Some aliens jump, others climb, and still others just seem to float, but they all expand and deflate and explode all the same. The joy of Ziggurat, for me, is that cycle of tension and release. When the soldier dies -- which happens when one stray bullet or alien claw touches her -- the screen flashes red and a discordant guitar riff screeches out. In Gears of War, a guitar riff meant sucess; in Ziggurat, it means failure. In both cases, it means you can start breathing again.

And unlike other "endless" games, Ziggurat is designed tightly enough that I never felt like I was plateauing. I am undoubtedly bad at Ziggurat -- my Twitter feed and GameCenter leaderboards make that clear enough -- but I'm always getting better. This isn't a game of masochism, it's a game of evolutionary improvement, of making the last woman alive stronger and better, one death at a time. There will be good sessions and bad sessions, but my scores are constantly climbing upwards. The title, Ziggurat, doesn't just describe the setting of the game, but the dominant metaphor: a series of steps, arduously climbed.

Thinking of a structural ziggurat might also the best way to conceptualize the game's controls. Aiming the soldier's gun is done by sliding your figure along a horizontal axis at the bottom of the screen, left to right. At the outer edges, the soldier aims her gun down, at an angle. As you slide closer to the middle of the screen, the reticule moves up, until it hits 90 degrees. Everything from the alien freaks to the bullets they shoot to the soldier's own shotgun coalesces in one spot, at the top of the ziggurat.

(There's another, Angry Birds-esque control scheme in which your gun acts as a slingshot, but it's slower and more imprecise than the originals. It also forces players to tap and slide their fingers all over the screen, obscuring the action. And, frankly, it lacks the thematic cohesion afforded by the "precision" controls. Avoid it.)

My favorite thing about Ziggurat is that it dismantles the hardcore-casual myth that has so long plagued videogame culture generally, and iOS gaming specifically. An "endless" shooter with Peggle controls doesn't make for good advertising, but Ziggurat is a game that forces its players to pay attention, to process and react to constantly shifting situations, to do the (literally) impossible. It's got GameCenter and Twitter functionality that encourages pro-social competition and discussion without asking players to pony up for more bullets or a different-colored spacesuit. It's judiciously designed and takes the platform seriously, and Ziggurat speaks for itself.

As I broke the three-digit mark for the first time and saw the sun sink below the clouds, an orange alien behind a force field sneaked behind the soldier and killed her. The screen flashed, a discordant note erupted from my speakers, and I started over.

I'll see you at the top.

TouchArcade Rating

StarStarStarStarStar
  • http://twitter.com/crunchewy Crunchewy

    It's an awesome game. This and Gridrunner in the same week. Happy.

  • http://twitter.com/putermcgee putermcgee

    really good review as it highlights many of the finer points a casual player might miss if they pick it up and discard it after they die once or twice. speaking of design and controls, the designer mentioned that the sliding business in the standard controls are made so you don't obstruct the screen as you play (a common failure among iOS/touch screen gamin). it seems, as you pointed out, that the slingshot controls are almost included as a sort of joke.

    also, there IS a tutorial. it shows up the first time you play, and you can view it any time from the menu.

  • Egon__Spengler

    This Tim Rogers guy is a nutcase and a genius

  • farnsworth_pro

    This is what qualifies as a 4.5/5 game? I kept thinking it was a joke article...

    • http://twitter.com/AC_Gamer Andy Charalambous

      The joke seems to be on you, good Sir. You do realise that there are people with opinions that may differ from yours? Instead of making your childish comment, why not contribute by stating what it is about the game you didn't like? That's if you even played the game in the first place...

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/SPV52ARO3PPF7B7S6DIWESOPII Slerba Slerssen

        After watching the video (or part of it), I felt like I already had played the whole game. So simple, so repetitive. You have such games for Flash, and lots of them, too. Just to let farnsworth_pro to know he's now alone with his opinnion. 1.5/5? TouchArcade is really losing its credibility by giving such games such high scores...

      • http://twitter.com/AC_Gamer Andy Charalambous

        'After watching the video (or part of it)...'

        Face, meet Palm.

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/SPV52ARO3PPF7B7S6DIWESOPII Slerba Slerssen

        The hero of the game stands in the middle of the screen, and enemies jump towards him from left and right. So Andy, what else is there in this game?

