Arkanoid with jumping puzzles and fuzzy animals. That, in a nutshell, is Space Ark, a kid-friendly Xbox Live Arcade game from Strawdog Studios that sees you bouncing around grabbing blocks with some of the cutest protagonists to ever grace a video game. So it's pretty much kids-only here, unless you have an incredible tolerance for big-eyed animals and graphics that look like My Little Pony ate a Smurf and hurled all over your TV screen. But with that caveat in mind, the gameplay can be rather addictive, if a bit on the simplistic side. Older players who have been playing this sort of thing since the '80s won't find much challenge here, although the difficulty is well suited to the younger set and casual players who want to chill out for a while with something lighthearted.
Space Ark's starting premise puts you in charge of the Arkonauts, animal astronauts on a mission to save the galaxy after a rogue black hole has swung through the neighborhood and wiped out all of the non-cuddly life-forms. Your goal is to terraform planets so that they are once more safe for the little fuzzballs to live on. But this isn't quite the daunting task that it seems to be at first glance. All you do to revive the game's dead worlds is crack open egg-shaped stasis capsules hosting uber-adorable animals (such as tigers, zebras, and turtles) and then use a bounce pad to boing them around the planet's surface with the goal of collecting multicolored DNA crystals. The objective of each level is to soar around grabbing all of these floating crystals in a set number of combo strings of at least three in a row of the same color. Hit terra firma, and you both lose a life and control over all of your combos, which trail behind you like balloons on a string. Wrap things up successfully, and a portal opens up to the next level, where you do it all over again.
And again. And again. And again. There are five planets in the Mission mode campaign, featuring a whopping 168 levels, which can be played solo or in split-screen multiplayer locally (there is no online support over Live). Even though each of these levels can generally be finished in no more than a few minutes, you still get a ton of content for just 800 XBL points. You can also take part in Time Attack and Survival scenarios where you try to beat the clock. But length is probably the best thing that Space Ark has going for it. While the gameplay is undeniably catchy, thanks to a great rhythm where you guide your animal projectile with one stick and slide the jumping pad back and forth with the other, it's sort of a one-trick pony that loses its appeal after a couple of hours. The first problem is that the game is simplistic. Most levels offer little serious challenge to anyone experienced with block puzzle games going back to the likes of Arkanoid and Breakout. That said, the difficulty is perfect for younger people and casual players who like their games light and easy. The game gets tougher as you go along, mostly due to trickier jumps and the need to jump more carefully in order to meet the number of combos required to beat each level. But even then there isn't much that will make you sweat. The very toughest jumps require no small amount of finesse, although you can usually knock them off in a minute or two at most.
The second issue is a lack of variety. Levels do get more involved. Gimmicks are introduced, such as cannons, shields, fans, pinball flippers, blocks, bouncy clouds, and various fruit like watermelons and grapes that boost score multipliers. Crystals become more numerous and are arranged in convoluted patterns like big smiley animal faces or are scattered around the top of levels, forcing you to string together a succession of jumps to reach objectives. Levels can be zany fun as you try to keep track of where your animal is going to come down while simultaneously pushing him to and fro to max out combos. Still, the bouncing gets monotonous over time. The game starts out innovative, becomes addictive for an hour or so, and then turns a tad mind-numbing as you realize that the bouncy-bouncy stuff is all you're ever going to get.
Another snag is presented by the look and sound of the game: everything is cloyingly cute. Arkonauts have big sparkly eyes and chubby stuffed-animal limbs, and they tend to smile constantly while making nonstop peppy moves like twirling in the air and giving high-fives to nonexistent pals. Planet backdrops are nicely mixed up with different terrain types that range from a jungle world to a place that looks like Hoth. Still, the scenery is filled in with primary colors so bright that you wouldn't want to play this game with a hangover. The soundtrack is from the Up With People school of music-making, all bouncy and poppy if a lot less in your face (ears?) than the visuals. All in all, it's tough to endure the whole package. The graphics and audio assault you with cuteness, making it hard for anybody past puberty to play for long without feeling a vague sense of shame.
Space Ark does a lot of things right and wrong. So while you can admire the oft-likable gameplay and the kid-friendly attitude, you simultaneously can have a tough time dealing with the repetition and graphics that would be at home on a little girl's bedroom wall. Even though you might start off a fan of the retro play, the game wears out its welcome in fairly short order due to being shallow and repetitive.