For over forty years it was all the rage to fire monkeys into space in the name of science. With their latest title for Xbox Live Arcade, Strawdog Studios aren’t averse to firing much more exotic species far into the ether – Tigers, Zebras, Rhinos, Frogs and a whole lot more besides.
In fairness they aren’t just doing it for a laugh to see if they explode, or if they can carry out important tasks like sorting tiny screws in Zero-G. In Space Ark the universe is at risk from a giant wandering black hole that’s destroying everything in its path. With mankind nowhere to be seen, it’s up to the animals to take off in the titular Ark and colonise the remains of the consumed planets to ensure life goes on. With not so much as a sniff of an interplanetary Noah, just how they managed to build a space craft without opposable thumbs is anyone’s guess, but it’s this sort of ingenuity that explains why animals will probably inherit the planet long after humans have gone.
What follows is a spectacularly bright and (literally) bouncy arcade puzzler which hits the right level between simplicity and depth. To re-colonise each planet the player is given a horizontal field in which to use the bounce pad to keep their animal aloft. The left thumbstick controls the bounce pad and the right stick controls the animal, guiding them left and right and even helping boost them higher. The objective is to bounce the animal off the pad (and avoid touching the floor) whilst collecting the DNA crystals that litter the screen. Initially you only need to collect them all before you can guide your animal into the vortex for the next level, but things soon become a little more complex and require you to complete a set number of chains before opening the way forward. These chains require three or more DNA crystals of the same colour and the trick to achieving a really high score comes from being agile enough, and accurate enough, to rack up the chains. These also create fruit which acts as a bonus multiplier, so creating the chains and then actually managing to collect the fruit as it falls, is the key to scoring success.
This would all be a little boring if it wasn’t for the fact that Space Ark mixes things up in later levels by introducing more puzzle related elements for you to negotiate. These range from clouds which cause your animal to bounce off, fans which blow you around and flippers which catapult your creature off at odd angles. It means that soon you’ll not only have to worry about guiding your creature to the DNA crystals, but also paying attention to where you bounce pad is, lest you find it’s in the wrong place when you need it most. Thankfully there are also upgrades to be collected for your pad to make life easier, such as the cannon which will help to complete combos, or the shield which prevents your animal touching the ground.
Space Ark is gleeful and pleasing on the eyes, with its bright use of colours and charming dancing animals (hey, if they can build a space ship there’s no reason why they can’t dance!). But it’s also fiendish enough to hold your attention and offer up a challenge. There’s an almost Peggle-esque quality to the action with the need to time and carefully aim your shots. At some points the screen is awash with colour from the barrage of crystals and gems and there’s a real sense of satisfaction when you beat a particularity tough level, snagging that last crystal that seemed to have been eluding you.
Couple this with a time challenge mode and the obligatory leaderboard feature, and if you’ve got friends playing the game it becomes yet another online tussle as to who can outmatch who.
It’s hard for anyone to argue that Space Ark is a solidly put together title whose colour and charm is something of a breath of fresh air. It’s a game that will undoubtedly provide plenty of entertainment for those who pick it up.