What's In a Name? A Racing Game With a Nutty Finish

It's been a silly week for mobile games with suggestive names. First there was this. Then Fahey handed me something called "Noble Nutlings" for the iOS. Its icon was a beetle-browed, bucktoothed squirrel. I had no idea what to expect.

Turns out this is a racing game (iOS, free download), from Boomlagoon, some ex-Rovio guys who exhibit that shop's traits of skillful use of physics and a flair for zaniness. The name, though. Noble Nutlings? Can't they be a little more descriptive? Then again, "Three-Squirrel Bathtub Bobsled" or "Nut Huggers' Road Rally" leaves a lot of room for misinterpretation, too.

Noble Nutlings is a side-scrolling racer, and getting through its course requires the skills you've learned playing games like Excitebike and Trials. Despite the slapstick presentation, this is a serious game requiring precisely timed jumps and an understanding of traction and acceleration, if you're going to zip through a course in three-star time.

The nutlings pile into the cart, whose chassis and wheels may be upgraded with the in-game currency you either pile up in the race or buy outright. I appreciated how the front and back wheels were separately upgradeable, though the lower-ranked equipment didn't present much advantage in doing so. Once you've configured your ride and added whatever boost juice is needed, you're off.

A single virtual button accelerates the Nutmobile. Tilt controls are the default, and sensibly implemented. (I do not recommend the button controls). Noble Nutlings' physics are a little floaty, and the explosive hazards are deadly not because they blow up the cart, but because they usually send it into a time-sucking parabolic arc. That said, some of the bombs can get the Nutlings to higher-elevation shortcuts, too.

I chortled throughout my first two-dozen races in Noble Nutlings. The Fred-Flintstone scampering sound of the cart accelerating full speed, and the madcap horn accompaniment strike the perfect tone for this game. Noble Nutlings is one of those games that I take to the john and have such a good time I forget to crap.

However, Noble Nutlings hits a huge difficulty spike after about two dozen races. There are 36 in all, each worth up to three stars, and 85 are necessary to see the last one. There is no way to three-star a race after the first 10 without significant chassis and tire upgrades, or a hell of a lot of boost juice. This is a free game, but I felt forced to grind through repeated lower races (you always get something for finishing, and it's impossible to not finish) or buy up in-game currency to outfit a cart that can pick off that third star at a lower-level race, or a second at a higher one. The game is so well done that no one would complain about a 99 cent Noble Nutlings if that offered a little more mercy in the time trials.

It can be frustrating to keep hurling yourself at the same tracks, shaving off whole seconds of a previous best time and still come up short of the next goal. Still, Noble Nutlings does offer a lot of replay value, and plenty of moments that made me laugh until I didn't crap.

Noble Nutlings [iOS, free]