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Mobile Game of the Week: Scurvy Scallywags

Previous entry: NJPW Strong Spirits

Mobile games these days have turned a corner. While perhaps the healthiness of the platform's model may not have improved, at least companies have figured out how to really crank out a product. That wasn't always the case. For a time, mobile releases were just trying to recreate a different experience, more compact in its ambition. Tons of developers turned to this more attainable form of production, to throw low risk stuff at the wall and hope it sticks. One of those games is Scurvy Scallywags, from Ron Gilbert. With the announcement that Gilbert would return to their claim to fame, the Monkey Island series, I thought we'd look back at one of the many side projects the developer has done since.

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Scurvy Scallywags, whose unredacted name is the ridiculously long Scurvy Scallywags in The Voyage to Discover The Ultimate Sea Shanty: A Musical Match-3 Pirate RPG, is a match-3 game, as stated, with a slight variation. You line up three or more symbols on a board and then those disappear, slotting in neverending, new icons. Depending on what is matched, you'll accrue resources like gold for buying stuff in between rounds or power that you need to defeat enemies. The twist is that your character is present on the board and moves within the axises, as do your foes. Each encounter requires an amount of power, which is triggered in combat when the two opposite characters meet. Being underpowered costs one of three lives, but that can be prevented by using a variety of skills. With these special moves, often tied to a cooldown, you're able to manipulate the board to get away or you can simply blast a monster directly with some extra oomph.

Outside of the game, you're using those resources to unlock new costumes or to build a better ship, which gives subsequent games some marginal bonuses. So far, nothing is out of the ordinary. The parts where Ron Gilbert is infused in this game are found in the small story scenes that lead to new areas where the game takes place. While piracy, the maritime kind, is the main theme of the game, Scurvy Scallywags is actually a theatre play, where problems arise backstage and it's your job to have the show go on. These hijinks come with the same quirky humor that Gilbert has had for decades. For some, it will feel like the developer hasn't missed a beat, to others this plateau will feel like a one trick pony. I'm firmly in the latter category. It's hard enough for me to care about the story of a matching game, but when this has quips I've heard in the nineteen hundreds, I'll just ram that Skip button to play the next level.

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The thing is: The writing is also Scurvy Scallywags' only weapon; the only arrow in its quiver, the only cannon on its poop deck. That's hilarious, because I wrote 'poop' there. They haven't used that specific wordplay yet, but I'm betting that if I build enough boats, it's going to show up. Gilbert's writing isn't bad, but it also isn't memorable, especially when the game doesn't have enough meat for these lines to land. Throw away one joke, then off to the next stage. The reward for completing an area, a sea shanty with the same irreverent mood, is something to listen to once and then never again. Songs don't pop back up during gameplay, like the catalyst of ship faring in Assassin's Creed IV: Black Flag, so you either go out of your way to hear them again or, realistically, you don't. Whatever Ron Gilbert was brought on for, the execution of it isn't exactly symbiotic. You can tell the influence is there, but it is fully separate from actually playing the game. It's kind of a wasted effort.

There is another interesting tidbit in Scurvy Scallywags, though; in its movement. Tiles move in the direction that you swipe, as do the new icons that slot into place. Since positioning of your characters is so important, there is some tactical advantage in moving a match one way or the other. That way, you can make a last ditch escape from an encroaching enemy, without using limited skills. Still, that mechanism alone isn't enough to reinvent the wheel. When a property like Bejeweled has already set the standard and explored the space in that genre thoroughly, just having one or two tweaks doesn't stand out. Introducing a slot machine with bonuses, as seen in other mobile games, is equally derivative.

While fully functional and light-hearted, there isn't anything extraordinarily about Scurvy Scallywags. As inoffensive and easily playable as the game is, it would take a very specific person to stick to this thing as their downtime of choice. Its forceful existence is a sign of the times, like John Romero making Ravenwood Fair for Facebook. These flat casual titles with strong nostalgic pedigree were a cold business decision, which tried to attract a lost generation to a mobile platform that this audience clearly had no interest in joining anyway. People who played Monkey Island just want another Monkey Island; they're not interested in twiddling on their phone. Games like Candy Crush Saga had much wider success by going the sensory overload route, to attract bored housewives who just needed any kind of stimulation. As far as opportunism goes, at least one of those routes had an effective attachment rate. The best way to describe Scurvy Scallywags is: "It's a game that you can totally play, if you wanna."

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