A long time ago in 2002, long before many of you were even born, there was an obscure little Game Boy Advance platform game developed by Denki based on the football man David Beckham. It was called Go! Go! Beckham! Adventure on Soccer Island and, quite frankly, it was magnificent. Why are we bringing up a David Beckham platformer? Well, at the risk of inviting some ridicule at the obscurity of this pronouncement, Grapple Dog is essentially its spiritual sequel.
The game’s designer may disagree, but we took one look at Grapple Dog’s chunky, colourful visuals and immediately assumed it was of Denki pedigree. Everything about it resembles the aforementioned Becks-’em-up, right down to specific HUD elements. Maybe there’s no connection. Perhaps we are barking up the wrong tree. But this similarity must be chronicled somewhere and it falls to us; the most specific recommendation imaginable — if you loved Go! Go! Beckham!, you’ll love Grapple Dog.
Which is a good thing, because both games are excellent. Grapple Dog is one of the most refreshingly unfussy platformers we’ve seen in a long time. It’s digital popcorn — chocolate covered popcorn, to boot. Naturally the central mechanic (other than, well, being a dog) is the titular grapple. This allows you to traverse the game’s perfectly-sized levels using said hook to swing from ceilings, build momentum, attach to enemies and Donkey Kong Country-style cannons and generally add a whole layer of mechanical complexity while maintaining extremely simple three-button controls. You jump, you stomp and you grapple through increasingly difficult (but never unfair) obstacle courses, bopping your head to the excellent music and collecting everything that’s not nailed down.
In fact, said collecting is pretty prevalent here, with five large purple gems to collect in each of the main stages, along with plentiful fruit and vegetables — every dog’s favourite. You’ll occasionally need to give a particular veggie to a friendly goat NPC who will then butt enormous otherwise-unbreakable blocks out of the way, usually allowing you to access more collectables. There are also bonus coins that unlock additional timed mini-stages that see you collecting even more gumph, somewhat reminiscent of the bonus rooms from Donkey Kong Country: Tropical Freeze. Beaten stages can also be replayed as time trials, which lets you focus on your grapple technique to shave seconds off your time.
Plenty to do, then, and a difficulty curve that we found thoroughly friendly. That’s not to say the game doesn’t get challenging — soon you’ll find yourself grappling over, under and between spikes — but it never reaches the masocore feel of something like Super Meat Boy, even in additional post-game challenge stages.
Grapple Dog isn’t quite perfect. We feel that more could have been done with the grapple itself, as it’s a little restrictive in its application. A less friendly, more freeform approach would interfere to an extent with the tight level design, but it would still be cool for speedrunners if the grapple really let them cut loose. That’s pretty nitpicky, though, because developer Medallion does precisely what it sets out to do — deliver an unpretentious platformer that’s a hell of a lot of fun to play.