Wondering what it would be like if Spider-Man was a 2D platformer… and also a dog? Grapple Dog is a colorful platformer by Joseph Gribbin of Medallion Games. This game is perfect for those who are a fan of the side-scrolling Mario games that want a sprinkle of swinging physics in the mix.
In Grapple Dog you play as the dog Pablo, a research assistant looking more for adventure than reading any books that are required of him. In this world of personified animals there was a Great Inventor, who created amazing artifacts and gadgets, including the grapple hook that Pablo happens to find. Unfortunately, not all of the inventions are great, as Nul, the robot overlord, decides to harness the artifacts to burn the world down. It is up to Pablo to jump, slam, and swing his way to saving his world from robotic doom.
I’ve followed the development of this game right from the beginning. I remember when it was just swinging boxes before any art was decided upon. I started following Joseph Gribbin because he was a designer and developer of a few Nitrome games, which I first started playing as a kid (back when flash was in its hay-day). Grapple Dog brings all the silliness and fun that goes along with any of the Nitrome games.
Grapple Dog follows the same formula as what you’d see in a platformer Mario game: introduce a mechanic/obstacle, then slowly build upon it. When I started playing the game I thought to myself “How much is there really to experiment with just a ground pound, a jump, and a grapple hook?” Turns out there’s a lot! Each level introduces a new obstacle or variation that is harder than the previous, continuously challenging the player. It isn’t a steep learning curve, however; a new challenge or gameplay feature is typically presented by itself for the player to understand before the difficulty ramps up. The game is broken up into five worlds, each with five levels and a boss level. The game encourages the player to explore each level thoroughly to unlock bonus levels, collect all the fruit, and nab all the purple gems to unlock the next boss battle.
I got to be honest with you: I’m a sucker for games with grapple hooks (I’d recommend FlintHook if you like Grapple Dog but are looking for something a little more rogue-like), so I was hooting and hollering every time I started up a new level. The game took me about six hours to complete the story, but I didn’t do a full 100% of the game where I found every gem and completed every bonus level. There’s still more game to be had afterwards if you want to challenge yourself with timed speed-runs of the levels. I played this using a keyboard, but I would recommend getting the Switch version so you have the most authentic platforming experience.
While the mechanics were solid and the gameplay was lighthearted and enjoyable, there were a couple of things I’ll nit-pick about. First, swimming is a little tricky to coordinate at first. Depending on which side of the screen the top of your head is pointing towards, the directionals are the opposite of what you’d expect. Water levels are the bane to any game, so it’s not much to cry about, but like I said, I’m nit-picking here. The level design was solid, but there were a couple of times where I thought I found a secret passage to a purple gem, but it was really the path to complete the level. This means that I would miss out on a purple gem even though I thought I was being smart and exploring. I guess to formalize my gripe in a cohesive sentence would be to say that it can be difficult to decide which way to go when the paths branch out. Fruit could lead the way, but is it trying to lead the player to the secret gem or is it leading the player away from it? My last little irk is about the boss battles. The levels themselves were nice and had checkpoints throughout, so why do I have to start completely over when I die in a boss battle? Most games do this, so I’m not too surprised. My only dissonance for it is because even though the battle ramps up to a fast pace in the end, the beginning of the battle trudges along. It’s just slow enough where you notice you’re frustrated more because you’re bored rather than you were close to beating the boss. I also need to mention that I found a game-crashing bug that happens if you die and hurt the final boss at the same time, resulting in starting the entire level over again (no, it doesn’t skip the journey leading up to the boss when you leave). Like I said, these “problems” I’m suggesting are very miniscule; you may not even notice them, so don’t let this mid-review turnaround distract you from what is really a great game.
I covered most of the story already, but I just wanted to touch on how each world has two sets of characters, each with their own personality and some with their own gameplay mechanic. The dialog between Pablo and the world’s inhabitants are light and silly, and never too long as to hold up the gameplay. It’s one of those feel-good stories where even though you know what’s going to happen you still feel all bubbly and happy inside.
The art and the music are expertly woven together that enhance the fun themes of each world. A lot of important objects are color-coded, like the dark blue is where you can hit with your grapple hook, while the background art still plays along with what’s happening in the foreground (statues follow you with their eyes, etc.). I question the accessibility towards colorblindness, but the grapple icon also positions itself on a block if you can grapple to it, so I would think it wouldn’t be too bad. All the creatures are fun and loveable, and even if a place is supposed to be dark and ominous, the colors are still vibrant and happy. The music feels like a big band jamming out together, and adapts based on your surroundings (gets warbly when you go underwater, or stutters when you get hit). The sounds are well mixed and help describe what’s happening in the game. Every creature has their own sound, my favorite being when you bounce on the crabs.
To summarize: fluid gameplay with a breezy learning curve and a lot to explore. A simple, cute story that ties into the game. Vibrant pixel art creating fun, detailed worlds inside and out. And catchy music and silly sounds that will be stuck in my head for days to come.