We all know Minecraft by now, the massively cool 3D sandbox creativity game that lets you explore, craft, and build anything you like. Then there's Terraria, a game that took the same formula and flattened it into a 2D sidescrolling game, adding combat and some other nice extras in the process. Both titles have spawned similar games on numerous platforms, but so far the mobile realm hasn't been a fertile ground for the sandbox genre. Until Junk Jack came along. This 2D pixel-gorgeous game takes the all-too-familiar crafting, digging, and exploration formula to your iPhone, iPod Touch, and iPad, bringing with it an entire world of possibilities.
Starting off with nothing and standing on the green, green grass, Jack has one ability you'll make heavy use of: breaking things apart and collecting them. Tap blocks to slowly break them to pieces, moving over them by swiping the screen to add them to your inventory. You can jump one block high, which Jack will do on his own when you walk up to a ledge, and by swiping the screen upwards you can leap across single-spaced gaps. Just enough to navigate the world.
Naturally, you'll want to start exploring right away. Move left and right to see more of the landscape, collecting wood and checking out the cows and sheep and such. The real treasures are underground, though. Dig yourself a stairway leading into the mysterious underworld, a place where you can discover precious metals, useful materials, enemies, and breakable crates. These crates contain notes that teach you how to play the game, imparting recipes and generalized tips as a reward for your inquisitiveness.
Crafting is as simple as moving items to the crafting boxes and tapping a button. If you get the recipe right, you'll make something new to play around with! Some items require other items to be crafted before you can make them, such as anvils to make stronger metal tools. Everything you make can be used, and with two levels of building (background and the playing field), you have a surprising number of decorating options for your humbe pixel abode.
Analysis: The current tradition of sandbox games started with Dwarf Fortress, Infiniminer, and of course, Minecraft. Dozens of smartly-crafted games in that tradition have followed, each adding its own slant to the genre. Junk Jack's major contribution is its portability, but also its presentation. With nice-looking pixel art and music by chiptune artist Bright Primate, the style is more polished than bare bones retro, even though it manages to keep its old school charms.
If Junk Jack has any real drawbacks (other than mildly sloppy controls, which is sort of a given on a buttonless device) it's that, at least for a while, you'll feel overwhelmed by the possibilities. Just like early Minecraft players noticed, when you can do just about anything, that means you have difficult time picking something. With Junk Jack, crafting recipes have changed just enough so that you have to learn what to make and how to make it all over again. This leaves you wandering around, digging and gathering with little direction. The game takes strides to help keep you focused by introducing crates that contain recipe hints, but finding and using them is still like spinning a roulette wheel. The good side of all of this is that Junk Jack is very much still in development, and the team behind the game is very pro-active when it comes to fixing bugs, tweaking the gameplay, and responding to player feedback.
Worth noting: the game's official forum has a Junk Jack beginner's guide to help you get started with the occasionally-obtuse game. There's even a page a Junk Jack wiki to nudge you in the right direction, so you don't have to feel lost. Unless you really want to!
Junk Jack is a bare bones creativity sandbox game at the moment, but it's rich with exploration and intrigue, two of the most important ingredients for this sort of game. Get in now, have fun poking about the beautiful pixel world, and enjoy the ride as new elements are added to the experience!