Poor old Niko the Monkey. All his friends have been kidnapped from their jungle home. Niko must set off to rescue them, risking life and limb as he negotiates tricky platforms, avoids obstacles and bashes enemies along the way. His reward for reaching and pressing the big red button at the end of each level? To do it all again, but with trickier platforms, more enemies and tougher leaps. Life's tough for a little monkey (and I should know!)
Niko is not a startlingly original game. It's essentially a solid platform game that nicks bits from pretty much every other platform game ever created. If Sonic the Hedgehog ever played the field and slept with the characters from lots of other 80s/90s platform games, Niko would probably be the resulting love-child. It combines the coin-collecting elements of Mario, the sometimes insanely fast-paced sections of Sonic (including bumpers that fling you wildly from one area of the screen to another) and the cuteness of pretty much every animal-based platform game ever written.
Don't knock it for lack of originality, though, because underneath that familiar exterior lies a really fun game. Levels are well-designed and challenging with a good difficulty curve. Initial levels seem easy, but are really there just to introduce you to the basic mechanics. As you progress, more and more hazards are introduced, enemies become more frequent and levels tougher to negotiate. It's the sort of a game that you start off thinking will be a breeze, but which actually offers a long term challenge. It's addictive stuff, too. Because levels are fairly short (most should only take a couple of minutes), there is always that temptation to "just do one more level" each time you complete the previous one.
Each level also has a number of different challenges. The basic option is just to get to the end of the level before you lose all your lives. Or you can search for three "Sparkles" which are often hidden in difficult to reach areas. And if that wasn't enough, you can try and get the maximum of three stars for each level by scoring enough points. Helpfully, (unlike Angry Birds) Niko tells you the number of points needed to gain each star, giving you some idea of how far off the mark you are.
Normally, additional challenges like this don't interest me - I tend to just play all the levels, but not go back and replay them to complete every achievement. Niko is different. Because it is so much fun, I found that I genuinely wanted to go back and try and unlock everything - it wasn't a chore, it was a pleasure. As such, this game offers greater long-term appeal than many other iPhone games.
Sure, it's not massively difficult, and even an averagely competent gamer is probably looking at no more than 8-10 to do everything. Yet, whilst it might not be the longest lived title ever, the crucial thing is that it's fun while it lasts.
Presentation is good, with basic but effective sound and graphics. A brief but impressive cartoon opening sets the scene and whilst in game graphics are small, they are well-formed. Niko himself is a cute little chap and well-animated. His bouncy jump-run reminded me of Pepe le Pew and he was full of character, so that you feel bad when he is crushed by an object or plummets to his doom thanks to your incompetence.
The other in-game graphics are solid without being particularly memorable. Platforms look slightly dull and muted (mainly brown on the bottom to represent the soil and green on top for grass), whilst the obstacles could have been lifted from pretty much any earlier platform game. Slightly bizarrely, the items you have to rescue are represented by yellow cards (clearly Niko is a football fan).
A looped, but surprisingly good little tune accompanies each of the levels. Normally, repetitive tunes start to grate after a few levels, but I enjoyed listening to this one and rarely played the game with the sound off. Elsewhere, the effects are pretty bog standard platforming fare, but do their job well enough.
Initially, the controls feel a little tricky and the first few levels can be somewhat frustrating. Actual movement is easy, controlled by a left and right arrow that are well placed and well sized (small enough so that they don't obscure the gaming area, but big enough to be able to use them properly.) They are also well-spaced so that you can slide your finger easily between them to change direction quickly.
The tricky part comes in mastering the jumping technique. Rather than simply having a "jump" button that propels you into the air when pressed, Niko takes a different approach. To jump, you must press and hold the jump button and then pull it away from Niko (the direction you pull is relative to which way up and where Niko is standing). This causes a dotted line to appear which can then be pulled around on screen to plot the direction and trajectory of your jump. For the first few levels, this is a frustrating experience. The need to plot the angle of your jump feels counter-intuitive and fussy, getting in the way of the faster paced elements of the game. As you progress, however, you start to appreciate the greater degree of control which this mechanism provides. The ability to plot exactly where you want to jump and land is crucial to getting to some of the more out of the way areas of the screen.
The mildly frustrating thing about Niko is that you appear to have got a real bargain. The App Store price is Free - always my favourite price point. This, however, is a little disingenuous. Sure, you can download the game for free - but that only gives you access to the first six levels. If you want the full game, you have to pay for it. In fairness, it's not a bad deal. A measly £1.49 unlocks a number of different worlds, each comprising ten or so levels. And you get all of that for a low, one-off payment, unlike some apps which make insidious use of in-app purchases to try and part you from your cash multiple times to purchase power-ups. It's also a brilliant way of checking you actually like the game before having to part with any cash for it.
Niko might not be the most startlingly original game in the world, but it's cute, colourful and fun. Paying £1.49 to unlock the full version represents good value for money for a game that is ridiculously addictive and this is one iPhone game I would happily recommend.
(c) Copyright SWSt 2012