Getting a mobile game out and getting people to actually play it is tough at the best of times. But when your slaved-over mobile game is almost ready and then a wild Pokémon Go appears, it can be nigh-on impossible to get airtime and headlines, no matter how good your effort is.
Well, we’ve been eagerly anticipating Pixelgrams from Marioke co-creator Ste Curran and team, and we’re not letting any mini-beasts overshadow our love for it. With colourful pixel art graphics, an adorable cat host called Kitzel, and a satisfyingly simple premise, this is the perfect game to dip into while you’re waiting for a bus or the toilet in Starbucks (seriously what is she doing in there). Here’s our Pixelgrams review.
How it works
Like all the best games, Pixelgrams has a really straightforward premise. It’s a pixelated puzzle game, where you move pieces around until you find where they fit to recreate the sprite you started with. The game’s split into chapters, with a set of locations within each chapter – for instance, chapter 1 starts with the town observatory, then moves onto Kitzel’s house. Each location is sub-divided into levels, each one being one item you have to put back together. You might be fixing Kitzel’s lamp or the lens at the observatory, moving the pieces around until they fit perfectly and the item is fixed.
Some of the items are really easy and some are harder, and of course it increases in complexity as you move forward. You don’t have to do the items in order, just pick whichever one appeals to you first. What makes it trickier is that you don’t see what the completed item looks like at the beginning of the level, so you’re guessing somewhat – and because you’re looking at a pixel design up close, it can be quite tricky to work out what’s what with shading and details. But of course, being pixel art, all objects have an outline, and we found it easiest to start with that.
If you want to take a look at the puzzle box lid, so to speak, you get a portion of hints you can use. If you run out, you can get 25 more by paying 79p, or watching an ad for free. There are quite a few ads, but you can turn them off for a one-off payment of £1.49 – and given that the game is free, that seems pretty fair to the developers.
If you really need it, you can have the completed pic to hand by taking a screenshot of the hint, then using something like Google Photos to have it displayed on your laptop while you’re puzzling. But it’s really not that hard.
Kitzel gives you hints as you move the pieces around, speaking mostly in emojis – you’ll know when you’ve pleased or displeased her by the faces she puts up. In between levels, she speaks in words, giving you snippets of backstory with the occasional Taylor Swift reference.
The soundtrack is so lovely that you might actually keep it on for once, for which credit is due to Super Hexagon composer and one of our favourite women in games, Chipzel.
Pixelgrams is a ridiculously adorable way to pass the time. It hits the magical combo of being free, fun and addictive, as well as appealing to our retro-gaming nostalgia in its glorious pixel art design. It starts off easy enough to get you hooked, and while sometimes you’ll get frustrated trying to work out what the heck it’s supposed to look like/where you went wrong, you get that magical rush of achievement when you finally figure it out and the whole thing comes together. We spent half our play time holding the phone up to random people saying “Look! I did it!”.
It’s available free on both Android and iOS, and we’d recommend downloading it to give it a try, then if you like it, ponying up the £1.49 to go ad-free. It’s not a lot of money and you can see the devs have worked really hard on it, plus no one likes ads.
Bonus: interview with Team Pixelgrams
We spoke to Ste Curran and Graham Spence to find out how Pixelgrams came about, their advice for wannabe game devs, and what the mysterious Kitzel’s story really is. Here’s what (some of) Team Pixelgrams had to say.
Gadgette: Where did the idea for Pixelgrams come from?
Ste: About 18 months ago I was searching for a new puzzle game to play on the Play Store — arranging jigsaw-y pixel tiles to make pretty pictures. I just assumed it’d exist. It didn’t and then I felt like I had to put together a team to make it. I WAS IN THE BATH AT THE TIME. Is that TMI? Sorry.
G: Any hints/tips/cheats?
Ste: You can watch adverts for hints and then we’ll become billionaires and live out our lives on a private Kitzel-shaped island making more puzzles for the game.
Graham: WORK FROM THE OUTSIDE IN. MANY PUZZLES HAVE SHAPE OUTLINES. BUT ALSO, IF THE SHAPE ISN’T IMMEDIATELY OBVIOUS, LOOK FOR POSSIBLE COLOUR MATCHES AND LINES IN POTENTIAL PIECES.
Ste: Graham speaks in all capitals like an omniscient technical wonder, or because he’s had to work with me for a couple of years and he’s definitely all out of patience.
G: Exactly how much of a ball ache is it to launch and promote a game in 2016?
Graham: MASSIVE – IT IS A MYSTERY.
Ste: It is tough. Technically it’s (fairly) easy, or at least easier than it was ten years ago, but the marketing side feels like a lottery. You can partner with a “publisher” to do that for you and they will take a percentage and try to help. That’s still far from a guarantee of success — maybe it ups your odds a little, maybe a lot, it’s impossible to say. So you gamble one way or the other.
We chose to go it alone for a few different reasons but one of those was to learn just how much of a struggle it is, to go through it ourselves. And surprise: it’s super-hard. You have to somehow find your audience and there are a hundred other games trying to do the same every day. All you have is the strength of your game and the hope that it finds the right person and that they’re in the right mood.
G: Any tips for wannabe developers?
Ste: I would not make financial success a metric to judge the success of the project. I do not believe you can control that. I think you can up your chances by following best practice, by learning from others’ advice, by attending lectures at conferences that promise to teach you how to how increase your visibility. But ultimately the market — and I mean any market, not just free-to-play mobile — is SO capricious that you can make all the right decisions and still end up broke and depressed and railing at the Gods.
What you CAN control is the quality of your game, work so it becomes the thing you want to make. Then in five years’ time, whether you’re on your private island or in the same room you’re in now, you can look back and go “I made something nice. I didn’t waste my time”. Time is the non-renewable resource here.
G: What’s Kitzel’s backstory?
Ste: Cute cat, small town, big dreams. Grows up on the other side of the screen in a tiny industrial town which makes the best pixel-stars in the Universe. Sometimes Kitzel sneaks up to the town observatory to try to glimpse other places, bigger things. One night while Kitzel stargazes, everything shatters. Put things back together! Find out why!
Graham: KITZEL WAS A PANDA TO START WITH!
Ste: True. Tim Frost did all the design. He is a pixel genius.
G: Why should people play this instead of Pokémon Go?
Ste: Because you’re all buff enough already now. Take some time out. Have a nice bath.
G: When can we get Kitzel merch?
Graham: THE TEAM IS A BIT SLOW WITH CROSS STITCH AND EMBROIDERY. WE MIGHT SEE IF MACHINES COULD DO THAT FOR US.
Gadgette: *jumps excitedly*
All images courtesy of Team Pixelgrams