97: A victory in the clone wars

Anyone who loves clever iOS games knows the drill. An indie developer comes up with a genuinely clever idea, suited perfectly to mobile gaming. They release it to great acclaim. And then the vultures sweep in with poorly-made clones or outright frauds. It's a dark and predictable pattern in the App Store economy.

Well, for once the tables have turned. For the past few months on the New York subway, I've seen people playing a mesmerizing game with a novel mechanic. It looked like a Breakout- or Arkanoid-style game, except each block requires multiple hits to clear, and instead of controlling a paddle you aim a railgun-like barrage of balls. It really drew my eye, but the longer I looked, the more obvious it became that it was poorly designed, full of ads, and generally low-quality. I decided to ignore it.

Then, a couple weeks ago, I saw Max Temkin tweet that he'd been testing a new game, Holedown. I clicked through and saw a ball-bouncer in the same genre. But it looked polished. It had beautiful typography, quirky anthropomorphic balls, and proclaimed to be "a ball-bouncer with depth". Instead of hitting plain colored squares, your targets look like rounded-off Tetris pieces. It costs $3.99, paid upfront, no ads, no garbage. Ten years into the App Store, it may be the first reverse clone.

Holedown delivers all the dopamine hits that I wanted from whatever that subway game is. (I couldn't even find it on the App Store, since I don't know its proper name and search terms like "ball bouncer" got me nowhere.) I'll admit that I was initially confused by the gameplay. Blocks move up the screen every turn — hit the top and it's a "crash" and game over. But my games kept ending after just a few shots, without crashing. I must have missed the tutorial text that I needed to collect crystals and upgrade my total shot count to keep playing further. Once this clicked, I was on a mad crystal quest.

Upgrades unlock more shots, deeper levels, and longer ball barrages. The game ultimately tops out in a sort of endless mode where you can earn up to 99 balls per shot and dig for an hour or more on end. (Or, if you're doing it the healthy way, set a Screen Time limit and resume where you left off.) You can also play the earlier levels, aiming to beat them in as few shots as possible. The simple decision to use roundrects instead of square blocks adds strategy — your best shots are by hitting an exact bank off a corner to get the balls pinging back and forth sideways, multiplying their effect. You can also squeeze a shot between blocks that are diagonal from each other and watch chaos ensue. And to keep things moving along, the balls automatically accelerate the longer they remain in play.

Throughout, there's a delightful soundtrack, but even more pleasing are the madcap plunking patterns of the bouncing balls themselves. One of my only quibbles is that while there's an option to turn off music, there's no separate switch for sound effects. That means that you can't play Holedown and listen to a podcast or your own music through headphones. Hopefully a 1.1 release will add that ability.

Regardless of whether you've seen its inferior inspiration, I strongly suggest giving Holedown a try. If the 30-second App Store preview isn't enough to convince you, or you want some advanced strategy tips, I'm going to be doing something new. Monday, August 6 at 7PM EDT, I'll be streaming Holedown live on Twitch. Watch for a tweet on @_picomac when I go live, or follow the link on this episode page. I hope you'll be able to tune in, and until then, happy bouncing!