Imagine you’re off with your mates, exploring the lost island that once belonged to a famous inventor when, after a series of mishaps, you inadvertently release a maniacal robot who wants to destroy the world. Fortunately, in the process, you also find the one weapon that will help you defeat this mechanised menace. Now imagine that you’re an anthropomorphic dog, and the weapon in question is a grappling hook.
That’s basically the premise of Grapple Dog, a game that isn’t about wrestling pups. You play as Pablo, a very good but slightly dim boy who needs to work with his friends Toni the rabbit and an elderly peacock called The Professor to stop the evil robot Nul from destroying all non robot life. You do this by platforming your way through 6 worlds of gorgeous GBA esque pixel-art action.
Grapple Dog is very much Donkey Kong Country mixed with Bionic Commando
After a brief tutorial level you’re thrown into the game proper – controls are pretty straightforward; Pablo can run, jump and wall jump his way across platforms, but the game’s secret sauce comes in the form of his grappling hook. With a tap of the Y button you can throw out your weapon to latch on to blue surfaces and swing over gaps and enemies. The trick is to use this ability along with your other key moves to traverse the levels, avoiding obstacles, finding hidden areas and eventually making your way to the goal. Each level contains five purple gems and you’ll need a certain amount of these to unlock the boss stage at the end of each world.
At its core, Grapple Dog is very much Donkey Kong Country mixed with Bionic Commando, and the grapple allows for some excellently fun traversal of the levels, zipping from platform to platform and even using it to latch onto airborne enemies to propel yourself along. As things progress, though, the game ratchets up the difficulty by adding a little Meat Boy into the mix.
…each failure was always clearly my fault…
Grapple Dog is a challenging and, at times, infuriating game. While early levels will see you leisurely hopping from platform to platform, you quickly get to sections that require you to chain multiple moves to get across large areas of empty space. You see, if you hit one of the many spiked areas you’ll find in a level, then you’ll be warped back to the last bit of solid ground you stood on – the game ups the tension by having long stretches where there is no solid ground and you have to use all of your wits to grapple, jump and launch yourself over to the next checkpoint.
All of this would be massively frustrating if Grapple Dog weren’t such a good little platformer. The levels themselves are large and full of challenging sections that never feel insurmountable – each failure was always clearly my fault for mistiming a jump or grapple and never a fault of bad game design, with any new platforming elements such as cannons and bouncers telegraphed to me with visual cues.
If the extreme platforming action gets you down, though, you can always head back to Pablo’s boat where you can catch up with his friends and learn more about the story, as well as pass time by playing a mini game called Boomerang Bandit. This fun little distraction is presented with simple monochrome graphics and has you throwing a boomerang up the screen to score points by destroying advancing enemies. It wouldn’t feel out of place in one of the old WarioWare games.
…a lovely art and audio style that is very reminiscent of Nintendo’s GameBoy Advance
At the end of each of the game’s six worlds is a boss level with a huge screen filling enemy to go up against. These sections offer a different challenge as you need to put to use all of the new platforming skills you’ve learned in the preceding levels to avoid damage long enough to find a way to deal damage back to the boss.
All of this is wrapped up in a lovely art and audio style that is very reminiscent of Nintendo’s GameBoy Advance with chunky dark outlines and a funky early 2000’s style soundtrack – although some folks may get annoyed at the constantly repeating music in each level!
The only disappointment I had while playing through Grapple Dog for this review, however, was the performance of the game. Playing on the Switch I experienced, in several of the levels, hitches and freezes, sometimes for up to a second, which caused several failed traversal attempts. More egregiously, I also had one instance of phasing through what should have been a solid platform, one instance of a key moving platform becoming stuck on scenery and two hard crashes back to the Switch dashboard. These feel like issues that could be polished out with a future patch, but they did sour my enjoyment a small amount.
UPDATE: The lovely PR team behind Grapple Dog has told us the Nintendo Switch version has already been patched today. A day before release. Important information for you to know, if you’re interested in buying Grapple Dog. The crashes, frame rate bugs, graphical glitches and so on have already been fixed and shouldn’t be present in the version that is released. Andy will be checking out the game with the patch installed and look to update the review and score, if it make sense to do so.