      • http://www.facebook.com/number108 Tim Rogers

        it's actually not random! the enemy appearances are scripted. the game isn't "endless": it's "one level".

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/DF24Z4ZLRK4S5VDEIORPJHZZIA pho3nix

        So you're saying the game has even LESS content than expected? Procedural levels are must for any endurance based shooter/shmup. Check out Phoenix HD.

      • http://www.facebook.com/number108 Tim Rogers

        well . . . it's "one level" with a *LOT* of secrets . . . !

        if you can survive for six minutes, Something Huge happens. if you can survive longer . . . well.

      • Rami Ismail

        Random content isn't less real, it's just more random. A well-created randomizer can create amazing content - as indie gems such as Spelunky (PC/Mac) have proven. I'd rather have one great random level than hundreds of semi-inspired hand-made ones.

        What there is in this game that isn't in so many other $0.99 games is an amazing, elegant design. It's simple, efficient and brutal. It's fun. It doesn't need ridiculous amounts of content to hide inadequacies because its simplicity allows it to have none.

        There's you, the gun and the enemies. The only thing between that and game over is your skills. If you're a gamer, that's your game, your challenge, right there.

      • farnsworth_pro

        It's Worms, except SP only, less weapons, NO terrain variation or level variation whatsoever. Insanely small sprite set... I think he used maybe 2 spritesheets for the whole game...unreal. How many enemies are there maybe half a dozen? But hey, at least some are enlarged sprites...some even swap the colour palette!

        Why does this game get a pass and 4.5 rating again? Because the incredibly static and unchanging gameplay can be fun sometimes? This "game" should have been labelled a demo...there's really nothing there.

      • http://www.facebook.com/number108 Tim Rogers

        there is a level variation! different enemies show up as you survive longer. as time progresses, things happen. there's even an "ending" (after which the game becomes truly endless, with two unique post-game enemy types and A New Central Mechanic).

        as the person who made this game, i am probably a little bit biased, though i'd guess that it got a 4.5 out of 5 because it feels really good! 

      • farnsworth_pro

        I could see it serving as an endless mode in an otherwise more broad game...

        What I mean by level variation is any shape other than the standard pyramid which serves as the level base... sort of like what super crate box did. Anything other than the one simple level would boost the game's lasting appeal. It really feels like this was a demo made in a week and released into the wild as a full game.

        I hope you continue to push yourself when developing games and look forward to future releases (and hopefully updates to Ziggurat to flesh it out more..as you yourself said "the game isn't endless...it's one level".

        But as it stands, I can't recommend Ziggurat to anyone in good faith.

      • http://www.facebook.com/number108 Tim Rogers

        i dare say it's a pretty GREAT one level, though. think of it as a rubik's cube . . . with a gun. there's a little more to it than immediately meets the eye. 

        if it's not for you, that's ok! i enjoy the gun in it very much. i made (and i dare say *polished* the little game experience i wanted to play -- and i still play it very much). 

        (and some people on the leaderboards have played for literally 50 hours!)

      • farnsworth_pro

         That's excellent! I'm glad that you've created something that you can stand by and that other people are enjoying what you've developed.

        For my money, the content just isnt there. A few more levels... a few more weapons... more visual variety... the bar for mobile gaming has been raised time and time again.

        Competition is a great thing. When I can get games like Sword & Sorcery, Whale Trail, Bean's Quest, Beat Hazard Ultra, League of Evil, Super Crate Box which espouse such a high level of polish, it's very difficult for me to sit down with this game, evaluating it on the same metric as those games and not see it as a miss. It could have been so much more. Just my 2c

      • Gilbert Smith

        So "Add more useless shit to the game at the expense of making it good?"

        What a terrible design philosophy.

        If there were other levels in this game, you would only want to play the one that's there now. If there were other guns, you'd only want to use the one that's there now.

        It's like going to a guy's garage and saying "This custom built ferrarri is nice and all, but I have a friend who has FIVE PICKUP TRUCKS, and TWO of them actually RUN!"

        "More Shit" does not mean "Better."

      • farnsworth_pro

        Yeah... every game really should just have one level. What a terrible design philosophy.

        Why does adding more variety automatically equate to garbage content? Do you seriously consider anything more than one weapon and one level in a game to be "filler"? That's messed up.

