'Mega Mall Story': An Addictive Battle for Hearts and Wallets
"Mega Mall Story" puts you in charge of a tiny shopping mall and tasks you with growing it into a teeming center of commerce while investing in the development of the surrounding neighborhood. Its animation may make it look a little childish, but there's enough depth to it to get players of any age hooked. For some users, this game will prove dangerously addictive.
If the idea of an empire-building game in which you construct a shopping mall sounds familiar, that might be because Take Two Interactive published a series starting about a decade ago called "Mall Tycoon." It wasn't part of the Maxis/Electronic Arts Sim universe, but it had that general feel to it. It definitely felt Sim-ier than "SimRefinery" (this was a real game).
But while "Mega Mall Story" shares "Mall Tycoon's" basic concept, the iPhone game doesn't look much like a Sim game at all. It looks like a two-dimensional version of "Habbo Hotel." It's all bright colors and blocky animation and twee little cartoon character patrons that putter around all day, every day, as though shopping is a paying gig for them. The mall you build is a flat grid -- it only goes up and down, left and right, with no depth to it.
And that's exactly the kind of design that works just right on a phone. A game on a 3.5-inch screen doesn't necessarily need to have mind-popping graphics or advanced 3D rendering technology to be worth a few bucks. In fact, those things sometimes really end up getting in the way by making the game a little harder to control. Games like "Mega Mall Story" may look a little cutesy with their faux 8-bit graphics, but the progression of the game itself makes it downright addictive.
I was hooked in minutes, and for the last couple of hours much of my brain power has been devoted to meeting development goals for a shopping mall that doesn't exist.
"Mega Mall Story" makes you the head honcho of a small and rather pathetic little shopping center in the middle of an underdeveloped neighborhood. This is a zero-star mall, and you're tasked with making it a five-star mall in 15 years. You have to not only grow the number of stores in your mall, but also expand the physical size of your property and invest in the growth of the surrounding neighborhood in order to build a customer base.
To earn each star, you'll need to meet sales goals, meet store-count goals, increase your base of loyal customers, and build status-symbol establishments like planetariums and medical clinics (not something you generally see in U.S. malls, but just go with it).
Of course, time is limited. Those 15 years will pass quickly. The mall opens and closes once each round, and each round represents a month on the calendar. As time passes, economic conditions swing back and forth, impacting sales. Weather conditions and holiday seasons will play for and against you, and if you survive long enough, you may even witness a competing mall come along -- and possibly later go belly-up.
In order to finance the growth of your mall and its surrounding neighborhood, you'll naturally need massive profits. But money isn't the only thing that makes "Mega Mall Story's" world go around, apparently. Adding new types of stores, upgrading the stores you have and even running temporary events like sales require you to cash in on the love and esteem of your customer base, which is measured in the accumulation of little pink hearts. Yeah, I warned you the animation was a little on the cutesy side. Taking good care of your mall shops and hiring extra-friendly managers (who are more expensive than the just-so-so applicants, of course) will earn you more hearts. Having a sizable ad budget also helps.
Building in Two Dimensions
"Mega Mall Story" offered more depth than I expected, given the appearance of its animation. But I suppose its side-scroller-simple layout and blocky graphics make its interface a little more manageable on a small screen.
The game works in both portrait and landscape modes. Portrait mode lets you touch the grid directly to interact with it -- build the store here, move that fountain there, build a new hallway over there, etc. But it also gives you a small directional keypad if you finders are a bit too large to comfortably poke at individual squares. That's a nice offer, but even my fat fingers had no trouble dealing directly with the grid, so I found myself working in landscape mode more often, just to get a better vantage of the whole mall.
Once your mall grows to truly "mega" proportions, though, it can be rather easy to get lost in your own commercial temple. Zoomed out, the stores all tend to look the same; zoomed in, the graphics begin to look a little soft and blurry. It's sometimes difficult to tell which of your stores are in most need of an upgrade, though a store that's been painfully neglected will get marked with an exclamation point.
Finally, I have to take issue with the scroll bars. Sometimes in this game you'll be presented with a list -- a list of new stores you can bring in, for example, or a list of physical fixtures you can build like escalators and staircases. Ask an iPhone user to scroll through a list and the most natural move is, of course, to flick the list upward and watch it spin down. "Mega Mall Story," though, uses a little scroll bar on the side. It's just weird to see that in an iPhone app. It's usable and not frequently annoying, but definitely odd enough to merit a mention.
On the surface, "Mega Mall Story" looks like a children's cartoon of a game. It might skew a little toward the too-easy side. I've nearly made five stars in under 10 years, I've never been close to going bust, and I'm a complete beginner. Perhaps what it needs is a difficulty dial. But there's enough depth to it to really hook players of any age, given they're into the whole empire-building game genre to begin with.
Some may even find it very difficult to put down. There's something about those multitudes of mindless cartoon shoppers, milling about all day, every day, endlessly dumping money onto your bottom line. It's just a little mesmerizing.