For some reason, the first time I fired up Grapple Dog, my mind wandered back to Wonder Dog, a quite obscure 1992 Sega CD platformer by Core Design, made to promote the failed Sega Genesis Karaoke/CD machine, the Wondermega. I wasn’t exactly sure why I went back so far in time, but I was on the right track. As we will find out, Grapple Dog is a nice and comfortable little 2D platformer that brings back the 90s 2D platforming experience in its best form.
Pablo to the rescue
Our main canine protagonist is Pablo, a well-meaning but clumsy dog, who ends up somehow waking up an evil robot. Nul is bent on recovering the lost artifacts, left behind by a great scientist, in order to conquer the world (or destroy it, depending on how he’s feeling). But Pablo is certainly not a dog who gets scared easy and so, with the help of his trusted grappling hook, he will get the artifacts and stop the evil Nul’s plan dead in its tracks. Helping him, there will be some of his trusted friends, along with some quirky encounters along the way. The story is not exactly of the engrossing variety, but it does its job as for providing lighthearted banter and funny situations.
Going back to the Wonderdog comparison, hopefully for the last time, Grapple Dog does indeed feel like a 16bit platformer from the early 90s. From its main mechanic – that of the grappling hook to swing from certain platforms and to kill enemies – to the colorful graphics and almost MOD soundtrack. It does feel like a rather European taste of platforming, so that’s where the connection to Core Design (or Team17) lies. But, there is definitely also some Sonic the Hedgehog in there at times when Pablo picks up speed. Or, perhaps, it’s just the funky music that makes me think of it. Truthfully, I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention the original grappling hook game, Bionic Commando.
Bork and grapple
Enough with the comparisons, how does Grapple Dog play? Pablo will have to go from the beginning to the end of each of the levels in the six different worlds, while making sure to collect as many purple gems as possible. They are required to access the world boss, but not to finish the level. The platforming mechanics are the classic variety of disposing of enemies by jumping on them, avoiding falling into spikes (or lava) and looking for secret areas to unlock. The hook can only be used on specific platforms and learning how to successfully swing in order to jump up will be quite essential. Each level provides something of a new element of gameplay which does help in keeping things fresh, like platforms that have to be activated by collecting “X” tokens or platforms that will collapse after a few seconds, only to come back later, enemies that have to be jumped on and will only move when Pablo is right beneath them, and so on.
A small arrow above Pablo always shows the direction in which the hook is aiming towards (can be turned off), which does help in some of the more difficult jumping sections from one point to another, even though there are long sections where moving ahead can feel definitely a little too frustrating. The bosses all have different mechanics to be defeated and are quite interestingly designed. But make no mistake: Grapple Dog might look all cutesy but this is no walkie in the park. While there are no difficulty levels, Pablo has five hits before he dies and is brought back to the last checkpoint. Problem is that checkpoints also save everything you’ve collected, so that dying in-between means having to re-do the whole section from scratch and, well, sometimes that can cause some big angry throwing of the joypad at the TV.
Smartly, Medallion Games provides quite a limited selection of accessibility options that will make difficulty a bit more approachable for gamers with limited reflexes (or limited patience) like Pablo taking no damage or having infinite jumps.
Little package, lots of content
Along with purple gems, Pablo can collect fruit which doesn’t really do much for his canine health, but collecting 110 in each level gifts a purple gem; double that for another gem. When he collects 220, then he has really been a good bioy and can also be petted when the level’s over. So if anyone was curious about it: yes you can pet the dog. But he needs to collect two extra purple gems in the level first. That’s not all: Pablo can also do time trials in each of the stages to beat record times. Collecting the B token in some of the levels, will also allow the player to access bonus levels which are either a race to the finish or a collect all the shards before the time is up. The prize will be three bonus purple gems.
Whatever way you spin it, Grapple Dog offers an amazing amount of content.
Graphically, Grapple Dog is a delight to look at with a buttery smooth framerate (on the Nintendo Switch as well), colorful cartoon-like graphics, amazing pastel backgrounds that can also be simplified for viewers with problems. All around, it is a quite lovely experience to look at. The soundtrack does a lot of funk with a bit of a New Jack Swing edge to it, which definitely fits quite snugly into the overall early 90s vibe of the title. Still, here comes my main (small) complain with the game: the songs are both too short and too few. Basically, the player gets one single 2 minute track that costantly loops for each one of the level in a single world, which does get quite repetitive. It’s a shame that there are so few tracks available, since even just having 2-3 different ones for each world, could have worked wonders.
The platformer by Medallion Games does a great job of combining many small influences into quite the unique package that will appeal to many nostalgics of classic challenging platformers from the 90s. Modern gamers looking for an experience that doesn’t just go for nostalgia just for the sake of it might also very well apply. Definitely recommended, can’t wait to see what the developers can come up with next.