      • Gilbert Smith

        "Every game should have one level" isn't the design philosophy on display, though. It's "THIS game has one level."

        "This game is dumb because it doesn't have a fuckton of guns" is not a fair evaluation on a game you haven't even played.Really, whining that it's not enough content for a dollar is just... as dumb as shit, though. It costs a penny less than playing Time Crisis 4 just once.

      • Gilbert Smith

        It's a good idea to like this right now, though, because it's pretty much the Next Big Thing. If you don't come around until everyone else is already on board, you're gonna look like an idiot who needs others to tell him what to think. This is your last chance to pre-jump the bandwagon.

        Just a warning.

      • farnsworth_pro

        lol

      • SpecialSnowflack

        You're not just biased, your arrogant. That's why the game isn't any fun. You're enamored with your own shit. That doesn't make a you designer. It makes you a narcissist.

      • Gilbert Smith

        You know, when you can only attack the person, and not the ideas, you're basically admitting that you don't actually have anything to say on the matter.

      • http://www.facebook.com/number108 Tim Rogers

        what is wrong with making a game that i like?

        as we made this game, i thought, "i like this. let's make it something i like even more." so we worked on it more and more, until i liked it a whole lot.

        i'm being very serious with you, here: i asking you very seriously: how is this a bad way to make something?

        i'm asking myself what would make the game better FOR ME. i'm making the game better to ME. i am producing something *i* approve of.

        because at the end of the day, opinions are opinions. opinions are suggestive. i can't perfectly quantify other people's opinions. 

        i can, however, almost perfectly classify my own. i can say, "i like this", and feel like i'm definitely telling the truth.

        sometimes, years go by, and i listen to a band i used to love, and i don't love them so much anymore. 

        then i listen to them a little bit more, and i remember why i loved that band, and i think, "oh, hey, that's why i loved this band. they definitely are a good band."

        so i made ZiGGURAT into a game that i liked, and approved of, because i have no absolutely reliable ways to measure other peoples' opinions of it.

        the alternative to making a game that i personally like is to make a game that i sort of DON'T like, sacrificing what i consider to be cool ideas or feelings so that someone ELSE somewhere MIGHT like the game.

        that's too many chances -- and THAT'S true narcissism: making a game that i don't care for at all would require me to presume that i am some infallible deity who knows exactly what people want. THAT would be narcissistic.

        what i did was . . . it was just natural. me and my friends all made a game. the four of us liked it a lot. all of our friends like it . . . a lot. we shared it with the world. 

        if you don't like it, that's okay. you don't have to be so mean to me about it!

      • mclifford82

        Rock on Tim.  I haven't played the game, but I do like your attitude and I think that you make a very good case for why games should be made the way you make them.

        I may or may not pick up ZiGGURAT, but I'm already a fan.

      • White Lights

        So a good game needs to be super ultra dynamic, have complex controls, prizes at the end, a variety of weapons, level variation, more than 2 spritesheets, and a thousand different kinds of enemies?

        Isn't killing as much aliens as you can before you die good enough?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Muffy-Huffington/100001459134407 Muffy Huffington

    This game was a total joke. Fanboys are the worst reviewers.
    I love how TA rails on F2P monetization mechanics as unethical.
    Funny thing is, I've never had a suck ass F2P game trick me out of .99
    Whereas, I've lost lots of money gambling on  throw away indie darlings.

    • Tim Rogers

      are you sure you were playing the game correctly?

      i notice many people tap all over the screen even after viewing the tutorial slides that say "touch here" (on the bottom edge of the screen) and "don't touch here" on the top of the screen.

      did you notice there's a "sweet spot" to the charge? as in, the largest / most powerful bullet is available only for a split second (.06 seconds, actually) at the peak of the charge, after which, if you continue to hold, the bullet scales back down to the third-largest size. it's a sort of street fighter 3-ish "parry" mechanic. 

      you could possibly watch this if you are having trouble playing the game!

      http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GgotmitUC_c

      i am only suggesting you give the game a second chance because you said it took you more time to read this review than you were able to play our game, and this review couldn't have taken you more than thirty seconds to read!

      see if you can get 150 kills in one session. thennnnnnnnnn if you still hate it, let me know!

      i have prostate cancer, by the way, so thanks for your dollar.

