A long time ago, before ‘mobile game’ conjured up visions of free-to-play, hundred-dollar bags of gems, and gatcha up the wazoo, most people’s image of a mobile game was likely a small, casual time waster that was both entertaining in short bursts and affordable to boot. While games like that have never fully gone away, we don’t see as many of them as we used to. I think one of my favorite things about Tiny Pirate Ship ($3.99) is in how it takes me back to those days. That’s a blade that can cut two ways, however.
Congratulations! You’re the captain of your very own spiffy new tiny pirate ship. It’s not very roomy, but at least you don’t have to worry about mutinies. Since you’ve got a ship, there’s really nothing else to do but to head out onto the high seas and get to looting and looting. A brief yet slightly boggling tutorial will walk you through everything you can do. Swipe your finger to steer, tap the screen once to fire your cannons, and double-tap to make your ship dash. Developer, your little wordless tap animation can also be read as a swipe. It’s okay to just use words to explain how to play. The tutorial culminates in a battle with a Kraken, and no matter what you do your cool powerful ship is going to go under.
Congratulations! You’re the captain of a second, much weaker tiny pirate ship. You’re going to have to scrape up the cash if you want to get a fully decked-out ride to go take revenge on that stupid Kraken. The only way to get your hands on that loot is to take it from others. Wander around the map attacking the ships that appear, making sure to grab any crates or barrels they leave behind. There are different kinds of ships that can appear, some of whom are more than capable of hitting back, and you’ll have to deal with other non-ship hazards as well. Your starting cannon requires you to get right up in the faces of your hull foes, and your starting can only take a single hit. If you can last long enough, the Kraken might appear. Dodge its tentacles and you can take home a little bonus for your efforts. Good luck!
You’ll probably end up sinking another ship, of course. Luckily, you don’t lose this one. You can even use your ill-gotten loot to upgrade it, if you want. There are also better ships you can buy if you have enough money, each one specializing in a certain thing. Ships can be upgraded along three parameters. Armor gives you extra hit points, Sprint gives you a better boost, and Cannons increases the range of your shots. There are also several Perks you can pick up. This all costs more and more as you upgrade, so it’s quite the grind to get a nice maxed out ship.
The bigger grind comes from the new maps, though. You’ll need a ton of loot to open up the other maps, so expect to spend a fair bit of time on map one before progressing to the second and so on. You won’t be getting your revenge on that Kraken for a good long while. I understand that to an extent the grind is the game, especially given my love of role-playing games. But a long, direct grind is something you can really only get away with by carefully setting up the rest of the design, and I’m not sure Tiny Pirate Ship sweaters that off perfectly.
So, first of all, I’m not super-thrilled with the controls in this game. There are times where you are going to want to be firing your cannons rapidly, but if you aren’t extremely careful you’ll end up boosting instead. Unexpectedly boosting in the middle of combat is generally not a good thing, and will result in taking a hit quite often. I’d love for these two actions to be more distinct in terms of how you activate them, perhaps making one of them on a virtual button. I think the developer was trying to avoid such things, but preserving the purity of the UI loses its nobility when it comes at the cost of the gameplay quality.
I’m also not overly satisfied with how the game’s difficulty seems to work. In addition to being a grinder, there’s also a score attack element to the game. Your highest loot haul is recorded, and there are leaderboards where you can compare with other players. Ideally then you would want to survive for as long as possible, allowing you to get a higher score. But the thing is, outside of the Kraken’s appearances, it never really feels like it’s getting any harder. It ends up feeling more like a battle of attrition, and the longer you play any given session the more boring it gets. I’m not really sure how this problem could be fixed, but endless games really do need escalation to stay interesting and I don’t get that feeling with Tiny Pirate Ship.
All that having been said, I did have fun with Tiny Pirate Ship and will likely fire it up for a round here and there in the future. That’s really how it plays best. It’s more of a toy you pull out for a few minutes, like spinning your ring on a table or something. Treat the grind as something that will eventually solve itself. Ignore the leaderboards. Just load it up, blast some ships, grab some loot, and put it away after a couple of rounds. That doesn’t fix the control issue, but that problem loses some of its punch when you’re not so fixed on surviving those long haul sessions. It’s worth the few bucks it’s asking if you’re looking for a little action game to enjoy.