We went on a journey with Frog Hop. It began with not liking it much at all. Then it went through a period of finding merit in a few of the levels, all the way to thinking it was really rather good. About every fifteen minutes, we changed our minds on what score we would give it.
First impressions are everything, they say, and Frog Hop’s are terrible. As you can tell from the screenshots, this is not a particularly attractive or detailed game. Your hoppy frog is no more than a dozen pixels, almost all the same colour, and the levels are all sharp-edges that you worry you’ll get nicked on. We got snooty and turned our nose up at the artwork, thinking it was a simplification too far.
But after a couple of hours, we either stopped caring about how it looked, or through some force of invention, we found it all rather endearing. Bosses are actually rather characterful, as if they’ve been drafted in from a licensed Disney game for the Sega Megadrive. And we began to realise that the frog is a tiny bundle of pixels so that more can fit onto the game screen. You’re small so that you can survey more of what’s coming and act accordingly.
Then there was the speed of movement. Frog Hop is not a fast game to play. The levels are vaguely reminiscent of Super Mario or Sonic the Hedgehog, which only highlights how much slower Frog Hop is than them. Move side to side and you are barely moving at all, and we began to worry about the quality of the game we’d committed to reviewing. But tap the jump button and Frog can actually hop a fair distance, and swiftly too.
You can probably sense the point: you are not meant to walk or run in Frog Hop, you’re meant to leap. The title is a giveaway. And that’s something we missed the point on, at least within the opening world. We began lamenting the general sluggishness of Frog Hop. But once we were in on the joke, we found things improving greatly. Leaping from area to area is as nimble as you’d hope, and the levels begin to introduce some rather imaginative methods of traversing large distances.
In the latter, better levels, you start encountering round little pegs that look like they have been punched into the backgrounds. These come in a variety of colours, and they are there to be licked. That’s right: zap out your tongue, and you will be able to pull off a number of maneuvers that depend on the colour of the peg. A green peg has you swinging on the peg, so you can let go and fling yourselves into the distance; a yellow peg becomes a platform when licked; an arrow peg directs you in one direction; and a red peg is a catapult. There are plenty more besides.
In the opening levels, these pegs are few and far between, so the levels are too simple and too slow as a result. We yawned, put down the pad and tried other games. But please do persist, because Frog Hop gets out the peg bag and turns the levels into convoluted, well-designed pegboards. Different coloured pegs run in sequence, and you can be swinging to one, catapulting to the other, and then hitting a run of trampoline-like pegs. You can be at the end of the level before you notice it.
Frog Hop is also a platformer that responds to how much effort you are willing to put in. It is entirely possible to propel your way to the end of the level, without having really done much at all. Particularly in the first world, you can bypass most of the content and find yourself at the red flag at the end of the level. Bemused, you will move on and wonder whether every level is going to be like this.
But here’s the thing: Frog Hop can be completed relatively quickly, but that’s because it’s free-thinking in its level design. There are three to five gems to be found in each level, and you can scoot past them without even knowing they are there. Frog Hop is so much more fun when you hunt out and care about these gems, mainly because they are hidden in warp-pipe-like areas that have their own challenges. If you deny yourself finding them, then you’re denying yourself half the game.
Frog Hop doesn’t help itself here. There’s not a great deal to do with these gems, which can mean that it’s harder to value them. There are shops where you can buy Charms with gems, and these Charms are socketed in your frog to give you powerful abilities. Sounds great, doesn’t it? But you can only have one Charm activated at a time, so you tend to find the one you want and stick to it. That doesn’t exactly make you hungry for finding more secret gems.
Because if you embrace the levels, rather than bypass them, then you can admire the skill that must have been invested in putting them together. This is one of those indie games that does the absolute maximum with a limited toolbox. Once again, the better levels are tucked in the latter worlds of Frog Hop, but they’re worth sticking around for. Levels do great work with the pegs, switches that cause water levels to rise and fall, switches that change the flow of water currents, and levels that take advantage of them all at once.
The same invention is found in the bosses. Multi-staged battles with octopuses, cats and angler fish fill most of the screen, and are stupendously inventive. We found ourselves killing a couple on our first go, and silently wished that we had died so that we could have understood – and mastered – how to avoid all their attacks properly. They’re some of the best designed encounters that we’ve seen in a sub-£5 game.
We suspect that quite a few players won’t get far enough to see the good stuff. Frog Hop doesn’t do much in the way of tutorialising, so you need to work out why Frog Hop is enjoyable, all on your own. The best levels arrive from the second world onwards, and that’s half an hour of generic levels, slow movement and no real innovation before you get there. And it’s all so deadeningly slow, with super-jumps that take an age to activate, and a walk-speed that would leave you coming second-place to a tortoise.
But Frog Hop is the equivalent of that TV series that only gets good in the second season. You have to show patience, persisting through some rocky levels and understanding what the overall vision is. Because once you understand that this is a platformer where jumping is really the only method of exploring (and you unlock the no-brainer ‘speed up’ Charm), then Frog Hop finds its tempo. The levels catch on, too, as the lickable pegs get sprinkled in more liberally, and they make Frog Hop special.
A two-hour long platformer that really only gets good after half-an-hour? It’s a bit of a leap of faith, but we’d recommend you take it.
You can buy Frog Hop from the Xbox Store