Proto Raider ($2.99) makes a great first impression. Its graphics are entirely composed of ASCII symbols, giving it a striking appearance, particularly when things start to move on the screen. By this point in gaming, it’s somewhat difficult to make a platform game that can immediately catch the eye, and the idea of going back to the very roots of video games for inspiration is a clever one. Behind the intriguing presentation sits a somewhat ordinary platformer with excellent level design. It reminds me of the wildly experimental days before the success of the Super Mario Bros. series dictated what platformers ought to be like. It’s almost as though a lost Commodore 64 game spilled out of the time tunnel and into the App Store.
The basic goal of each of the game’s 64 stages is to collect a key and make your way to the exit of the stage. There are a few things that stand in the way of that goal. First of all, you have your usual platforming obstacles that will immediately kill you if you touch them, and they are indeed quite a handful. There’s also the fact that like iOS Rayman ($2.99), the Wind-Up Knight (Free), and many others, the hero of this game is always running forward. There’s no stopping him, and unlike the aforementioned, he won’t usually turn around when he hits a normal wall. Instead, there are special types of surfaces that will do the job for you if you touch them. Each stage also contains three treasure chests, and while you don’t have to collect all of them to move forward, you will eventually need most of them to unlock each world.
The stages are all laid out on a single screen, making each one sort of a mini-puzzle of careful planning and timed button presses in sequence. Your character doesn’t move until you touch the screen, so you have lots of time to examine the level and search for your route. That doesn’t stop things from being pleasantly challenging anyway, since there’s a heavy timing aspect to many levels that takes a bit of practice. Proto Raider also frequently throws in new tricks and mechanics, so even with all the time in the world to size up the level, there are plenty of things you’re going to have to try out to learn properly. Less pleasantly, several levels require moving obstacles or platforms to line up in just the right way, something that is typically not under your control. You’ll have to restart the level until you get the right combination or simply wait it out when you start the stage for things to align.
Even with those problems, it’s hard not to admire what’s going on with the level designs here. Unlike most other stage-based autorunners, Proto Raider keeps its levels compact, always staying within the boundaries of one screen. With limited space to work with, creating enough variety for 64 levels’ worth of content without careening headlong into monotony is a tricky task. By giving you new ways to move or new abilities that open up your options, the game gets a great deal of mileage out of having you move from one part of the screen to another. The gameplay only ever requires you to touch the screen to perform any actions, so these tools, items, and obstacles might replace your default jump in certain situations. To use an early example, in some stages you’ll find a scuba tank that allows you to swim around underwater for the duration of the level. The rule about always moving forward is generally consistent, but even that rule is sometimes broken, notably with moving platforms such as boats.
As I’ve already mentioned, not every death feels fair. Sometimes objects are moving in such a way that you can’t possibly get through, and the jump is sometimes a little fussy, particularly if you need to make more than one hop in a row. Fortunately, the lives are unlimited and restarts are quick, and when combined with the small size of each level, it makes it easy to try, die, and try again without ever feeling like you’ve lost too much. Outside of a few particularly tricky chests, it’s not nearly as punishing or demanding as some of its brethren, but it should provide enough of a bite to keep you engaged for the whole playthrough. I think that’s actually a somewhat under-served audience when it comes to iOS platform games, which tend to either be beautiful walks or teeth-grinders. Proto Raider is a beautiful game, but it’s neither pushover nor punishing overall.
In addition to the interesting default visual presentation, you can also play around with some color options to give the game a slightly different look. Other options allow you to adjust the speed of the game along with the usual volume control settings. The music is quite relaxing and while I apologize for beating this drum again, really reminds me of a Commodore 64 game at times. There are a few different tracks, and they just play one after another. It’s a bit jarring at times when they switch mid-stage, but at least you’re never lacking for musical variety. Some of the sound effects are going to be awfully familiar for fans of Capcom’s super fighting robot, but I’ve decided I’m going to care about that approximately as much as Capcom cares about Mega Man anymore. The Game Center leaderboard opts for a somewhat disappointing tally of total chests collected, meaning the top spot is shared by just about everyone who fully clears the game, and there aren’t any achievements either, a shame for a game that could make excellent use of them.
To be honest, Proto Raider is one of those games you’re likely to only play through once. You’ll have a great time figuring out the trick to each level, collecting all the treasures, and seeing every stage. Once you do, the main challenge comes from the whims of elements outside of your control, an aspect that is frustrating enough that you likely won’t want to revisit the levels that lean heavily on such mechanics. Nevertheless, it’s assuredly an experience worth undertaking, both for its unusual presentation and its clever stage designs.