As I’ve said on a few occasions, getting a platformer to work just right on mobile phones can be very challenging for developers. Whether they opt for touch screen controls, tilt, or even a combination of the two, the game will never feel exactly the same as it would with a physical controller. Leave it to the folks at Chillingo (and their “Team Pesky”) to create a platformer that not only feels great, but works perfectly in short doses on the go.
Little Acorns starts out with a cute little introduction that really sets the tone of the entire game, though you won’t watch another cinematic until the ending rolls around. Mr. Nibbles, the father of a squirrel family, returns home one day to discover a group of malevolent woodland creatures stealing his acorns. Why would they do this, since acorns are useless to anyone besides squirrels and oak trees? Maybe they just want to starve the Nibbles family out. Naturally, the object of the game is to get all of those acorns (4000 in total) back.
Four year mission
The game consists of 80 levels divided up into four years, the fourth exclusive to Windows Phone. Just like real life, each year consists of four seasons of five levels apiece. An individual level holds a potential 50 acorns (some of which you’ll receive from completing secondary goals), so fully completing a whole year gets Mr. Nibbles a thousand acorns – that should keep his family fed for a while. Reaching certain acorn milestones unlocks the subsequent years, so you can eventually skip ahead to a new year without finishing off the old one if linearity isn’t your thing.
The primary goal of most levels is to collect a certain quantity of acorns and then reach the exit door. That only unlocks the next level though. To get the full acorn haul, you’ll need to knock out the secondary goals. The first is collecting five fruits that appear after you’ve grabbed all the acorns. Fruits also unlock new visual customizations for Mr. Nibbles (head, face, body, and ropes). The ability to dress your squirrel like a dinosaur or in a tux kinda sorta makes up for the plain visual design, which I’ll address later.
The third goal is beating each level’s speedrun time, which basically requires a second play through (at minimum) since you’ll usually need to ignore the fruits to come in under the time limit. The speedrun times are sometimes generous, but often challenging enough that you’ll have to play a level almost perfectly to meet them. They’re not unfairly difficult but will certainly add a lot to completionists’ playtimes.
The fifth level of a season requires Mr. Nibbles to not only grab all of his acorns, but also rescue his squadron of children, whom I like to think of as the Bits. They hop around and behave erratically, giving their levels a slightly more dynamic feel. Rescue levels have the same secondary goals as regular ones, too.
Baddies and Bosses
In most levels, evil woodland creatures like caterpillars, spiders, and bats will bar our heroic squirrel’s way. Touching them knocks the Nibster back and turns him green, slowing his movement for a few seconds. The only thing that actually kills you is falling into water or running out of time. As you’d expect from a platformer, jumping on the enemies’ heads dispatches them, though since they don’t add to your score, the main incentive to do so is preventing them from hitting you later on.
Instead of a family rescue, the final level of each year is a challenging battle against a gigantic boss animal. Señor Nibbles can’t actually harm these Brobdingnagian behemoths. Instead, he must race to reach the exit before they do. Get there first and you win; come in second (as you probably will on your first try) and you lose. Boss levels add a welcome dose of tension to the adventure.
From platform to platform
At last we approach what Little Acorns does best: controls. Knowing that many gamers dislike virtual sticks (though I don’t mind them), Chillingo instead opted for simple left and right buttons at the bottom left corner of the screen. They’re large and perfectly placed, so I literally never missed one by mistake. Seriously, I’ve seen many reports from people who abhor virtual sticks that they find Little Acorns’ buttons perfectly comfortable.
At the bottom right corner you’ll find the jump button. Again, it works perfectly. Nibbler, I mean Mr. Nibbles actually has one more move at his disposal: he can grapple onto certain points with his rope. You just jump in the vicinity of a grapple point, press jump again mid-air, and you’ll swing from it. Perfectly efficient. As a huge fan of XBLA hit Bionic Commando Rearmed, I really enjoyed the Little Acorns levels that involved lots of swinging and grappling.
While the controls are fairly simple and the levels start out fairly basic, they do become more complex as the game continues. You’ll encounter cannons that shoot your squirrel through the air, slippery ice, collapsing blocks, and blocks that can be switched on and off (sort of like the ‘P Blocks’ in the Super Mario Bros. series), and other tricky contraptions. They all help keep the game fresh and challenging throughout its 80 levels.
Little Acorns uses a flat, geometric art style that works perfectly for the designers’ goals, but probably won’t appeal much to hardcore gamers. Mr. Nibbles and the other inhabitants of Little Acorns are basically squares or rectangles with extremely minimal animation. The backgrounds have a 1960s-era Disney vibe, but could use more layers of parallax and variety. Again, I think this look is perfect for appealing to kids, soccer moms, and general phone-carrying audiences. I’d just prefer a more artistically creative style like Angry Mango used in their equally family-friendly platformer Mush.
As for the music, it’s as semi-generic as the visuals, but maybe a bit less pleasing. I’d put it just above elevator music or having your foot stepped on, but a little below the theme song to Jem or eating cold pizza.
The Achievements come in three basic categories: completing years, collecting all acorns within each year, and performing certain tasks during each level. It should take between 10-15 hours to get all of those acorns, depending on your mad squirrel skillz.
The descriptions for the last set of Achievements are awfully vague. What do “Stay a while… Stay forever” or “Sparkle Motion, Swinging and Sparkling” even mean? Thankfully they basically unlock from stuff you’d be doing anyway, and if you somehow miss a few, our own reader Arsenic17’s Achievement Guide should help.
Little Acorns is a very well-made game and a lot of fun to play for a couple of levels at a time. My attention drifts if I try to take on too many levels in a row, which I blame squarely on the lack of story and boring aesthetics. But really, this game aims straight at a wide audience, and most gamers will be pleased with the whole thing, even the looks. My heart still belongs to Sonic 4: Episode I, but objectively speaking Little Acorns works much better as a phone game. If you crave a mobile platformer, you’d be nuts not to get this one.
Little Acorns costs $2.99 and there is a free trial. Get it here on the Windows Phone Store.