New developer Crescent Flare has really bounded out of the gate with its first entry into the iPhone’s casual puzzle games collection. Rather than emulate a well worn concept, Crescent Flare decided to go out on a limb by rolling out the Marblenauts — little spherical space explorers who have gotten themselves into a bind during their latest exploits. Cursed with a lack of arms and legs, they must rely on the player’s wits to help them make their way through a series of collapsing asteroids.
Marblenauts revolves around a concept that is wonderfully basic at its core: the little buggers are round, so just build them an appropriate path and they will naturally roll toward transporters waiting to receive them near the bottom of each puzzle screen. “Building” a path is more a destructive process than a creative one: the player’s main task is to selectively bust destructible blocks in each puzzle’s environment so that the round protagonists can roll off curved ledges and avoid falling onto flat platforms, sharp-edged ledges they can’t roll off of, and other traps liable to spell their doom. All block busting is accomplished with simple taps on the touchscreen.
The Marblenauts become trapped with great ease, but luckily each puzzle has more in common with writing a Microsoft Word document than one might expect. Every player action is a temporary save point that can be retracted with an “undo” virtual button: once you know you’ve committed an error that will leave one or more Marblenauts trapped for all eternity, you can undo the last action — or the last two actions, or the last three, etc. Or even start the level over entirely with newfound knowledge of its wiles.
It sounds simple – and it is – but what’s so amazing about Marblenauts is that it successfully mixes, mashes, and twists the core concept around in every conceivable way. Marblenauts can only enter transporters of their particular color, and they might have to be guided in such a way that they collect keys to unlock protected blocks or special energy crystals to activate the level’s transporters as they’re rolling along. Marblenauts might have to be stacked on one another – or atop rolling blocks – to clear obstacles, and water-filled levels will reverse their physics entirely by making use of buoyancy as opposed to gravity.
That description applies only to “Simple Mode,” a meaty tutorial that will build the player’s conceptual skillset over the game’s first few hours. Once cleared, Simple Mode gives way to “Complex Mode,” which features not only larger puzzles but also added tasks such as creating and removing boxes and rotating windmill-like machines to dynamically shape the Marblenauts’ paths.
That the game stays fresh over its 80+ levels — no, I’m not kidding, and the game offers incentives to complete some of the levels a second time — really testifies to how well devised each and every puzzle is, and how satisfyingly puzzle sophistication develops. Progress treats the player to small rewards such as snippets of the Marblenauts’ background, a Sound Test, an earned ability to skip around a bit on the level list, and other goodies. Finally, aesthetic variation keeps puzzles graphically interesting despite their great number.
Crescent Flare bent over backwards not only to provide as much meat on the bones as it possibly could, but also to make the result accessible to as wide an audience as possible: the player can magnify the area around his or her finger or activate symbols useful to colorblind individuals via the Options menu if need be.
I could quibble only over how limited the soundtrack is — just two music tracks for the levels — but at least they’re very cool, spacey tracks. If the player feels Ride of the Valkyries or Champagne Supernova or something else from his or her iTunes playlist would be more appropriate, one can always turn the in-game music volume down to zero while leaving sound effects on.
iFanzine Verdict: Marblenauts plays like a checklist of everything a classic puzzle game should contain — an intuitive concept, a ton of variety built around that concept, and enough meat to entertain over the long haul. Crescent Flare furnishes each of those elements with such panache that you’d have to absolutely detest the very idea of a puzzle game to resist this sleeper hit’s charms.