For one of the oldest and most oversaturated genres out there it’s interesting that puzzle games seem almost immune to accusations of plagiarism. After all, almost every game of this type today openly takes many of its core mechanics from the progenitor of videogame addiction: Tetris. Space Ark, Strawdog Studios’ latest contribution to the genre, is no different. It’s a jolly Frankenstein’s monster made of puzzle games, a mix of ideas borrowed and adapted into a strange and often charming game that somehow manages to differentiate itself through its own whimsicality.
Space Ark takes its core mechanics from two primary sources; Peggle and Arkanoid. Where it gets its bizarre plot from is anyone’s guess. The game tasks you with terraforming various planets that have been rendered uninhabitable by a wandering black hole so that a collection of cutesy animals called ‘Arkonauts’ can populate them. As in most puzzle games with a plot, the gameplay mechanics and narrative purpose are not exactly synonymous. This terraforming process is achieved not, as the film Total Recall taught us, through the wonders of alien technology and an oxygen starved Arnold Schwarzenegger, but through the inanity of cutesy animal bouncing, replete with giant googly eyes and an unhealthy dose of bright colour.
In Space Ark you are simultaneously put in control of both a bounce pad at the bottom of the screen and the Arkonaut itself. By bouncing the Arkonaut around the stage you have to collect coloured ‘DNA crystals’ and multiplier-increasing fruit strewn in various patterns throughout each challenge. The goal is to collect this DNA in combos of three or more crystals of the same colour until your combo score meets the requirements of that stage; the exit then opens and you are transported to the next area. As in most pinball-style games, letting your Arkonaut crash to the ground loses you a life. However, in addition to this penalty your combo meter is emptied and dispersed around the stage in the form of a stream of tokens which must be quickly retrieved in order to maintain your score.
Peggle’s ball has been replaced by a cutesy animal and Arkanoid’s bricks are now DNA crystals, but the core gameplay will feel vaguely familiar to anyone that has played a puzzle game of this type. Nonetheless, Space Ark makes a good effort at doing something slightly different. The game’s strange take on established genre mechanics manage to create a title that, while fundamentally conformist, feels quite novel in its ideas. Being given almost complete control over not only the bounce pad, but also the Arkonaut itself does away with the random element present in games like Peggle and endows you with a greater sense of control over the proceedings.
But it is also this that strips Space Ark of Peggle’s addictive aspect. With no real sense of risk and reward, a generally slow pace, and a level of difficulty that never goes beyond mildly challenging, the game lacks that familiar hook that keeps people coming back to puzzle games. With five planets, each containing thirty-six stages, it’s not long before a sense of repetition sets in and the whole thing begins to feel a little shallow. Other modes, such as Time Attack, Survival and even a multiplayer mode are included, but they offer very little variety beyond the game’s main mission mode.
Despite this, occasional attempts are made at spicing things up. Later stages feature various gimmicks, such as pinball flippers, fans that blow your Arkonaut about, and switches that move various parts of the stage in and out of the background. These are often combined with powerups such as guns and lasers, which can be used to collect large groups of DNA in tandem with your Arkonaut. It is these gimmicks that provide much of Space Ark’s otherwise limited appeal and longevity. The varying order in which these gimmicks must be utilised in their respective stages creates a reasonable degree of strategy and variety in an otherwise shallow game.
Space Ark’s core audience is undoubtedly children, and its colourful graphics and accessible gameplay suits that demographic perfectly. But the game’s appeal is short-lived despite its unusually large amount of content, and its lack of an addictive gameplay hook won’t knock Peggle off its pedestal any time soon. Yet despite this it still remains an endearing and reasonably entertaining experience that succeeds in doing something a little different. Shallow, but nonetheless charming.