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TianTian KuPao review: China’s most popular free iOS game isn’t free at all

TianTian KuPao review: China’s most popular free iOS game isn’t free at all

| October 3, 2013

 

I’m always looking for new games to try out, especially on my phone, which is surprisingly devoid of good time-wasters. So when I noticed that App Annie’s top free iOS game in China was one that I hadn’t tried, I jumped at the chance. TianTian KuPao (天天酷跑, translates to something like “every day cool running”) is a free Tencent-developed running game for iOS and Android. But knowing Tencent (which has a reputation for nickel-and-diming gamers), how free could it really be?

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Gameplay

When you’re actually allowed to play it, TianTian KuPao is really fun. It’s a very simple side-scroller with two buttons on the bottom two corners of the screen: one to slide and one to jump. As your character speeds through the world, collecting coins and avoiding obstacles and drops, you can also collect cool powerups that add variety to the gameplay. One, for example, makes you giant, allowing you to destroy some obstacles and collect more coins. Another magnetizes you so that coins come flying at you from all over the screen. Still another turns every coin (even the less valuable bronze and silver ones) into gold coins for a certain period of time. You can also play it with friends easily by connecting your QQ or WeChat account and adding them, or even by searching for other random players in your area.

Now I'm a giant! Fun with power-ups.

Now I’m a giant! Fun with power-ups.

It’s a very simple game, then, but however basic the concept may be, it’s executed very well. The controls, limited as they are, feel great and whenever I died I always felt like it was as a result of something that I did wrong rather than the result of bad controls or unfair difficulty. The difficulty does ramp up, though. Each level (the levels seem to be random and each time you restart you’ll get a different one) starts off pretty easy, but the longer you stay alive the more obstacles get thrown in your way. Sooner or later, you’re bound to fall into a gap or run into a spike and die. And that’s when things get messy.

Like many of Tencent’s freemium games, TianTian KuPao supports in-app purchases. I have nothing against this in principle, but the game is clearly designed to force you to purchase things at the expense of having fun. It’s also clearly designed to confuse you into spending more money than you probably want to.

First off, TianTian KuPao has a wait-or-pay system. I despise these. Basically, the idea is that you have five lives, and each time you die in the game, you lose one. Lives regenerate at a rate of one every ten minutes, so if you lose lives faster than that (which you will), you’re going to have to either stop playing for a while to wait for your lives to regenerate or cough up some money to buy more lives. They’re not that expensive (you can get 20 for about $1), but I still consider this to be horrendous design. If part of your game design involves forcing people to not play your game then you fucked up, period.

"You don't have enough lives. Go to the store to buy more!"

“You don’t have enough lives. Go to the store to buy more!”

The game also features items you can purchase, like mounts, pets, and additional characters. Some of these can be bought with the in-game gold, and others must be bought with diamonds, which in turn can only be purchased using real money. And although this three currency system with inconvenient exchange rates (RMB to diamonds to gold) seems designed to confuse gamers and keep them from figuring out what things actually cost, if you sit down and do the math, the prices are terrible. Two of the mounts alone will run you more than $10; add in a few other items and some lives and suddenly you’re paying $20-plus for a 2D game that has two buttons. It’s a good game, but it ain’t worth that much.

Graphics and Sound

TianTian KuPao looks about as good as you can expect a 2D side-scroller on a tiny phone screen to look. It may be simple, but the game’s got real polish, and the animations all feel just right. The cutesy world of the game looks pretty interesting as you’re dashing through it, and there’s enough variety that you’re not just seeing the same places over and over again, either.

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It also sounds great. The sound effects are very satisfying and sync well with the animations; there’s something that just feels good about the clink of a gold coin hitting your pocket (and you can tell because in addition to the color changes, gold, silver, and bronze coins all sound different too). Behind the excellent sound effects is an upbeat, pulsing tune that you’d probably get tired of hearing if you were allowed to play the game for more than 10 or 15 minutes at a clip without being hit up for money. Still, the song fits the game’s vibe well, and in the time I played, I came to kind of enjoy it.

Content

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There’s not much of a story to TianTian KuPao, and what there is is pretty derivative of the original side-scrolling platformer: Mario. There’s a damsel in distress who has been kidnapped by a vampire-looking evil guy of some sort (pictured above). It’s up to you to save her. Go! That’s about all the background info you get. But in a game like this there isn’t much need for story, and the game’s visual and sound design does suggest a very cohesive anime-style world full of cute animals, bubbles, and light fantasy elements.

The Verdict

How much you enjoy this game is likely dependent on how willing you are to put up with Tencent’s monetization scheme for it. As is patently obvious from the text of this review, I find the company’s approach pretty offensive — to me, it seems designed to frustrate and trick people — but if you can put up with it, I have to admit that this is an excellent if simple game that’d make a great time-waster when you’re sitting on the train or squished into the subway.

 

Review Overview

Gameplay
2
Graphics
2
Sound
1.2
Content
1.3
6.5

Good but flawed

Good: Excellent controls, animations, and sound effects make for a simple but enjoyable mobile platformer.

Bad: Crippled by obnoxious monetization scheme.

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