Version tested PSP
Video games have quite a wish list at the moment. We need faster broadband, new hardware and publishers willing to try the big money risks, for starters. Mainly, though, we need a name for a genre that is steadily taking over handheld gaming. Canabalt, Tiny Wings, Jetpack Joyride. Race-'em-ups, distance runners, marathon games? What are we going to call these things?
Regardless of the name we eventually land on, PomPom's made another one for PSN Minis - and it's a typically inventive spin on the concept, too. Jelly Pops may sound like an after-school club for hyperactive children, but it looks like the kind of thing you might find after peering down an endoscope.
You're a weird, parasitic worm-horse floating past viscous pools, oozing rainbow blisters and towering red blood cells, collecting gooey trinkets and avoiding equally gooey spikes as you go. It's either beautifully organic or physically repulsive depending on your point of view: a classic PomPom approach to visuals, then.
And it's a classic PomPom approach to mechanics, too, offering up a deviously calibrated endurance race in which you're constantly required to vary your tactics. The aim may be to get as far as you can, but there are a handful of complications holding you back. Your health is the main problem, slipping away steadily over time until you finally explode in a limp cloud of wet black soot. In order to keep moving, you have to top yourself up by steering through Life Force gems as you go.
A racing line, eh? Even here there's a twist, though. Simply rush from one gem to the next and you'll quickly find yourself suffering from diminishing returns. Instead, you have to space them out by chaining same-colour collectables in between, each one charging up your next Life Force gem a little more. Chain clumsily or too timidly and you won't get much of a health boost. Chain too much, and you risk dying before you can benefit from your bravery, like some kind of mitochondrial Icarus.
And so you swim on through each level, keeping one eye on your score, one eye on passing hazards, and one eye (this is the developer of Mutant Storm, after all) on how much gas you've got left in the tanks. That would be enough for most games, but Jelly Pop's just getting started. With that premise as the foundation, PomPom begins to build levels around entirely new mechanics as well: one surrounding you with roving turrets as you move, say, the next providing you with a boulder to roll into armoured health containers, and yet another filling the screen with a shifting mass of multi-coloured collectables, all but destroying your ability to chain them effectively.
It's variations on a theme, in other words: the same approach that the studio took with Bliss Island, a previous title. But while that game quickly degenerated into mini-games - some excellent, some a little underwhelming - Jelly Pop has a constant forward momentum provided by the shared survival goal of each challenge, and by a series of medals you unlock for each level after meeting certain criteria.
It's a beautiful piece of design and one that puts PomPom right up there with Canabalt creator Adam Saltsman at the very forefront of the genre... whatever genre this actually is, of course.
[Note: Jelly Pops currently has a bug that appears to stop medals earned on the last two stages from saving properly. PomPom says it will be fixed in the EU version of the game "soon". While annoying, it didn't in any way limit our enjoyment of the game.]
8 / 10