HAL Laboratory, in the guise of HAL Egg, has just released its first game on iOS and Android after years of dedicated service to Nintendo. Indeed, following the red plumber's appearance on mobile alongside a number of other prominent Nintendo-exclusives, it's a natural move for the prolific studio, bringing their work to an even bigger audience than the enthusiastic community that has formed around the DS systems and now the Switch. And it's a damn good job, too, because Part Time UFO is excellent fun, at least when it's not making you want to tear your hair out.
Cast your mind back to the funfairs of your youth. Remember those machines where you direct a claw around an enclosed space, dropping it down and trying to grasp a slippery toy by way of a prize? In Part Time UFO you play as a cute little unidentified flying object who has arrived at Earth with the intention of helping out the people that he meets along the way. To do this the UFO has a claw attached to an extendable cable, which it can lower up and down and pick up objects in the environment, moving them wherever they need to be moved to. That's basically it, but the execution is pretty much perfect and for the few hours it takes you to play through it, you're going to have a jolly good time.
It's super cute, yes, but Part Time UFO also has a devilish side to it. At full extension, the Claw is wide enough to wrap around many of the items you encounter in the world, but often the things you need to grasp are so big that you're trying to grab them from awkward angles. Even if you can get an over-sized block up into the air, if you don't have a good grip they'll often fall back down to the ground, costing precious seconds as you float down to try and grab it again.
Each level can be completed at your own pace, but each one has a time limit that, if beaten, gives you a gold medal. There are also two other objectives linked to each of the 20-odd levels, and you'll need to earn gold medals to unlock later levels, so you can only do the bare minimum for a short period of time, and after that, you've got to start getting good. The secondary objectives are sometimes obvious, other times cryptic, but they add a nice incentive to go back and replay a level and unlock additional medals. You'll think to yourself: "I can do it faster, I can do it better, and I can balance that little dude on the edge of that platform." And you know what? With a bit of practice, you can.
The time limit certainly spices up the experience as it forces you to take risks, and it's when you're throwing items around the levels that the game is at its best. The controls are simple and effective (move on the left thumb, open and close the claw on your right) which lets you try some audacious moves, even if they usually fail spectacularly. You'll have to race against the clock, carefully balance items, make structures, complete puzzles, and so on and so forth. There's a nice variety in terms of the level design and the tasks you have to complete, although perhaps there could have been even greater variation. That said, you do unlock fun hats for your little flying friend as you play, and these change its abilities slightly; you won't need them to beat specific levels, but it might make the difference as you chase down those gold medals.
The difficulty in Part Time UFO is pitched perfectly, and it won't take you a huge amount of time to get to grips with the central mechanic (pardon the pun) and then complete the game. Obviously, if you want a clean sweep of gold medals you're going to have to invest time and be patient during some of the more fiddly levels, but you can play through the whole game and see the surprisingly excellent three-stage final mission (which we won't spoil) in around two or three hours. If we were going to level one major criticism at the game, it would be that it felt light on content, and in a mobile market where these types of arcade games offer players near-endless amounts of content, the brevity of this experience is keenly felt.
However, when it comes to complaints, that's really all we've got. We wanted more, and we wanted to see the idea used in more ways, because the near-thirty levels we played through were great fun, whether we were flinging sumo wrestlers around, stacking turnips, or catching fish. Part Time UFO is such a charming little game that it's easy to overlook the frustrating moments, and if there's ever an expansion or sequel, we'll definitely be grabbing it with both hands.