Version tested iPad
Have you ever wanted to punch a bear IN THE MOUTH? That's the entirely unreasonable question posed by indie developer Nicoll Hunt in this deliriously silly tribute to the glory days of the scrolling beat-'em-up, and if your answer is in the affirmative then you won't be disappointed. You'll not only punch a lot of bears IN THE MOUTH, but also kick them in the nuts and stamp on their fiendish furry faces.
Don't worry, this isn't animal cruelty. You're playing as Tim Burr, a rugged lumberjack whose house has just caught fire and whose family has just disappeared. Then one of his hands grows gigantic and starts talking to him. Turns out that history has been rewritten, Planet of the Apes style, and now bears are the dominant species, with humans hunted for food. Brandishing his oversized fist and driven by a potent mixture of righteous fury and mild confusion, Tim sets off on a journey through time to put things right.
The first thing you notice is how well it plays on a touchscreen. This is a platform that has traditionally struggled to replicate arcade inputs, yet the approach taken here works beautifully. The left hand side of the screen is used as a virtual joystick for movement, while the right hand side is used for attacks. A quick tap delivers a basic punch, while holding the tap unleashes the Fist of Awesome. Small swipes to the left and right trigger kicks, and while bringing your finger down sees on floored enemies stomped. Swipe up to jump, and tap in the air for a flying kick.
There are a few more wrinkles, such as grapples and throws, but they're all implemented with the same simple grace. The inputs needed are small, so there's none of the sluggishness usually associated with touchscreen play. Your thumbs quickly adjust to the tiny flicks needed, and you're able to wade through the animal hordes with confidence.
It also looks fantastic, taking the over exposed pixel art aesthetic and delivering it with real humour and style. Too many games turn to retro visuals to save time, but with its parallax scrolling, detailed backdrops and fancy transparency effects, Fist of Awesome has clearly been a labour of love.
This is no mere pastiche and Hunt clearly has genuine passion for, and understanding of, the beat-'em-up genre. It's simple, as any homage to arcade classics should be, but there are tactics that emerge naturally as you play. As with any scrolling brawler, it comes down to managing the space around you, knowing when to move and when to stand and fight. That your doing so against an array of pixel art bears, deer and velociraptors is just silly set dressing on top of a serious game engine.
What the game lacks at present is any real escalation. There are no items or pick-ups, and enemies change appearance but not their attacks. Since Tim has a rudimentary XP system that means his attacks become stronger, his moves faster and his health more robust, you'll find your first playthrough is fairly stress free. Reach the end first time round and you discover that was Easy Mode, with Hard Mode the reward for your success. Beat that, and you'll get to play in the Harder Mode. There are also survival arenas, where you can play as a whole host of bonus characters.
What's here at the moment more than justifies the pocket money impulse purchase price, and the few hours it will take you to bash your way through to the end. It's a work in progress, however, with a Grizzly Edition in the works for PC and Mac that will add more levels, more enemies, more of everything. All that content will be added to the mobile version as a free update.
Without that extra material, the game can't help feeling a little thin, and even with a relatively short completion time it does start to feel repetitive by the time the final stage rolls around. It never stops being funny though, and it's the cheeky daftness of both the premise and story that keeps you hooked once the gameplay has settled into its rhythm.
Nicoll Hunt's stated aim was create "the greatest scrolling beat em up of all time". He's not quite there yet, but it's one hell of a first step.
7 / 10