The Heathcliff comic strip is a longtime favourite in many funny pages, having remained curled up on its spot for 40 years. If you want to create a spot-the-difference game, then the widespread character recognition and enormous backlog of source material Heathcliff offers would seem to make a good foundation. It certainly may, but Heathcliff: Spot On also shows some of the drawbacks of such a plan when not implemented to the best of its potential
Spot On is true to the roots of any spot-the-difference game. Players hold their 3DS or DSi in the sideways “book” style and are shown two copies of a single-panel Heathcliff comic on both screens. The touch screen contains five changes that must be found within a certain time limit to complete the level. Tapping on the wrong spot will deplete a chunk of the timer, and running out of time eliminates a “life.”
Spot On feels much like a marathon to see how high a score you receive before you lose, but it does save your progress on the current run so you can return to it later. You also have a limited number of items to help you out, depending on the difficulty you select. These include the ability to pause or entirely reset the timer, a random reveal of one difference, or the nuclear option of just revealing all the differences and moving on.
The panels themselves look very nicely scanned and crisp on the screens. There are 120 or so comics to take on, some in colour but many in daily newspaper black-and-white. The differences between copies of a panel will sometimes take advantage of colour if it’s available and are overall a decent challenge. Sometimes a difference is as obvious as a letter missing from a sign or a shirt being a different colour, but other times that last difference you’re frantically searching for can be a simple elimination of reflection lines or a window missing from a background skyscraper. It all seems fair, though, and there will be a different quintet of changes each time you encounter a panel — even when you face it again after losing a life.
While the fundamentals are sound, the surrounding treatment of it drains a good amount of spirit from the source material. The player HUD, which keeps track of lives, time, and helper items, looks ugly compared to the comics and is brought up and removed from the screen by a clumsy, sideways press of the L or R buttons. The HUD features a less-than-appealing image of Heathcliff’s face surrounded by the little stars that temporarily appear on the panels and can be tapped for points. The items are represented by symbols such as an hourglass and magnifying glass that make sense, but milk bottles represent finding all clues and a fish represents pausing the timer (because fish are eaten by cats and cats have “paws”, perhaps?). It’s mostly non-intuitive and takes some getting used to.
After every 10 levels, the game also turns from the panels to play a “whack-a-mole” style bonus game called “Waka Heath” that involves tapping on static images of mice rising out of cans while avoiding the big cat himself. It’s unappealing and not very fun, but at least it doesn’t last long and gives you a random item.
What may be most disappointing about Spot On, however, is that none of the panels in the game have their captions. One-panel comics often do not contain their dialogue in speech balloons, but instead rely on quotes or text beneath the image for context. It is understandable that this text shouldn’t appear during the game to afford more real estate on the screen for images, but it could have been brought up on the HUD or with the pause button. There is even an image gallery where you can view the panels outside of any time or game restraints, but the captions aren’t there, either.
Without the captions, many of the cartoons in Spot On feel like random views into the life of a strange cat. He’s doing something, but you don’t always know exactly what or why. His owners are saying something, but their mouths are frozen wordlessly (or sometimes missing entirely, if that’s one of the differences). The appeal of featuring comics as spot-the-difference fodder takes a big hit when not all of the spirit of the material is there. In fact, it even hurts it somewhat as without context you’re basically being asked to find the differences on the same collection of flat characters and locations over and over.
In addition to the image gallery and “Waka Heath,” Spot On includes an extra where you can take any of the panels and colour them in, but the system for doing so is as clunky and uninspiring as the rest of the interface. The music is simple and unmemorable, yet harmless.
Heathcliff: Spot On works well as a spot-the-difference game in itself, but unfortunately lacks the variety and pizzazz that a licensed title like this has the potential for showcasing. Huge Heathcliff fans may still like to work on the panels even without the captions, but might be turned away by the manner in which it is all packaged. Those new to Heathcliff will likely find little here to draw them in and would probably better be served by a spot-the-difference game with wider-ranging images and themes.