Gripping stuff or a little ruff?
Super Rare Games are well known for giving us the opportunity to purchase our favourite indies physically, helping to preserve these games for when the inevitable time comes that e-shops finally get shut down. Mainly concentrating on the Nintendo Switch platform, they are high quality products and can help you discover some really cool gems. Recently, Super Rare Games announced a new venture, turning themselves into an Indie publisher with Super Rare Originals. Grapple Dog is the first in a batch of five games to be released on Switch and Steam.
Created by Joseph Gribbin, Grapple Dog is a 2D pixel platformer where you control a dog called Pablo. Due to some unfortunate events, Pablo has unleashed a bad Robot called Nul and it’s up to Pablo to stop him and save the world. The story, although containing some interesting elements, is still something we’ve all heard and seen before, but Grapple Dog hasn’t been created to give us a top class narrative, it has been created to give us a challenging, fun platformer with interesting mechanics, told in a bright and colourful environment.
I mentioned the graphics just then, and this game is beautiful to look at. The screen is bursting with colour (especially on the OLED Switch). Pablo himself is drawn well as is the rest of the cast, with all environments and enemies created to a high standard. The backgrounds on the levels have been drawn well, and all are busy doing something in relation to what the area is based on. Pablo controls well enough, with the swimming sections highlighting some of the better swimming controls I’ve experienced in a game. The menus are well presented, and one thing I particularly appreciated is that you will find an accessibility section in the options with a ton of different selections for you to choose, including infinite jump, no damage, or even background alterations so they are static, flat colours or parallax. This is a wonderful addition to the game that I wish I saw more of in general.
Grapple Dog is split into five worlds, (with a bonus sixth world, which you need gems to unlock each level) each with their own theme. Standard gaming world rules apply here with the first few worlds based on a forest, sandy beach and a fire world. You travel the map on your boat, and you can move around freely from stage to stage. There are five stages per world with a boss level at the end of each one. As expected, the levels start off gentle, getting you used to the grapple hook which Pablo owns and will be a major tool throughout the game. But, even by world two things start getting tricky, and by the third world they have really ramped up the difficulty, with me shouting a few select swear words at one particular level!
There is some tough platforming here, but it’s good tough platforming, involving different mechanics you’ve experienced so far all mixed together. I found myself wanting to try and try again until I had succeeded. The game makes you want to explore these levels to find all the hidden areas and the levels are not small either; you’ll spend a good chunk of time in each one. I also enjoyed the bosses, yet again if you’re an old school gamer like me you will have seen some of this before, but they’re designed well and really implement the grapple hook in interesting and challenging ways.
The aim of each stage is to collect enough gems to be able to unlock the barriers between worlds and defeat Nul. There are five gems hidden in each level, with a further two unlocked if you collect enough fruit. You have a range of moves available to you, including jumping, ground pound, wall jumping, and defeating enemies by jumping on their heads – yet again, standard platforming fare. Also hidden in select levels is a blue token which gives you access to bonus stages. These range from collecting a certain amount of gem shards to defeating enemies within a time limit. Complete these bonus levels and an additional three gems will be yours. Adding this to the time trail option you gain when you complete a stage really gives Grapple Dog a ton of variety and increases the challenge and longevity massively.
The real fun in Grapple Dog comes from using the grapple hook I mentioned earlier. By firing it at blue sections of the ceiling, floating platforms or balloons, you can swing to out of reach platforms, hidden areas, and defeat enemies. The longer you leave it between jump and grapple, the longer the rope will be. This makes you think about how long you need the rope to clear obstructions, but of course, leave it too late and you’re going to lose health. It can be quite exhilarating when your hook is just long enough to reach an item it can grapple to, especially when it means certain death. Grapple Dog also has sections where you really do get a buzz and a feeling of relief when you finish them, especially if it’s in one go. For example, you might come across a part where you have to swing to reach some crumbling platforms, run across them to bounce on balloons across spikes, grapple and swing into a wall jump – on walls that also are crumbling and have fireballs firing from either side – before grappling some balloons in the air to reach a barrel and get to safety. Phew!
Grapple Dog includes some catchy music, featuring funky tunes with record scratches. The music accompanies the gameplay well, with the boss and bonus levels my favourite. My only criticism with the music is that it is the same piece of music for every level in a world, with it only changing when you enter a new one. It can start to grate after a while, especially if you are having trouble with a certain section and end up hearing the same piece over and over again.
Other small gripes with Grapple Dog include the decision to make the B button the default button instead of A on the Switch. Muscle memory kicks in and you end up constantly hitting A and going back a screen or experiencing the wrong action. You get used to it, but I died a few times just because of this. I’m not really sure why this choice was made, but in my eyes it’s a bit of a strange one. This could have easily been solved by adding a button remapping selection in the accessibility options.
Loading times are also slow. You die a lot in this game, especially as you progress and the levels become harder. Once you have been hit four times you have to restart from the last checkpoint you crossed, losing everything you have collected. Sometimes in a really difficult part this can happen pretty quickly, and you find yourself dying often. This is all fine – it’s part of the game – but it got quite repetitive waiting for the game to load in between deaths, with an average load time of around 17 seconds. Obviously it’s not a long time, but when all you want to do is get back to the action you do end up getting impatient. Celeste really perfected the respawn system in a game like this and going back to this older system was painful.
I also experienced some slowdown in places and a few times the game completely crashed and needed to be restarted. I reached out to Super Rare Originals about this and they informed me that a pre launch patch will be ready to fix these issues and some other glitches that were found.
Overall, Grapple Dog is a well presented, great little game, and a wonderful start for Super Rare Originals. A homage to platforming games of old – filled with well designed and likeable characters, wonderfully colourful and bright worlds, fun writing, and challenging platforming with a twist. It has that ‘one more go’ magic sprinkled throughout, which is a testament to the level design and character built into Grapple Dog, and if the Celeste respawn system was used here it would have taken the game up to even higher levels.
I had a really fun time with Grapple Dog in spite of some slight hiccups, and if you’re after a new platforming collect-a-thon challenge then you’ll have a blast. Oh, and yes, you can indeed pet Pablo after a successful stage clear!