Television sleuths play such a huge part in British culture that you can identify different periods in your life by the detectives you watched. One of my earliest memories is of watching Bergerac working his charm on the apparently psychotic inhabitants of Jersey.
Then the dark tales of middle-class Oxfordshire accompanied me through my early teens, as Inspector Morse grumbled and scowled his towards a series of arrests. If my twenties have taught me anything, though, it’s that Columbo destroys them all with his bumbling demeanour.
But there’s a new detective in town who would give even the great mac-wearing one a run for his money. Meet F8, an amnesiac robot sleuth who fits the description of TV detective quite literally, possessing as he does a CRT screen for a head. He’s about to lead you through one of the freshest, most solidly built mobile games of recent times.
Mystery Mania begins with little F8 awakening from a long sleep in a creepy and ostensibly deserted mansion, without the faintest clue as to who he is or what he’s doing there. It’s your task to guide him to through each of the mansion’s trap-laden rooms, solving puzzles and recovering his memory piece by piece.
This is done through a highly simplified point and click interface. You place your cursor over each room’s interactive elements using the directional pad, then click to send F8 over (provided he’s not obstructed) to make use of them.
These interactive elements might be items that can combine with others to useful effect (such as a battery with a remote control), switches that set off ingenious contraptions (like lasers and electromagnets) or just red herrings that send F8 sprawling across the room in comical fashion.
It’s up to you to figure out how the pieces of each puzzle slot together in order to escape from each room.
If that sounds daunting, it really isn’t. While each room relies on solid logic to progress, the bar for entry is set reassuringly low. You’re introduced to the exaggerated physics engine and the rules of play almost imperceptibly, easing you into synch with Mystery Mania’s way of thinking.
In keeping with the beautifully cartoony graphics, this game works very much within cartoon logic. If you cause a creature to swallow a metallic object, for example, of course it’s going to be dragged in by that magnet. Anyone who’s seen an episode of Roadrunner knows that.
That cartoon sensibility extends to the very video-gamey concerns of death and Game Over - very simply, neither state exists in Mystery Mania.
If you try and flip that short-circuiting switch you’ll simply be treated to a funny animation of F8 convulsing as he receives a sharp shock. There are no penalties here, just an all-pervading sense of experimental fun.
And experiment is something that developer Progressive Media clearly wants you to do, as evidenced by instances of branching routes and even alternative solutions to some of the puzzles. It would have been nice to have seen a little more of this, as the few examples where you can cut loose from the game’s rigid structure are probably its finest.
Indeed, if I’m left with one regret from my time spent with Mystery Mania it’s that there isn’t more of it. For a start, you’ll be able to finish it in well under two hours, even at a leisurely pace - the game’s all inclusive, non-penalising philosophy sees to that, as does the sheer lack of rooms (I counted 26).
In addition, except for one or two notable exceptions, the puzzles aren’t quite clever or intricate enough to really satisfy anyone well versed in video game puzzle lore.
While they’re never less than brilliant fun to solve, the solutions are just a little too straightforward, especially towards the end of the game when you’d expect the challenge to ramp up. The final room in particular is a real let-down, practically telegraphing the solution to you.
But make no mistake, Mystery Mania remains a mobile masterpiece. It’s a unique experience, taking the decades-old point and click interface and distilling it to minimalist, one-thumb perfection.
It’s one of the best-looking mobile games we’ve ever seen, yet it moves at a super-smooth frame rate thanks to Progressive Media’s brilliantly robust vector engine, as highlighted by EA Mobile producer Scott Humphries in our recent interview.
The visual style is at once strikingly distinctive and perfectly functional, interactive elements rendered in bold primary colours while non-essential items are coloured with shades of grey.
It even manages to include within its brief running time a simply told yet quite moving story of rejection and loneliness, which calls to mind films like Edward Scissorhands.
It all runs through the wonderfully expressive character of F8, whose TV-for-a-head allows for a far greater emotive range than any human would have been able to achieve. You’ll have no doubts when F8 is happy, his screen-head turning pink with a large pixelised heart replacing his facial features.
If there’s one thing that defines Mystery Mania it’s personality, which is an all-too-rare attribute in mobile gaming. With an assured sense of style and a charming lead character, allied to solidly simple puzzling, it shouldn’t take a detective to figure out whether you should buy this or not.