Dawn of Play, the same company that brought you Dream of Pixels, is asking if iDevice owners everywhere are ready to take a trip back to the primitive days of portable gaming: the era of early LCD games. In Monkey Labour (out now, $1.99) players are challenged to aid Mobot, a diligent robot who wants nothing more than to peacefully perform his task of endlessly throwing logs into a furnace, as he is mercilessly harassed by a cantankerous monkey. The resulting gameplay bears a far greater resemblance to the Game & Watch series of LCD games by Nintendo, than the Tiger Electronics LCD games that were popular during the late eighties and early nineties.
Similar to the Game & Watch units that Monkey Labour heavily draws its inspiration from, the controls here are kept extremely simple with the entire game being played with nothing more than a left and right movement button. Using these controls the player will transport logs – endlessly arriving on the conveyor belt – over to a nearby furnace to stoke the flames, all while being careful to avoid the logs being hurled down by the ill-tempered monkey hanging out above. When the furnace is active there will be wisps of flame coming out the exhaust ports above the monkey oppressor’s head, points are awarded when the player maxes out the furnace so that the sudden burst of fire lines up with where the monkey is currently standing.
If Mobot can successfully roast the sinister simian multiple times in a row without dying – missing the target – or permitting the furnace’s flames to die down, a valuable score multiplier will steadily increase. This mechanic gives Monkey Labour a bit more complexity than was typically seen in the classic Game & Watch titles that it heavily draws inspiration from, as a player’s end score is based not only on how long they can survive but how skilled they are at keeping the combo meter running as well. On top of this is something that Nintendo couldn’t have included even if they had thought of it back in the day: online leader boards that track both your high score, as well as how fast you can reach specific point milestones.
Now, before I forget, I’d like to take a moment to talk about one other aspect of Monkey Labour’s gameplay: the conveyor belt that constantly ferries in logs for Mobot to place into the furnace. While it’s obvious that the player can lose a life if they should be struck by any of the many logs that the irate monkey endlessly hurls down at Mobot, it’s less obvious that the game ends instantly – even if there are still lives remaining – should the conveyor belt ever become completely backed up. Not only does this ensure that the player can’t merely play keep away with the monkey – a task better suited to the pause button – but it also leads to one of the more amusing moments in Monkey Labour’s gameplay, wherein a particularly successful player can actually anger the ape enough to begin tossing logs directly into the conveyor belt (not necessarily fatal, but it certainly forces you to put the pedal to the metal).
With all of Monkey Labour’s gameplay mechanics now covered, I will close by discussing the diligent attention to small details that has been shown by Dawn of Play in the design of this neo-retro handheld LCD title. While it is true that the developers have successfully nailed the feel of the artwork and electronic beeps of the era that Monkey Labour is aiming to pay homage, what is even more impressive is how they have captured the tiny nuances of the mechanics of a real working LCD screen. If you tip the unit sideways – or push down anywhere on the faux LCD screen – the game’s graphics will accurately react the same way a real LCD game in the past would have to such treatment, a wholly unnecessary – yet infinitely awesome – proof of Dawn of Play’s love for the now dead genre.
iFanzine Verdict: Monkey Labour is a love-letter to the now dead era of Nintendo’s Game & Watch LCD game units, in both gameplay and attention to the finer nuances of how an actual LCD screen worked back then. For those of you out there with fond memories those days gone by, the gameplay contained within – coupled with the addition of an online leader board – will surely keep you busy for many a break time. Unfortunately – as result of paying exactingly close homage to what came before – Monkey Labour doesn’t exactly bring much new to the table, and thus it does nothing to change the minds of anyone who didn’t like LCD games like this to begin with.