I enjoy the simplicity of Grapple Dog. The title tells you that this is a game about a dog with a grappling hook, and it is what it says on the tin. It’s this direct approach that encompasses the entire Grapple Dog design philosophy and recalls the heyday of mascot platformers. The result is a mostly unsurprising but very solid retro platformer, with controls just enough to achieve an enjoyable flow.
Similar to classic platform games, Grapple Dog’s story comes with a very light touch. Pablo the dog and his anthropomorphic friends accidentally authorize a robot bent on collecting mystical gadgets – artifacts that resemble everyday objects from our world – to open a portal and return to his world – which, of course, is theirs. would destroy. It seems to comment mildly on throwaway culture, and when it ventures into more serious territory, it doesn’t feel quite deserved. That said, the writing is unremarkable and what’s there is often funny, especially with occasional dialogue as you meet townspeople in the various stages. And with a meme-friendly twist, a particularly good performance will allow you to grab collectibles in a stage, pet the dog.
Grapple Dog looks like a lost mascot platformer from the Game Boy Advance era, when the relatively small screen lent itself to thick outlines and saturated colors. It’s a nice nostalgic aesthetic that is now underused, as most retro-inspired games tend to be modeled after styles more akin to experiences found on the NES and SNES. I loved the chunky look, and it felt especially at home on my Switch OLED when playing in handheld mode.
Like the platform games of the era, Grapple Dog limits itself to a few simple features and then repeats them. You can jump (with accompanying wall jump and wall slide), do a mid-air stomp and, of course, wrestle. With just a handful of moves in your arsenal, it’s always very clear what you need to do to move forward, even as each subsequent level gradually increases in difficulty. While the game never hits the level of punishment like a hard-hitting platformer like Celeste, it constantly tests your skills with iterative challenges. Fortunately, the game always provides players with the foundation they need to improve.
As an example, in one phase you have to grapple with a moving platform, which then builds up the skills for the time you have to switch between a few moving platforms. On another level, you can shoot from a cannon on an area that has to be jumped over a wall; after which you have to struggle between the cannons. By the time you reach the second half of Grapple Dog, you’ll be nimble enough to dodge fireballs and razor blades as you swing in a wide arc around a moving platform to jump on top – giving you the right amount of height to get to. reach a cannon that fires you just before the next grapple platform. It’s a feat you may not have been able to pull off from the get-go, but the game has built your skills up to this point so iteratively that it’s become an approachable challenge – you could even get into it with ease. the zoneonly realizing afterwards how much complicated choreography you have made.
The game also has a pretty generous checkpoint system, which collects all stage items collected, such as fruits and gems, you’ve gotten so far and restarts you from the last flag you managed to pass if you hit all your life (represented by the pads of a paw). However, if you fall off a tricky platform section with life left, just start at the nearest safe area to try again. This player-friendly approach lasts all the time, including in boss fights, and even drops health elements when you get to critical levels. It’s just enough to give you a chance to fight, but not so much that you’re comfortable with full health supplies.
The only place in Grapple Dog where the difficulty takes a sharp turn from this smooth difficulty is during one of the later boss battles. The battle adds an element of the air, similar to Sonic riding Tails’ plane in several Sonic games, which is unique to this battle alone. It’s a cute tribute to the blue hedgehog, but this departure doesn’t work well, making it by far the hardest battle in the game. While the game has offered fluid motion up to that point, the airplane element adds an artificial amount of restriction to your movement that just feels suffocating. Even the final battle’s challenge felt relatively easy compared to the difficulty that was more in line with what I’ve come to expect from the rest of the game.
As for bugs, I had a few crashes during my playing time, including one after I just managed to get my hands on some particularly tough gems. The levels are bite-sized enough that I didn’t lose much progress at any point, but it can be frustrating when you’ve just passed a tough gauntlet and have nothing to show for it.
Gem grabbing is a particularly important goal, as Grapple Dog unfortunately borrows one of my least favorite elements from more recent platform games: the boss battle for each area is concluded by collecting a certain number of gems. There are seven available in each stage, with five scattered throughout the stage itself and two more available to reach a certain level of fruit collecting. You can also find bonus stages that give you three gems each to defeat enemies, collect pips, or race to the finish. The gem gating isn’t too much of a hassle until the very end. I’d gone through the boss phases without having to go back, but my margin of safety got smaller and smaller with each boss. By the time I reached the last encounter, the requirement was well above my current gems. This meant going back and scouring past stages to find enough gems, usually just two or three extra in a run, until I finally collected enough for the final stage. It’s fun revisiting the early stages with all the wrestling skills I’ve developed since then, but it’s less satisfying when it feels obligatory. The post-game consists of extra, extra hard challenges, but these are also gem-gated, which quickly sapped my interest in exploring them.
Grapple Dog doesn’t do anything new or revolutionary, but delivers just fine based on a simple premise. It felt like discovering a forgotten gem in a Game Boy Advance bargain bin, then taking it home and discovering a few parts that are a little uneven or clunky. It’s the kind of game that’s instantly likable and endearing, even if I don’t expect it to captivate me in the long run.