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Remember those two-penny games you used to play on lazy school lunchtimes? Push-rugby, penny-football, or whatever regional name you might have given it? The only kit needed was a mate, a few coins, a well-honed flick or knuckle-push, and a table. Rules might vary, but you were either trying to get a coin as close as possible to the end of a table, or you were guiding coins between each other, before spinning one and tossing it over a friend’s finger-goal. Good times.
Surface Rush feels like it was designed by someone who spent far too much time playing those games. It captures their spirit: the awkward, slightly ungainly movement of a coin on a polished surface, as you tentatively try to reach an end-goal. There’s no jammy dodgers to win as bets, but it’s in the same ball (coin?) park.
We had to look up Surface Rush’s story to remind ourselves of it. It’s not exactly foregrounded. Humans have invaded the planet of the Pumpums, forcing you into the ocean in an attempt to survive and take your planet back. We might have butchered the synopsis, but story isn’t Surface Rush’s strong point.
It’s an excuse to hand you a Pumpum, a disc-based life-form who is more than willing to let you nudge it around the sea. And like those penny games we mentioned, you are maneuvering it in an extremely simple fashion. This is, more or less, a one-button game, as you pull back on the analogue stick and fire the Pumpum around a level, ricocheting off walls as you go.
The only other button that gets much use is the A button. Should you wish, you can press A to halt the progress of your Pumpum, stopping it on a dime. Careening around a level becomes an art of firing your disk at speed, and jabbing the A button whenever you are dangerously close to getting impaled on spikes or suckered by an octopus.
This extremely simple movement is applied to an incredibly generous number of levels and game modes. We kept referring back to the Xbox Store page to check the price. £4.19 for 132 levels and four game modes is enough value to make Martin Lewis nod his head in appreciation and recommend it in these trying times.
Each level is like a simplistic pinball table, with the aim to reach the very top of it. You can take as many moves as you want, but the limiting factor is the amount of time you have. Like Sonic in the Aquatic Ruin Zone, you have to find air to keep your oxygen up, giving you more time to navigate the pinball maze and reach the celebratory bunting that represents the level’s end. Flinging your Pumpum at oxygen tanks is enough to keep you going.
Getting in the way are various crabs, jellyfish and octopuses (octopi? Octopodes?) who will kill you in one hit if you get too close. Spike traps are a constant hindrance, and there are various conveyor belts, cannons and exploding mines to either help or send you to a watery grave, depending on where they’re aimed. Death will have you scooting all the way back to the start as the levels are too short to bother with things like checkpoints.
On the whole, it’s a winning formula. Dinking your Pumpum around a pinball table is extremely simple, and there’s a nice mixture of skill and puzzling at play. You might be navigating round the tentacles of an octopus one moment, before working out which warp-bubbles will take you to the necessary key, which will in turn unlock the gate to the exit. It tickles your brain and tests your fingertips in a reasonably inventive manner.
It’s spiky like a sea urchin, though. One level can be easy as anything, while the next has you tearing out clumps of hair and letting them wash out on the tides. For us, and this may be a taste thing, the problem lay with Surface Rush’s love for surprise obstacles. You move at a fair old pelt in Surface Rush, but that speed means you can be teleporting across levels and finding new areas at a speed that you can’t react to. You will be mounted on spikes or destroyed by landmines before you could possibly press A to stop, and that makes levels a little too trial-and-error for our tastes. With no checkpoints, it often became a matter of memorising a level after several frustrating deaths.
Praise be, then, for the generosity in the game’s design, because there is always a way out. You don’t need to play Surface Rush’s levels in any particular order, so you can skip the knotty ones if you fancy. And there’s likely a game mode that suits you, as you search for the best ways to accumulate stars and purchase some fancy new skins for your Pumpum. ‘One Shot’ was our favourite, as you are pushed to effectively hole-in-one a course, working out the exact shot that will get you to the exit. But there’s also Timer, which slaps an incredibly short timeframe onto a level, and Precision, which does the same but with a set number of moves. All of this is added to the traditional Classic mode, which comes in three different difficulty levels.
For the humble price of £4.19, you get a whole lot of game with Surface Rush. Considering there are three stars to gain on each of the 132 levels, and there are four game modes to explore as you do it, you will find plenty to do with your Pumpum. The counter-argument here is that it is stretched a little thin. There is only so much you can do with – effectively – a penny on a table-top, and the levels start re-using concepts. We found ourselves parking Surface Rush for a couple of days and returning to it, just because it’s not the game to keep you entertained for more than thirty-minutes at a time.
We have a warmness of affection for Surface Rush, but nothing stronger than that. It proves that you can elevate the coin-pushing games of your youth to a full-blown video game, and it doesn’t skimp on the levels or game modes. But there’s a saminess to the levels that is hard to avoid, and the spiky difficulty – both figuratively and literally – is even harder to dodge. For the £4.19 price, though, Surface Rush is not much of a risk, and if you play it in small, fifteen minute chunks, you will get the most out of this budget puzzler.
You can buy Surface Rush from the Xbox Store