Bounder was not a game I played much in its original C64 incarnation. I think I did eventually own it, but by that time I had so many games that I only ever really played a handful of my favourites. As such, I came to this new mobile version of Bounder with a fresh eye.
For those of you who don’t know, you must guide a tennis ball through a maze of tiles, gaps and other hazards to the goal at the end of the level. As the ball bounces, you have to time connecting with solid surfaces to enable you to clear any gaps between tiles, and this is nowhere near as easy as it sounds. There are bonus tiles scattered around (often in awkward places), which reward you with things like points or extra lives when you jump on them and this provides an added risk-reward mechanism.
The first thing to note is that this is a complete recreation of the original game for modern platforms, rather than an emulated version. On the whole, this is a good thing. It means that the game avoids any of the lag or glitches of emulation, and it runs smoothly on my Android device with no issues. There are times when it is perhaps a little too faithful, and incorporating a more modern approach might have been beneficial – more on this later.
Bounder certainly doesn’t skimp when it comes to the presentation. There are three versions supplied, all available from the start: the Commodore 64, Amstrad CPC and Spectrum games. If you could say nothing else nice about Bounder, the developer should be applauded for avoiding use of in-app purchase or forcing the player to unlock the different versions by completing particular challenges or milestones.
To get a sense of how faithful the game is, I loaded up the old C64 version and compared the opening levels with this new version. I was impressed. As far as my (untrained) eye can tell, the graphics and level design are spot-on. I assume it’s the same with the others, although to be honest, I mainly stick to the C64 game because (all bias aside), it’s the best. The colour scheme of the Amstrad version is a little too garish for my taste, whilst the monochrome Spectrum version looks good but can make it tricky to spot the surfaces which can be bounced on safely.
The graphics on the whole are functional and serviceable, rather than impressive (as was the case with the original). It can initially be a little tricky to distinguish solid platforms from steep (and deadly) drops and early games involve a certain level of trial and error. You’ll soon learn, however, that patience is a definite virtue when it comes to playing Bounder.
Sound is excellent and will particularly be appreciated by those of us brought up in the 8 bit era of chip tunes. The bouncy, fun tune that accompanies the game is perfectly suited to the action and will soon get into your head and you’ll find yourself humming it at all sorts of odd times.
As previously mentioned, the game is a very faithful recreation and that this is something of a double-edged sword. Like the original, the gameplay is rock hard. There’s a lot of trial and error involved; you will die frequently and quickly (there’s a reason you get more than the usual 3 lives and can pick up extra ones) and Bounder makes no concessions to modern gaming sensibilities by easing up. Bounder is one tough game and there are times when the balance between challenge and frustration tips too far in the direction of the latter. Practice and patience do pay off though: every time you play, you get just that little bit further and, because it is so challenging, you feel a much greater sense of achievement when you finally complete a level. However, the very high difficulty level has the potential to put people off before they’ve really got to grips with it. This is one of the areas where the game is just a little too faithful – toning down the difficulty (or at least offering different levels of difficulty) might have made the game more accessible for casual/non-retro gamers.
The other area where the game is a little too faithful is in the use of level password codes, allowing you to skip levels already completed. I am King of the Wrongly Written Level Password. If there is a letter I can miss out or transpose, then trust me, I will. Whilst it would have been a diversion from the original, allowing you to choose your starting point from a level map would have been a more user-friendly approach.
Finally, we have to address the bane of mobile gaming: the controls. Here it’s a case of The Good(ish), The Bad(ish), and the Ugly. Taking them in reverse order, the Ugly is the virtual joystick (the default option). For a game that requires such precise control, it’s just not responsive enough and, despite being transparent, can make it difficult to see some hazards. Swipe controls are better, but I still didn’t find them responsive enough and found myself frequently dying because of that, rather than through my own ineptitude (although I did die plenty of times because of that too!)
The big surprise is the Tilt controls. With a bit of practice, these give you that fine level of control that you need. It’s still not perfect and it’s too easy to die because you tilted your phone just a bit too far, but I found it’s the one that works best. Even so, it would be nice to see the developer add support for a Bluetooth controller in a later version. For this reason it’s likely that the planned Switch or PS Vita versions will be even better, thanks to the physical controller.
Bounder is available in two versions: a free, ad-supported version and a paid-for (£2.49) version that gets rid of the ads and has more levels. At that price, it’s a great buy that offers a massive amount of challenge. It’s not a game you’re likely to play in long spells (at least not without throwing your phone out of the window in frustration), but its addictive nature makes sure you’ll keep coming back. On the strength of this, I can only hope that the developer tackles some more of Gremlin’s back catalogue.
This recommendation does come with a small caveat as the unforgiving gameplay will not be to everyone’s tastes. I’d suggest downloading the free version and giving it a fair go (that means you will need to practice and be patient!). If you like that, the small price to upgrade to the full version is more than justified. If you don’t, at least you’ve had a brief history lesson and learned how tough games used to be before infinite lives and regular save points!
Note: a free, full, unlocked copy of the Android version was provided by the developer for review purposes. As per RetroReactiv8’s Review Policy, this has in no way influenced the content of the review