Scowling Birds, Smashed Pigs, Good Times
"Angry Birds" pits an army of suicidal tweeties against a troupe of villainous pigs in a variation on the old artillery game genre. The game's perfect for the iPhone medium -- no intricate control schemes, lots of color for small-screen visibility, and about as causal and ridiculous a concept as you can get. At the price of just a buck, it's no wonder it's topped the App Store's list for so long.
Every time I've visited the App Store in the last few weeks, I've seen the same game at the top of the most popular paid apps list: "Angry Birds." Reluctant to presume humanity generally skews toward anything other than the lowest common denominator, I wrote the game off as some scatological exercise in dive-bombing techniques.
This week I finally broke and paid it a bit of attention. It's the top paid app in over two dozen countries, it's a buck, it's received over 50,000 five-star reviews, and the icon doesn't look like the worst slap-dash clip-art job I've ever seen. So I figured, what the hell, I'll give it chance.
I was pleased to see that the object of "Angry Birds" is not what I thought it was. It's a variation on the old "angle+speed" artillery games that have been around since the moment someone first thought of using a computer to simulate blowing stuff up.
As far as I can tell from the short animated introduction, the object of the birds' anger are the pigs who stole (and just maybe devoured) their eggs. Their rage is such that they are willing to die to see the pigs suffer.
Their suicidal mission involves using a giant slingshot to fling their own bodies directly at the pigs' protective encampments, which are constructed of materials like glass, wood and stone. The angle and the speed at which a bird is flung are controlled by the player using the touchscreen -- pull it back on the slingshot, then release.
The bird is thus catapulted toward the porcine parapets. Upon impact, the structures enclosing the hated pigs begin to collapse, with pieces sliding and falling to the ground. Whether or not a given piece of the structure breaks depends on what it's made out of and how hard it's been hit. Gravity is simulated fairly well, and sometimes the full damage of your latest barrage may not be apparent until all the wreckage has finally stabilized.
Pigs caught under falling rubble are either killed or wounded -- or they end up protected from further attacks. Never mind whether they're trapped under the wreckage; your object is to leave nothing alive, and you're given a limited number of shots, so make them count. If you manage to nail all the piggies with you allotted army of kamakazi birdies, you advance to the next sub-level.
Complete a series of sub-levels and you get a new type of bird to add to your arsenal. There's one that splits into three birds mid-launch for a cluster-bombing effect, for example, and one that gets a speed-boost mid-flight for added bunker-busting power.
"Angry Birds" provides a satisfying bit of casual, baddy-pounding fun that's perfect for the small screen. The levels are bite-sized challenges suitable for five or 10 minutes of play while waiting in line, riding a subway, or otherwise sitting around. The primary colors make the animation pop on the small screen, and the premise is just the right kind of ridiculous.
It also doesn't try to get too complicated with its touchscreen controls. Having too many buttons to push can cramp a game's style when it only has three and a half inches of screen to work with. With "Angry Birds," you just pull that slingshot back and let fly.
However, I found myself pretty dependent on luck when it came to aiming just the right shot. This isn't exactly a puzzle game -- knowing the secret won't guarantee you a win. You do get some helpers like a dotted-line tracer of your last shot for comparison purposes, as well as an expandable view to see the entire range (just pinch). But mostly, you just have to eyeball the right trajectory, and on a little screen like this, a millimeter difference in your finger placement will mean the difference between a smooshed pig and one that smiles smugly at you after you've fired off your last bird and missed. No matter -- shooting stuff is still fun, and maybe I'll just get better.
Also, perhaps the way I've described it so far makes the game sound graphically violent. It's really all very cartoony, and the animation is well-done with lots of color. Animals perish in a poof rather than a puddle of gore. In a way, it reminds me of one of the best iPhone games out there right now, "Plants vs. Zombies," except slightly less morbid. Or perhaps "Angry Birds" is way, way more morbid when you think about how the birds' self-destructive revenge rampage is motivated by a possible case of cross-species infanticide. Pretty grim, actually.