Before I even started Grapple Dog properly, I already found myself taken with Jazz Mickle’s funky soundtrack when it kicked in on the opening screen: a suitable taster for the tunes to come. When the adventure began in earnest and I discovered that the eponymous dog was named Pablo, the same name as my own dog, well — I had a feeling I’d have a good time.
Grapple Dog is a colorful and charming platformer from developer Medallion Games, and the first title to release under the auspices of Super Rare Originals, the new indie publishing label from Super Rare Games. The story is a familiar one: an unlikely hero, a quest to save the world, a selection of mystical artifacts that have to be collected, usually by besting powerful boss enemies. But Grapple Dog’s simple premise and cutesy aesthetic belie not just the depth of its gameplay, but also some genuinely amusing writing and story beats.
Swing when you’re winning
The meat of the gameplay revolves around the grapple gun that Pablo picks up very early on in the story. Combined with a modest selection of other platforming staples — you can jump, do a ground pound, wall-jump, that sort of thing — it’s the main method of traversal in the game. As a general rule of thumb, anything blue can be grappled from. This includes stationary blocks, poppable balloons that give you a boost, and moving grapple points on conveyor belts in later levels. There’s a fairly robust simulation of momentum physics implemented when hanging from things, too, which will help you leap further and jump higher, though it does admittedly take a bit of getting used to. Occasionally you may find yourself pinging across the screen at high speed after swinging from a grapple point, which can make the precise platforming sections trickier unless you take it slower and steadier.
The game itself doesn’t seem to want you to slow down, though. There’s definitely some Sonic the Hedgehog DNA ingrained in the game: between the natural inclination towards speedy traversal and the optional time trials unlocked after completing each level, there’s an undeniable sense that you’ve, as the hog himself puts it, “gotta go fast.” Pablo even curls up into a ball when he jumps, a visual nod that immediately brings to mind everyone’s favorite chili-dog-loving speedster. Grapple Dog, in fact, seems like it could lend itself to speedruns in much the same way as the classic Sonic games do, the fluid movement and pinballing potential of the grappling hook sending Pablo careening towards the finish line in no time at all.
Pick on someone your own size
The boss fights, too, wear their influences on their collective sleeve. The first is a desperate chase reminiscent of similar set pieces in the likes of Guacamelee! and the Ori games, while many of the others see Pablo squaring up against Dr Robotnik-esque automata that require you to dodge attacks and jump into a weak spot in peak Sonic fashion. They’re good fun though, requiring decent mastery of the controls and mechanics to score a victory, and the music shines through again with some boss themes that, frankly, absolutely slap.
Later levels will also require a similar level of coordination. Grapple Dog eases you in gently, but while you’ll probably find yourself breezing through the early worlds, the later ones can have some punishingly difficult sequences. This generally manages to err on the side of challenging, but there are certainly moments that cross over into frustration. Towards the end of the third world, for example, you’ll find yourself pursued by a flying robot snake for the majority of a lava-filled level.
A stressful situation at the best of times, but said snake has a habit of flying ahead of you and out of your field of view, leaving you unable to see where it might be. That in turn forces you to plow on ahead blind through various tricky platforming segments, only for it to suddenly reappear exactly where you were planning on landing and knocking off a chunk of your health. Still, the challenge largely feels fair, and checkpointing throughout levels is generous enough that you’re unlikely to find yourself overwhelmed with frustration.
A beautiful chaos
And a good thing too, because Grapple Dog really is a delight to behold visually and aurally. Surprisingly detailed pixel art grants character to everyone from Pablo and his friends, to antagonist Nul and his robot minions, and even to the occasional NPC you’ll happen across in one level or another. This is augmented further by the Banjo-Kazooie-inspired sound effects that play whenever a character speaks, a nice little touch that adds an extra modicum of charming eccentricity to each interaction. The animation itself is delightfully fluid, though some later levels did suffer from some performance issues and slowdown, even on my beefy computer — no doubt the chaos of having so many pieces on screen, like lava, conveyor belts, moving grapple points, and more, gives the engine a lot to deal with, but hopefully those minor issues can be ironed out in a future patch.
There is also a welcomed handful of accessibility and difficulty options available in the menus. Extras like invincibility and infinite jumps can be turned on here, in a similar vein to Celeste’s Assist Mode, and there are toggles and sliders for various visual effects and audio channels. It would have been nice to see a few more options for color-blindness, considering many of the platforming elements are color-coded (blue means you can grapple it, green means you can ground-pound it, etc), but most of those elements also have symbols visible on them which helps them to stand out even if the player can’t make out the color.
All in all, Grapple Dog seems to excel at what it sets out to do. It’s a fun, polished, light-hearted game with a fun mechanic at its core, harking back to the golden age of 2D platformers while giving the model a fresh coat of paint with its stylish pixel art. The music was the first thing I loved about it, but thankfully it’s more than just that: Grapple Dog certainly has style, but it’s got the substance to back it up too.
9 / 10
|Delightfully stylish pixel art and music that absolutely slaps
|Genuinely challenging platforming that’s easy to learn, hard to master
|Fun, if slightly derivative boss fights
|You can pet the dog
|Occasional performance issues
|The challenge of the game sometimes veers into “frustrating” territory
Gamepur team received a Nintendo Switch code for the purpose of this review.