Kuron and the Jelly Islands (クロンとゼリー)
iOS/android/free with ads
"A simple action physics puzzle game where the black cat's "Kuron" is active!"
I found this through the twitter feed of Daisuke 'Pixel' Amaya, who was tweeting strategy tips for it in Japanese (to be clear: I don't speak or read Japanese, but twitter is much more enjoyable if you don't read the text of people's tweets, anyway). I think a lot of interesting games for phones are coming out of Japan right now — I would also direct you to check out Yoshiro Kimura's recent work, including Million Onion Hotel.
My friends often complain to me that nothing good is coming out on iOS or Android anymore, and I think this impression comes from the fact that the top charts do not rotate that much, and there aren't many good places you can go to read about original, interesting work. The phone stores also have an extreme power law of distribution, such that if you only look at what's popular, or what gets featured on the front page of the store, you're looking at 0.1% (at best) of the games that come out. There are countless wonderful games released every week that get only a handful of downloads.
So let me pitch you Kuron and the Jelly Islands, a game from the bottom nintety-nine-point-nine: It's a game about a cat who sucks jelly through a straw. It is probably the most joyfully idiosyncratic thing you'll play this decade.
In Kuron and the Jelly Islands you are a black cat ('Kuron') standing on a jelly island sitting in the sea. You're hungry and your job is to guide Kuron's straw around the screen with your finger, eating as much jelly as possible without eroding the platform to the point where he drowns in the water. At some point, you declare that you've sucked as much jelly as you can safely suck, and you ask the game for a grade.
Puzzle games come in a wide range of flavors, and you can divide them up a lot of ways. Puzzles can be fast or slow (compare Zuma and Dots, for example), they can be 'tight' or 'loose' (compare The Witness and Fidel), and they can be neat or messy (compare Colorbind and Zen Bound). Puzzle games centered around physics scenarios tend to be fast and messy, and Kuron and the Jelly Islands might be the messiest puzzle game I have played.
For me a messy puzzle is not one that has a binary moment when it goes from unsolved to solved. Games like Crayon Physics and Zip-Zap are loose, because there are lots of solutions, but they are always neat because you either got the object to the goal or you didn't. In messy games like Piyomori or Wetrix, each action is a little bit good and a little bit bad, and you wind up with a score that is a little better than your last effort, but it's unclear whether it's the best that you can do. The feeling of playing messy puzzles is utterly different from playing a slow, tight, neat game — it resists thinking ahead and rationalizing and encourages intuitive, distracted styles of play. I like this, especially on a phone, where a tight and neat game often asks more of me than I am willing to give.
In Kuron, your progress toward the goal is analog, and the way the puzzle reacts to your actions is enormously analog too: the platform of jelly wobbles and stretches with every piece of matter removed from it, unpredictable and highly dependent on timing. A good strategy might be a risky one, that takes a few tries to get right. And you probably never feel like you did the best job you possibly could have. I like that sense of lingering anxiety, knowing you never quite finished a level with no mistakes, no mess.
I'm really enjoying solving the puzzles in Kuron, which start trivial and quickly ramp up to interesting and even fiendish. But if I'm honest, a lot of what attracts me in this game is the aesthetics. There's a new visual style just starting to emerge globally, a kind of rainbow-hued shader-maximalism that evokes late-1990s shareware aesthetics. I'm fascinated by visual approaches that achieve beauty through intentional bad taste, and this game takes that magic trick further than the others I've seen. The jelly wobbles and shines and refracts, like something 90s Kai Krause would have been proud of, and every part of it has a strange, skeuomorphic, alien physicality.