Apple Jack

A game by My Owl Software for PC and Xbox 360, originally released in 2010.
Apple Jack is a 100 level puzzle-platformer on the Xbox Live Indie Games channel. It stars a character named Apple Jack, who has an apple for a head. Apple Jack’s dog has gone missing, and he has set off on a quest to rescue the pooch from the icy summit of Mount Snowdon, which is an actual mountain in the west of Wales. In fact, all of the places that Apple Jack passes through are real cities in the UK, and he begins his journey in the eastern end of England in the county of Suffolk. The world is divided into 5 counties in the UK, with each level bearing a city name. However, despite the real-world locations, you’ll find the UK to be more full of spiked walls and pandas than you’d normally expect.

The goal in each level of Apple Jack is simple: kill every enemy in the level. How you go about achieving this goal, however, is where the game’s nuances begin to show themselves. You’ll run through some basic tutorials in the beginning that explain your abilities and how to navigate the environment. At this point, the game is more platformer than puzzler, tasking you with platform hopping, coin collecting, and enemy killing. But it doesn’t take long before the puzzle elements begin to make themselves known.

Let’s start with your basic moves. Obviously you can run and jump. Your movement isn't tremendously fast, but the puzzle aspect of the game tends to keep the pace a bit slow anyway, so it’s likely you won’t even notice this fact as you progress into the more difficult challenges. You also have some advanced moves, such as the ability to slide down a wall, and perform a wall-jump. And, oddly, you have what amounts to a Morph Ball ability, where you can duck and leave behind only your giant apple head, which allows you to roll yourself into tight locations.

So, nothing too out of the ordinary for a platformer, right? Well, just wait until you have to take down your first enemy. See, you have no offensive abilities on your own. You have no gun, no fireballs, no sword, and jumping on enemies doesn’t kill them… and that’s where the difference lies. In this respect, the game operates like Super Mario Bros 2, which was one of the inspirations for the game (see the 2D CRED section below). You can hop onto an enemy, ride it for a while if you choose (and you’ll need to do just that in harder levels), and press a button to pick the enemy up and hold it upside-down over your head. See, the only way to kill an enemy is with another enemy.

And so, you’ll always have an even number of foes, as indicated by the counter on the top of the screen. One enemy kills the next, and all enemies must be killed to leave the area. There are some physics in place here, so you can toss an enemy while standing still for a short throw, toss it while running for a longer throw, and the game even has a targeting system (also a necessity in some levels) where you hold down the left trigger and move an arrow to line up a precision shot.

Enemies include ghosts, pandas, vibrating washing machines, huge eyeballs, pigs in tutus, laser beam-firing owls, and several other oddities. Different enemies have different movement patterns, ranging from stationary enemies, to enemies that move across the ground left or right, and even some flying enemies. Some will simply move back and forth, while others will actively seek you out. Understanding the enemies’ patrol routes is essential to successfully completing each level. And in some situations, you’ll want to take advantage of an enemy’s patrol route so that you can ride it and reach an otherwise inaccessible area or bypass a wall of spikes.

As the game progresses, you’ll need to apply a bit more brainpower to find success. You’ll eventually encounter enemies with colored circles around them. Enemies of one color can only be killed by tossing another enemy of the same color. This presents a whole new series of challenges and ways of thinking about the levels. If you hit a red panda with a red panda, it they will both die. But if you hit a red panda with a green panda, they’ll only be stunned. Stunned enemies cannot hurt you, and you can run right through them, but the effect only lasts for a few seconds.

Oh, and we haven’t mentioned the scoring system yet. While the levels themselves aren’t timed, you do have a timer associated with your score multiplier. When you kill an enemy, a timer will appear on the top of the screen. If you can manage to kill another enemy before the timer runs out, you’ll receive a 2x multiplier. The clock resets, and if you kill another enemy within the limit, the multiplier increases to 4x. And it keeps doubling each time.

Now, this would be a pretty interesting mechanic even if it just added points to your score, but what the multiplier actually does is determine the number of coins that are dropped by the enemy when you kill it (this works similarly to the score drops in Shoot 1UP). The coins bounce around a bit, so you have to balance chasing your reward with having time to line up your next kill. And things can get pretty insane when you have your 64x-multiplied coins bouncing around the screen while you’re attempting to line up a 128x shot in the last second before the timer runs down. Oh, and to accentuate the English-ness of the game, your score is represented in pounds.

There are a few extra bits of balance to be had. First off, your jump height is reduced when you are carrying an enemy. So, you’ll need to take that under consideration when thinking about moving from one platform to the next. You may need to give your panda (or whatever) a toss and pick it back up again. Secondly, while there are insta-kill spikes in the game, you’ll not have to contend with bottomless pits as well, since the screen wraps around, and falling off the bottom the level will wrap you back around to the top, in the same manner as Nasty. However, being a puzzler at its core, it is possible to do the wrong thing and find yourself stuck in a level with no choice but to restart. Most levels are pretty short, and you get unlimited attempts, so the penalty isn’t too great.

Also of note are some very nice instrumental guitar tracks and ambient effects throughout the game. All of these were obtained by the developer free of charge, and it’s well worth pointing out that independent developers have a number resources available to them if they take the time to seek them out. Just because a developer has a small (or nonexistent) budget does not mean that he is without avenues to create a game with decent production values.

PROTIP: If a friend or loved one happens to walk in and ask, "Why you’re tossing a washing machine at a panda?" The correct response is: "He had it coming."

Apple Jack was created entirely by UK-based developer Tim Sycamore, under the label My Owl Software. This is his first game.

We spoke with Tim and asked him about his inspiration behind Apple Jack, and he answered thusly:

Game-wise, my inspirations for the game were Bubble Bobble and Mario Bros 2, which is my favourite 8-bit Mario game and I never understood all the hate that seems to get directed towards it. I always thought the whole 'pick up and throw enemies' gameplay mechanic has been chronically underused since its release, so I decided to make a puzzle platform game where you do just that to kill all the enemies and progress to the next level, Bubble Bobble style. The rural style of the game comes from growing up in the countryside.

Tim has several ideas for upcoming games, but doesn't have any future projects to announce yet. He is committed to the high-definition 2D format, because 2D rules.


eadipus said...

having played this, its a truly excellent game and possibly the most english game I've ever owned

there is also something delicously violent about hitting a panda with a washing machine and having rose petals fly out afterwards

AJ Johnson said...

The game's English-ness was certainly one of its more endearing qualities.

There are a handful of things that, when added to any game, automatically make it better. Those things are: monkeys, ninjas, and fire trucks.

And there's probably not a game in existence that wouldn't also benefit from a sharp increase in the amount of washing machine-panda interaction.