Playing Junk Jack [$2.99] for the first time, you may experience a strong sense of déjà vu. It brought to mind my first delve into Minecraft, with the feeling of overwhelming choice, the lack of any clear idea what to do next, the need to visit YouTube and wikis to learn exactly why I was punching all those trees. But while there are any number of blatant Minecraft knockoffs on the App Store, Junk Jack distinguishes itself in nearly every category — but one.
One of Minecraft’s biggest weaknesses (one that’s improved over the course of its development) is its lack of direction, and Junk Jack takes that flaw and runs with it. For a game designed around crafting, building and exploration, Junk Jack is aggressive in its lack of assistance, leaving you without even a way to keep track of your craft notes (schematics) until you find the right note for the job. Luckily, developer Pixbits has already acknowledged that problem and is working up a fix as we speak, so we can focus on this game’s charm and potential.
It has charm in spades. While it isn’t the first 2D sandbox building game out there, it is a particularly attractive one, sporting crisp pixel art and gorgeous lighting effects. Then there’s the excellent chiptune soundtrack by Bright Primate. Combined, you get the sense that you’re building one of your favorite classic games.
But don’t go into Junk Jack looking for a classic game experience. At the moment it’s an untouched sandbox. Aside from a selection of Game Center achievements, there are no set goals to the game – just explore, build, and create whatever you can imagine.
Exploration is both better and worse than it is in Minecraft. Above ground, you won’t find many truly unique or interesting vistas. Since the game is limited to two planes and a fixed size, crazy mountains or overhangs would largely just get in your way. Under ground, however, there’s lots to find. New schematics are everywhere you dig, and boxes full of tools, treasures and materials are scattered throughout the depths. I’m still finding strange new areas, biomes I haven’t seen before living deep underground. Still, there’s no risk of getting truly lost.
Building has its ups and downs too. With only two planes (background and foreground), there are plenty of things you can’t build. Don’t expect full-scale replicas of the Millennium Falcon to pop up in Junk Jack. But the things you can build can be filled with all sorts of neat little things. Not only can you create all manner of furniture and decor with a familiar grid-based crafting system, but you also find treasures and statues and artifacts in your journeys, and you can display them proudly in your home.
Speaking of which, Pixbits has done something interesting with its save system. Say you build a gorgeous home underground, and you want to keep it pristine. You can load up one of the other two world slots and strip mine it, because your inventory travels between worlds. This opens up a lot of possibilities for creating linked worlds, but it does seriously limit your ability to share a single copy of the game with, say, your kids.
There is one outstanding caveat to my love of Junk Jack, and that’s its controls. They aren’t terrible, but they take some getting used to. You can swipe/drag to walk in any direction, and swipe up to jump. You can’t do both those things at the same time, though, so jumping is pretty much pointless, though a diagonal swipe jump can sometimes get you where you need to go. Managing your inventory is also harder than necessary, requiring a lot of care and precision while selections hide under your fingertips.
But the real problem is tapping: prepare to do a lot of it. Digging requires aggressively mashing your finger on the spot you want to clear, at least until you have high quality tools. My wrist isn’t thanking me for playing this game.
If you can adapt to the controls, you’re left with a game of great potential. Pixbits plans to keep building on the foundation they’ve laid, so hopefully we can expect to see quests, farming and cooking soon. I’ll also keep my fingers crossed for bigger worlds with ever more to discover. Even as it stands, though, Junk Jack is outstanding. Just make sure to take a guide, or look to our discussion thread for help — it’s a complicated world in there.