In Spore Origins, EA Mobile asks you to take organic life’s first gasp–lonely bits of biological detritus floating in a soup of nutrients–and evolve one of them into a land-walker, meal by meal and trait by trait. The whole process takes about two or three hours from ooze to land, during which time you’ll be wowed by the game’s nightmarish menagerie of critters, who burble and howl as they flit through its imaginative environments; you’ll also have plenty of fun devouring the smaller ones like Pringles, while dodging bruisers higher up the food chain. Nevertheless, when all is said and done, Spore Origins leaves you wanting more. This is both a complement and a criticism.
Much has already been written about Spore, master game designer Will Wright’s take on life, the universe, and everything (literally). Spore Origins is a small piece of that larger whole that has been tailored to fit the confines of the iPhone, and it’s a very simple game at heart. When you first start the game, the only mode available is Evolution Mode, a 30-stage progression through the five or six different environments that stand between your organism and its goal: dry land. Before heading out, you get to name your worm-like creature and dress it up using preset color and pattern schemes, or by pasting a picture from your photo library on it–the wilder the better. More patterns and colors are unlocked over the course of the game, and you can change them at will.
From there, it’s off into the ooze, where your creature swims around according to the tilt of your iPhone. The game’s basic controls are very responsive. It’s easy to spin your creature around in a tight circle, stop on a dime, or flee from predators, and there’s also an option to set the tilt angle to your liking, so you can hold the iPhone up at a natural angle. If there are a bunch of prey animals in close proximity, you can also trigger a feeding frenzy by gobbling down one of them and then yanking the iPhone over at a sharper angle; your creature will spazz out and eat everything in range. If you eat lots of creatures in a row, you’ll start to rack up combo points, so this is an important maneuver to master.
In the first few levels, you only need to chase down enough tadpole-like snacks to fill up a meter at the top of the screen, so there’s no real need for tricky maneuvers or evasive action. The game adds new challenges at a steady pace, however, starting with simple predators that will chomp you to extinction if you get too close to their business end. Your creature has a five-heart health meter that fills up when you eat, and drops when you get eaten or injured. Every time you fill up a heart, you gain a “size level,” meaning that you become capable of eating larger critters, including some former predators. You must be careful, though; they can still damage you if you approach them from the wrong direction, or at the wrong time, and if you take enough damage, you’ll shrink back to square one. Edible bad guys give off a blue signal, making it easy to tell what you should approach and what you shouldn’t. You may be able to damage or kill non-edible baddies, depending on your equipment, but doing so won’t give you points or health. You can also pick up power-ups that grant you temporary powers, like a shield, a speed boost, or the ability to poison your enemies.
The ocean environments teem with lifeforms in Spore Origins, and their range is pretty astounding. For instance, there are spiny urchins that spike up at intervals. There are explosive blobs that will blow open walls and open secret areas. There are cannon-like fish that shoot other fish at you. There are bizarre thingies that either poison or heal you, depending on their color at the time. And, best of all, there are enormous boss characters that you must defeat with innovative tactics. These animals each have unique behaviors and traits, and they’re loaded with personality–they follow you around the screen with their comically googly eyes, shriek pitifully when you eat them, and do sorts of other strange and wonderful things. It’s like playing through one of your idle daydreams from biology lab.
The settings complement their inhabitants beautifully, too. Each set of levels has its own specific look, feel, and lighting pattern, so it really does seem like you’re progressing from a sludge pool to a sandy beach over the course of the game. Our personal favorite are the Murk levels, which play almost like a survival horror game; you can barely see anything, and predators dive at you out of the shadows. We are also very impressed by the game’s sound design and music, which set an imaginative underwater tone for the whole experience.
On the other hand, Spore Origins’ evolutionary upgrades, supposedly one of the game’s main selling points, are somewhat less impressive. You purchase these with evolutionary points earned by eating critters over the course of the game, and they fall into four categories–offense, defense, movement, and perception. Some of these, like armor, probes, and mandibles, are quite useful, but most of the others simply aren’t, and there aren’t very many to choose from. Furthermore, you can paste multiple copies of these things all over your organism, but only the first instance seems to make any difference functionally.
This is the game’s main problem: it has tons of interesting features, but not enough interesting content to use them on. Evolution Mode is shorter than we’d like it to be, and of uneven quality: some levels are over in a single quick feeding frenzy, while others are long, boring mazes. In retrospect, half of the mode feels like a chore, and a lot of the really good stuff comes at the very end of the game. Meanwhile, the unlockable Survival Mode isn’t bad–it has some interesting power-ups–but it’s positively drab compared to Evolution Mode’s beautifully sculpted environments. The game has a few achievements as well, but we barely noticed earning them.
Spore Origins really showcases what the iPhone can do as a gaming platform, in terms of both gameplay and presentation. We really enjoyed playing through it, and we don’t regret purchasing it for $9.99. All of that said, we’re not sure this version of the game has much in the way of replay value, despite the developer’s best efforts. At a minimum, it will take more, and better, levels for Evolution Mode to turn this game into a “must have.”