Part Time UFO is so simple that it was built with the intention of breaking into the mobile market, but it is at the same time filled with the unusual creativity often observed in the indie scene and the polish, charm, and value that Nintendo as well as its partners tend to pack into what they make
The mobile gaming market is, to put it mildly, complicated. Sure, the console landscape has its quirks, but overall there is a bit of order embedded into it, because even if great titles always run the risk of being overlooked, it is safe to say the cream will tend to rise to the top. The same, however, cannot be said about projects built for mobile devices. Perhaps it is because the act of gaming in these machines is mostly done with the intention of passing the time rather than with the goal of being immersed in engaging experiences. Perhaps it is because cellphones and tablets reach a far wider, more diverse, and therefore more unpredictable audience than the one captured by consoles. Perhaps it is because of the overwhelming amount of available software. Or perhaps it is due to how these little games are usually tackled in very short bursts and not in lengthier sections. Regardless of the reasons behind it, though, the fact remains that the mobile gaming market is a box of surprises.
Consequently, it is just hard for developers to know whether their product will be a hit or if it will be buried under a huge pile of apps, since most of the time the games that succeed are not the ones that have great quality built into them, but either those that possess a ridiculously addictive gameplay loop or those that become viral thanks to a weird twist of fate. Given those circumstances, it is not surprising to realize that companies which have strong names in the console market are reluctant to step into the mobile scene, as the fickle nature of that environment can make it come off like a casino: a reliable way to waste time and money. Nevertheless, that does not mean attempts at landing that jump are not occasionally made, and that is where Part Time UFO comes in.
The project was developed by HAL Egg, an offshoot of HAL Laboratory that was created with the intent of making mobile games. Part Time UFO is the first result of that venture, and as such it represents a pretty big moment. After all, it marks the arrival in the mobile market of a company responsible for some big console franchises, like Kirby, Mother, as well as Super Smash Bros. And although it goes without saying that Part Time UFO is by no means as large of a game as the installments of these series, it manages to qualify as the rare instance of a title made for cellphones and tablets that exhibits the same level of polish seen in the best console games. Therefore, it is only natural that two years after its original release, the title was ported to the Switch and sold in the price range of an inexpensive indie effort.
The titular character of Part Time UFO is Jobski, a sentient flying saucer that accidentally crash lands on Earth. The event is witnessed by a farmer who was driving a truck filled to the brim with oranges. Upon seeing that scene unfold, he crashes the vehicle, making all the fruit fall out of the cargo compartment. The man then goes on to perform the only possible action a reasonable human being would take when coming into contact with an oddly shaped creature from outer space: he enlists its help to put the oranges back where they belong. Jobski complies and in the process he discovers he can make a living by helping humans in similar situations.
Part Time UFO is best described as a physics-based puzzle game. Featuring small stages that are not much bigger than a screen, it centers on two elements: the extendable claw Jobski deploys to pick up stuff from the ground, which resembles the one usually seen in crane games; and the fact he is almost invariably tasked with moving scattered objects to a specific spot, being – in the process – forced to stack them in some way. True to its mobile origins, then, Part Time UFO is extremely simple, not just because of its concept, but also thanks to how only two actions are required to play it: moving Jobski around with the control stick and pressing a button to make the crane either grab or drop objects. Yet, as proof both of its degree of polish as well as of HAL Laboratory’s creativity, the game gets a lot of mileage from that tight scope.
In total, Part Time UFO has thirty stages, and in all of them – with two notable exceptions – the basic goal is getting a specific number of objects to stand in a limited area, but the title squeezes good variety from that framework, to the point it never gets repetitive. Sometimes, like in the introductory scenario, Jobski has to place oranges on a truck bed. Similarly, there are a couple of levels where he must capture fish swimming in the ocean and stack them on a boat. But the game gets trickier, wilder, and funnier than that: one challenge takes place in a museum, with the protagonist having to put together a tall artifact that has broken into pieces; another happens in a high school, where a set amount of cheerleaders must be arranged to form a human pyramid that reaches a certain height; and there are even a couple of stages in which players will have to organize Tetris-like blocks into specified shapes.
This capacity to build a lot from a little is undoubtedly remarkable, but it is not the sole area in which Part Time UFO thrives. Perhaps the most important quality the title displays, given the nature of its gameplay, is the accuracy of its physics; a trait that both adds a good deal of decision-making to the whole affair and causes structures to crumble down only when it makes sense for them to do so. Objects feel like they have the proper weight; their shapes and sizes greatly influence whether they will stay in place or not; if not grasped properly by the claw, they will likely be dropped accidentally; and when stacked on top of one another, their behavior feels extremely accurate.