    • http://www.facebook.com/number108 Tim Rogers

      this review took me only a minute to read, and i read it with great interest -- since i am one of the developers of the game. so if you quit only halfway or partway through, and you played the game even less than that, that means you might not have played it more than twenty seconds.

      i feel as though the game is balanced well enough that earning 100 kills for the first time feels like an achievement. maybe you could go back and try to get 100 kills! by the time you get 100 kills you should have a good grasp of the mechanics.

      if you're still having trouble learning how to aim and fire (are you touching above the bottom edge of the screen? you only need to touch the edge), and if the charge mechanic doesn't make perfect sense, look up "ziggurat grand masters series" on youtube to see a video of a player getting 767 kills. 

      (the trick is that the highest-level bullet is 3/4 of the way through the charge, and that if you continue to hold, the charge will even out at 2/3 power.)

      if you don't want to give the game a fair chance, that's okay. i have cancer, so i appreciate your dollar either way.

  • Slamraman

    I would never have heard about this if this review wasn't posted and I have to day I haven't been so pleasantly surprised in a long time. It's simple yes, but the controls are fantastic meaning that the touch controls can be used in a proper arcade style game. It's made with a quite alot of care and if people can't see that then that's just one of those things. If you were brought up on Arcade games like Defender et al then I think you really will love this. As the first guy says - this and Gridrunner in the same week is an old skool gamer's dream.

  • drkhrse

    I can't imagine how anyone that read the review was upset that it wasn't more than what was described. i got the game because of the review and it is great for what it is.

    • farnsworth_pro

      Shouldn't we perhaps hold games to a higher standard than "great for what it is"?

      Why shouldnt we strive for a game that can just be "great" without any other qualifier? Great games are great games.

      • drkhrse

        It is a well controlled arcade game of the kind that I used to spend a few quarters on. Canabalt is a certified iOS classic, but all it really was a tap to jump unlimited runner. The atmosphere and the tight controls made it great. I didn't mean to qualify the game, it is great to me, but I can see how some people won't like it as much. It's definitely well worth one dollar.

      • https://www.facebook.com/DigitalDistillery Scot Damn

        Two years..must comment...

        "Shouldn't we perhaps hold games to a higher standard than "great for what it is"?"

        This comment belongs on the internet forever and far away from real life. What should we hold games to? Should we hold them to something random? Maybe we should start holding games to bananas! Yes that's it! Let's hold games to bananas!

        We should judge games off of the games they are and not the games they aren't. If we did that, we'd never have anything new. You can't say "a game needs this and that". The more restrictions you put on creativity, the less of it you get.

        "Why shouldnt we strive for a game that can just be "great" without any other qualifier? Great games are great games"

        Ummm...huh? Were you thinking before you wrote this or did you just bang your forehead into the keyboard until a sentence formed?

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/DF24Z4ZLRK4S5VDEIORPJHZZIA pho3nix

    This is worth 4.5 stars? Really? I guess I shouldn't be surprised, TA ratings have lost all credibility since the Ghost Trick review.

    • White Lights

      TA suddenly lost credibility just because you, yourself, and you didn't like a game?

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeremy-Church/100000209380954 Jeremy Church

    Reviews are subjective, some people need to grow up a little and chill out. The game is fine.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeremy-Church/100000209380954 Jeremy Church

    To tell you the truth the game is AMAZING! I was just a little scared at first that someone would yell at me for using an a word like amazing to describe a game I like. It almost sounds like some of the people above are upset that others like it as much as they do. People are funny creatures.

  • http://profiles.google.com/sokolov22 Derek Chin

    Nice game :)  I am enjoying it a great deal!  It's simple and harken back to a time when a game was just... a game, not a collection of modes, achievements and what have you.

  • http://profiles.google.com/sokolov22 Derek Chin

    How can you say this game is amazing?!  It has a weird name?!  OMG! I won't play a game with a name I can't pronounce, nosireebob.  They should have docked a star just for having such a goofy name, amirite?

    (In case this wasn't obvious enough, I am just being silly.)

  • cordaysh

    Some of these comments make me wonder what kind of reception games like Missile Command, Joust, or Centipede would get if they were released today. Each was -- at their core, anyway -- built on a single, simplistic mechanic. They were all isolated to a single screen. They all had an unorthodox control scheme. Above all, they were all games in which making good decisions was more important than quick reflexes. 

