Golf, said Mark Twain, is a good walk spoiled. Golfing is a series of frustrations compounded like interest, and used golf clubs are always for sale somewhere the way baseball mitts never are. But golf also allows you moments of perfect physical grace, just often enough to addict you. Clusterball Arcade reminds us of golf. By our fourth or fifth go-round, we hit our sweet spot and developed a passion for the game… but by the time we got to the end, we wanted to chuck our iPhone into the nearest pond.
Almost everything in Clusterball Arcade is great at first blush. It’s a time-based, futuristic racer with beautiful graphics, smooth scaling and lush, wide-open environments–verdant tropical scenes and dusty deserts are rendered with equal care. The controls are accelerometer based, and once you figure out the default position for your iPhone/iPod Touch, they work beautifully. Although you are always flying forward, you can move up, down and side to side by tilting your device accordingly; there’s no way to recalibrate the controls, though, so you’ll need to adapt to the game’s settings. There are two brakes on the sides of the landscape-oriented screen, one for each wing, and they are very effective for cornering. The goal of the game is simply just to finish each race in the time allotted. Your score is dependent on the eponymous clusterballs of varying worth that hitch to the back of your craft when you race near them. Steering is one of the better aspects, since you don’t control speed you just throw your iPhone
The balls are placed on bits of runway that float and curve throughout the courses. These runways act like weak, semi-solid magnets. They’re strong enough to gently guide you, and you can fly through them from underneath to pick up balls. The trickier the runway, the more its balls are worth; the more balls you carry through the circular goals spread throughout the course, the higher your point total will be. Stick with us, there’s more. Carrying too many balls will slow your craft to a crawl, and they are often located in inconvenient places. However, carrying a large payload also increases your time allotment for the level, so sometimes temporarily slowing yourself can pay off. You are given a minute to complete each course, but if you finish with extra time, it’s carried over to the next round. Thus, we found it was best to practice the early stages, in order to build up a 15-30 second surplus for what comes next. The game’s sweet spot is found flying through a memorized course and picking up the various powerups, never losing speed.
Unfortunately, if you play enough Clusterball Arcade, the imperfections and frustrations start to mount. For instance, steering left and right with the air brakes is completely unnecessary until the final few rounds, when you must master the skill immediately. The hit detection for the obstacles seems almost random, which is a problem, because if you hit too many of them, your ship blows up. The game constantly spouts ‘Low Memory’ warnings at you, and the lame music plays in three-second loops.
Our biggest complaints are that the game’s too linear and too unforgiving. The “Arcade” in the title takes us back to the days when we changed a $10 bill and pumped quarters into a machine until we won, but on the iPhone, we want to be able to save our game; we stopped playing Contra a few decades ago. There are only three race environments, and each one has three variants of increasing difficulty, with new arrangements of boost strips, runways, and obstacles. Bumping a rock in round 2 shortchanges you all the way to round 3 in the next stage, so beating the game requires a near-perfect run all the way through.
Clusterball Arcade almost sags under the weight of wasted potential. We imagined a Night-like game of lazily flying around, where we would pick up a few balls and explore the world in three true dimensions. Instead, we can’t save our game, or start a new one from any level but the first–even though we registered our email to chart our scores against the competition. The game certainly has many strong points, but it’s fairly expensive at $9.99, and we’re not sure it’s worth it right now. You’ll be better served waiting for an update and/or price drop before picking it up.