They say that the best iOS games are the ones that were made specifically for the platform. That isn’t necessarily true. A more accurate statement would be that the best iOS games are the ones that take full advantage of the touch screen controls. Many iOS games try to emulate traditional controller configurations with “virtual buttons”, and with few exceptions, they never work out. This is the case for Play Fripp’s Wawa Land, a throwback to classic side-scrollers designed from the ground up for iOS. Featuring all the staples you would expect from a side-scrolling platformer, Wawa Land skirts the fine line between homage and plagiarism, landing somewhere in the middle with a unique little package which, while fun for short bursts, is ultimately marred by maddeningly frustrating controls.
Wawa Land is incredibly light on story, but it does have one. Players control Wawa, a small, chubby, cat... thing(?), who is tasked with rescuing the Royal Jelly from, as the game puts it, "critters". Other than that, it’s pretty bare-bones, with about the same amount of story (possibly less) you would expect from a Super Mario Bros. or Donkey Kong Country game.
Speaking of Super Mario Bros. and Donkey Kong Country, Wawa Land wears its influences on its sleeve. Levels consist of Wawa running and jumping through a variety of worlds, collecting coins, power-ups, and other collectables. Much like his plumber counterpart on consoles, Wawa can also dash, wall-jump, and ground pound. When Wawa is hit by an enemy, he not only loses one of two hearts from his life bar, but also loses all of the coins he has collected, and is given a limited amount of time to try to recover them, Sonic-style. A couple of power-ups are also available - a pilot helmet that allows him to perform a spinning attack, and a pirate hat that allows him to throw bombs. Unfortunately, due to the massive unreliableness of the controls, attempts to use either of these abilities will probably result in death.
These issues with the controls seal Wawa Land's fate. As said above, the game uses “virtual buttons” to mimic the D-pad and buttons of a traditional controller. However, since there’s no physical context of where your fingers are, there’s no way to consistently control Wawa. The lack of a physical button makes navigating him through some of the more difficult sections almost impossible, and his jumps carry virtually no weight. As a result, half of the game is spent struggling with these virtual buttons, and becoming all too familiar with the “Game Over” screen.
While Wawa Land’s control scheme makes it an incredibly hard recommendation, there is a lot about the package to enjoy. Despite Wawa’s annoying grunt-noise he makes whenever he jumps, the music and sound design are both fun and infectious. Featuring a unique mix of kiddie-pop light jazz, the music kept my spirits high when parts of the game became too frustrating to continue. Plus, though the core game mechanics may borrow liberally from more established franchises, the art-style is just too darn cute and whimsical to mark down.
On the one hand, Wawa Land is a love letter to the staples of the genre, and feels like it was made with legitimate heart and talent. On the other hand, its adherence to genre tropes keeps the game from feeling new or fresh, and the control issues are too serious to forgive. That’s not to say that the game has little value, though, as it can be entertaining in short bursts, and provides over four hours of entertainment for only $0.99 (and according to Play Fripp’s website, more levels will be coming for free by the end of the year). Wawa Land is a step in the right direction for iOS platformers, but really goes to show that mobile gaming shines by playing to its strengths, rather than through imitation.
This review is based on a digital download of Wawa Land, provided by the publisher.