Skipping Stone Preview

Those in glass houses shouldn't throw stones. But that doesn't stop the rest of us…

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Some believe the future of mobile gaming is simplicity--incredibly intuitive concepts that can be grasped in seconds by a casual audience, yet are still capable of gripping the more experienced player. Judging from the beta code, Skipping Stone would appear to be a wonderful example of this. Developed by Korean studio Gamevil and picked up for Western release by I-play, this game is the first stone-skimming simulation for the mobile phone.

It's all in the wrist.
It's all in the wrist.

Yes, a stone-skimming simulation. The action starts with your character standing on the beach, pebble in hand, ready to throw. A power bar indicator moves swiftly up and down, and your first role is to hit "5" at its highest point to get your full strength behind the launch. Now the display switches to a scrolling 2D representation of the ocean. As your stone approaches a sweet spot, indicated by a circle near the base of the screen, you need to hit the "5" again to orchestrate a successful skim. Hit it too early or late and your skimming power is drained; get your timing just right and your stone maintains its height for the next bounce. Your aim is to keep the stone bouncing by hitting the sweet spot over and over again. If your powerbar drains completely, it's game over (this is accompanied by a burst of vibration, if your handset supports the feature).

What you get, effectively, is a game that combines the powerbar timing skills of, say, a golf game or Hyper Sports-style sports sim, with the timing requirements of a rhythm action romp. It's a strangely compelling and utterly immediate concept. And like those instant-gratification minigames that make up the genius of Wario Ware Inc., anyone can grab the concept and run with it. This is inclusive gaming par excellence.

But like the best instant access games, the real depth of the experience only becomes obvious as you progress. Get the stone to hit the sweet spot more than twice in a row, and you start racking up combo points or, even better, release a power-up. These power-ups seem to vary quite widely and bring in some wacky humor to the mix. You might, for example, encounter a whale, which blasts you upward on a water spurt from its blowhole. There's also an octopus and a strange superdeformed man in what appears to be a chicken outfit (later he turns up again as a reindeer). We haven't quite figured out what he does yet, but we always look forward to his appearance. In the background you get fun stuff floating by, like boats and giant rubber ducks--it's just a little eye candy to divert your eyes from the task at hand.

You also have to look out for environmental changes. As the game progresses, the background goes through a series of scenes: morning, dusk, night, dawn, and then into more trippy areas such as fairy, sweet, and space. These scenes can be accompanied by switches in rhythm. For example, when you get to dusk, the normally serene ocean blue backdrop cuts to a crazed psychedelic orange and yellow, and the pace quickens, testing your timing to the max. It's pulse-quickening stuff and you'll welcome the subsequent shift to a serene moonlit night. There are other tests of your concentration, like a tornado, for example. The tornado will occasionally pop up and make your stone spin, setting off your phone vibrator. Focus is the key to success.

Two game modes are available from the outset. In distance mode, you're trying to get your stone to go as far as possible (measured in kilometers), and in splash mode, you're going for the most bounces possible. The gameplay doesn't seem to differ hugely between the two, but you obviously get a different kind of score at the end. Plus, in distance mode, accumulating combos adds extra distance to your skips. Later, you can look up your best splash and distance achievements on the records screen.

Where's the man in the chicken suit going to pop up next?
Where's the man in the chicken suit going to pop up next?

There's something about the Eastern psychology that just gets simple gaming concepts, and these concepts are then effortlessly turned into cute, iconic experiences we can all love. Skipping Stone seems to be the latest example of that. The mix of cutesy kawaii anime-style characterization, superdeformed comedy moments, freak-out visuals, and compulsive one-touch gameplay works like a finely oiled, albeit eccentric, machine. Currently the sound is disappointing. Our Nokia 6100 did nothing but emit bleeps every time the stone bounced. Perhaps the final version will offer something more robust.

But really, this looks to be essential fare for mobile gamers. Skipping Stone offers something for your girlfriend, your grandparents, for hardcore gamers who loved Japanese delights like Bishi Bashi Special, and for anyone with a few minutes to kill and a desire to beat personal high scores. If this is the future of mobile gaming, then we're not going to complain too much.

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