It’s telling that ngmoco would choose make its debut on the paid section of the App Store with Topple, a simple 99 cent physics toy, instead of something bigger and flashier. The new publisher has clearly been paying attention to recent trends in pricing and design. Topple’s singularly goofy (and endearing) graphics set it apart from the crowd, and its gameplay, while a trifle light and occasionally maddening, is very satisfying.
Playing Topple is a bit like being sent back to preschool to retake Object Stacking 101. Blocks of all shapes and sizes start at the top of the screen and drift gracefully downward, eventually settling on a big “foundation” block resting at the bottom and then piling up on top of one another. You have to bring order to this chaos by fashioning the flow of blocks into a tower of a certain height, before you run out of time or lose four blocks to the abyss. You reposition and rotate the blocks with dragging and dialling finger movements. The higher your tower grows, the more it will start to sway and lean, but you can counteract the instability to some extent with gentle tilts of the iPhone. Success depends on your ability to weave problematic blocks into the tower’s design without weakening it, as well as on finessing the tilt to keep the tower level.
Topple’s physics are impressively natural. Gravity has been tuned way down to make the balancing act more manageable, but the blocks interact with one another very realistically; they have the right friction, mass and momentum to behave as you’d expect them to when you slot them together. The first couple levels are pretty easy, but then the game ups the challenge by making you build on irregular foundations and sending you increasingly bizarre blocks. The block feed is random, which can be frustrating if you get a succession of blocks that simply don’t fit together well, like several right triangles in a row. It would be nice to be able to see further ahead in the feed (you only get a picture of the next block). The time limit is also a little short to allow for truly high-quality construction, so you often find yourself sprinting to the finish line by stacking blocks willy-nilly. Free Play mode is a better venue for that kind of thing.
While the gameplay is solid, Topple’s best feature is definitely its presentation. Each type of block has its own distinct facial features, along with a set of four or five expressions that change dynamically as they encounter other blocks or fall to their doom. Overall, the art direction seems inspired by a really good Nickelodeon cartoon; two that come to mind are Ren & Stimpy and SpongeBob Square Pants. Similarly, the game’s single song is a comic orchestral arrangement that could have appeared in a Bugs Bunny feature. It fits nicely.
Topple is a fun little game that’s well worth 99 cents. Even after you exhaust all the levels and achievements, and there’s nothing left to do, it’s fun to open it up and spend a few minutes building crazy towers–it’s a limited game, but it does allow you to be creative. We hope ngmoco has more games like this one up its sleeve.