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App of the Day: Match Panic

Pair crumble.

We live in a time where most games are delighted to hand out virtual tchotchkes for the lowliest accomplishments. Pressed start to continue? Here, have a Trophy! Viewed the tutorial? 20 Gamerpoints for you! It's an ego massage for the easily disheartened: reward the player to keep them from switching off. All of which makes Match Panic something of an anomaly; it's not often you'll find a game purpose-built to make its users feel very stupid indeed.

Of course, to make players feel really stupid, you first need to make them feel smart. Match Panic's opening stage is artfully constructed to induce maximum overconfidence. You have a pixel art character (a panda, say) on the left of the screen and one on the right (a happy cloud, perhaps) with a scrolling column in the middle. The object is to tap left or right to match the central image to those on either side. Rattle through the whole stack within the allotted time and you'll move on to the next stage.

At first, it seems laughably easy. Even when Match Panic springs its first surprise by putting two images on one side you'll comfortably be able to cope after a split second's adjustment. Several stages later, when you're dealing with three pictures on each side, your thought processes will have stuttered to a near-standstill, leaving your thumbs hovering uselessly above the screen.

Your brain is screaming "Left! No, RIGHT!" and your poor, confused digits don't know what to do. With the insistent timer chiming as it nears zero, you'll take an embarrassingly long time to realise that, yes, doofus, the smiley-faced cactus is on the left-hand side. The only way the game could make you feel any worse is by printing the word 'IDIOT' in capital letters when the clock inevitably runs down.

Power-ups, meanwhile, are double-edged swords. Whether it's the bomb that explodes several images behind it, or the yin-yang symbol that changes the next handful to the same icon (precipitating a feverish rush of jabs to one side) they're ostensibly life-savers, but often seem to put you off your rhythm.

The sound effect that heralds their imminent arrival forces your eyes to shift to the middle of the incoming pack, a deadly hesitation that sees you take more deliberate steps so as not to miss them by pressing the wrong side of the screen. The extra seconds it takes to get back in the zone can often be the difference between scraping through to the next stage and being taunted by the game over screen once more. There's an achievement for passing level 20, but the closest I've ever been was four from the end of the final wave before my brain entirely ceased to function.

Repeat plays merely unlock more icons to play with which should confuse matters further, though by the latter stages your mind will no longer be able to tell the difference between an owl and an astronaut anyway. That's your lot as far as extras go, but it doesn't need anything more: Match Panic may be about as single-minded as iOS games get, but this is the textbook example of making the very most of a basic but brilliant idea.

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.