The Great Giana Sisters, first released in 1987, was so scandalously similar to Super Mario Bros. that Nintendo immediately reacted and succeeded in having the title struck from the market. Available for only a short while before going M.I.A., the game nonetheless managed to become a hit in Europe and thereafter to garner an enduring grassroots, cult success and even spawned an unofficial fan-remake, Giana’s Return. Despite Nintendo’s historic attempts to extinguish the title, The Great Giana Sisters made a return to the Nintendo DS handheld last year and later appeared in the app store as Armin Gessert’s Giana Sisters, courtesy of Bad Monkee.
In all honestly, the app store is the perfect home for the game. Nintendo is nothing if not the house of Mario, and on a Nintendo system the sisters will always live in the plumbers’ shadows. It would be so even if the game did not share so many similarities with the Italian brothers’ adventures in the Mushroom Kingdom. And that the game does share so many similarities — from jumping on bad guys’ heads to smashing bricks and collecting gems instead of coins — only puts it further into that shadow. In the iPhone, Giana Sisters has found a platform where it can enjoy some time in the sun, and what Giana Sisters lacks in originality, it makes up for in polish and personality.
If you’re already familiar with Super Mario Bros., you’re going to feel right at home with Giana Sisters, bashing bricks, stomping enemies, throwing fireballs, leaping bottomless chasms, and collecting gems for high scores and extra lives. Giana Sisters is a platformer inspired by the best. And while many games having ripped off the brothers Mario felt like hollow shams, Giana Sisters manages to capture the magic and make it its own. The game fills Mario’s shoes as if they were hand-me-downs, rather than stolen from his locker.
Artwork: Armin Gessert’s Giana Sisters has been beautifully updated for the iPhone, and sports some of the finest artwork the app store has to offer. The game animates well, and the artwork looks almost like an oil painting in motion or claymation. And despite the game having borrowed so many ideas from Super Mario Bros., the enemies are original and spectacular. I love the way the crabs snap their claws at you, how the crawling jellyfish creatures splash out of existence when killed, how the eyeball monsters deflate and resemble melting ice cream in death, and how enemy bodies remain on the board.
Consistently, foreground objects stand out from the background, making paths and footholds easy to identity. And in every level the background layer is used to lend a sense of mood to the stage; the backgrounds are not disposable pieces of artwork here, as in so many games. Instead of flat black backdrops in caves, Giana Sisters instead features textured stone work, cave etchings, stalagmites and stalagtites, draping roots and fungal growth.
Even the brief loading screens and stylized buttons are attractive, and suit the overall tone of the game’s artwork. Giana Sisters is gorgeous, and most certainly outshines its genre peers Soosiz (in which everything just looked generic) and Plushed (which prides itself on its inconsistent and poorly animated artwork).
Control: By their very definition, platformers require precision control. This has ever been an issue for platformers on the iPhone, as the lack of physical buttons makes precise jumps and complex platforming extremely difficult. Giana Sisters is hurt in not having a physical control pad, but it’s not a grievous wound. In fact, given the limitations of touch-screen platforming, the game has some of the tightest platformer controls out there.
For buttons, players have left and right arrows, a jump button and a fireball button. They’re responsive and easy to use, and the jump button is contact sensitive, meaning that a quick tap will execute a low, short jump, while a longer hold will cause the jump to be higher and longer. This is important and ties strongly into gameplay, as too high a jump can get you killed in some circumstances — bashing your head on a ceiling, causing your jump to fall short and you to fall into a bottomless pit, for example. Having control over your jumps in this way is great, greatly improves the precision of the controls and keeps the platforming varied and interesting. It’s a small thing that makes a huge difference, and lots of other iPhone platformers have neglected it.
Stages: Giana Sisters includes 32 classic stages, reworked with updated graphics, sound, etc. from the original game, and then adds 80 brand new stages. Stages are generally short, making them a perfect fit for the mobile device, and longer stages usually have a mid-stage checkpoint from which you can resume your progress. Stages are well-designed both artistically and in terms of play, featuring plenty of enemies, obstacles and other challenges, as well has secret areas, hard-t0-reach collectibles and more. Stages are generally fun to replay in search of gems you might have failed to collect on the first time through. Collecting all of the red gems in an area unlocks bonus stages, so you will definitely want to scour each stage to find them.
Enemies: I’ve already shared a few examples of enemies and why I like them, but there are so many more, from peons encountered in early stages through boss creatures guarded the end of some areas. The enemy designs are excellent, each is well animated and it’s just plain fun to see the motions they go through when on the attack or in death. And it’s super cool how their stomped bodies linger in the stage after having been defeated. Several times I’ve found myself just messing with enemies, teasing them to see their animations. Got myself killed by the yellow crab the first time I teased him, but it was worth it.
Audio: The music is pretty peppy, overall, but has some nice melodies and hooks. It suits the tone of the game extremely well, and doesn’t feel repetitive. The sound effects are also pretty solid, with enemies making squishing, splashing and other sounds as necessary. The developers obviously put a lot of thought into producing a quality audio package and it shows.
Open Feint Support: We at NoDpad dig social achievement networking in games, and Giana Sisters scores for its Open Feint integration. Twenty-nine achievements await you, and of course there are leaderboards (which only makes my gripes about the game’s scoring system harder to swallow; see below).
All-ages Fun: Giana Sisters is totally kid friendly, but not so kiddie that it cannot be enjoyed by adult gamers as well. It walks that fine line very well, and parents should have no issues handing the game off to their youngsters to play, nor feel guilty for indulging in it themselves. The game is especially friendly for young girls, which is nice to see as so many games are male-oriented. But I’m a guy, and I really enjoy the game too; it’s not just for girls.
No Penalties: Stages are short and often have mid-stage checkpoints, meaning that you will never have to replay long sections of any stage because you died. That’s actually nice. What bothers me is that your score carries over when die, and even when you lose all of your lives and continue. Most games will reset your score after a continue, meaning that competitive gamers wanting to make the high score boards really have to get good at the game to do so. In Giana Sisters, you never lose your points, and so there’s not much incentive not to die. By correlative reasoning, there’s not much reason to compete for high scores either.
No Story: Even the original Super Mario Bros. offered a simplistic story of rescuing the princess from the big, evil turtle monster. Giana Sisters doesn’t even give you that much. The game is a blast to play, but it’s never clear why the girl is risking her life to collect so many gems. I guess she’s living in a material world, and she’s just a material girl …
Getting down to brass tacks, Armin Gessert’s Giana Sisters is the single best platformer on the iPhone. If you want a better game, you’ll have to lay hands on a Nintendo DS to play New Super Mario Bros. And even then, Giana Sisters stacks up for its fantastic art direction, unique creature designs and the fact that the entire game world isn’t the product of a bizarre acid trip.
With 112 stages promising hours of gameplay, solid controls and some of the best art direction on the app store, traditional platforming is alive and well with the sisters. We should all feel extremely lucky to have them on the iPhone, a platform where they can finally step out of brothers’ shadows and carry the platforming flag. Yes, the game borrows aplenty from its inspiration, but more than makes up for its lack of originality in genuine charm, slick presentation and being gobs of fun to play. If you have only one platforming game on your iPhone, this is the one.