When I was a kid, I wasn’t buying a new video game every week. I had a set collection of cartoony 2D platformers that I cycled between for years. I don’t have any memory of acquiring Taz in Escape from Mars. It just appeared one day and therefore it was a game I played and liked. I used to live in blissful childlike ignorance, where how much fun I was having superseded whether or not it was considered a good game.
When I play Grapple Dog, I’m taken back to that far-off era of my life. The charming indie game about a dog with a grappling hook, which launches on February 10 for Nintendo Switch and PC, shares a lot of similarities with some of my childhood favorites. It’s a fun, colorful, and deceptively challenging title that feels like it was pulled straight from my old Sega Genesis collection.
Grapple Dog’s entire premise is in its title: pPlayers control a cute yellow dog who finds a grappling hook. That simple tool opens up a wealth of platforming potential. The pup can swing across pits, cling onto moving objects, and seek out hidden collectibles by quickly grappling between objects. For a modern comparison, it’s a bit like Celeste with a sunnier disposition.
Everything about the game feels warmly familiar, down to its structure. Players zip around six different, themed worlds (grass, fire, ice, you know the drill) that each contain a set of levels culminating in a boss battle against a big robot. Levels are filled with collectibles in the form of oranges, a delicious stand-in for coins, and hidden jewels. It’s like a Mario game where petting the protagonist isn’t weird.
Some of its other ideas specifically remind me of my old favorites. It has bonus stages where players need to complete specific challenges, like defeating a room of enemies in a set time. It calls the original Sonic games to mind with their gem-collecting minigames. In a more explicit reminder of the blue blur, the pup curls up into a perfect ball when he jumps and can bonk enemies. Each little touch reminded me of a different game, constantly keeping a nostalgic smile on my face.
The aesthetics play into that as well. Most notably, the game features a stealthily top-notch soundtrack that feels like it was salvaged from a forgotten Genesis game. It’s a collection of energetic, electronic bops with samples punctuating beats. Visually, it’s perhaps more comparable to a Game Boy Advance game, using simple shapes, thick outlines, and bright colors to evoke platformers like Kirby and the Amazing Mirror.
Don’t be fooled by its friendly visuals: Grapple Dog presents a real challenge. Some late game levels and bosses had my thumbs throbbing as I quickly hooked and swung from platform to platform like a more technologically capable Tarzan. It’s the right level of challenge for a game like this. All the challenges are surmountable, but still tricky enough that it reminds me of all the platformers I spent years trying to master as a kid. They do make them like they used to, it turns out.
On the subject of difficulty, Grapple Dog deserves a special shout out for its accessibility options. Players can choose to turn off damage entirely, allowing them to just focus on the platforming, or enable infinite jumps. The flexibility is great for both kids and people with disability needs, but I found myself using them, too. When I was struggling on one of the final bosses, I flipped damage off for one phase that was giving me trouble and switched it back on right after. It alleviated what would have brewed into resentment for the cute dog game and kept the experience light.
It’s especially appreciated because, like a lot of classic games, it has some moments of frustration. In trying to introduce a new idea every few levels, there are a few duds. One level has players swinging and swimming around while being chased by a mechanical serpent. Just the platforming is a challenge enough on its own, so the added complication makes it a hair-pulling stage. Every rose has its thorns, and every Battletoads has its motorbike chase.
Even with some problems (I had a few crashes and frequent frame dips on Switch, which should be fixed by launch), I had a delightful weekend playing through Grapple Dog. Prior to starting it, I had spent a good month slowly chipping away at the Sega games included with Nintendo Switch Online + Expansion Pack. I fell in love with games I never got to play as a kid, like Ristar, and had been feeling a twinge of sadness that I couldn’t play more well-designed 2D games like that in 2022. Grapple Dog answered my prayers, and for that, it deserves a pet.
Grapple Dog will launch on February 10 for PC and Nintendo Switch.
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