Reader, I’m having a nightmare. The indescribably clumsy curators at the local museum have knocked over a priceless exhibit – yet again – and it’s up to me to pick up the pieces. In theory, the task’s simple: pick up the sections of totem pole and stack them back up in the correct order.
The trouble is, I only have a pair of tongs on the end of an extending cable to grab the bits of totem pole, so they’re constantly slipping out of my grasp, or, worse still, swinging wildly out of control and knocking over all my painstakingly stacked-up work. If I don’t get these pieces put back together, I won’t get paid – and if I don’t get paid, how will I buy that sailor outfit I’ve had an eye on?
Such is the life of a worker in Part Time UFO, the first mobile app from Kirby developer HAL Laboratory – or, more accurately, HAL Egg, the studio’s new smartphone-centric offshoot. In essence, Part Time UFO is a simple action puzzler that involves using a retractable claw to pick up objects and place them in a clearly-marked zone within a time limit – doing so will earn cash and medals, which can be spent on helpful items and unlocking new areas.
Bonus medals can also be earned by achieving certain criteria, such as stacking up the sections of a totem pole in the correct order. As you can probably imagine, some of these bonuses are far more difficult than they initially sound – sometimes infuriatingly so. The bouncy, cartoonish 2D physics (which recall Scribblenauts) will frequently leave items teetering on the brink of collapse, and as each challenge ends, there’s an agonising drum-roll as the game waits to see whether your hastily-compiled stack will remain in place or not. The wait only lasts a couple of seconds, but when you have a horse, two turtles and a dog all piled up on top of a circus elephant (don’t ask) it can often feel like an eternity.
In terms of execution and style, Part Time UFO couldn’t be more Japanese if it tried. The central mechanic is taken straight from those UFO grabbers that are so popular in the far east: machines that reach down, gently stroke the sides of a stuffed toy but generally refuse to pick the thing up. Part Time UFO doesn’t feel as cheap and annoying as those money-swallowers, though, and purchasing new outfits can make the going a little easier. Ah yes, the outfits. By default, you play the role of a sentient flying saucer with wide, blinking eyes. By visiting the in-game shop, though, you can purchase a curious array of outfits that will change how the grabber mechanics operate. A hat and scarf will allow the UFO to come to a halt more quickly; a Japanese warrior outfit will lessen the swinging action of your grabbing claw, which is particularly handy when you’re trying to make tall stacks of objects – like that irksome totem pole, for example.
Inevitably, the outfits will be a help in some stages and a hindrance in others, so it’s worth experimenting with them to see which one works best for a given application. We quickly discovered that the hat and scarf might stop the UFO in mid-air more quickly, but the pay-off is that the grabber beneath will swing more sharply, turning whatever it’s carrying into a wrecking ball. This made us swear loudly and often.
If all this makes Part Time UFO sound more like a chore than a bit of fun, fear not: HAL Egg have balanced the difficulty level superbly, so it’s relatively simple for new players to acquire the more basic levels, leaving the trickier challenges as optional extras for when their skills are more finely honed.
The controls are also perfectly balanced for a touch-screen device like an Android (our review platform of choice); Part Time UFO makes use of an on-screen directional pad akin to the physical one on the 3DS, with a single button on the right of the screen to open and close your grabber. Virtual controls like these can feel like a pain to use with a hectic retro shooter, but in a game as measured as Part Time UFO, it feels immediately natural.
The delightful presentation also takes the edge off things. The game’s back story involves the UFO hero coming down from space and helping Earth’s population out with their day-to-day chores. He’ll find these odd jobs in the pages of a local magazine (essentially the stage select menu), and each one is packed with little background details. As you load the boxes and baskets of fruit onto the back of a farmer’s van, a dog will wag its tail excitedly in the distance. Pluck fish out of the ocean, and their expressions will change from ornery to bewildered; the curators at the museum will duck out of the way if you swing a priceless artefact too near them, or jump for joy if you piece their wretched exhibit back together. All this is coupled with some quaint country music – complete with what sound like a choir of squirrels – that recalls the classic PSP game, Loco Roco.
HAL Laboratory have long since made a name for themselves with simple yet fun games like Part Time UFO. The Kirby franchise is similarly full of hats and cute outfits. BoxBoy, a lesser-known platform puzzler series, shares a similar chunky style as Part Time UFO – the former’s hero, Qbby, even makes a cameo or two in this game.
Part Time UFO may also serve as a comment on the 21st century gig economy, where workers are asked to constantly shuffle from one short-term job to another. One in-game character makes a remark about young people being lazy and flings a magazine of jobs at our floating hero. Pay is dished out depending on how happy the customers are and how quickly you’ve delivered your service – a weird echo of how modern companies like Uber and Deliveroo work. You also have to spend your own hard-earned wages on those outfits – the equivalent of your work uniform. Is this HAL Egg’s sly dig at the modern culture of “independent contractors”, low pay, no pension, no holidays and no employment rights? We’d like to think so.
What’s most impressive about HAL Egg’s debut, though, is how much effort they’ve put into a mobile game that costs £3.99 (or $3.99); not so long ago, Part Time UFO could have been a full-price release on the Nintendo DS.
With so many free-to-play diversions cluttering up mobile app stores, you might question whether such a game is worth the purchase. Then again, the one-off charge is another pleasant surprise: it isn’t difficult to imagine a version of Part Time UFO where all those handy outfits were sold for real-world money; instead, HAL Egg have avoided any hint of cynical price-gouging, which makes for a refreshingly complete experience.
Besides, £3.99 is a small price to pay for a game made with such evident craft and affection; if the game’s subtext is about receiving a fair wage for an honest day’s work, then it’s only right that HAL Egg get at least a small reward for making a title as charming as Part Time UFO.
Part Time UFO is available for Android and iOS devices now.