How ‘Replica Island’ Raises Hopes For Android Gaming

“Do you have Angry Birds?” Within days of getting my new HTC Desire smartphone, this question had become a frequent irritation. My phone’s superficial resemblance to an iPhone gave that phone’s users a feeling of kinship with me, leading them to assume that the ornithological puzzler was available on my handset, too. Apparently Angry Birds is being ported to Google’s Android operating system as I type, but in the meantime, I’ve felt that I needed to investigate Android’s own gaming possibilities as they stand. Surely the platform has its own killer app?

Now that I’m among the million downloaders of Replica Island, I’d like to think that it does. I came across the game in TechRadar’s article on Android games, and before long I was guiding the robot from the Android logo around colourful side-scrolling levels, gliding and sliding it from challenge to challenge on a mysterious island. So far, so Super Mario Bros., but within a few levels I was encountering features far more ambitious and accomplished than I’d expected.

For one, our heroic android can emit “possession orbs”, which allow remote control of enemies, a feature right out of the beloved 1997 platformer Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee. Furthermore, the levels are presented in a non-linear, partly player-chosen order, depicting the shattered memories of the android, whose adventure is interwoven with a fifty year struggle between two men searching for the island’s semi-sentient reality-rearranging phenomenon known only as “The Source”. Snake this ain’t.

Replica Island was made by Chris Pruett and Genki Mine, the former a “development advocate” working for Google and based in Yokohama, the latter a “freelance artist and game developer” living in San Francisco. Appearing at Google’s annual conference I/O in 2009, Pruett explained that the game began to form when he decided that if he was to advocate games development for Android, he ought to demonstrate what was possible; with any luck, he’ll achieve his aim even more powerfully than he hoped.

Despite its humble origins as a stress test that Pruett considered “a 20% project” — one he worked on one day a week — Replica Island has ended up becoming a superb game in its own right. Beneath its cute Japanese anime stylings and initially familiar mechanics, the game features a plot and a weight of intelligent dialogue that few developers would consider implementing into a full price console game, let alone a freely distrubuted smartphone distraction. Taking advantage of the player’s mute robotic nature, the game’s characters even seize the chance to address the conflict between determinism and free will among other topics, and the game features no less than three different endings.

Diligent software engineer to the core, Pruett has used the game to collect player metrics, helping to make incremental gameplay and difficulty improvements, and the creators have released the game’s full source code, hoping to help out other developers and in Pruett’s words, to foster “a pretty awesome community”. There is much to be learned from Replica Island, and if it is the shape of things to come, then Android gaming could have a bright future indeed. In the meantime, if you possess an Android phone — and you’re not already among the one million — I recommend that you get downloading.