If there is one genre that I enjoy most on Apple’s portable platforms, it’s physics-based puzzlers. Moonsters, the first game from Polish development studio Ars Thanea, is a beatuiful and fun, albiet short, title in this genre. Alien creatures, called Moonsters, have crash landed on a strange planet and you must help them collect “space tofu” which they can be exchange for the pieces they need to fix their ship and fly home. The space tofu (which looks like little golden eggs with wings) is spread about the screen waiting to be gathered. You need to position and angle your Moonster, pull back and launch him toward the tofu (similar to Angry Birds’ control scheme).

To complete a level, your Moonster must collect the minimum specified number of pieces of tofu. As he passes over a piece, he’ll pick it up, with larger pieces acting as multipliers, increasing your score dramatically. At the end of a level you are given a score and a star rating based on a number of factors including, amount of tofu collected, your speed, and how many multipliers you picked up. The stars range from 1 to 3 and a trophy (for a really well done job). A particular total number of stars must be collected in order to unlock subsequent 10-level chapters.

As you progress through the game’s 90 levels you are introduced to the three Moonsters: Mr. U, Mr. Cube and Ms. Daisy. Each of them are a different shape and as such, have slightly different reactions when flying about the screen and bumping off obstacles while trying to collide with their yummy space tofu. While you are always only directly controlling a single Moonster, some levels will require you interact with other Moonsters in order to be successful. These were easily the most entertaining levels.

The game’s visuals are quite nice cell-shaded cartton style graphics. Ars Thanea has done a fine job creating an appealing set of characters and a stunning looking universe. Moonster’s 90 levels are spread evenly across three different worlds, Briars & Brambles, the Fungai Forest, and finally the Desert Island, each of which has its own attributes and unique obstacles. For the most part the game ran quite smoothly, and level-retries were quick to load, thankfully leaving your Moonster at the exact location of your previous attempt. Although, there were a few notable exceptions. For starters, at the end of a level the counter animation stutters quite a bit, making it feel almost as if my iPhone 4 was having trouble keeping up. The in-game intro video looks over-compressed and pixelated. At 35 MB, the game is already over the 20MB 3G limit so I’m not sure why Ars Thanea didn’t use a better quality version of the video.

While overall, the levels in Moonsters do get progressively more difficult, there was really only maybe a handful of them that took me more than a couple of attempts to get at least a one star ranking on. The first 30 levels are were fairly basic, perhaps a little too simple, often requiring nothing more than a straight shot to complete, and I had no trouble getting 2 stars (or more) on my first attempt. I found the later levels involving multiple Moonsters and the “wind effect” to be much more interesting and wished these concepts had been introduced earlier on in the game.

Initial completion of all the levels didn’t take much more than an hour or so, but Ars Thanea has included a few things to help drive replayability. First and foremost, completionists will be angling to get trophies on every level, as well as work their way up the game’s leader boards. Unfortunately these are handled via a separate web page and when you view the leaderboards, you are taken out of the game. Moonster’s doesn’t support backgrounding, so that means you have to re-launch the game. It’s unclear why the decision was made to go with a proprietary high score system like this, when very good alternatives like OpenFeint and Game Center already exist. Hopefully the game will see an update with integration of one of these services. There are also 3 possible endings which can be unlocked using your collected tofu, and you’ll need to replay levels a lot, if you want to collect enough to see all three.

The controls worked quite well and were perfectly responsive, but I found it rather difficult to determine exactly how much power I was using on a given shot as there was no good indicator of this. As I mentioned earlier, part of your level score is based on how quickly you complete the level, but there is also no clock or timer on the screen to indicate how long it took you to complete the level. So you really have no idea if this time is based on when you launch your Moonster or when the level finishes loading. Once you have collected the minimum number of pieces of tofu, an indicator changes to “level complete”, but you can still possibly collect more after that changes. Does the timer stop here? Then it takes a REALLY long time for the game to realize that you’re done a level. You can tap on the right arrow (not particularly intuitive) to end the level, but which action causes the score’s timer to stop? Something needs to be done here to make the scoring factors a little more clearly defined, informing the player of exactly what they need to do to achieve 2 stars vs. 3 stars or a trophy vs. 3 stars.

In Conclusion

Moonsters is a nice addition to the iPhone’s expanding collection of physics-based puzzle games, and is the most fun when it’s challenging, but it needs a bit of tweaking for its gameplay to reach the quality of its visuals.

NOTE: This review previously appeared on Games Uncovered.