We’ve really never seen or played anything quite like Ancient Frog before on any platform, not just the iPhone. It takes special artistic gifts to make something like this–a game that is so playable, so beautiful, and so stunningly out of left field that even jaded critics like us can’t help but rave about it. Don’t let Ancient Frog’s strange concept put you off: this is a living, breathing masterpiece of a puzzle game, and it easily rates among App Store royalty.
The closest analogy to Ancient Frog we can come up with is the well-loved party game Twister, but there’s so much more going on here that the comparison fails almost immediately. The game’s main mechanic is superficially similar. You control a frog resting on a leaf, eyeing a tasty fly on the other side of the screen, but you can only traverse the leaf by attaching your hands and feet to special sticky spots. However, frogs aren’t endlessly flexible, and you can only move one limb at a time; the others must remain anchored to the leaf. Meanwhile, the spots are laid out in such a way that the necessary stepping stones are just out of reach, requiring you to plan alternate routes and flex and contort your froggy limbs across their full range of motion to move carefully forward.
Making it to the ending position–where the frog is crouched right in front of the fly and ready for dinner–takes a lot of experimentation and non-linear thinking. You might have to painstakingly turn around and execute a backwards approach to get some levels right, because the frog’s hind legs are both longer and more flexible than its “hands.” Sometimes sticky spots that appear irrelevant or inaccessible are the key to nailing a level at the par number of moves. It actually feels a bit like scaling a sheer surface in a rock-climbing gym, only without the taxing physicality, and taken at your own pace. There’s no time or moves limit, and every level you beat opens up several more, so you can skip around to other levels if you get stuck. The game offers a simple swipe maneuver to undo (or redo) any number of moves, although we found that it didn’t always recognize our swipes on the first try. We also ran into an odd bug (not the edible kind) that replayed the tutorial in the middle of the game once or twice during our review. We hope it will be addressed in an update.
As fantastic as Ancient Frog’s gameplay is (and it is fantastic), the game’s graphics and sound are even better. The six frog species appearing in the game are rendered with an uncanny clarity that borders on photo-realistic, and their fully articulated movement and lifelike animations are nothing short of astounding. We love the game’s interface, which is filled with leaves, flowers, and other natural motifs, and the twitters, chirps and buzzes that accompany play sound like they’re straight out of the habitat. It’s like carrying a little rain forest around in your phone.
Ancient Frog is a real achievement from top to bottom, and it might just be our new favorite iPhone game; it’s even more staggering when you consider that the whole thing was put together by one guy! It’s another example of the immense pool of creative and technical talent tapped by the App Store, as well as another step along the iPhone’s path to ownership of the indie development scene.