Games 1/17/12: Run Roo Run, Rayman Origins, Wooords

Run Roo Run
For: iPhone/iPod Touch, iPad (separate versions)
From: 5th Cell
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $1 (iPhone/iPod Touch), $2 (iPad)

iOS gamers, are you tired yet of running games? You must be. While the genre — wherein your onscreen character runs automatically and you handle jumping and other forms of evasion by tapping the screen — is a perfect fit for a device with no tactile buttons, it’s grown so saturated as to become an indictment of the platform’s limitations.

With that said, can you maybe handle one more? It’s charming and very well made, and even if you’re sick of the same old thing, it adds a couple wrinkles that very effectively set it apart.

In “Run Roo Run,” you star as an adorable but vengeful cartoon kangaroo who treks across Australia to rescue her offspring. As you might guess, your job is to keep Roo hopping safely over obstacles while she automatically handles all the forward motion. Not exactly a trailblazing idea.

But “Roo” breaks away by presenting itself as a series of levels instead of one endless run where the only goal is to stay alive and accumulate as high a score as your skills allow. Each level is short, too — really short, in fact, with the entire thing fitting on a single screen. The earliest stages present maybe two obstacles to leap over, and you can clear most of the opening levels in three seconds or fewer.

Fortunately, there are 420 stages to complete, and with each 21-level chapter you unlock, “Roo” sprinkles in a new wrinkle beyond simple hopping. In chapter two, for instance, Roo acquires a limited-use double jump, while chapter four introduces fans that blow her upward. Later chapters bring forth tire swings, moving platforms, oil slicks, cannons, level-altering switches and more.

Once an ability or apparatus makes its entrance, “Roo” doesn’t isolate it to the chapter that introduces it. After Roo learns to double-jump and long jump off a bouncy tire, those abilities can come into play in later levels while she gets acclimated with another new ability. Gradually, those insultingly simple early levels blossom into intricate cause-and-effect obstacle courses that put multiple tricks to use in rapid fashion. Everything still takes place within the constraints of a single screen, but Roo might have to trek to the end of the screen and back before reaching the goal becomes a possibility.

The task grows increasingly devious in “Roo’s” later chapters, and it’s downright frightening in each chapter’s optional six-pack of Extreme levels, which rival “Super Meat Boy’s” harder levels in terms of testing players’ ability to navigate a small, trap-laden space with Jedi-like quickness.

And yet — and in a nod to another page from “Super Meat Boy’s” playbook — “Roo” never aggravates even at its most dastardly. Whenever you fail a level, there’s no reset screen to wait though: Roo immediately returns to the start of the level, which marks the spots where you jumped in your most recent unsuccessful attempt. Fail again, and it instantly resets again, and you’re free to keep trying — without even a slight interruption — until you get it right. You’ll get gold medal scores for clearing levels quickly and in one attempt, but you can experience “Roo’s” every level regardless of how much time you need to do so.

Good thing, too, because in another nice twist, 5th Cell plans to release free weekly 10-packs of new levels to complement the 420 that come included straight away. There’s no telling how many weeks they plan to do this or whether these packs will introduce new gimmicks beyond those already in the game, but with a price tag like that, it’s hard to go wrong.


Rayman Origins
Reviewed for: Playstation 3 and Xbox 360
Also available for: Wii
From: Ubisoft
ESRB Rating: Everyone 10+ (comic mischief, mild cartoon violence, suggestive themes)
Price: Varies

Every post-holiday afterglow, when the gaming industry briefly but emphatically hibernates in advance of livelier spring release schedules, there inevitably emerges a game that demands another look after getting unjustly buried in the sea of sequels and blockbusters that released all around it in November.

In a year as stacked as 2011, there is no shortage of candidates. But even on those grounds, “Rayman Origins” belongs at the top of the list, and it really isn’t even close.

