Version tested: Xbox 360
There's this quiet place tucked down a country lane where Magritte and Miyamoto are conversing under the leafy canopy of an English orchard as gentle folk tunes whistle away on the breeze. It's where fruit comes gushing from the trees, where catatonic pandas stalk and where washing machines run free. It is, all told, the perfect place to while away a summer afternoon.
If there's anything that can be said for Apple Jack 2 it's that it manages to infuse the eccentricity that defined the '80s heyday of the bedroom coder with the design sensibilities of Nintendo at its platforming best without ever breaking a sweat. There's much more that can be said for it, though, and beneath the soft, whimsical exterior of My Owl's Xbox Live Indie Games follow-up is a game of exquisite smarts.
You're the eponymous Apple Jack, an everyman with fruit for a head who, in this sequel to the 2010 original, finds himself tied to a life behind a desk, dreaming of freedom. It's the Son of Man finding himself in a nine-to-five and doing a Reggie Perrin - losing himself in a surreal world that sees the Mushroom Kingdom transposed to a quiet corner of Suffolk. What follows is a game that takes the knockabout action of Super Mario Bros. 2 and spins it out with the clumsy energy of a cider-soaked spring afternoon.
Levels are sprawling affairs with one of two goals - either reach the end or dispose of every enemy on-screen. Killing off Apple Jack 2's supporting cast of washing machines, floating spacemen and laser-spewing owls is a tactile pleasure in itself. As in Nintendo's famously wayward platforming sequel, you're able to pounce on enemies' heads, balancing yourself atop them before plucking them from the ground and tossing them around the scenery.
It's a formula that will, of course, be familiar to players of the original, still one of the finest games available on Xbox Live Indie Games. The sequel expands it in the slightest of ways, but its additions are meaningful: there's a rewind feature that becomes more limited as you pick your way up through the three difficulty levels. You'll need it, too, as Apple Jack 2 can be a tough, tough game.
Apple Jack 2 shares a thirst for invention with its predecessor, and it's this willingness to experiment that propels both games towards the realm of excellence. From a palette of shifting platforms, spike pits and spinning saw-blades, My Owl composes levels of satisfying precision, shifting up from chaotic action to taut gauntlet runs with reckless abandon.
There's a level of invention that brings to mind Treasure's Bangai-O, funnily enough - a link that's strengthened by the abundance of fruit that gushes forth when enemies are taken down. String together kills quickly enough and you can kick-start a multiplier, building chains that result in entire orchards spewing forth. The link also comes through in the way Apple Jack plays with scale, taking regular enemies and enlarging them to fill entire screens. If Bangai-O displays a punky aesthetic in its eccentric and energetic level design, then Apple Jack 2 often feels like its folksy flipside.
Apple Jack 2's not without its rough edges; the erratic difficulty level ensures that the game's homespun nature can be as frustrating as it is charming. But such is the generosity of ideas here that it's hard to take offence for too long, and the charm ultimately wins through. The Xbox Live Indie Games channel may not get much love, but forget about all that and simply enjoy Apple Jack 2 for what it is: a smart delight of a game that's one of the very best on the service.
9 / 10