TNNS is a wonderful Pong/Breakout/pinball-inspired action game. Its visual style is bright and bold, its gameplay is genuinely fun, and it’s highly polished all over. It’s almost perfect at everything it does, but there are a couple of aspects that miss the mark…
Everyone knows how to play Pong: move the paddle to hit the ball. If you’re moving quickly when you hit the ball, the paddle’s momentum will carry over to the ball, giving it a bit of backspin and adding an additional level of control.
TNNS builds on this: your movement immediately after hitting the ball affects its direction, like you secretly hope will happen when you lean to one side after letting go of a bowling ball.
There is a brief but handy tutorial when you first play.
Unless you’ve never played a game with a keyboard, gamepad, or anything other than a touchscreen, you will naturally want to control the paddle by dragging it across the screen. After all, this continuous motion is necessary for any other control scheme. But the game itself recommends a different approach: tap the screen to teleport your paddle to that location, rather than swiping to move it there.
This is important.
This approach, in combination with the aforementioned backspin feature, means that you control the game by moving your finger to the location you want the paddle to be in, and then swiping across that point in the direction you want the ball to go in. This is as close to real tennis as I imagine a touchscreen game can get; in portrait mode, with the tablet laying on a table, it feels like a tiny version of air hockey.
This brilliant control scheme is the real highlight of the game. It’s like your first time using Swype; it feels natural: this is how touchscreen Pong should control.
Unfortunately, there are a few gameplay elements that consistently cause a split-second lag (on my Nexus 7 but not my Galaxy Nexus, surprisingly), which really detracts from these smooth controls. In the more frantic levels, it can cause you to lose your game – frustrating, to say the least.
It Looks Great
In 2012, two indie game designers gave a presentation on making games feel more “juicy” by adding various graphical elements:
(Even if you’re not a game developer, I recommend watching this – it’s a really entertaining and accessible talk.)
I don’t know whether the developers of TNNS were inspired by this video, but TNNS is certainly juicy. A trail follows the ball and paddle as they zip across the screen; a tiny explosion appears whenever the ball hits the paddle, or the goal, or a breakable block; everything has a sound effect.
I love the game’s visual style: it’s bold, and bright, and distinct. The game has a collection of pre-designed colour palettes, and each level picks a new one from its stock, so you’re continually presented with a different set of colours.
The same level, shown in three of the many palettes.
It sounds like a minor detail, but this all adds up to a really good-looking game.
It’s Just Plain Fun
I compared the control scheme to Pong earlier, but TNNS takes a lot from Breakout and pinball, too. Each level has a goal: a box with a picture of a star on it. Hitting this box takes you to the next level.
But sometimes the goal is moving. Sometimes the goal is behind some blocks that you must either break or knock out of the way. Sometimes the goal is behind an impassible wall, and you must shoot the ball through a black hole to get it there. Sometimes a path of arrows gets in the way, redirecting the ball against where you want it to go.
Not every object is an obstacle, though. Hitting a flashing red square will activate a one-hit barrier behind your paddle, essentially giving you an extra life. Touching a big pink circle will add two extra balls to the playing field (although in my experience this can be more of a hindrance than a help – keeping track all three is hard!)
Each level also contains a bunch of stars to collect; these act as your final score, for when you eventually miss the ball.
In some levels, the challenge is reaching the goal at all; in others, this might be very straightforward, so you may challenge yourself to collect as many stars as possible first.
Left: A tricky level; you’ll probably pick up many stars just trying to complete it. Right: Almost impossible to miss the goal, but you have to think fast to get the stars. (I did not think fast.)
But this isn’t like trying to get all of the stars in Angry Birds – you can’t just hit the Restart button every time you make a mistake. Every level (apart from the first) is picked at random from a bank of “over 500 hand-crafted layouts”. This design choice complements the random colour palettes nicely, and means that the game feels varied. It also means that you don’t get frustrated at never being able to get past Level 7, or focused on trying to master any one layout.
That said, you do start to recognise some of the levels after you’ve been playing for a while – I would guess that the level selection isn’t totally random, but skews towards harder layouts as you progress. This is not a bad thing, as it lets you feel a sense of success when you finally beat a level you’ve struggled with before, and try different strategies (aim for powerups and stars, or just hit the goal).
TNNS also features multiplayer, with two options: one is just straight-up Pong (but still using the game’s excellent control scheme), and the other is Pong with a bunch of obstacles, stars, and power-ups thrown in. The former is a great test of skill, while the latter feels more like anyone’s game – it’s usually frantic, and a good laugh. There are a variety of layouts, as with the single-player game, but they switch after a certain amount of time rather than when the ball hits a goal.
It’s not going well for Left Player.
I must confess that I haven’t spent much time with the multiplayer mode, though, so to me it feels more like a bonus addition than a core component of the game.
It’s Let Down by Microtransactions
I’m not against paying for in-game content. The opinion that games should never, ever lock any content away behind a paywall has never sat right with me. It feels too much like the attitude that pirating a game is justified as long as you really don’t feel like paying for it.
In some mobile games, paying for in-game content is the game mechanic: no skill is required. Complaining about microtransactions in such cases makes no sense – there would be no game without them. Just don’t play the game.
This is not the case with TNNS. I’ve just spent the majority of this article gushing about how it is genuinely fun and highly polished in all areas, including gameplay. It uses microtransactions in three ways, two of which I have no problem with; unfortunately, the third way really detracts from the game.
The stars you collect aren’t just used to measure your high score; they accumulate, and can be used as a currency. Now, I am not good at this game, despite the amount of time I’ve spent playing it, but for reference: I usually earn a few dozen for each game, which usually lasts about a minute – that’s maybe one per second. For $10, I can buy a million, which is worth (very roughly) over a week of solid playtime.
Stars can be used to buy three types of thing. The first is customization options: a tennis court skin for the background, a wooden skin for the paddle, a baseball skin for the ball. The second is one-use power ups: buy a multiball or barrier and you can activate them at any time you wish – but only once, and then you have to buy another. I like these. It’s nice to have the options available, and they’re generally cheap enough that I can afford them (or at least work towards them).
Various customization options.
But the third is where it falls down, for me: “subscription” powerups. For 10,000 stars, you can buy a multiball or barrier power up that is available every time you play; for 75,000 you can do the same for a fireball power up; for 300,000 you can make the paddle bigger forever.
“Subscription” power ups.
These subscription power ups change the game: a bigger paddle, a more powerful ball, and an extra life would alter the way I play, and make it much easier – yet here I am playing with the default setup like a sucker! But even though they can be bought with the same currency I’ve been collecting every time I play, I know I will never earn them through normal gameplay. For $10, though, I could buy enough stars to unlock all of them at once.
It feels sneaky. I bought this game, but in order to unlock the real game – not one that offers a different way to play, but one that offers me the best way to play – I have to pay another ten dollars. If there were a Lite and an Full version, charged at $2 and $12, I’d have no problem; I’m just tired of feeling like the games industry is constantly trying to come up with ways to trick me into spending money.
Like the levels, the title screen also appears in a variety of palettes. Another nice touch.
TNNS is great. It looks great, it feels great. It’s even a great example of video game design: you can learn a lot from dissecting it, and comparing it against lesser Pong and Breakout variants. A great deal of craft and care has gone into making it. I just recommend that, to enjoy it properly, you either pretend that the subscription power ups don’t exist, or you pretend that there is a separate, Full version of the game, which costs $12 rather than $2.