The beauty, joy, and curse of mobile gaming is that it is highly iterative. Emphasis on the word highly. Last year’s hit is fodder and inspiration for this year’s development.
Outside of the puzzle genre—which allows for a wide latitude of clever content—it seems pretty clear that, right now, the best examples of success in the mobile space primarily come from modestly iterative game designs, and not ambitious, genius-level aspirations.
It’s not to say that these ambitions don’t exist. It’s just that tablet and mobile game design is in such an early state that minor evolutions of certain genres can result in remarkable leaps in terms of play mechanics and the overall experience.
When these minor evolutions are paired with the right kind of content, magic can happen—both for consumers and developers. Think Candy Crush (which King isn’t doing any favors for with all of its lawsuits). Or Clash of Clans.
With NBA Rush, the NBA and licensee RenRen Games USA (a North American division of a Chinese game publisher) have made only a few tweaks to the endless runner format. But by making clever use of the NBA license, the partnership has struck gold. (FWIW: TabTimes recently published an interesting interview with the game’s developer.)
At its core, NBA Rush is simple. You control real-life NBA players as they make their endless runs, defending the streets from an alien invasion by jumping, sliding, and—best of all—dunking on said aliens.
In retrospect, the dunking mechanic seems so obvious. But the way the game renders these moments is so goofy and outrageous that it works, particularly in combination with the inherently-compelling gameplay the endless runner category delivers.
The real hook here is the ability for players to use stars (like Blake Griffin) from each NBA team’s roster. You assemble your team by drafting unlockable players, and you can tag players in and out as you play. The usual assortment of power-ups, special abilities (many players have unique choices here), and over-powered attacks (dunks) await.
The biggest surprise is how well the whole game holds together, which goes back to my initial thoughts. By focusing on the NBA players, and their interesting special abilities, developer RenRen USA is able to deliver what feels like a fresh new take on an established category of play. The end result is something so ridiculous that it is compelling and will make you fondly remember games like NBA Jam. (It is also surprisingly difficult—NBA Rush throws some genuinely wicked challenges at players, fairly early on in the game.)
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Even the free to play mechanics are fairly standard. When you fail, you can buy diamonds that allow you to continue where you left off, instead of restarting a level. You can also buy coins (which can also be earned in-game) that allow you to unlock power-ups and score/coin multipliers.
This feels pretty fair. After all, there is no reason to push or experiment with a licensed game in an established gameplay category with free-to-play standards. This said, the constant prodding to buy diamonds when you fail can feel a little obnoxious.
NBA Rush also features those all-important direct ties into Facebook so that you can track your progress against your friends.
Other tablet games I’m playing
2. World at Arms: Fun take on modern strategy war-gaming, and the Free to Play elements aren’t overly obnoxious. With a 4.5 star rating on Google Play across 234,000 votes, it appears everyone else agrees. (Also available on Android.)
3. Hoplite: A great turn-based roguelike experience with surprising strategic depth.
4. DeepSpaceRace: Pick a ship and fly it through an asteroid field. Repeat.
5. Modern Campaigns – Quang Tri ’72: I have been on an old-school wargame kick lately, and this free scenario—the first of several to come—fits the bill. It is set at the end of the Vietnam war, and is appropriately challenging.