What is a Shobon? This was the biggest, most pressing question nagging at me while playing Shobon Flip ($0.99) by Masami Kodaira. A brief, incredibly confusing google search informed me that it has something to do with a cat character (who may be suffering from depression) that has appeared in various Mario-like platformers on the internet. Maybe you already knew that, and good for you if you did. The reason I needed to know is that he, she, or it is also the star of this weird little pinball game. The ball is a Shobon, and the background is often filled with a giant naked Shobon flexing his muscles and shaking his pearly white butt around. Readers, welcome to my nightmares.
So yes, this game is utterly strange. Thankfully, it doesn’t only exist to haunt my dreams–it’s also, as I mentioned, a pinball game. A pretty decent one, too. Each level is laid out like a simple table, with a few flippers, a goal, and not much else. No pinbots, no earthquakes, no party monsters. The ball lazily rolls in from one side or the other and your job is to smack it around with your flippers (by tapping either side of the screen) until it finds its way into a swirling blue portal, at which point the level is complete and you move on to the next one.
Aside from the aforementioned sad dancing cat, the style of the game seems to be influenced a bit by Little Big Planet. The platforms, floaty physics, prize bubble-esque level select screen, and 2.5D layout all make it seem like each level could have easily been crafted in LBP. That might sound pretty neat, but it also means some of the level designs are a bit simple and uninspired. There are some stages that play with gravity and three-dimensional space in interesting ways, but they are unfortunately few and far between.
In fairness, the simplicity of the levels is probably a necessary evil due to the difficulty of controlling where the ball goes. It might be the floaty physics or the barely-perceptible-but-still-there delay in the flippers, but passing a level can feel entirely random at times. Sometimes one would take me three or four minutes to pass, and then the next would take all of six seconds. If there were any more bumpers, spinners, and traps cluttering up the table it would probably be a total crapshoot.
Interestingly, there’s no real way to lose. If a ball falls into a drain, it just reappears with no real consequences. You don’t lose a “life” or anything–you just keep playing until you pass. The only way you are judged is by the amount of time it takes you to complete a level, and even that seems kind of meaningless without leaderboards or anything. The only motivation to keep going, I guess, is to see what the next stage will be like (and what new dance moves that giant earless cat in the background has learned). I suppose there’s a sort of minimalist purity to that, but it’d be nice if there was a tiny bit more of an incentive to keep playing and improving.
Shobon Flip is a hard game to pin down (pun not intended, but I’ll allow it). On the one hand, it’s a competent enough pinball platformer that has a few neat ideas here and there. On the other hand, there’s that Magic Mike cat in the background. The game’s not quite as clever or original as something like Momonga Pinball Adventures ($1.99), but I still had fun bouncing my way through its 30 levels. And while I’m still pretty fuzzy on the lore behind the weird man-cat, I hope he finally finds happiness knowing that he inspired a rather nice little pinball game.