One of the most under-appreciated aspects of the iPad is its functionality as a board game substitute. It’s a small market, and its most prominent exemplars are straight conversions of complex games such as Monopoly and Scrabble. Slamjet Stadium, the new game from Alistair Aitcheson, does not fall into this tradition. Its tabletop antecedents are Hungry Hungry Hippos and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots, the games for which nobody needed to learn the rules because they were so simple, the games where the real thrill lay in a cacophony of clattering plastic. They’re channelled well here, in a title which adopts both their chaotic approach and the pure hits of fun that they provided.
The game is retro-futuristic, in both its look and its gameplay. Visually, you could imagine it as a Saturday morning cartoon from the eighties, with toys of the characters being distributed in cereal boxes and fast food outlets. The gameplay, too, resembles just the sort of dystopian death sport that the eighties imagined would be played in the future: a cramped stadium, a ball in the middle and two goals defended by floating vehicles designed to cause damage as much as score goals.
Any attempt to find a consistent means of playing beyond these basics is curtailed by a constant rewriting of the rule book. To start with, the arenas themselves are crammed full of hazards, there to send shots (and the players making them) awry. The centre of every arena also features a large, illuminated button. Tap it, and you might find that you’re now in the middle of a deathmatch, the goal being to nudge your opponent into the circular blades that have emerged. This button might also turn your opponents into rage machines, freeze them or plant mines in front of their goal. Conversely, it might do the same to you, although these modifications are not really to either team’s particular advantage. They serve only chaos.
This chaos infuses every aspect of the game, right down to its controls. You place your finger on top of a character, drag back and release to propel them forward. It’s no accident that this control scheme is usually reserved for slow-moving strategic titles, and it’s certainly no accident that it feels unwieldy in this game’s fast-paced environment (though it probably is unintended, and a notable flaw, that a finger can so easily glide past the confines of the game and onto the iPad’s home button). From the outset, the game is telling you that it cannot be tamed by something as refined as skill or precision. “It’s not cheating if you don’t get caught” reads a humorous loading screen pro-tip, and it’s as good a summary of the game’s design philosophy as you’re likely to find.
The single player mode is short, with only three five-round leagues to play through. It should also be noted that AI can be somewhat morose in the earlier leagues, keeping the challenge low until the final stages. Completists and achievement hunters might be able to draw some more life from this side of the game, but the real longevity here lies in the multiplayer. This might be you and a friend ganging up on the computer (an asymmetry actively encouraged in another pro-tip), or it might be a full-on frenzy in which four hands are forced to share the relatively confined space of an iPad screen. Fun times, and blistering arguments, are practically guaranteed.
Ultimately, your enjoyment of Slamjet Stadium will depend on your respect for rules – not ‘the’ rules, but the basic notion that games should have them. Its deliberate flouting of fairness may render the game pointless to some, but those willing to dive in and go along with it will find an enjoyable experience amongst the colourful anarchy. Single player is thin on the ground, but multiplayer has the potential to become a go-to for gatherings. Let’s just hope that other great tabletop tradition, flipping the board in anger, hasn’t also made the transition to iPad.