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March 27, 2012
Jeff Minter has been making Gridrunner games for thirty years, putting it in the company of icons like Pac-Man, Mario, and Space Invaders in terms of longevity. While there haven’t been as many entries in the Gridrunner series as there have in those better known franchises, Minter has arguably kept his game fresher, with increasingly intense and psychedelic overhauls. While the series’ newest installment on iOS isn’t quite on par with the mad genius of 2009’s Gridrunner Revolutions (for PC), it is almost certainly the best original shooter in Apple’s marketplace.
That basic Centipede gameplay was mostly abandoned by subsequent versions of Gridrunner, until Gridrunner Revolutions did away with it entirely, playing more like a bullet-hell version of Asteroids. The series' newest incarnation brings back something akin to the original gameplay (though now the snakes can travel in any direction, rather than sticking to the lines of the grid), but retains the bullet-hell aspect of its immediate predecessor.
The twist, though, is that rather than having to dodge curtains of bullets, the player is attempting to generate them by stacking time-limited power-ups. Gridrunner’s best moments are those in which the stars align just right and you find your ship at the center of a spiral of flashing projectiles that lay waste to every enemy in sight. This offers a fascinating change in viewpoint for those used to playing as the plucky underdog in bullet-hell games, giving you an opportunity to discover how easy it is for a single enemy projectile to sneak through and take you out while you’re unloading hundreds of shots in every possible direction.
As with Gridrunner Revolutions, there’s some hidden depth here, much of which I’m still trying to understand. I must admit I have no idea why the word “Bull” occasionally pops up over the playfield, what triggers the very rare appearances of an Asteroids-style flying saucer, or why on beginning grid 9 you’re sometimes greeted with the text “Welcome to Blobbytown”. Maybe this is just Minter’s bizarre sense of humor, or maybe it has gameplay relevance. Whatever the case, the point is just to keep blasting your way to ever higher scores, and more hyperbolic encouragement at the end of each level (I particularly like being told “You are validated!” upon completing a grid).
The only thing that holds Gridrunner back from achieving pure shooter nirvana is its slightly unresponsive controls. Your ship fires automatically--a smart design decision on a platform with no buttons--and you move by sliding your finger around any part of the screen. It’s nice that you can keep your finger in an isolated corner and not obscure the action with your hand, but the ship is just a little too slow to respond to your movements. As the game gets increasingly hectic, you’ll find yourself dying more and more due not to poor reflexes, but to the lag between your movements and your ship’s. That might be prevented by a device like the iCade (which Gridrunner supports), but since most people will be playing with their fingers better response time would have been greatly appreciated. The game compensates somewhat by doling out an extra life upon the completion of each stage, though this is small consolation by grid 18 or so when you’re being forced to maneuver in extremely tight quarters.
Most of Gridrunner’s incarnations have a cheerful lunacy to them, and Gridrunner for iOS is no different. While it lacks some of Gridrunner Revolutions’ anarchic design philosophy, it’s still admirably chaotic, and incredibly addictive. As an added bonus, if you rotate your iDevice to landscape mode, the game switches to the original 1982 version, giving you a chance to see just how far the Gridrunner series has come. At $0.99, there’s no reason not to give Gridrunner a shot, especially if you still think iOS can’t be a serious gaming platform.