Developer: Action Button Entertainment
Publisher: Freshuu Inc.
Release date: February 17, 2012
ZiGGURAT has been getting a lot of attention, and it'll continue to do so, for a couple reasons. First, it was created by that guy (Tim Rogers) who runs that site (ActionButton.net) that has those opinions (lots of them). And the second reason? Because it's awesome.
It's very much an iPhone game, which means it's short, it's simple, and it's really only got one trick up its sleeve. But it's the best possible version of an iPhone game: short, but infinitely replayable. Simple to learn, difficult to master. And that one trick is an exceptional one.
In ZiGGURAT, The Last Human (I think that might actually be his name) has one task: make sure humanity doesn't go down without a fight. Armed with only his laser shotgun and balls the size of original Xbox controllers, perched precariously atop his temple in the clouds, his goal is not to survive. It's to take down as many of "those alien freaks who killed everybody else" as he can before they annihilate him—and with him, the last remaining vestige of humanity.
If ZiGGURAT were a book, that's what the synopsis on the jacket would say. It sounds like the plot summary for a much bigger story. Luckily, ZiGGURAT holds to the same narrative school as 2009's hit running game Canabalt. Both express more with atmospheric visuals, singular mechanics and pounding chiptunes than many games can say over entire dialogue-laden cutscenes. The story doesn't need to be any more than that synopsis, and if it were, it would likely be terrible.
GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME YOU DAMN DIRTY ALIEN FREAKS
In ZiGGURAT, clouds stream by, the sun sets, the moon rises, and the cycle repeats. The soundtrack, from Rogers' chippy band Large Prime Numbers, struts ever onward, providing a reward for progress in and of itself. The Last Human doesn't move, eat, sleep, drink, speak, cry, or sweat. He shoots. Holding a finger or thumb on the screen charges up a laser blast, which gets bigger the longer you hold it—unless you hold it too long, in which case it gets smaller. Enemies' cyclopic eyeballs wax and wane as well. A big shot plus a big eyeball equals a big explosion, which devours all it encompasses.
The alien freaks are as varied as the human beings they've so mercilessly exterminated. White ones travel in arcing bounds; yellows creep directly up the ziggurat's side; reds leap straight for you, sometimes with shields that only drop at the last second. Gargantuan aliens plod inexorably upward until you've fed them enough lasers to solve a hundred Portal puzzles. Every so often a spaceship shows up to further ruin your day. And so on.
TOP OF ITS CLASS
ZiGGURAT possesses clear intent and unshakeable purpose. It knows exactly what it wants to express, and its mechanics are as sound as they come. Mastering the flow of gameplay—generating the biggest explosions at the best times— will take quite a bit of time and practice, but there's little of other endless games' randomness here. As your skill improves, so will your progress. In that way it's more similar to arcade games of yore than to most iPhone games.
Take, for example, Rocketcat's Super QuickHook, which I adore. Sometimes you're collecting coins, sometimes you're exploring shortcuts, sometimes you're racing for your virtual life. It's great; variety is great! But ZiGGURAT's lack of it makes it all the more sure of itself and of its core mechanic. It's telling you a story, and it plays out the same every time, the ending assured no matter how long you last.
Is it better than—or somehow an evolution of—Canabalt? That mostly depends whether you prefer shooters or runners, random or deliberate, old or new. Both possess the same inherent charm, which is why the Canabalt crowd will swarm on this like crystal alien freaks on The Last Human.
By the way—there is an ending of sorts (besides your inevitable death): around the five minute mark, I've heard, something happens. I'll consider letting you know what that is once I manage to reach it.