For instance, making structures that are top-heavy can be rather risky, meaning that players should avoid them altogether or, in case that is not possible, be extra careful when placing the larger pieces. Moreover, the fact Jobski’s crane tends to sway according to his movement and the weight of what he is carrying adds an extra variable to consider, because objects dropped onto the stack while swinging will accurately transport their momentum to the structure and, therefore, probably destroy as a consequence.
Another highlight of the package happens to be its ability to embrace all sorts of audiences. It is a choice that makes sense. Although its challenges require a good deal of precision, a skill that players can naturally develop by moving through the quest’s smooth difficulty curve, this is ultimately a game that in colorful, cartoonish, and charming pixel art depicts a cute little sentient spaceship interacting with humans; to boot, it has a quirky – albeit slightly repetitive – soundtrack to accompany those bright visuals. Therefore, when paired with the simplicity of its gameplay, these features work towards making Part Time UFO quite appealing to kids while also being intriguing to adults and dedicated gamers thanks to its physics-based nature.
Smartly, HAL Laboratory makes sure the gameplay is there to support this duality. For starters, even though there is a time limit to executing any given task, allowing the countdown reach zero – with a few exceptions – does not lead to failure. As such, one can spend as much time as they want trying to stack the goods. The only punishment for letting the clock run out is that players will not receive a whole lot of cash for clearing the level, and since this money is mostly only used to buy costumes that either work as mere aesthetic changes or, in some cases, have the capacity to alter Jobski’s attributes, like making his movement or his claw faster, the loss is not very impactful.
To those looking for extra difficulty, Part Time UFO also has their needs covered. For starters, all stages hold three challenges: one that entails beating the clock and another two that vary according to the level, such as stacking a higher amount of objects than necessary, not letting anything fall down, building towers that have a specific height, and including objects or even humans that are hidden on the screen in the pile being assembled. Truth be told, these side tasks are not exactly optional because doing them will earn players medals, which in turn unlock more jobs. But since only a fraction of the total medals is required for one to gain access to the final set of stages, getting all of them ends up being a nice non-mandatory challenge to people who feel like going for it.
That is not where the additional and optional layer of difficulty stops, though, as at least three other features come into play in this regard. Firstly, the game keeps track of what it calls Hat Tricks, which is when the three challenges of a level are completed in the same playthrough; depending on the requirements of the stage, this task can be notably hard to accomplish. Secondly, earning all medals on a level will unlock a tougher version of the task, which not only increases the game’s stage total to sixty, but also throws a few interesting twists into the mix, usually by increasing the amount of objects that have to be stacked. Thirdly, Part Time UFO has forty achievements related to objectives like medal collection, Hat Trick execution, and stage-specific goals.
Undoubtedly, that is a whole lot of value for a game with mobile origins: getting to the end of the adventure should only take about six hours to anyone not worried about extras, but going for the challenges and harder versions of the stages ought to guarantee at least twelve hours of fun. And that goes without mentioning the cooperative two-player option and a pair of neat bonuses that Part Time UFO packs: a level where the goal is building tower while using an infinite amount of weirdly shaped objects, and a very clever twist on the title’s gameplay that has Jobski going through a stage while solving puzzles, avoiding traps, and – of course – stacking stuff; with the latter being an experience that is so nice during the relatively small amount of time it lasts that it will make players hope the concept gets eventually extended into a full game.
Still, despite the many qualities of Part Time UFO, there are punctual complaints to be made. The slightly harder versions of the stages are sometimes not that different or more difficult, and can come off as hastily designed. A similar comment can be aimed at the medal challenges: they could have been more creative, since many of them simply involve adding one or two elements to the stacks. Moreover, regarding medals and Hat Tricks, it is rather strange how the game does not keep track of them for each version of every level; in other words, if the three challenges are cleared and the hat trick is performed in the easiest instance of the stage, these will also count as having been achieved in the alternate tougher form. As it stands, this blatant omission is a sadly missed opportunity to even further enhance the package’s value. Finally, even if it can be looked at as part of the gameplay, when objects are scattered too close to one another – which is often – it can be rather tricky to make Jobski’s crane grab the intended target, which can lead to a lot of frustration, especially in situations where players are going for the toughest medals and Hat Tricks.
Unlike a few of the creations of HAL Laboratory have done during the studios’ history, Part Time UFO is certainly not the kind of project that will send shock waves across the gaming landscape. However, it is a type of title that should, ideally, come out more frequently from the production lines of the industry’s larger players. It is a game so small and simple that it was built with the intention of breaking into the mobile market, but it is at the same time filled with the unusual creativity often observed in the indie scene and with all the polish, charm, and value that Nintendo as well as its partners tend to pack into what they make. Therefore, even if it stumbles punctually, what it does more often is amuse. And it does that so naturally that it might lead one to wonder why nobody had ever thought of creating a physics-based puzzle starring a sentient flying saucer that stacks stuff to help humans.