    I think the reception to Ziggurat reflects a generational divide more than anything. It's a 2012 release with a 1982 philosophy. 

    • http://profile.yahoo.com/SPV52ARO3PPF7B7S6DIWESOPII Slerba Slerssen

      One should aim higher these days. Releasing an early 80's game with early 90's graphics in the year 2012 is not really that ground breaking or amazing. It's good for you if you like such games. But don't give them 4.5/5.0 on the front page of a big gaming site and not expect to get flames for it.

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeremy-Church/100000209380954 Jeremy Church

        It's all subjective. And just because tech keeps getting better, doesnt mean the games have to stay at the bleeding edge as well. I would much rather play this game over some of the big AAA titles for iOS or 360/PS3.

    • farnsworth_pro

      Missile Command, Joust and Centipede all had more than one level...just sayin

      • cordaysh

        Missile Command, Joust, and Centipede were broken up into waves, not levels. It's an important distinction. The term "level" indicates a distinct environment or challenge (i.e. the progression in Super Mario Bros. from water level to underground level to castle level), while a "wave" is a group of new targets incrementally more difficult than the last. The modern-day comparison would be Gears of War's campaign mode (levels) versus horde mode (waves). Ziggurat only differs from something like Missile Command in that there's no "reset" between waves, allowing you to fall behind if you don't clear a wave with sufficient haste.

        As to whether we should be "aiming higher" than the Atari and Williams classics, well... I guess that's a matter of personal opinion. I collect vintage arcade games, and the reason I was taken enough with Ziggurat to want to argue about it on the internet is that it was incredibly refreshing to me to see a modern game with a genuinely classic ethos. I can understand if that's not everyone's cup of tea, certainly, but I was really surprised how many people think it's a BAD THING that someone made a game for dudes like me. :/

      • http://profile.yahoo.com/SPV52ARO3PPF7B7S6DIWESOPII Slerba Slerssen

        The bad thing here is that Touch Arcade gave it a biased review and 4.5/5.0 score. And put it on the front page while countless games that are far better than this one are not being noticed by the media.

      • http://twitter.com/AC_Gamer Andy Charalambous

        I get so annoyed when people accuse Touch Arcade of 'biased' reviews. I'm sorry, I really don't care whether you like the game or not, but that kind of talk is just silly.

        The game deserves it's great review and 4.5 score from Touch Arcade. And it's 4/5 from 148 Apps. And it's 9/10 from Edge. And it's 8/10 from Pocket Gamer.

        Your opinion is not the only opinion. But I suppose it's all a big conspiracy, right..?

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeremy-Church/100000209380954 Jeremy Church

        In my book it gets a 5/5!

      • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeremy-Church/100000209380954 Jeremy Church

        You hit the nail on the head with that one. I hardly ever post anything on the internet at all but I really felt compelled to speak up on this one. The game is great. If you dont like it keep it civil and smart, or move along.

  • Gagapokerface

    I'm a big fan of Tim Rogers' writing, particularly the article he did on "sticky friction". That long, rambling, hilarious and insightful article over at Kotaku made me really want to experience a Tim Rogers game and just see exactly what videofriction according to Tim should feel like. I'm gonna go download Ziggurat now, and I'd love to hear any insight from Tim on the little frictional details in the game that make him proud.

    • http://www.facebook.com/number108 Tim Rogers

      i wrote a post on kotaku about this very topic! look for "introducing ziggurat"!

  • http://twitter.com/FHeistermann fer heistermann

    great game. its really nice to see developers making games that focus on having fun and giving you all the content from the get go no iap no leveling up, just the core gameplay that is extremely fun to play. even though im not so good, i have a 68 kill average i have fun every time i play it. great game 

  • http://www.theburningear.com/ Taylor @ TBE

    This one made me smile. What a fun game.

  • wigzisonfire

    Only coming to this now after reading the pocket arcade review '10 games to play during the apocalypse' this game was first on the list.

    This review is awesome, best review iv read for a long time!! How the hell did I miss the game and review when it came out!!!!!?? V

ZiGGURAT Reviewed by Joseph Leray on . Rating: 4.5