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Mobile games by Adult Swim and Ham in the Fridge strike the right tone

by Phil Hornshaw

You enter the iTunes App Store, and as you look around for the latest and greatest games to download, something catches your eye. The icon contains a strange character – a round, disembodied head with big eyes and an uncouth mouth, not unlike the Annoying Orange.

The game featuring this weird character? Bumpin’ Uglies.

It’s a great way to flag down the attention of new players, even though the game behind the title is completely safe for work and safe for children. Once you fire up Bumpin’ Uglies, you realize the joke: “uglies” are the little round creatures, and your goal is to “bump” them – physically smack them into each other – in order to finish each level. You fling them with the same mechanics you do in Angry Birds and similar games, sliding one finger away from the ugly to set the power and direction and releasing to fling it.

Check out this trailer for Bumpin' Uglies:

Starting out with a humorous concept is good, but maintaining a humorous tone is tougher. Bumpin’ Uglies does it in a few cool, fun ways that manage to augment the game considerably, especially since at its core, its gameplay isn’t too far different from many other physics-based arcade games in the App Store. Bumpin’ Uglies contains a mechanic that lets you customize your ugly, which means you can make it as pretty or as hideous as you want. The uglier things get, the funnier they are.

The music throughout the game is an a capella series of sounds and shrieks, giving the impression that the uglies are actually singing. Bumping two uglies at the end of a level results in a thick gray cloud around them -- implying to adult players that some furious action is taking place – with tiny baby uglies that combine both uglies’ traits even going flying through the air as the melee continues. It all adds to the lighthearted feel of the game, and humor that are essential to making Bumpin’ Uglies (soon to be released for Android devices, too) more than just another physics game.

A humorous (if violent) pedigree

Ham in the Fridge, the developer behind Bumpin’ Uglies, isn’t a stranger to incorporating a subversive sense of humor in their games. While this is the team’s first independent release, it previously worked on 5 Minutes to Kill (Yourself) for Adult Swim.

As violent games go, 5 Minutes to Kill (Yourself) is both novel and fairly hilarious. It takes place in an office building, where a disgruntled worker laments the constant string of meetings and other awful, mundane tasks in which he must partake. When he’s called to another meeting that’s taking place in five minutes, it’s the last straw. The worker decides to commit suicide and begins wandering around the office, looking for anything to help accomplish his goal.

It’s a violent game, to be sure, as the player can inflict all manner of suffering on his or character, from stabbings with scissors to staplers to the face to sticking the character’s head in a microwave oven. But the humor is, of course, that this is all self-inflicted, and each of the uses of standard items around the office is generally both horrible and hilarious. The only way to win the game is to inflict enough damage to kill the character, and that usually requires more creative thinking than just smashing yourself in the face with whatever’s handy. In the spiritual sequel 5 Minutes to Kill (Yourself) Wedding Day, players control similar characters with cold feet on their wedding day, who attempt to avoid tying the knot unless it's for a noose.

It’s interesting just how poorly 5 Minutes to Kill (Yourself) would work if the dvelopers hadn't nailed the humorous tone. The music is fast-paced to play up the ticking clock, as if you were racing to defuse a bomb in an action flick.

The trick of tone

While they’re not made by the Ham in the Fridge team, Adult Swim has done a pretty solid job of creating hilarious iOS games (usually based on their web-based Flash titles). Robot Unicorn Attack, for example, is just an endless runner, and not a particularly inspired one. That game has players controlling – you guessed it – a robotic unicorn, avoiding whatever obstacles get in your way.

However, Robot Unicorn Attack is hilarious, because of the less obvious parts of its presentation. The music is a rocking 1980s power ballad that’s completely out of place and way over the top, and the unicorn looks like a badass version of something that might have appeared on the front of a Lisa Frank folder in the 1990s. Even the world you play in seems straight from the cover art for an ‘80s metal album. All of this create an atmosphere that makes the game a lot more interesting than the sum of its parts.

With bite-sized, time-killing games dominating the App Store, tone and presentation can be everything , even more important than gameplay. Finding a way to make a short-lived experience funny, the way Adult Swim succeeds in doing in most of its games, can make a game all the more fun and addicting. It makes downloading a mobile game over buying a cheap cup of coffee an entirely justifiable decision.

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