I'm usually not concerned about how game developers want to make their money. Premium costs up front, IAP, or some combination thereof—it's all good by me. And 11 Bit Studios made Anomaly Warzone Earth [$3.99], our runner up for 2011's Game of the Year. In my books, it's earned whatever it wants to charge for Funky Smugglers [Free], its casual new release. But something's not sitting right with me. It's awfully hard to get into the high-score chasing groove when, for a small extra investment, I could multiply my score tenfold. Even when that groove is oh so satisfying.
Pay-to-win. You've seen it before, but it's lost its appeal since the good old days of coin-op arcades. All other things being equal, the person who is willing to pay extra will win, something that absolutely ruins the fun for the folks who are in it to top the scoreboards. In Funky Smugglers, the problem is one small part of an otherwise reasonable IAP store, and it's labeled "One-Shot Score Boosts." Where you would normally start with a 1x score multiplier and work your way up slowly, you can buy a one-time boost that starts you at 2x, 4x or 10x and rises from there. The top tier costs a dollar's worth of the game's currency, a value that would take a huge time investment to earn. Too bad. Funky Smugglers is a great little game in every other way.
Maybe you're not concerned about competing on public leaderboards, and you know your friends won't pay for higher scores. If so, you have a lot of fun awaiting you. Funky Smugglers is a game of airport security, but you don't play an angry TSA agent with something against shoes and bottles of water. You play a humble member of the security staff just out to make sure no one inadvertently brings anything dangerous in their carry-on—I mean, who wouldn't be embarrassed to discover they'd accidentally packed their grenades and guns? You hang back behind the scanner, gently divesting passengers of their contraband so they can board their flights in comfort and safety.
To do this, you watch closely as they pass through the x-ray scanners and swipe your finger to collect anything dangerous. The good things are highlighted in green, the bad things in red. Gather all the reds, avoid all the greens, and rack up a crazy score while you're at it.
The game didn't quite click for me until I sussed out what 11 Bit Studios meant when they kept telling me to toss my combos. Normally each combo is on a clock, and you're not going to be able to gather more than five or six items before it runs out. But if you let go of the combo and grab it again before it hits the edge of the scanner, you can start that timer over. Once you master that bit of juggling, it becomes a challenge to fully board each and every plane in one running combo. Or, at the very least, to know when to cut your losses and drop your haul before dying. It's the only way to fly.
I'm not exaggerating when I say this new way to play had my heart pounding fast. Slipping a forty-item combo through a sea of green is stressful, and stress is a big factor in satisfying gaming experiences. Add that to an incredibly well-designed progression of smugglers and you'll find yourself in the midst of a major challenge. When you pull it off you feel like a hero. If you don't, well, there goes a level's worth of points in one single slip. It hurts, but it's the sort of hurt that teaches you to do better next time.
Even if you mess up, there's incentive to keep going. You have three lives per run, and earn coins for each passenger you board before the end. You also earn for completing the now-standard three missions per run, to which 11 Bit has come up with a clever change. Missions you complete are switched out between planes, so if you can keep going you can mark far more than three off the list in a single run.
Coins can be traded for the aforementioned score boosts, for upgrades to your timers and lives, and for a whole whack of cosmetic upgrades. You can swap out the music, bring in special new passengers, and trade the traditional guns and explosives for beach detritus, Halloween knick-knacks and other fun stuff. You can even swap out the look of the scanner. For all its slick, funky style, Funky Smugglers does get a bit repetitive over time, so these upgrades are worth saving up for—or they would be, if all your coins weren't better spent on score boosts.
Funky Smugglers has settled into a strange place in my life: it's the arcade game I turn to whenever I want to chase a high score or two, but I never bother looking at the leaderboards. Why bother, when I'm not paying my way to keep up with the folks who are? As it stands, Funky Smugglers is a stylish game that's a lot of fun to play, and absolutely miserable to compete in. If that doesn't concern you, you'll be in great hands.