Review: Ace Mathician (DSiWare)

Smooth operators

Ace Mathician, from Flipper developer Goodbye Galaxy Games, is a unique puzzle-platformer that succeeds in combining the magic of both marsupials and maths. The basic idea is to help a friendly koala named Ace reach the fruit at the end of each single-screen stage by rearranging platforms using algebraic equations. Make no mistake: while there's certainly maths involved, Ace Mathician is not an edutainment title. It's a quirky and creative game in which maths happens to be the means by which you manipulate your surroundings. And it's a whole lot of fun.

Within each stage, certain platforms are outlined in red, and these are the blocks that can be moved through your mathematical powers of persuasion. The touch screen starts out with a blank equation (“x =” or “y =”) and four components that can be anything from numbers or variables to arithmetic operators and “sin” symbols. Once you tap one of these four pieces to add them to your equation, a grid overlay appears and shows you how it would affect the outlined platforms. Conjure up the equation “x = 4”, for instance, and they'll move to four ticks to the right. An “x = 1 - 5” will have them scurrying four spaces to the left instead, “y = 3” will move them up three points, and so on.

As in any good sandbox game, playing around with the different combinations is often fun in itself, and there's more than one way to solve a puzzle. Helpfully, the game greys-out pieces that can't logically follow what you've already picked, so it's impossible to create a nonsensical equation. There's also a handy 'don't kill the koala' alert for when poor maths would leave poor Ace either squished or stranded mid-air. Once you like what you see in the preview, you can put the equation into action with a tap, and then maneuver Ace to the fruit using the D-pad and the A button to jump. It's actually a similar concept to CRUSH3D or Scribblenauts, in that you use magic — here, the power of maths! — to alter the environment and get to the goal, but it still feels wholly original.

Things start simply enough, but when more operators are thrown in the mix platforms can shift on diagonal lines of varying steepness (“y = x + 4”) and even be arranged into wave patterns (“y = sin(x)”). As you progress you'll also see levels with two equations that each affect a different set of platforms, and enemies such as watermelon-spitting monkey turrets and wandering simian foot soldiers must be avoided. Along with the end goal of the fruit, there are three stars within each level. Some are easy to reach, whereas others require careful planning of equations or even a bit of platforming finesse. You can clear a level without grabbing any of the stars, but by picking them up you can unlock one hidden level per world, and a hidden sixth world as well.

A huge part of what makes Ace Mathician so enjoyable is the art style. It's beautiful to look at, from the PiCTOBiTS-in-pastel gridded backgrounds to the bright character sprites and adorable watermelon-chomping victory dance; Ace has colourful charm in spades. The background music, unique to each world, matches perfectly: cheery, very catchy, and evocative of 16-bit puzzle-platformers of old.

The touch screen controls in Ace Mathician require a tad more pressure than you'd expect to register, which takes a bit of getting used to, and one inconvenience is the exclusive use of the A button for jumping. The button controls are responsive, but you have to keep switching between the buttons and the stylus every time you want to either move or manipulate; if you'd been able to jump with the touch screen — or even the L or R shoulder buttons — you could play through a level without changing hand positions repeatedly.

Ace Mathician is fresh and lots of fun, so it's a shame that the experience is over so quickly. You can run through the non-secret stages in little more than an hour, though going for all the stars in the later levels adds time and often some head-scratching to that estimate; still, it feels like Ace quits just when she's hitting her stride. It's strong praise for the gameplay that, after an hour or two of maths-based game, you wish there was more.

It also would have been nice to see the more 'exotic' operators used more often in the puzzles. Making waves with “sin” is one of the coolest things you'll do in the game, but it only happens in a few stages. There's also a significant typo in one puzzle (4-1) where the “y” equation moves platforms horizontally and the “x” vertically; take note!

Conclusion

Ace Mathician will surprise you. It's a game where maths escapes its traditional behind-the-scenes role in physics engines and becomes the central, creative gameplay mechanic in some seriously satisfying puzzle-platforming. Perhaps even more surprisingly for a game based around algebraic equations, it could get by on its personality and charm alone. It doesn't last for long, but it's a wonderful ride while it does, and for 200 Points it's a steal. If you're after a charming and creative puzzle-platformer, or simply a fun, fresh experience on DSiWare, Ace Mathician passes with flying colours.

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