There’s a vibe that some games had in the late 90s and early 2000s that’s hard to define, exactly. It was at the same time rebellious, whimsical and carefree, with bright colors and a sense of what would then have been called “attitude.” Think Crash Bandicoot, Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater, or Jet Set Radio.
It’s that same feeling that seeps out of every pore of Monomals, and I couldn’t think of a better way for such an unusual game to present itself.
Monomals is a game where you play as a series of characters that hope to become the greatest musician by fishing. The fishing, which makes up the meat of the game, takes the form of a semi-aquatic puzzle platformer in which you control a fishing lure that’s also a headphone jack, trying to catch fish that are also music.
Okay, let me start over. Maybe it’ll make sense this time.
In the world of Monomals, there are special musical fish called “Monomals.” These fish, when captured, give DJs new sound samples that they can use to create music.
To capture these fish, the player must navigate a sort of fishing lure/auxiliary cable hybrid called through a stage full of obstacles, puzzles and enemies, until you face off with your sought-after Monomal in an arena. Beat it, and it’s yours to make beautiful music with.
To make this music, you use the honest-to-god fully-fledged musical synthesizer that’s built into the game. The entire game is, in fact, centered around this synthesizer, which lets players compose songs using everything they’ve unlocked so far. You enter these creations to the “Hot 99″ chart, with hopes of making it to the top.
The sheer depth of options for your musical creations hints at a true love of music composition by the developers. Of course, the only thing that really determines how well your songs do on the chart is how many monomals you use, so even if you’re completely without musical talent it’s possible to attain all the game’s achievements.
The game does, however, require plenty of platforming and puzzle-solving skill to make it all the way through.
The game starts out simply enough, forcing players to make their way through variations on crate-pushing puzzles, a concept that had already gotten tiresome about halfway through Chip’s Challenge back in 1989. But eventually you’ll start facing puzzles that aren’t cliche, such as knocking around puffer fish to use as trampolines, or catching yourself on wheels to swing through elaborate mixes of spiky death traps.
It helps that the control system is very simple – swipe a finger around the left side of the screen to move, and tap or hold the right side to do whatever action you’re allowed to do at the moment, whether it be dash, fire a jet pack, or spin in a headphone jack to open a door. These controls are admittedly just one step step removed from a virtual joystick and button, but it works well for what the game is, never getting too awkward to control.
It’s clear that there’s plenty of creativity to spare in the devs’ level design, though for some reason they didn’t want to put it all on display right out the gate. Perhaps they believed the concept of fishing for fresh beats was weird enough on its own, and they wanted to at least give players something familiar before they got too crazy on them. And things do get crazy.
As the game goes on, the initially-simple gameplay is constantly flipped on its head as the original swim-and-dash premise gives way to swinging, ground-pounding and jet packing, and toddering around in vehicle with suction cup feet.
At one point, while I was busy jumping out of the water to hit a gravity-flipping switch that the puddle of water would fall upwards and give me access to a springboard that could put me in reach of button I needed to press, it struck me that all of those mechanics were taught organically. There’s a somewhat annoying tutorial at the beginning, but after that point the game just lets the player learn by doing, and it all happens so seamlessly with the gameplay that you hardly notice it happening.
The arena challenges at the end of each level, however, are a bit uneven in quality. On one level, you’ll face a labyrinth that requires quick reflexes and well-honed problem-solving skills, while on the next level, the solution is so straightforward that it hardly even qualifies as a challenge. It’s a strange failing, considering how well-crafted the rest of the game’s difficulty curve is.
It’s worth noting that the game features the best sound design I’ve heard in a game on Apple Arcade. Every level feels like it’s grooving along to the beat of the electronic soundtrack, which fades and changes based on what happens to the players. If you’re the type of player who plays mobile games with the sound off, do yourself a favor and try turning up the volume.
The equally-sleek character design complements this, absolutely nailing the attitude of turn-of-the-millennium music and game design. Unfortunately, the graphic artist’s talent isn’t well-used when it comes to the art seen inside each level. Though there’s plenty of gameplay variation from stage to stage, each one looks almost exactly the same as the last, with grid-like corridors all drawing from the same three tile sets.
Despite that, Monomals is one of the most polished games available on the service. So, while a music-fishing platformer might not sound like everyone’s cup of tea, it’s certainly one worth trying out.
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NOTE: Monomals is available on mobile exclusively as part of Apple Arcade, a premium gaming subscription service from Apple. Without being a subscriber to Apple Arcade you cannot download and play this game. Apple Arcade is $4.99 per month and does come with a free one month trial, you can learn more about it on Apple’s official website or by visiting our dedicated Apple Arcade forum.