Ultimate Stick Fight is a charming title. I’ve never used that term for a video game before, but it feels right, so that’s what we’ll go with. Maybe 45 seconds into the game I was already surprised at the depth it displayed. It didn’t stop impressing me for a long time after that. For the humble stickman, a character beleaguered with forgettable Android titles since the early days of the Play Store, it’s a real point of pride — and kind of a shame when you remember developer Dragon Nest Studio can’t copyright him.
A Nimble Fighter
Slash and Ryan, the two playable fighters, are every bit as different as their names suggest. Whether you choose the plain black stick figure or the sword-wielding ninja with mechanical legs — I’ll leave it to you to figure out which is which — the gameplay shines thanks to some way-above-average combat. Good and bad guys alike bounce around the screen like low-rent Matrix characters, fighting with bo-staffs and dynamite and dumpsters as a combo counter tells you how many punches you’ve landed without taking damage. Separate buttons for punching, kicking, jumping, and throwing things make those combos incredibly satisfying, too, since you’re doing a little more than mashing the same corner of your screen for a minute before moving on to the next level.
Looks aren’t the only thing that separate Ryan and Slash, however. Their fighting styles vary so much switching from one save to the other could be a little confusing; Ryan’s short-ranged attacks are quicker and do more damage where Slash’s sword has a much broader reach but somehow doesn’t hurt quite as bad. I suppose any game that has you karate fighting with characters you might find in a bored high schooler’s notebook requires a pretty large suspension of disbelief, so I’m willing to concede that last point. Convincing me that stick figures should gush blood when struck will take more effort. Whatever. It’s still a good game.
A Worthwhile Foe
Ultimate Stick Fighter’s enemy design adheres to the same old-school ethos: Grunts , of course, do little but run at you and die, while rarer enemies come with specialized offensive and defensive capabilities like weapons or immunity to certain moves. You know how every game like this has that one particular enemy that’s so cheap and annoying you have to shut it off before something gets broken when they kill you? If so, you’ll simultaneously love and hate the Dynamite Guy, who throws explosives at you and runs totally off-screen where you can’t hurt him like a pyromaniac Boo the second you make eye contact. I’ve never felt so much rage and nostalgia at the same time.
The baddies you kill drop cash (In increasing amounts, if you beat on their bodies a bit before they despawn) used to upgrade your character’s base stats and combinations. Hitting harder is always cool, of course, but I got a much bigger kick out of improving the various attack combos Slash and Ryan bring to the battlefield. Dropping some cash on your base three-punch combination, for instance, may add a whole extra punch to the end of the attack, and almost all upgrades add some visual flair on top of the quantifiable improvement. Something about big blue lighting bolts coming out of your hands as you land a brutal finishing punch on your stick-shaped nemesis is really satisfying — seeing them fly across the screen after a punch critical is downright awesome.
If there’s a downside to all this, there are two. For those of you who didn’t like that sentence: Please forgive me. I went to a state school. While the enemies did get tougher, I can’t say I ever felt challenged by the game until later levels on the hardest difficulty. As much as I hate to complain about this — and I promise I very much do — this is all due to a big imbalance when it comes to currency. Enemies drop entirely too much cash. Throwing a dumpster at a group turns the screen into something resembling the top of Scrooge McDuck’s money pit. On top of that, giving the game a rating on Google’s Play Store automatically nets you a cool 100k in Stick Fight currency, which is more than enough to make your character overpoweringly good before the game gets a chance to challenge you. Whether the idea of that bothers or entices you, there’s no question it’s a lot more generous than the average smartphone game.
Kill That Funky Music
My biggest beef with the game is by far its awful soundtrack selection. Each five-or-so minute fight comes replete with a roughly 30-second loop of some godawful guitar or synth music, which repeats ad naseaum until you win or die. It’s kind of an odd reference, but the best comparison I can find is the music featured in old N64 pro wrestling games like WCW vs. NWO: World Tour. If you haven’t had the pleasure, imagine a cruddy guitar that probably isn’t a guitar at all playing a generic rock riff over and over and over until your ears bleed. It’s a dramatic if not entirely inaccurate idea of what to expect. If you like it, that’s fine, I guess… just never invite me over to listen to music.
Pretty Darn Close
As much as this game impressed me, I’m still not at a point where I’m comfortable giving a stick-figure game a perfect score. Even if I was, the music and the broken upgrade system would most likely keep it from that. It’s certainly a good game, especially if you count games Double Dragon or Bad Dudes or Final Fight among your past favorites. In many ways it outshines every other beat-em-up I’ve seen on the platform. It just isn’t perfect. Think of all the crummy games you’ve played once and deleted before you decide it isn’t worth your attention, because it probably is.