Illusion Labs has a reputation for quality iOS games, with Blast-A-Way [$4.99], Touchgrind [$4.99] and a few other classics under its proverbial belt. Let that be enough to convince you to try out the studio's newest, Mr. Crab [Free]. At a glance it looks visually busy and overly simple, a vertical platformer of no great account. A few moments in action, however, show that it's more appealing - and more interesting - than it first looks.
Since my taste in platformers tends toward the sadistic, I was skeptical of Mr. Crab's one-touch platforming. It isn't a cruel game, for the most part, but it's also far from mindless. Each trip around its pillars manages to bring out new challenges, ones that range from amateur to agonizing. It also has the whole cute thing going for it—I dearly wanted to save all of Mr. Crab's little baby crabs, and that's where things got interesting.
Most of Mr. Crab's 44 levels are fairly straightforward trips to the summit if that's how you want to play. The platforming challenges ramp up slowly, so that you're only dealing with tiny platforms on a quickly spinning level near the end of the game. You tap to hop, and do so from platform to platform as the level spins beneath you. Clever, being a crab. The little guy can navigate the tower and still make cute googly-eyed faces at you through the screen.
Since he never stops running, most of the difficulty lies in making sure Mr. Crab is going the right direction at any given moment. That means walking a bit off course to find a wall to turn around on or wall-jumping your way back to where you want to go. Sometimes you'll need to bounce off the heads of spiders, scorpions or wee little owlets. Other times you'll need to watch for a bit of environment to guard you from plummeting skulls. It's kind of a scary world out there for a crab.
Scarier still when you consider the baby crabs that you can either rescue or abandon. If you want to earn three stars on a given level you need to rescue all the babies. More importantly, they're sad little baby crustaceans trapped in a hostile world. Maybe I'm an easy mark, but I found that compelling. Good thing, too -- the level design is a bit pedestrian without them; with them, it can be downright clever.
Usually they're tucked away in the places secrets are always hidden: backwards from the place you begin, or just a bit further down a path than you're told to go, that sort of misdirection. That means keeping an eye out as you travel, but usually even if you miss one you can drop down when you spot it. Not always. The game's checkpoint system ensures you always have to be vigilant if you want to gather all your lost little ones.
Rarely have I run into a checkpoint system that I both love and curse in turn. The love is easy to come by: you get through a difficult bit of platforming and it's always nice to have a point to fall back on. Or fall down to, in this case, since Mr. Crab can't die. If you run into something nasty, you drop your babies and fall a ways. Since checkpoints are walls you knock down as you pass by, you can never fall below them. That also means you can't go back even if you want to, though. Miss a baby crab right before you stepped through a checkpoint? Too bad. It's a pain, but it's also motivating: carelessness has consequences.
A few levels break away from the norm with boss battles, wherein large versions of unfriendly critters try to drop on your head before you drop on theirs. These don't add a lot beyond breaking up the slight repetition of the game, but they do add a collection of hats for your crab. I happily settled on a jaunty top hat.
Just as the game is more fun to play than it might first appear, it also looks much better in motion than it does in screenshots. Gentle use of depth of field clarifies what could otherwise be an incredibly busy landscape, and the shiny, jewel-like models are lively in action. I find the whole look a bit aggressively bright and chipper much of the time, but the time I've spent in the dark reds and blacks of the final level have me feeling a bit of colour is quite all right.
That last level or two highlight the one serious problem facing Mr. Crab. Difficulty becomes a matter of thinner and thinner platforms spaced ever more erratically. Throw in a few large gaps between checkpoints and the fun melts away to frustration pretty quickly. The problem only hits a couple levels at the moment, though, and who's to say what the future holds?
As it stands, Mr. Crab is a solid, clever little one-touch platformer. I rarely wanted to put it down; even the level that defeated me kept me hooked well past the point of irritation. The game isn't groundbreaking, but there aren't all that many games with its exact schtick—the auto-running and one-touch platforming, the vertical tower, the tricky collectables. Mr. Crab takes those things and runs with them, picking up my admiration along the way.
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