You don't often get tales of high drama or years of development hell in the quickfire world of mobile gaming, but here's one. Ridiculous Fishing, over two years in the making, is a fleshed-out version of Radical Fishing, the crude but compelling Flash debut of Dutch indies Vlambeer. (You might know these die-hard arcade fanatics from the phenomenal Super Crate Box.)
You can get the full story from the horse's website, but the gist is that Vlambeer put together a dream team to remake Radical Fishing for iOS - talent that has had a hand in everything from Spelltower to Spelunky and Solipskier. But this supergroup was dealt a cruel blow when a clone of Radical Fishing - I won't do it the dignity of naming it here - hit the App Store first and cleaned up. Depressed and demotivated, the team let its project languish and moved on to other things, almost disintegrating in the process. It must have taken a mighty effort of will to go back to it - but here it is, its troubled gestation belied by its confident polish and impish sense of humour. This game isn't subtitled "A Tale of Redemption" just for laughs.
Ridiculous Fishing is a pure mobile game, one of those one-minute one-shots you'll rerun hundreds of times. At its heart is a see-saw rhythm, a single, perfectly described parabola of silliness that ends exactly where it starts - with you hitting the button marked "Fish!" for another go.
You are redneck fishing champ Billy; you fish and you shoot. First, with a tap, you send a line into the depths. With gentle tilt controls, you steer the lure to avoid fishes, getting it as deep as you can - because as soon as one fish takes the bait, the line will start to reel in. On the return journey, the game flips as you try to snag as much of the sea life as possible on your accelerating line.
When the lure hits the surface your catch goes arcing into the air and you whip out your guns, tapping or dragging to blast the fishes into bloody chunks and bank the proceeds. This part is more like juggling that shooting, really. Tougher fish bounce off your shots and you want to keep as much of it in the air as possible so you can shoot it on its slowing upward trajectory. When the catch starts to plummet back into the water, raining around Billy's boat, it gets much harder to pick off.
It's so simple and stupid, it's kind of beautiful. The clever part is the care with which Vlambeer has elaborated on this idiot-savant design without spoiling it. As you earn money, you can buy the expected longer lines and better guns, but also toasters and hairdryers (to elecrocute the first couple of fish you touch, extending your run), items that skip the first few hundred metres of the plunge, or lures that can chainsaw through fish with a tap or slow your return for a second. The various fish types don't just have different cash values but different movement patterns in the water and different weights and behaviours in the sky, so that even the dumb release of the shooting acquires a tactical twist as you pick your targets.
To keep you playing, Vlambeer has added a long game of collection. The Fish-o-pedia, accessed from Billy's chipped wooden smartphone, tracks your catches and gives you goofy hints about where - and at what time of day - to find the rest. As you fill it, new fishing areas become available, populated with yet more of the game's weird undersea menagerie.
Greg Wohlwend's art is achingly cool, but not at the expense of a sense of fun - it nods in the direction of the retro and minimalist trends so prevalent in indie gaming, but doesn't succumb completely to either. Ridiculous Fishing has real character, right down to a fake Twitter feed on Billy's phone where you can follow the prattle of the inhabitants of a weird universe that's part hillbilly, part hipster, part Hemingway (The Old Man and the Sea, of course).
And the moral of the story? A great game design can always be ripped off, sadly, but talent will out in the end. You can't cut-and-paste the artistry and attitude that Vlambeer has brought to this extravagant bit of disposable nonsense. You can't copy a true original - even before it's out.