In a hip Boston pub last March, a crowd gathered around Gian Cruz’s iPad. I had noticed the cluster of gamers near the bar not because of the iDevice — which are common at PAX East — but because of the enthusiastic faces reflecting the tablet’s light. Sitting down at my table, I continued watching the group in between swigs of beer and jokes with fellow convention attendees.
Two players seemed to be playing on one system at the same time. Cruz would point out a few things, the game would start, and around 30 seconds later a cheer would erupt. Unable to contain my curiosity — and using my empty drink as an excuse to approach the counter — I slinked up to the spirited throng and peaked over one of their shoulders while weakly attempting to get the bartender’s attention.
After a solid minute of craning my neck, I realized what I was seeing. About seven seconds after that, I processed just one thought: This is going to be the next big iPad game.
Yes, that is Agatha Christie attacking Edgar Allen Poe with words.
“It looks like Puzzle Fighter crossed with Boggle,” said one of the other men standing in the circle, and I still can’t think of a better way to describe it. Cruz explained that it’s called Word Fighter, and he and his partner at developer Feel Every Yummy were highly inspired by those titles when they originally developed the idea for their puzzler.
Basically, two players get a five-by-five set of letters on the bottom half of the screen, and they choose a fighter — based on a real-world author — for the top half of the screen. Trace a finger across any word in the letter tiles to deal a blow. Bigger words cause more damage, naturally. The matches are very competitive, and they last about as long as your average Street Fighter 4 match as well as mimick that game’s best-of-three structure.
To keep things fair, Feel Every Yummy also included a unique set of power moves for each author. For example, Edgar — based on Edgar Allen Poe — can deal triple damage when the player taps the corresponding button. Even more infuriating for players is Agatha’s ability to force her opponent to spell all of their words backwards for a few crucial seconds. That way, if someone isn’t quite as skilled at the word-finding portion of the game, they can still have a good chance of winning if they’re strategic about their use of powerups.
The game is addictive, but it’s the form factor that really sells the concept. Standing in a noisy bar, elbow to elbow, trying to outwit an opponent while several rivals look on with intensity is more than reminiscent of the best days of arcade gaming. I won’t pretend that PAX wasn’t the perfect environment for this, but I could see a gaggle of hip businessmen taking turns battling one another and forcing the loser to pay for drinks.
I finally got my hands on the game after a mutual friend — Bitmob community member and former host of Pixel Revolt Derek Lavigne — introduced me to Gian. The developer handed me the tablet, gave me and Derek the spiel, and I spent little time disposing of my friend. Cruz was impressed enough with my skills to challenge me himself; I took the fight to three matches and got in a few good licks, but in the end it wasn’t enough to conquer the master. Still, I was smiling. Cruz gave me a "good game" and the next awaiting challenger took my place.
The game has other modes — including asynchronous multiplayer for smartphones — but the spotlight feature is easily the single-screen multiplayer that was built from the ground up for tablets (both iPad and Android). PAX Prime 2011 is just beginning as I type this, and Feel Every Yummy’s title was selected as one of the PAX 10 indie games for the show. If you’re attending the video-game expo, I urge you to give the game a try so that you can see what I saw: That this game is going to fill every pub in America with smiling, tablet-lit faces.