It's not often I get handed a video game and feel like I'm fumbling around with one of those frustrating ball-bearing balance puzzles that laid on the coffee table in the river room of my grandparents' home when I was a kid. After 20 minutes of trying, my brother, cousins and I could usually settle one ball in its appropriate socket, maybe two, before uttering two words taught by example by every adult in in the household, uncle to grandmother: "Fuck it."
That's kind of how I feel about Catball Eats It All, a strange physics platformer by Broken Compass Studios, which has reasonable Katamari aspirations in both its gameplay motifs and audiovisual presentation. It's not so impossible that I'm willing to hurl it across the room. There's a sensibility in the game's design that suggests it can be resolved by someone with more patience than an eight-year-old. Unfortunately, after 52 weeks of this Gaming App of the Day feature, that's about all I have left for iOS platformers.
Catball's accessibility problem is in the transpositional nature of its controls. Actually, its problem may be the fact it requires someone to use "transpositional" in describing the accessibility of its controls. I'll do my damndest to put it all into words here.
Your playing field is the outer surface of a 360-degree object, of which you screen shows, at most, about 30 degrees. Gravity is at the center. As the Catball, you're tasked with rolling around the perimeter and eating up all of the objectives laid on the outside surfaces. After you consume them all, you then bounce into the surrounding platforms, walls and hills to finish off the level.
Holding down your left thumb pushes the Catball counter-clockwise, and holding down your right thumb pushes it clockwise. Sounds simple. Except for when you try to jump. Then tapping (or feathering, as I usually do in such weird gravity environments), on the same button actually gets you jumping in the opposite direction (or with the opposite momentum). In other words, you have to hold your left thumb to roll the catball left and tap with the right thumb to jump it in the same direction—which is left—when you need to ascend to a higher platform. Miss the jump? Well now you have to hold right and tap left.
It's counterintuitive and it takes an active thought process—in layperson's terms, slowing the hell down and thinking—to get the Catball do go where you want it when you're navigating tricky corridors and trying to elevate to different parts of the platform. (Incredibly, I managed to get the damn thing stuck in a tunnel on the tutorial level.) Ordinarily, this would be fine except for the game's camera, which doesn't zoom out far enough, fast enough, if you soar up into the air (off the surface of the puzzle), which you'll often find yourself doing as you try to get the hang of the controls. In other words, it's difficult to land a jump with any precision without heavy concentration. There's a map feature which backs everything out to show you the entire puzzle, but it's zoomed so far away that it's still challenging to your understanding of spatial relationships.
You get a one-to-three star rating for completing each level (sound familiar?) and a giant basset hound face appears if you take too long to clear a board. So while some time obligation is enforced, there's no timer on the screen to inform you of how you are doing against it.
Maybe this was the intent of Catball. Swiftly rolling around and consuming everything on the screen would be as boring as a game that makes the task prohibitively difficult. The game's makers are trying for something in between. They'be built a physics puzzle in the truest sense in that you really are feeling your way around it with semiperceptible precision—enough so that you understand there are objectively enforced laws of physics involved. But they are working in such a way that, after 20 minutes, you are either utterly determined to conquer them, or you say, with a conviction spanning three generations, "Fuck it."
Catball Eats It All [iTunes]