Swing, Swing, Swing: Why we love Hook Champ
Some of the very finest games from the early iOS library had one major point in common: they took a simple concept and explored it to a satisfying depth. This was partly due to the size of many of the development teams working on mobile games, and also partly because of the hardware limitations of the iPhone. Games could only be so big, and without any buttons, traditional control methods had to be rethought. This didn’t stop various developers from trying to imitate the popular traditional games of the time, but few of those made any real long-term impact. The games people remember best from those early days tended to be a lot more focused in their scope.
Hook Champ is a perfect example of the dividends that kind of approach can yield. The idea of making a side-scrolling platformer with retro-style graphics was quite a common one at the time, but when the team was looking for ways to get around the issues they had with precise jumping, the solution they settled on ended up making the game. Hook Champ isn’t an auto-runner game. You can move left or right at your leisure, and if you don’t do anything neither will your character. (That’s not a great idea, mind you. A monster approaches from the left after a while and if it catches up to you, it will eat you in one gulp.)
You’re not being forced to move forward at all times, however. You can stop. You can take a few steps back. That makes it all the more interesting that most players end up playing Hook Champ like an auto-runner once they’ve gotten used to it. Swinging on a rope is fun all on its own, and we can see plenty of kids who have fun doing just that on playgrounds. It’s like there’s some part of almost every human that loves the idea of making Tarzan-style treks across a wide area, flying from rope to rope, picking up speed all the way. Some of the most popular comic book heroes use swinging to get around rather than flying, and come off all the more exciting for it.
Hook Champ scratches that itch. The main character moves so slowly and clumsily when they’re on the ground. It feels like you have weights tied to your limbs. The virtual buttons that allow you to move left and right work fine, but it would be a lie to say that it feels good to get around this way. Fire off that grappling hook, however, and everything changes. Tapping to send out the next grapple is a completely natural action on a touch screen. You move so much faster, and if you time it right you can almost fly at points. There’s so much more control over your movements, and mastery rewards you with paths you would never have found sticking to the ground. A normal human becomes super thanks to one handy tool.
The difficulty curve as you move from stage to stage is quite well-handled as well. The game gradually gets more difficult, demands better timing, and allows fewer mindless maneuvers. New treasure maps lead to areas with hazards you haven’t seen before, forcing you to adapt to new circumstances. At the same time, your character’s abilities and powers also grow. The coins you gather while zipping around can be exchanged for a number of useful items. Some help you bust through the momentum-stopping walls you sometimes see. Others, like the rocket boots, add a whole new element to the core gameplay, in this case allowing you to take a limited number of rocket-propelled leaps in each stage. There’s a good sense of progression here.
There’s a lot of technique to playing Hook Champ well, but most of it comes down to good timing. You have to know when to launch your hook and when to let go of it in order to get where you want to go. It’s a simple mechanic with quite a bit of depth to it, giving the player a great feeling of mastery as they become better at it. You don’t need to be a Hook Champ pro to beat the levels, mind you. You can be good enough to clear the game and still have quite a lot to learn about how to play more efficiently. Luckily, the developers provided an extra layer of incentive for those who want to continue to sharpen their skills.
The long game in Hook Champ isn’t about simply beating the stages. It’s about learning how to get through them as quickly as possible. Your best time is recorded and a ghost of your run will appear in subsequent playthroughs. It’s interesting to see if you can stay ahead of your character, and if nothing else the ghost is helpful for showing you where you could make improvements on your time. It’s when you treat Hook Champ like a racing game, where every second shaved off the final time counts, that you really start to see the full benefits of learning the ins and outs of swinging around.
Rocketcat Games made a couple of follow-ups to Hook Champ, changing a few things around each time. Although this is the oldest of the bunch, many players prefer its slightly harder edge when compared to its sequels. That’s probably because the core of all three games, the swinging physics, were nailed down almost perfectly right from the start. The sheer joy of learning the optimal route through each stage, nailing down your swings and leaps just right is as powerful as it ever was, making Hook Champ a classic that easily stands the test of time.