Though not framed as an origins story — or concerned with storytelling in general, really — “Origins” earns its name by taking Rayman back to his two-dimensional roots. Like the 1995 original, “Origins” eschews three dimensions in favor of 2D platforming in the classic “Super Mario Bros.” vein.

But to leave it at that, even with the stipulation that “Origins” does its roots extremely proud, would be to spectacularly undersell how far games have come during Rayman’s 16-year lifetime — a point made apparent the instant “Origins” drops you into the first leg of its first level.

In contrast to the colorful but kinetically-limited sprites of yesteryear, everything that animates in “Origins” does so with the visual fidelity of a Disney cartoon — ridiculously detailed, silkily animated and very overtly expressive. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about Rayman, his friends, his enemies or random objects with no inherent pulse: If it’s capable of being manipulated, “Origins” illustrates that manipulation in beautiful, incredible detail.

Presentationally, “Origins” is the total package, bringing all that line art to life in front of immaculate hand-painted backdrops and setting everything to a diverse soundtrack that’s in tune with the action and unabashedly cheerful without ever approaching grating. Treat it to good speakers and a high-definition display, and it’s a rare case where hyperbole applies. Two-dimensional gaming has never spoiled the eyes and ears quite like this.

With all that said, though, the real shock with “Origins” may be with the way its gameplay evolutions gratify every bit as much as — maybe even more than — its audiovisual advancements.

Partially, it’s a case of one feeding the other. All that pretty animation works in the service of “Origins'” controls, which feel as good as the animation looks. Rayman has an occasional tendency to over-animate and take a perilous step too far, but mostly, his movements are spot on. Even the underwater levels, typically the bane of any platforming game’s existence, are a treat: If you ever played “Ecco the Dolphin” and know how fun it is to dynamically change direction in that game, you’ll be pleased to know “Origins” does it even better.

“Origins” also provides an ample playground in which to put all this beauty to good use. The occasional special stage aside, every level has one goal in plain sight and two more hiding off the main road. Additional secrets abound, and while simply clearing a level isn’t extremely difficult, perfecting one — finding every goal and performing the acrobatics necessary to uncover other secrets — very well can be. The truly accomplished can even replay cleared levels with a speed run option, which requires you to beat the level in one go and under the posted par time to collect a reward.

Tallied up, and fortified with four-player offline co-op that lets friends jump into and out of your game as they please, “Origins” is a surprisingly lengthy game on its first playthrough and a wondrously fun time sink for those bent on replaying and acing it. Perceptions about 2D games aside, it was as deserving of its original $60 tag as nearly any other $60 game. With rapid price drops now in effect, what was easy to recommend before is now a task of cakewalkian proportions.


For: iPhone/iPod Touch/iPad (universal app)
From: Stray Robot Games
iTunes Store Rating: 4+
Price: $2

If you spent part of your childhood forming words from those colorful letter magnets that are ubiquitous in every preschool and kindergarten, get ready to put those magnet-moving skills to good use. “Wooords” drops a handful of letters and tasks you with forming as many words from them as you can, and the interface is a transparent ode to those little plastic magnets. Dragging letters into other letters causes them to stick, and whenever you form a word that (a) contains at least four letters and (b) includes the circled letter that has to be used, it automatically registers and scores the word. Not having to register words manually leaves you free to add and remove letters rapidly to form new words, and as result, “Wooords” is simultaneously relaxing and frantic — relaxing because there’s no overlying time limit to worry about, but frantic because forming strings of words rapidly is worth more points than taking your time. “Wooords” includes a 60-level Classic mode in which the goal is to reach a score threshold to advance, and an arcade-style Word Jam adds a timer that you must keep at bay by hitting score thresholds. But the best mode — especially if your Game Center friends play as well — is the Daily Words challenge, which gives players 24 hours to compile the highest score from the same nine letters everyone else gets. The global leaderboard likely is tainted by cheaters, but the presence of friends-only leaderboards — in this as well as the other modes — makes that less an issue if you pull friends in to challenge you.