What do you get when you force a game developer to produce a game based on two words randomly drawn out of a cup? The answer is apparently the first game from PopCap’s new in-house label for experimental games. PopCap are probably best known for Bejeweled, the terrifying time sink that causes men, women and children to retreat into something that looks a lot like a coma until they’ve achieved a state of surfeit and emerge blinking and confused from their torpor, asking questions about who the strange man in the living room is and why daddy doesn’t live here anymore. They also produced Peggle, Zuma and Plants Vs. Zombies so they have a very impressive pedigree when it comes to the casual gaming market.
4th and Battery are a place for PopCap to dump all the ideas that they don’t have time or resources for but which deserve to be made. They aren’t designed to make money, which means experimentation is king. It’s also a chance for PopCap to put developers through their paces and look for mechanics and ideas that could be turned into profitable games for the parent company. Unpleasant Horse, their debut offering, is a free iThing game in which you play a monstrously evil winged horse who flies through a world of clouds landing on the spines of much nicer flying horses and driving them down into a massive grinder far below the clouds. They are then ground into a gruesome mulch of blood and bone, shipped off to branches of Greggs, and that boys and girls is where sausage rolls come from. Meanwhile the Unpleasant Horse goes off to victimise some more nice horses and also any birds that happen to get in his way.
Unpleasant Horse had a troubled path to the app store. Apple initially rejected it for being too violent. Apparently everyone at Apple had their irony filters turned right down on that day since no one pointed out the huge number of apps which revolve around the violent murder of CGI humans nor the fact that real, actual horses die in horse races all the time for no better reason than so people can lose money wagering on the outcome, nor apparently the fact that if you own a real horse and fancy killing it and stuffing it into a meat grinder then that’s perfectly legal provided the animal doesn’t suffer unduly. You can even make your children watch their favourite pony get ground into a bloody gruel of guts and bone if you feel so inclined. It probably builds character. If only we could apply the same logic to certain employees of banks wholly owned by the taxpayer I’d be a happy man.
Regardless of the overwhelming hypocrisy of the modern world, Unpleasant Horse has finally made it out into the real world and after all the hype you’ll be unsurprised to learn that its an accomplished and amusing score attack casual game. The core of the game is so simple that even a British public who have been deemed incapable of understanding AV should be able to grasp it after six or seven attempts. You play the Unpleasant Horse of the title and you jump by pressing the screen with your finger, the horse flies through the air and if it lands on the back of a flying pony it drags it down the screen towards the grinder scoring points as it does so. You can build up combos by grinding several ponies in a row and you can take a breather by jumping onto a cloud which will support you until you decide to jump off. Crashing into birds nets you feathers and each one allows you an extra jump between hitting objects which is handy when you’ve missed your target and sent the Unpleasant Horse plummeting towards the grinder as you can send him hurtling back into the sky.
There’s really not a lot to the game and its a little mystifying why Apple thought it was too dark especially as all that’s happened is that 4th and Battery have garnered themselves some free publicity. Its pretty good fun for a while but probably not a stone cold casual classic. The art assets are great and the contrast between the death metal that plays over the intro screen and the strains of the Blue Danube that wafts over the carnage itself is appealing. One problem is that the game is often quite random and it’ll take time to build up a truly big score as it sometimes generates sequences that you’ll be unable to survive, which feels a bit unfair. It’s also free, completely and totally free, so whilst its perhaps a little disappointing that the gameplay isn’t as experimental as the concept it’d be a harsh bastard who didn’t come away satisfied with the overall experience. This jaded reporter will be watching to see what 4th and Battery do next with great interest.