Accompanied by a thumping 8-bit dance track, I fall endlessly. I move a bit to the left, brushing past a pixelated pair of headphones. I suddenly move to the right and that UFO blossoms from pure black to multicolored glory. I’m rewarded with a satisfying sound effect and a ding notifies me that I’ve completed a mission. My appetite for pixels fed, I grow huge and surge downwards crashing through everything in my way, shrinking with every collision until I am miniscule; but then I pick up a pistol and shoot through any obstacles blocking my descent, until suddenly I crash into a single pixel and die.
And then I go off to buy a pirate hat for my avatar with the coins I’ve accrued during my many lives.
Welcome to Mega Dead Pixel, the latest breakout hit from mobile publisher Chillingo and developer About Fun Games. And it is glorious.
Billing itself as “The world’s first Addictive Arcade Retro Pixel Endless Faller”, the premise is actually simple and not as complicated as that mouthful of a phrase suggests. You’re a pixel that has escaped from a computer, endlessly falling through data and attempting to collect other pixels on the way, which are organized into shapes. This s accomplished either by brushing up next to them as you pass – labelled “painting” – or crashing through them, at which time your avatar will either shrink slightly, or explode if it is already a mere 1×1 size.
Every shape you brush up against or crash through has its pixel count added to your score, and this will be increased by various multipliers depending on your size, speed, whether you narrowly escaped death or have painted multiple shapes in quick succession. On the way down you will also collect “white pixels” which increase your size at the expense of increasing your velocity, or coins which act as one of the game’s virtual currencies. And after you fill up a boost bar, you will automatically grow to a massive size (celebrated with a big on-screen message) and surge down the screen, crashing through everything in your way until you’re small enough that your velocity returns to something more manageable.
Movement is a simple case of tapping left and right, and sensitivity can be altered in the in-game menu. Other options are sparse aside from volume control, but really it’s unlikely you’ll feel the need for more anyway due to the basic simplicity of the game. You won’t feel like you’re being hampered by lack of customization.
Your pixel also comes with a hat, no doubt inspired by the baffling popularity of virtual headwear after Valve introduced the concept in Team Fortress 2. There are many of these in the game, purchased through coins which are collected throughout your endless drops, and each one provides different benefits and deficits. The Party Pooper hat makes bigger pixels spawn more often, at the expense of only getting 75% of their pixels added to your score, for example.
But hats aren’t the only thing to collect. Oh no – you can buy more shapes to place into the game, buy and upgrade power-ups, purchase worlds – each of which has a unique soundtrack – and more. All of these require those coins you collect on your falls in exponential amounts.
You even unlock wallpaper backgrounds for your device – every pixel you add to your score goes towards filling up a progress bar, similar to leveling up in an RPG. When the bar is filled, a wallpaper and title is unlocked with a fanfare. And with every bar you fill, you unlock access to other things – more hats, more shapes, more power-ups or upgrades to spend those coins on. There is an incredibly well-judged sense of constant reward here that serves to keep you coming back again and again. You’ll die and curse the empty air, then immediately hit “Play” and try again to see if you can do better or beat your friends’ scores, thanks to the implementation of leaderboards.
And oh – when you do die, a little message flashes up on screen, like “AM I JUST ANOTHER DEAD PIXEL?” and “DON’T GO INTO THE WHITE PIXELLATED LIGHT”. There are so many of these that you will rarely see the same one twice.
As with many other games of this nature, there are “missions”, completed upon reaching certain milestones or performing certain actions. For example, you might be asked to collect 50 white pixels, or paint 40 headphone shapes. Each mission comes with a coin reward upon completion, and given how they’re tied so closely into different hats and shapes, there’s a simple tactical element in deciding which hat to equip for which situation, and which shape to enable or disable for your next run.
In fact, there is so much to unlock and discover in this game that I could easily fill another 1,000 words and still not cover everything. It’s a huge web of interlocking systems and mechanics.
It has to be said that to start with it can feel like the game is being a bit stingy with the amount of virtual currency you make. This is almost certainly on purpose – in-app purchases allow you to double the value of each coin, or to purchase coins or “megatokens” – used to revive yourself after death and continue your fall – for real money. But if you play tactically, aiming to complete missions (which are the best source of coins), equipping the right hats and enabling the right shapes, you will start to see the coins accrued from each run increase exponentially as you become familiar with the game. Also, the game if free to play and it’s hard to begrudge the surprisingly reasonably-priced in-app purchases for something this good. You never feel like you have to spend real money to get somewhere and you always want to have another go.
All in all, this is an excellent game – well-judged, well-balanced and well-presented. With a huge amount of charm and highly addictive gameplay, it will see you coming back to it again and again.
Chillingo has made quite a name for itself by publishing quality titles on mobile platforms – Cut The Rope, Pixel People and Contre Jou have shown that they have an excellent eye for spotting quality mobile games that appeal to a broad audience while also providing a good amount of charm, presentation and challenge. With Mega Dead Pixel, they have another mini masterpiece to add to their portfolio.