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‘Shufflepuck Cantina’ Review – In Space, Air Hockey is Hard

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The good folks at Agharta Studio have done something completely insane: they released a free-to-play air hockey (holographic mag-lev hockey?) game set in an immersive and silly setting best described as “Star Wars by way of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy."

Shufflepuck Cantina (Free) is actually an an air hockey, not shufflepuck (table shuffleboard) game, but it keeps the misnomer as part of its homage to Shuffepuck Café, one of the top Mac, DOS, Atari and Amiga games of 1989. There are also a few intentional parallels in style, like the distinctive “hol0graphic glass break" score effect, but it’s mainly a matter of the carefully developed setting.

All of the Sci-Fi weirdos in Shufflepuck Cantina are entirely new and much more developed than their Café antecedents, but they share a similar sense of humor. For example, instead of Café’s robot waiter, DC3, every level of Shufflepuck Cantina has a different bartender, starting with M4Rv1N, who seems to have worked though his paranoia and depression at some point.

Back in the day, I loved playing air hockey at the local miniature golf course’s arcade. I thought I was pretty good, and back then, maybe I was. Shufflepuck Cantina has taught me the hard truth: my reflexes are shot.

Judging from the forum, there are three different kinds of players of Shufflepuck Cantina. There are the elite few who quickly advance to the third floor of the cantina (the hardest level, for now: more levels are coming) and find the opponents there mildly challenging. There are a lot of people who struggle for the first 20 minutes or so of play, but then “get it" and they’re on their way. Then there are a number of people who crash-land on Athanor, stumble into the Shufflepuck Cantina, and proceed to get pucked over and over again by a furby.

I’m squarely in the last category. After literally hundreds of games, I’m finally about a match for “Furry," the weakest opponent in the game. I’ve read all the advice (from pushing your mallet forward to return a shot faster to the fact that you can “teleport" your mallet by simply touching where you want it to be: you don’t have to keep your finger on the screen the whole time), but I’m just too slow.

Agharta really is trying to “do freemium right." There are a lot of things to buy, but none of them are disposable, and none of them allow you to buy victory. I should know: I tried. The “extra wide mallet" helped… but not enough. More serious players will be spending “Credz" on unlocking parts of your opponents’ stories, and when you unlock their entire biography, you can play as them, with bonuses and penalties. Each of the other players also has a trick shot, and if you’ve mastered that character, you can equip their mallet and puck and perform their trick shot on occasion, whether or not you’re playing as them.

Racking up Credz isn’t hard for a skilled player. Games tend to last well under a minute each, and if you’re enjoying playing, they’ll go by quickly. My problem, beyond sucking to begin with, was that the longer I played at a stretch, the worse I got, as my finger tired and my eyes began to cross.

We all know that the iPod touch is the red-headed stepchild of iOS devices, but despite the game’s gorgeous 3d art and lightning-fast play, Shufflepuck Cantina never stuttered on my device. Neither could I blame my failure on the game’s design. The interface is super-sensitive: this is the first iOS game I’ve played where I wanted to chalk my fingertips to reduce friction on the screen, and while being able to clearly see your mallet has to be an advantage when playing on an iPad, on the small screen you can position you finger on or just behind the mallet, improving visibility.

If you don’t think that designing a good interface for an air hockey game matters, you should download the Midway Arcade ($0.99) collection and play the included air hockey game. I did just that, and it convinced me that Agharta nailed the control scheme.

A quick two player match is only a tap away, and the game switches to a symmetrical perspective for same-device multiplayer. Right now, same-device is the only multiplayer mode, but Agharta says that WiFi play is coming. The art is gorgeous, and the writing is funny. The game’s music and sound are pleasant enough, though this game is just begging for some sort of jukebox feature (it’s set in a bar for crizzake).

It will be interesting to see how Shufflepuck Cantina works out for Agharta. There’s a risk of the freemium system backfiring, as the really good players won’t need to buy Credz, and less talented players may spend money only to experience disappointment and frustration when the game is still really hard. I’m a little surprised that there isn’t an IAP to slow the game down – perhaps a “high friction" puck that cuts your score in half when used.

The fact that Shufflepuck Cantina is free makes it easy to recommend: if the premise appeals to you, download it and give it half an hour. At that point, if you’re jazzed and really rockin’ it, you’ve just made a friend. On the other hand, if you’re feeling irritable or frustrated at that point, you should just delete the game and move on. Shufflepuck Cantina isn’t for everyone, so while I really want to learn about Ayato’s past (did he shoot first?) I doubt I ever will.

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