To put it simply, Grapple Dog is a side-scrolling platformer from designer and developer Joseph Gribbin, in which you play as a grappling hook-wielding dog named Pablo. It’s one of those deceiving indie games which has the look and feel of a retro classic despite being brand new.
In fact, Grapple Dog at times feels like a modern continuation of the classic Sonic the Hedgehog games – if SEGA had given its mascot a meaningful gameplay quirk rather than resting on its “gotta go fast” laurels, and, of course, ignored the industry’s jump into the third dimension.
Rather than simply holding the D-pad to gradually build up speed until you hit an arbitrary obstacle, momentum must be earned through skilful gameplay where precise jumps are rewarded with a plethora of hidden collectibles, while clumsy efforts will punish you with cleverly placed enemies and pits – especially in the latter stages.
Throughout the game’s six worlds, you get the feeling that each stage along the way has been comprehensively designed to encourage newcomers to take it easy and start to get a feel for the game’s physics, while those same levels are rife with opportunities to show off your skills; and the time trial mode delivers that “one more go” factor, even after you’ve rinsed a stage of its collectibles.
Sure, it does that thing where it locks levels until you’ve collected a certain number of collectibles from previous stages – which was a particular pet peeve of mine which prevented me from finishing the likes of Sonic Generations and Rayman Origins – however replaying previous Grapple Dog’s levels never feels like a chore.
Where a lesser developer may have struggled to keep a game with such a narrow focus fresh, Joseph Gribbin has created an astonishing physics-based game which squeezes every last drop of creativity out of its formula, with new and ever-creative obstacles and boss battles being thrown into the mix throughout.
The presentation is equally as stunning with surprisingly rich details throughout each world, but don’t be fooled by its vibrant pixel art-style and jaunty soundtrack: I’m not joking when I say that Grapple Dog is a tough game. It retains the difficulty of the 16-bit games it clearly draws inspiration from, yet thankfully makes concessions for the modern gamer.
Pablo can take four hits or falls before losing his life and getting sent back to the previous checkpoint (of which there are plenty), while frequent health pickups offer relief to the player as much as they offer respite to Pablo’s health bar. It avoids frustration cleverly, teaches you new tricks to help you play better through gameplay, and rewards persistence with gradual progress and further challenges.
Furthermore, Grapple Dog’s accessibility options must be commended, with the options to turn off damage taken from enemies, give Pablo unlimited jumps while in the air, and reduce the parallax background effects all available at the player’s convenience.
Unfortunately, I must caveat all of the above praise with the news that Grapple Dog’ s performance isn’t perfect on Nintendo Switch. I encountered a handful of full crashes throughout my time with the game, and I did find that the frame rate was susceptible to dipping on a handful of occasions, particularly when there were a large number of enemies on-screen.
UPDATE (9th February 2022): I have been reliably informed that a patch, which addresses the aforementioned performance issues, is out now ahead of Grapple Dog’s launch on Nintendo Switch tomorrow.
Grapple Dog (Nintendo Switch) Verdict
Its performance issues
weren’t enough to put me off are non-existent at launch, and so Grapple Dog comes with a wholehearted recommendation from myself. The platforming is as tight as anything on the Nintendo eShop, and its grappling hook mechanic adds a fantastic layer of depth, playfulness and a high skill ceiling to every last one of Joseph Gribbin’s brilliant level designs. As the kids would say: it has a fantastic loop.