App of the Day: Hank Hazard
If the App Store was a real shop, it'd be a spacious, attractive, well-lit and welcoming place with some slightly dubious promotional offers and sales on the majority of new releases.
You'd find it well-stocked with endless runners and asynchronous multiplayer games, a little lighter on music titles and strategy games, while the platformers would sport a 'fragile' sticker, the owners acknowledging that errant prods are likely to cause consumer frustration.
Then you'd wander into the aisle marked 'physics puzzlers' and find yourself unable to move, the heaving shelves coughing their contents onto the floor as assistants attempt to stack up more fresh product.
Not wishing to extend an already slightly laboured metaphor, but Hank Hazard is yet another in that teetering, ceiling-high pile, a game lucky enough to be picked up for front-of-store promotion if only because it's got 'Chillingo' on the box, and those guys published Angry Birds and Cut The Rope. This is a typically polished release from one of mobile gaming's biggest publishers, even if its three-stars-and-bonus-items structure is crushingly familiar.
You play as the titular stunt hamster who, in the very best tradition of small, cute video game mammals, is sealed inside a ball. It's your job to get him to a red and white target by tapping various objects to propel him in the right direction.
Naturally, there are stars positioned along the course, and the real challenge is to guide Hank into all of them before reaching the exit. A bonus objective usually asks you to finish the level with Hank travelling at a certain speed, or within a given number of taps. And if you collect the well-hidden gold stars that show up every so often, you'll unlock some slightly gimmicky bonus stages.
Most levels are like Heath Robinson devices, with complex arrangements of objects to tap or hold your finger against. You'll remove platforms, blow up bombs, switch conveyor belts, dissolve sticky goo, trigger boxing gloves and more to get Hank to the target.
The best stages are the ones where working out the optimal route is tricky, but once you've figured out the solution the execution is relatively simple. The worst are trial-and-error affairs where you need to trigger an object at a very precise moment and with Hank in a very specific position.
There's a level skip feature should you get stuck, but then you've got that nagging one- or two-star rating in among all the threes and you know you're going to have to go back until you nail it, even if it takes umpteen attempts and results in a mysterious bite mark sullying the clean lines of your iDevice. Still, it's worth the hardship to see Hank's little face light up when he holds aloft the golden nut.
It's also beautifully presented, almost to a fault. In fact, the level of polish might sometimes cause you to wish Chillingo had picked Hank's brother Hap for the lead role. It's all a bit too precise. The best real-world stunts are those which are meticulously arranged but which appear entirely spontaneous when performed. Nailing a level on your first attempt is the closest you ever get to that, but with instant restarts whenever Hank is electrocuted or receives a cactus enema, there's no sense of danger.
It made me wonder whether there's something in the idea of a game that asks you to set up ridiculous stunts and to execute them perfectly on your first go, lest you have to painstakingly reassemble it all over and over until you finally get it right. Now pulling that off would be tense. It'd probably be rubbish, but I'd play it.
Besides, for the time being, Hank's slick stunts will more than suffice. And if you're of the opinion that the only good animal is one encased inside a translucent sphere, this plucky hamster will satisfy your needs better than anything AiAi and co have produced for a good few years.
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.