Posted on Jun 28, 2010 | 1 comment

Open your eyes, I see. Your eyes are open.
Wear no disguise for me, come into the open.
When it’s cold (when it’s cold), outside (outside), am I here in vain?
Hold on, to the night, there will be no shame.

When I was trying to decide which game to deconstruct next, I listed the games I’ve been playing the most recently. Then I pulled out my phone to send a text message and Robot Unicorn Attack stared back at me. I stopped playing just long enough to write this article.

Robot Unicorn Attack

Developer: Adult Swim Games
Platform: Browser (link) / iPhone
Genre: Imaginary
Metacritic: N/A
Price: Free / $2.99 (iPhone)

Robot Unicorn Attack is a completely unoriginal game that managed to be better than its source material in just about every way. It clearly followed the example of indie darling Cannabalt, which is still a great game on its own. Whereas Cannabalt’s audience was limited to the hardcore gaming community, Robot Unicorn Attack made the gameplay more complex and found a much larger audience (over 27 million players according to the developer). It’s a rare failure of the K.I.S.S. principle. What’s so magical about this game?

The objective of Robot Unicorn Attack is to live as long as possible. The game instructs the player to “make your wishes come true” at the beginning of each round, with the subsequent reminder that “you will die.” The core gameplay consists of jumping, double jumping, and dashing from across floating platforms as the unicorn automatically runs to the right. The player’s score increases at a rate that grows every 5,000 points, and additional points can be earned by running into fairies or dashing through star-shaped rocks. The wish ends in a fiery explosion when the player runs into a wall, falls off the map, or hits a star without dashing.

The two button gameplay (jumping or dashing) is deceivingly deep. The player’s success or failure depends on the timing of each jump or knowing when to double jump over an obstacle versus dash under it. The game’s increasing speed makes reacting to each obstacle even more difficult. The camera can be problematic, and I still find myself occasionally blaming the game for randomly spawning a platform with an unfairly placed star on it when I crash, but I’m still steadily improving my scores.

IGN has praised Robot Unicorn Attack as “the best Erasure song you’ve ever played,”and it’s true that most of the game’s character comes from its soundtrack. The sci-fi sounds of jet boosters and explosions combined with the synthpop love ballad is extremely memorable in every way you don’t want it to be. Players find themselves humming the song for hours after they play.

The game’s art style mirrors the sound design with Michael Bay-worthy explosions set against platforms of purple grass and rainbows that could have come straight out of a My Little Pony cartoon. The ironic pairing of things that don’t belong together wouldn’t mean anything without the gameplay depth, but it makes the game a guilty pleasure to play.

The comparison to Cannabalt is a great reminder that game design only goes so far: production value and execution made this game the viral success that it is.

Take away the music and there’s a key difference between Robot Unicorn Attack and it source material that makes it all that much more addictive: the combination of three wishes. If you have a great run in Cannabalt, you can share it and brag to your friends. If you have a great run in Robot Unicorn Attack, that’s nice, but it doesn’t matter unless your other two runs are just as good. The combined total of all three runs is the only score that gets recorded.

Players can find this annoying, but it actually serves as a way of making them come back to play more often. It eliminates blind luck from earning them high scores and rewards talent and practice. It effectively makes the game three times as challenging as it otherwise could be without changing the gameplay at all. The result is the most meaningful use of “submit a score to Facebook” that I know of.

A friend of mine referred to Robot Unicorn Attack as “the perfect Flash game,” and I’m inclined to agree. It takes less than five minutes to play, but it rewards players who come back. The soundtrack gets stuck in players’ heads and lures them back to play more. Players aren’t afraid to share their scores over Facebook because high scores actually seem like an accomplishment instead of a cheap ploy to get more people playing.