Smartphone games can offer magical moments. I will never forget walking into Brighton’s Jubilee Library and firing up God of Blades to unlock the special library-themed sword in that book-obsessed classic. And I don’t think I’ll forget yesterday, the sun blazing outside while I stayed in, curtains drawn, and hunted down pieces of map in Alto’s Odyssey: The Lost City.
The Lost City is a revamped version of the endless sand-surfer from Land & Sea and Snowman. It’s a special edition that has just landed on Apple Arcade, and I pretty much lost the weekend to it. The Lost City itself is a new landscape for you to race through, beautiful houses and distant caverns, and you find it not by surfing as far as you can, but by collecting those pieces of map, ten of them, scattered over the world.
Each piece of map is an adventure in itself – there is often a trick to getting it. Because you can’t slow down, when you see the beacon that means a map fragment is up ahead, there’s a wonderful tension as you prepare for – who knows what? It’s a bit like that old Lohman & Barkley sketch about the people visiting a drive-in restaurant in a car whose breaks have failed – if you miss the map fragment, it will come around again. But these are wonderfully compact set-pieces whether you get them the first time or the fifth – one might have you wall-riding into the sky to grab it, another might make you duck down beneath the rope bridge you’re grinding across.
The Lost City is pretty fantastic, but more than anything it reminds me of what a special game this is. There’s a wonderfully grainy texture to the endless slopes and valleys you race across, and rarely has the horizon been treated so well in a video game, moving from rosy dawn to nights filled with stars, while a bright moon coasts past distant temples. I’m struck by how beautifully everything clips together – you perform simple tricks to earn speed boosts that allow you to smash through rocks, you select between varying paths as a hot air balloon rises into view trailing a rope you can grind along.
This is a lonely, beautifully poised world filled with the promise of adventure. And this new version has woven an entirely new mystery into the existing fabric. I’ve had a lovely weekend with Alto, and I suspect I’ll still be at it once the hot spell has passed and the curtains are open again. What a game.