Kale in Dinoland Review

If you’re an iDevice-owning retro enthusiast, chances are you’ve come to expect only certain things from iOS platformers. Simple graphics, left and right movement (what a plus — it’s not an infinite runner!), a jump button. If you’re lucky, maybe your little dude or dudette gets a pellet gun too. But even in the late 80s and early 90s, the best games packed in so much more; we remember the classics for their insane speed, secret power-ups, multiple characters, or the player’s ability to claim enemy powers. Here to remind us what retro really means is Kale in Dinoland (Out March 1, $1.99), a game that knows just how to pluck the heartstrings of anyone who spent their childhood in the early console era.

Kale‘s presentation may be tightly calibrated with the Nintendo Game Boy experience in mind, but to me it’s a dead ringer for one of my all-time favorite NES games: Little Nemo: The Dream Master. Like that golden oldie, Kale makes enemies the player’s main resource. Hop on a fish and Kale will glide right through dangerous waters; catch a ride on a monkey and he can swing from vine to vine under the player’s guidance. Some enemies are easier to control and more useful than others, so every player is sure to come away with a personal favorite — something the game encourages by letting you keep a ride from room to room until a drastic environment change forces Kale off. Bring a favored pet all the way to a level boss and you’ll have a very different battle on your hands than if Kale goes in on foot!

Kale’s second claim to fame is that its six levels are positively gigantic, riddled with doors that lead to power-ups and a recurring slots minigame. Naturally, certain animals have to be brought into these side chambers or else Kale will have to turn back. While the chance for exploration brings Kale a step ahead of the highly linear fare we’re used to on this platform, there is one drawback: should the hero’s small handful of lives be expended, you’ll have to start the current level over from scratch. And did I mention the levels are really, really big? It’s an approach to challenge that would have been typical in the early console era, but one this gamer, at least, would prefer be left behind. You’ll also have to keep the game running in memory if you need to break off before completing the current level.

Kale’s third great accomplishment is proving that a four-direction virtual D-pad is perfectly workable if its touch response areas are generous enough. This is huge. The two-key tradition is something I want to see hit the wayside pronto because the lack of “up” and “down” input has placed a certain cap on the gameplay depth iOS platformers have achieved thus far. Here the extra input is used for slinging coconuts at airborne enemies and for vertical movement on certain rides, which is a great step in the right direction.

That’s not to say Kale’s interface is perfect quite yet. The one snag I found is that the player’s thumb cancels all directional input if it lands smack dab in the center of the D-pad before moving to one of the directional keys. You’re in the clear as long as you hit a directional key first, but the dead center can become a hassle if you have a habit of lifting your thumb from the touchscreen when making rapid turnarounds. Screenshots will leave some on-the-fence gamers wondering whether enemies and critical jumps are constantly blocked by the interface, but I found the action consistently well centered so this never became an issue. My final quibble is that the game’s shake-driven “cartridge eject” function – meant to further invoke the Game Boy experience – can sometimes trigger during normal gameplay. It’s definitely robust in the sense that it’s difficult to trigger consciously, but there seems to be a very small chance that a random jostle could set it off. Given its infrequency and the fact that a confirmation popup separates the player from a progress wipe, it amounts only to a minor nuisance.

Those who have been raised on the smooth hand-drawn aesthetics peculiar to iOS are in for something of a retro shock in Kale. Its grayscale palette hearkens back to an age before color went mobile, and listening to the hard chiptunes can be kind of like drinking Schnapps: you’ll wonder what the heck’s happening at first, but once it’s had some time to settle you might just ask for seconds. Should you find yourself in that camp, the developer has served up Kale’s soundtrack on its very own Bandcamp page.

iFanzine Verdict: It might seem like an oxymoron to say that Kale in Dinoland brings “retro” forward, but it’s about time an iOS platformer achieved the same level of depth as the classics! Kale earns a lofty score for its intricate levels, fun enemy riding mechanics and demonstrating a way forward for virtual interfaces.