Back in the 1980s, scaling a tall building and taking on the giant homicidal ape clinging to its pinnacle would net the daring everyman one distressed damsel – but times, as they say, are a’changing. Nowadays it’s the bare minimum qualifier for keeping one’s job as a low-end maintenance worker. Roben Software manages to pay homage to one of yesteryear’s most iconic arcade games while proving that change isn’t a bad thing by mixing in enough quirky visual and gameplay elements to make Elevators worth checking into if you’re a puzzle platformer enthusiast or generally enjoy high score competition.
As expected of most puzzle games and simple platformers, Elevators offers only the barest semblance of a plot as an excuse to embark on some serious stair-climbing and elevator-dodging action. Your mission is to direct plucky repairman Eric as he weaves his way through a building that mysteriously teems with elevators gone haywire, threatening to smash him to bits at every wrong turn. Roben Software tries amicably to create a sense of mystery surrounding the commotion’s source, but a quick glance at the game’s splash screen or the Help menu makes it patently clear that a bit of a monkey wrench has gummed up the works.
Rather than try to replicate a console-style directional pad or arcade joystick setup, Roben Software banks on utter simplicity by offering the player just one action: “run forward,” via an onscreen virtual button. Eric enters “retreat” mode when you lift your finger from the “run” button, so player interaction boils down to commanding Eric to run forward or allowing him to retreat toward the beginning of a hallway. These commands are interruptible at any time, so if you make it halfway down a hall and realize you can’t clear an elevator before it’s going to crush Eric, you simply take your finger off the “run” button and he’ll retreat. Supplementary actions — ranging from climbing ladders to lobbing bombs at Eric’s banana-slinging foe in the game’s climactic encounter — trigger automatically when Eric has come into contact with the actionable item.
Roben Software has properly situated the virtual button so that it never gets in the way of the onscreen mayhem, and I was impressed that such a simple input scheme offers sufficient depth in the context of a “wait for the right opportunity” gameplay mechanic. Besides making sure Eric doesn’t get crushed above or beneath one of the game’s many passing elevators, you can opt to have him enter temporarily stopped elevators that will save him some footwork by carrying him a few floors up (but watch out — some will carry him down instead, thwarting progress; luckily the elevators are color-coded by function). Trap doors Eric can fall through present a frequent annoyance, but also strategic opportunities to grab 1UPs and other bonus items that may have popped up on previously cleared floors. The game awards you with progressively higher points upon ascending to new floors, and to incentivize risk-taking over more cautious play, a timer bar starts the moment you press the “run” button on a new floor and you’ll gain bonus points if you clear the floor before this bar reaches zero.
Like the arcade game to which it pays homage, Elevators records your high score and offers to rank yours among world records set by fellow players. High scores also appear on Roben’s site. I sense this competitive aspect is the real heart and soul of the game. Elevators features three modes that award higher point tallies corresponding to difficulty, so you can ease into the game on “Easy” and progress to “Hard” if you’re keen on earning enough points to become a renowned iPhone gaming champ. If you’re not drawn in by the prospect of high score competition, be forewarned that the game’s length is otherwise quite short, with a single clean playthrough taking a fairly experienced player up to 10 minutes on the easiest difficulty setting. The Medium and Hard modes last longer for offering greater challenge and more floors to work through before victory is in sight. While you can pause the action at will, a playthrough is too short to warrant a “save” feature aside from the game’s keeping track of your score history.
While Elevators‘ simple control scheme is well suited to the iPhone platform, it did at times bring to mind why arcade game designers utilized some kind of joystick or directional pad in the first place. The “run/retreat” paradigm means that Eric is constantly in motion except when he’s at the beginning of a hallway. If you find yourself sandwiched between two trapdoors or elevators, the best you can do is rapidly tap the “run” button so that he’ll rush back and forth awkwardly until one of the obstacles on either side has resolved itself. These situations popped up frequently enough to remind me that there’s a basic need for precision input in games that feature dynamic obstacles — and that precision is glaringly absent here. Also, Eric will occasionally face the “wrong” way after stepping out of an elevator or climbing a ladder that alights into the middle of a hall, forcing you into the awkward circumstance of reversing your use of the “run” button. Thankfully this doesn’t happen with too much frequency, but unfairly throws the player for a loop when it does occur.
A final quibble I had with the game stems from the randomly generated nature of the building Eric ascends. It keeps the game fresh over multiple playthroughs on the same difficulty setting but introduces one significant design flaw during Eric’s climactic battle with his ape nemesis on the building’s highest floors. To win that contest of wills Eric has to run across caches of bombs scattered throughout the upper floors to lob them up at his foe, and the building’s layout might be such that one or more bomb caches are placed right at the foot of a stairway or ladder — and the game is programmed to give the ladder climb precedence over the bomb tossing if both events are triggered simultaneously. In such instances I found the result to be that Eric would lob one bomb (out of several stored in the useful cache) and then climb the ladder to the next floor, necessitating that I either use a trapdoor or open elevator to return to my favored bomb cache, and repeat this tedium ad nauseum. There are multiple bomb caches scattered over the floors in this part of the game, but when a randomly generated ladder limits access to the largest and most useful one, it feels more like a bug than a clever trick meant to throw you off balance.
In terms of audiovisual presentation, Elevators gets the job done without offering anything noteworthy aside from copious instances of cartoon mayhem that mix the humorous with the horrific. More than once I was treated to a curdling shriek as Eric’s body popped into a dozen pieces beneath an elevator’s crushing weight, followed by the sight of his still smiley-faced head bouncing down the building’s floors until it fell offscreen. I found the sound work generally satisfying but the game’s single music track wore thin on me after a few playthroughs; ironically the game’s only sound option is to switch the music on or off. The lack of an in-game volume option is grating if you’ve just been listening to an MP3 on a fairly high volume and switch to the game to find its sound effects absolutely booming out of your ear buds.
iFanzine Verdict: A challenging puzzle platformer that brings to mind a particular early arcade classic but offers enough new gameplay and visual design quirks that it definitely stands out from the title to which it pays homage. The game’s radically streamlined interface keeps things simple and easy to pick up, but also hinders the player’s enjoyment when the interface’s drawbacks become apparent. If you’re typically a challenge seeker and don’t mind a simple aesthetic, or the idea of trying to top the high scores of others who purchase the game appeals to you, you’ll probably have a positive experience with Elevators. If you’re looking for a really immersive gaming experience or the next breakthrough in videogame design, this is one great ape you’ll want to check into more thoroughly before plunking down the price of admission.