Although iPhone is picking up ever-increasing amounts of attention as a games platform, the mainstream gaming press still looks at it askance; to their jaundiced eye, it rates somewhere between “messy oddity” and “half-baked gold rush.” What gamer in his or her right mind would want to dig through the App Store’s burgeoning collection of casual shovelware and branded cash-ins looking for something of value? Because, if you stick with it, you’ll get to play a Rolando every once in a while–an iPhone game that can win an argument against anything Nintendo, Microsoft, or Sony has to offer. There is a purity of vision at work in Rolando that you just don’t see very often, regardless of where you do your gaming, and it’s not to be missed.
Rolando isn’t exactly coming out of left field. Developer Hand Circus and publisher ngmoco set some truly outsized expectations for the title over the past six months… and the game lives up to them with a flourish, starting with the Rolandos themselves. Each one of the little rolling heroes–there are probably eight of them, counting the Royal Rolandos–has its own unique personality, expressed in both art and sound. They chirp semi-verbally at different pitches when you select them and make them jump, and their characterization is wonderfully detailed. We even found ourselves naming them over the course of the game, as we formed a bit of an emotional attachment (our favorite was Rolando Four-Eyes).
The best platformers are built on genuinely likable protagonists like the Rolandos. They display a cheeky, British sense of humor in their short pieces of dialog. We loved how they call the player “Finger,” and we also appreciated the Victorian propriety of the ‘Royal Spikey Commandos.’ The evil Shadow Blocks are interesting characters, too, whether muttering threats under their breath or taunting the Rolandos as they roll past. And the gigantic, lumbering, squid-like shadow enemies are genuinely off-putting–they look like something out of Lovecraft’s worst nightmares.
Guiding the Rolandos from entrance to exit on each level of their 36-stage tour feels as organic as can be on the iPhone. You can select a batch of them and move them all around at once, or take control of one at a time, depending on what the situation requires. Tilting the device makes them roll, and a quick swipe up on the touch screen produces a jump. That’s about the extent of the Rolandos’ abilities; the rest is up to you, as their guardian angel Finger. They depend on you to operate catapults, blow up bombs, spin pulleys and windmills, and do lots of other stuff to help them through their environment. The game makes it very easy to scroll around each level, and you can jump from one Rolando to another using tabbed shortcuts, so it’s fun to play the shepard. The only exception for us was when we had to draw bridges between anchor points, which felt kludgy and frequently took us several tries to get right.
As good as the characters and controls are, Rolando’s real genius is in its level designs. During our playthrough, we encountered a lot of sequences that made us chuckle at their sheer audacity–this game is always coming up with something new for you to figure out. First, it’s the Royal Spikey Commandos, which can roll right up walls and stick to any surface. Soon thereafter, you’ll be introduced to King Rolando, who forces his hapless subjects to clear the way and push his inert, sleeping bulk to the exit. Then it’s the Prince, who rolls straight ahead on idiot autopilot. Some levels even play like Dizzy Bee, where you tilt and turn to guide the King through a maze; others require you to gather your Rolandos from across the stage to open a locked door, or mount a rescue. We were impressed by the sophistication of these designs, although it must be said that they weren’t uniformly excellent. A rare few were too difficult or otherwise frustrating, making us wish we could skip ahead.
We’ve already been over the visual appeal of Rolando’s characters, and the game’s backgrounds fill in the rest of the screen nicely. They have the same sort of loopy, psychedelic look, like something a contemporary Dr. Seuss might have cooked up on his graphics tablet. Special plaudits are reserved for the game’s original soundtrack, a hook-heavy, outrageously funky melange of horns, organ, and who knows what else. It’s the kind of stuff you’ll catch yourself humming involuntarily. Plus, Rolando’s nifty ‘iSave’ feature restarts the action exactly where you left off, should you exit the game via phone call or home button. Why isn’t everyone doing something similar?
If Rolando were on the PSP instead of the iPhone, gamers would pony up $20 for it without blinking an eye–the good times just keep rolling for a good six to ten hours, depending on how many of the challenges you feel like completing, and you’ll have a smile on your face the entire time. Rolando may be half a year late, but it was worth the wait to see the iPhone get its triple-A original launch title. Now Apple has some real ammunition for the portable console wars, and iPhone gamers have their latest Must Have.