Taking You Higher: ‘Jetpack Joyride’ Review

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When I first saw Jetpack Joyride a few weeks back, it was still being called Machine Gun Jetpack. It was after my demo of Fruit Ninja Kinect–also made by Australian dev studio Halfbrick–that I saw a quick run-through of the still-brewing iOS game. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it in the months that have passed.

The sensation I’ve been living with since seeing Jetpack Joyride recalls the same lingering yearning I got from walking past a new stand-up video game machine in the packed arcades of yore. Every novel coin-op cabinet felt enticing and exotic–Jungle King, Mappy, X-Men vs. Street Fighter–even if the gameplay experiences weren’t that good.

(MORE: A Cut Above: ‘Fruit Ninja Kinect’ Review)

Jetpack Joyride won’t have that problem. It boasts the prefect blend of accessibility and challenge, wrapped up in a fun graphical package and augmented by an achievements overlay.

After Halfbrick’s mascot Barry Steakfries steals an experimental jetpack from a scientific laboratory, the core gameplay happens in a continuously side-scrolling environment.  To help Barry escape, you simply need to tap anywhere on the touchscreen and little bursts of thrust will keep him aloft and shooting bullets from the jetpack. The longer you run/fly, the higher your score gets. As you run or fly, you collect coins that you can use to unlock items and upgrades. The challenge comes in avoiding the electrified hazards, oncoming missiles and floating laser arrays that get randomly generated every time you play. The timing of a jump is a life-or-death scenario and in true old-school fashion, it’s a one-hit Game Over if you hit any of the hazards. If you collect a spin token along the way, you get the chance to spin a slot machine for prizes at the Game Over screen.

The power-ups you collect let Barry go through the game in slightly different ways than the standard jetpack, even as the single tap input remains the same. The Profit Bird’s a bright red avian airship that flaps its wings and spills money every time you tap. (The fact that Profit Bird closely resembles Angry Birds’ pay-to-proceed Mighty Eagle is probably just a coincidence, right?) While wearing the Gravity Suit , your every tap lets Barry run on either the floor or the ceiling and the Crazy Freaking Teleporter blinks Barry across the screen in slightly disconcerting fashion. Barry sheds power-ups if he hits a hazard but lives to try and continue his escape, so they act as extra lives, too.

You never know which power-up you’re getting when you hit the icon, but each one has its own unique little animations that make you love them. Grab the Bad-Ass Hog, for example, and you’re blowing away scientists with a shotgun as you drive on the ground. There’s an added effect of wanting to play better to preserve a favorite power-up, much like the way you’d dodge certain power-ups in side-scrolling shooters to keep a gun you really like.

As you play, you’ll encounter dozens of random-seeming missions, with goals like, “High-five ten scientists before dying.” Like many portable games nowadays, you can buy your way past missions with real-world money. But I never found myself wanting to do so in Jetpack Joyride. I’d rather slowly grind out my objectives than pay $2 for the ability to meet them instantly.

Jetpack Joyride reminds you of the importance of concentration, reflexes and luck in video games. Halfbrick’s delivered a pitch-perfect update to the sensibility that made the world fall in love with video games, but with modern touches that make the old-school brilliance shine even more brightly.

Official Techland Score: 8.7 out of 10

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Evan Narcisse is a reporter at TIME. Find him on Twitter at @EvNarc or on Facebook at Facebook/Evan.Narcisse. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.