Ever felt the urge to throw a washing machine at a panda? Apple Jack is a platform/puzzle game in which you DESTROY enemies by picking them up and HURLING them at each other! Journey west through five counties and 100 levels on a quest to rescue your beloved dog from the icy summit of Mount Snowdon!
It’s unfortunate that Apple Jack’s brilliance isn’t easily depicted in thankless screenshots. Simple images would appear that this is yet another Flash platformer, a dime a dozen run-and-jump of quaint graphics and tired gameplay. “Au contraire!” I’d say if I were French. Tim Sycamore’s first video game that he designed while learning how to program in C# is a marvelous platformer with a refreshing deathmatch aesthetic which allows for more free form thinking than the standard left-to-right which dominates the genre.
Apple Jack’s quest to retrieve his dog has him defeating a wide and impressive variety of enemies across 100 levels divided by five counties across the United Kingdom. Each enemy exhibits a wholly unique behavior which players must learn to overcome: ballerina pigs will mimic Apple Jack’s movements, stationary owls fire high lasers, and washing machines shuffle along the ground indefinitely with a one track mind. Jack’s enemies are an eclectic bunch, and often levels will be constructed around their individual traits, whether forcing Jack to ride an enemy to bypass a threat, baiting one to follow him until the enemy is needed, and so forth.
Gameplay is a mix of Super Mario Bros. 2 (the Western reskinned Doki Doki Panic version) and Yoshi’s Island, centering around Jack’s ability to hop on enemies, pick them up, and throw them. Once Jack has grasped an enemy, he’ll find that he can’t jump as high but can now throw them around pretty much however he pleases with the right trigger. The game offers players complete control of the trajectory and velocity of the throw, good for hitting a far off ghost threatening from above or gently lobbing a snagged enemy onto a platform for later pickup as needed. Apple Jack is the first 2-D platformer I have seen where analog controls are a welcomed and necessary addition for the betterment of gameplay.
Each level begins with the same goal: dispatch some number of enemies in the level as depicted by the counter at the top of the screen. Apple Jack occasionally complicates the matter by dressing up the enemies in one of four colored lights; only enemies of the same color can be defeated, otherwise they will be reflected and bounce away. My Owl Software takes this deathmatch concept and runs with it with Apple Jack’s level design. Jack will find himself racing enemies, saving one to bypass another, flying with them, and more — it’s no where near as dumbed down as extermination gameplay may have one believe. The wealth of situations the game presents to the player is astounding, particularly when one considers this little one dollar game has 100 levels of action. Even though Jack is limited to throwing enemies, jumping, and rolling around in his head (think Metroid‘s Maru Mari morph ball), every scene feels fresh thanks to the Developer’s ingenuity of design.
The game looks better than it appears in stills as well. Jack and his enemies animate quite nicely, and the number of sprites on screen is ridiculous when Jack triggers a high bonus (successive kills during a time span reward more and more coins with each defeat). The colors are vibrant and the graphics sharp looking and free from clutter. One particularly neat touch is how the title background changes to reflect which county the player last left Jack in, similar to how Yoshi’s Island’s title screen changed to reflect progress in that game. Apple Jack is clearly a labor of love, a letter to “hard core” 2-D fans dying for a good workout. Apple Jack more than delivers, its 100 levels easily providing several hours of controller throwing gameplay.
Be warned that Apple Jack quickly turns from an odd little title to something far more sinister. Even with infinite lives, one hit kills can be feel unfair when enemies get their cheap hits in. The slightest touch above the soles of Jack’s shoes will do him in; I’ve seen him die when a fireball grazed his little apple stem while ducking to try to avoid the shot. It’s a brutal game on later levels, and I particularly loathe how ghosts have a knack for swooping down when Jack leaps to avoid their fireballs. Many levels require lengthy trips over perilous grounds where death is a given, and the occasional checkpoint rarely provide sufficient salve for the wounds inflicted by the game.
Those who are looking for a challenge and can stomach the pain will find Apple Jack to be bar none the best platformer and arguably the best value on Xbox Indies. Eventually the frustration passes and all that remains is an sense of accomplishment for overcoming the odds and soldiering onward through one of the toughest platformers out there. Good graphics, tight controls, a fantastic soundtrack, and a ton of levels make for a platformer which will take days if not weeks for the typical player to complete.