App of the Day: Candy Train

Chew chew.

Version tested iPad

Candy Train looks so much like a PopCap game that it's practically a parody. The title screen is filled with bright colours and shiny, boiled-sweet textures, the sound track is cartoonishly adorable with its busy chuff-chuff-chuffing and its uncommonly cheery rail whistles.

Even the icon you'll see on your iPhone looks like the kind of thing Willy Wonka might hand out to tranquilise problematic visitors before an Oompa Loompa drops them off in a back alley somewhere. It's PopCap Concentrate, PopCap Imax, and that means it's all the weirder when you actually sit down to play Candy Train, and realise it was designed and built by utter bastards.

Tellingly, the game belongs to PopCap's 4th & Battery brand - a label that was formed to release oddities like the brilliantly nasty Unpleasant Horse. Candy Train actually predates its iOS version, however. After its initial debut on the PopCap website back in 2001, it languished, too hard, too punishing for the Bejeweled crowd, until it turned up on the App Store for free in the middle of last year. I've been playing it ever since, and making practically no headway.

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Prior to privatisation, we used a better kind of cotton candy on the trackside.

The idea's simple. The screen for Candy Train is a busy tangle of mismatched track pieces, split into little squares. Tapping a square will rotate it, and your job, such as it is, is to keep one step ahead of a brightly coloured train that trundles along, getting faster and faster as it goes. There are carriages to attach to your train if you can steer past them, but they'll make the vehicle longer, and thus harder to look after. Once you've got a caboose stuck on the end, however, you can head to a station, level up, and start over again with just the engine and the tender. Repeat.

Miss a connection, and it's game over. It's game over quite a lot in Candy Train, in fact. If you're used to PopCap games rewarding you beautifully for just about everything you can think of doing - a long, lucky bounce in Peggle, a spectacular chain in Zuma Blitz - you'll be extremely disappointed here. Most of Candy Train is about screwing things up, causing collisions, and having your good work go unappreciated. It's dangerously close to a real job at the strategic rail authority, in fact, except it's all weirdly moreish.

What carries the day is the sheer ingenious grumpiness of Candy Train, and the way it's ceaseless, thankless challenge is married to a ludicrously upbeat art style. Given the bitter gameplay loop - I can't believe I just abused that phrase so badly - most developers would prod this one out the door with a stark, minimalist, Trainyard-type aesthetic slapped onto it. PopCap, meanwhile, shovels on the sugar. Possibly because they're so used to shovelling on the sugar by now, but probably because it takes a mean-spirited, brilliantly brutal game, and makes it all just that little bit funnier.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.

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