Did you know that the term “gacha” comes from a kind of Japanese arcade machine that vends random toys in little plastic orbs?
Claw Stars is based on another machine that you’ll find in any self-respecting Japanese arcade: the claw grabber. Of all the gacha games we’ve played on mobile over the last few years, Claw Stars is closest to the genre’s real world roots.
It sees you playing as a hamster. No ordinary hamster, of course, but a hamster that has been blasted into space, blundered into a temporal wormhole, evolved into a hyper-intelligent super-rodent, built a spaceship, and set off on a mission to rescue the critters of the galaxy and restore their habitats.
It had to depart from the Japanese arcade world at some point.
Your overall goal is to rescue critters and add them to your collection, found in a series of habitats that you unlock as you progress through the game. Rescuing them is the fun bit.
As its name suggests, Claw Stars arms you with a claw that hovers over a messy jumble of orbs, gems, coins, and other goodies. Sometimes these goodies are tied to events – for example, at the time of writing you can collect pinatas for the Pinata Party event.
You move your claw left and right with a little joystick, and make it descend and grab whatever’s below it with a “grab” button. This mechanic is a lot of fun, with just the right amount of random chance to make it interesting.
There are tactics, too. Do you go for coins, or chunks of granite (to unlock the Big Grabber), or critters, or special items? There’s always plenty to choose from, and when you run out of items to collect you can refill the pit at the cost of a few gems.
The Claw Zone is the game’s happy place, but there are plenty of other screens to explore. Most importantly, there’s the Habitat screen, where you can see the critters you’ve collected, build and upgrade your buildings, collect rewards, and more.
There’s also a shop, an Astro Wheel that you can spin whenever you grab a key, an inventory, a shop, a stamp collection, and your own little homestead that you can decorate with items you find.
All of the material for these different areas is found in the Claw Zone, with orbs opening up to reveal a huge array of items including ice creams, stamps, strands of DNA, boosters, units of oxygen, and much more, along with bundles of coins, gems, and so on.
More importantly, you’ll uncover various offensive and defensive power-ups. Despite its adorable presentation, Claw Stars is a simmeringly hostile game in which you’re constantly kidnapping other players’ critters, blockading their buildings, hacking their bank accounts, and tricking them into wasting claws by putting fake stones in their Claw Zones.
And you’re constantly fending off the very same behavior with drones, Electric Shields, and other defensive measures.
You earn gold in the Claw Zone, but here’s the rub: you only get so many claws per session. Once you’ve used them all up, you can either wait for the timer to run down to get a measly four more, watch a 30-second video to get one, or buy a bundle of them with gems.
There are never enough defensive power-ups to keep you safe, however, so you’ll have to spend some of the gold you collect on ransoming your critters and unblocking your buildings, as well as on buying and upgrading your buildings in the first place.
Please Sir I Want Some Claw
How do you get gems? With claws. The irony! Except there’s another way. You can buy gems with real, cold hard cash. $1.99 gets you 160 gems, while 100 gems will buy you 30 claws. Naturally, there are economies of scale if you choose to buy more.
The cost of gems and claws isn’t outrageous, and you will frequently find yourself with 100 gems in your account through normal play., but the model feels stingy at first.
While in a free-to-play game like Candy Crush Saga you might expect to enjoy a few hours of unfettered fun before running out of lives and being frozen out, Claw Stars gets you to that point in well under an hour. And once you’re out of claws there’s nothing to do.
The routes to free claws – watching an ad or waiting for the timer – are tedious. A single go on a real claw machine is worthwhile because there’s the possibility of a prize, but a single claw in Claw Stars is just a drop in the ocean.
Because of this relative stinginess, Claw Stars requires a super-casual grazing approach. You’ll dip in every few hours to use your claws, spend your gold, ransom your critters, work towards completing the event of the moment, and generally stay on top of your housework. Then you’ll have to put the game down.
Claw Stars is innovative, polished, and a huge amount of fun to play when you’re in the Claw Zone. Its mischievous multiplayer is a nice twist, too. We just wish the sessions were longer. You can try it for yourself on both the App Store and Google Play.