A Reimagined Pong to Drive You Up a WallS

The title of this feature, 'Gaming App of the Day," may be a little misleading. It's intended to be an honor about as much as Time's "Person of the Year" is, and remember, that thing went to Hitler in 1938. As we can't tell you if a game's good until we've played it, we're primarily looking for one that is current. That is about the only criteria Haraka satisfies for inclusion.

Oh no, I'm not going to go off and find some other better game here at the last minute, not after the time I put into trying to figure out Haraka. That's not how it works. You send me a game and ask for a writeup, you had better be prepared to get one, good or bad.

Haraka advertises itself as a Pong clone, and being that there aren't many around by that name, I was intrigued enough to bite. The problem is it plays like a game of pong made up by your seven-year-old brother, with rule variants that don't seem at all connected to any sense of balanced gameplay or winning fundamentals.

That means that not only must you defend your back line, you have to cover the sidelines as well, as any ball struck by your opponent that rebounds in your half of the court, whether on the baseline or the sides, counts as point to him. You're therefore left to defend a baseline that is more than three times as wide as the sidelines (in your zone) are long. So, with a contestant who is terribly slow, you can't do sensible things like play a shot and return to the middle of the court. Not when any four-shot rally gets needlessly sped up so that it punishes you for making all the miraculous saves that kept it in play.

About that sideline. It helps the CPU pull off some gratingly cheap shots, racking up two and even three points if he catches you out of position. Given the width of the baseline, you can expect that to happen a lot. You can also expect the CPU to serve into your corner every time, and there is little you can do to return it without surrendering a point. As the CPU starts every game serving, you'll start every game down a point unless, like a soccer goalie, you guess the correct side and run to it.

Even then, there is no sense of touch in how you place the shots. Your pong contestant is not a long bar, making it visually easy to judge the trajectory of your return. It's a man with some kind of bo stick or staff, occupying an amount of space that is insufficient to make deliberate, complex angle shots, especially when he's standing on the sideline wall. You'll luck into your winners more than you will identify and execute them.

I'm not even going to dissect the CPU's maddening tendency to volley repeated slow, shallow-angle shots to itself off its own sidewall, or the useless powerups that are impossible to hit on purpose and, when struck, redirect your shot to an area you aren't or can't cover, so the ball volleys back to the CPU. This has the same effect as having your serve broken in tennis. But hey, at least you picked up that thing that maybe helped you, or maybe it didn't.

Final fun fact? Your controls are a left and a right button, placed in the corners of the screen. The same corners where much of the critical action plays out. Oh gosh, curse these fat thumbs, I guess I better go on a diet. Fuck that. If I can't effectively play a game because I am forced to obstruct critical visual information when playing it, that is the designer's failure of imagination, not mine. It would seem that shrinking the width of the playing dimensions to accommodate two virtual buttons would eliminate the problem of obstructed corners and cut down on the unreasonable distance you have to cover.

When I was five years old, Dad had a term for the games my older brother would make up, whose rules and variances inevitably left me frustrated and feeling stupid for even playing along. The name of all of these games was "Shprin," Haraka is Shprin.

Haraka [iTunes]