iOS Game Review: Niko
Niko is a platformer from Habbo Hotel creators, Sulake. It is worthy of comment for two reasons: Firstly, it has some level of integration with Habbo Hotel, a hugely successful and popular virtual world that has been one of the innovators of micro transactions and secondly, it resolves a lot of problems that platform games have on a touch screen device.
The Habbo Hotel integration isn’t something I’ve been able to experience having not tried Habbo Hotel itself and whilst also being allergic to micro-transactions themselves. It is significant however that Sulake are turning their gaze to mobile devices, and monetising a mobile market is a particular challenge that is coming up fairly frequently as part of my day job.
I’m yet to make up my mind whether what Niko is doing is a clever step towards a virtual economy shared between platforms and titles, or whether it is just straight forward cross promotion. My guess is that it’s the latter, but setting a decent foundation for the former.
Moving away from scraping the surface of greater media implications, in terms of actual gameplay, it’s decent, playable, and a lot more enjoyable than this sort of thing is normally. You control Niko, an odd looking cyber-lemur, who is trying to rescue his friends that have been kidnapped. Plot wise it’s barely ground breaking, but it worked for Sonic so there’s no reason it shouldn’t work again. You don’t need a complicated plot to set up running and jumping.
The main problem that iOS will always face as a gaming platform is the lack of buttons. This is made doubly frustrating when it comes to something like a platformer, which requires a certain amount of dexterity as well as decent reaction times to progress. The aforementioned Sonic for example plays terribly on iOS and I’ve played several platformers that very quickly fall into frustration as soon as there is any pressure on you. Most of the time, they feel as if you are clutching at a regular control pad that’s coated with oil and whose buttons don’t always work, possibly upside down. Niko manages to fix this with some a simple twist to the mechanics.
The jump is more than just a simple button tap, but incorporates dragging back to fire your cyber-lemur into the air, a lot like catapulting your Angry Birds across the screen, and once you hit a wall, the normal reaction is for you to stick to it, giving you enough time to react to your jump and allowing for a certain degree of sloppiness on your aiming or reactions.
Obviously this change in the jumping mechanics is going to affect the pacing. Instead of Mario or Sonic, Niko takes its time, varying the more plodding pace with sections where you are flung through the air by springy mushroom things. These actually make me think of the barrels in Donkey Kong Country, and in fact the pacing is not dissimilar.
The style is perfectly charming. I like the Niko character sprite, and were I a little younger the design would definitely appeal to me a lot more. It’s smart and polished and there’s very little to criticise. The only thing I’m not terribly fond of is the noise the little lemur thing makes when he’s about to jump as it does make me think he’s in just a small amount of pain or about to throw up. The music also loops with a fraction of a second gap which I find incredibly jarring, although it redeems itself by being perfectly catchy-yet-not-annoying whilst building to a descent crescendo before it loops.
There are few rough edges here. What Niko does right should be written down and passed around among other developers who are thinking of making a platformer with a touch screen interface. At the same time it’s still difficult to fully recommend or rave about. The title is free, but it’s little more than a demo without putting down the £1.50 to unlock further levels. Just writing that out makes me feel ridiculous: A lot of time and effort has gone into this to make it a decent and playable game, yet I’m reluctant to pay £1.50, and I’m not completely sure why. I think it might be my inherrant suspicious nature when it comes to small bits of money leaving my account, but it could also be because whilst I enjoyed the handful of levels I was given for free, there was nothing there that made me desperate to see what more it had to offer.
Maybe Niko caught me at a bad time, maybe I’ve played all the platformers I’m likely to rave about, or maybe that first free world was enough to feel like a small micro-game; small yet perfectly formed. Regardless, Niko is worth a look, is well made and you might find something there that you could invest in further.
Verdict: Pretty good, free demo, some spectacular design decisions