It’s easy to play fast and loose with what constitutes an arcade game, since not much seems to be required beyond the obligatory 16-bit aesthetic and MIDI file soundtrack. It’s especially hard to recreate the specific blend of joy and terror that comes from frantically mashing a plastic button amid escalating pixelated chaos, knowing the tiniest mistake could mean you’ve blown your last life and last quarter. Not only does Nitrome’s Ultimate Briefcase manage to capture the charm of a vintage upright arcade machine; it’s pocket-sized and, to the detriment of our productivity, this Android action game is free.
You begin playing as Tucker, a sort of hapless everyman character who uses the titular briefcase as a shield when bombs start falling from the sky. The type and speed of the bombs eventually increases with the difficulty, so the simple action of moving out of the way never feels boring. You cannot progress to the next level until specific criteria are met, and the game doesn’t spoon-feed us the answer to what those criteria actually are, leading to some frustrating near-misses. This game has perfected its addictive formula. The more I died, the more I wanted to keep playing.
In addition to dodging bombs, you can collect blue energy orbs to charge a special ability, and gold coins to purchase upgrades and new characters. It wasn’t until I unlocked my second character—a cop named Sally—that I started to appreciate the layers of detail at work in this title.
Sally is much more than just a token woman, or a pointless visual change to mix up the gameplay and pad the length. She is a major character with her own thread in the plot. In fact, every character is, because you must play all five characters to learn the full story, explained through VHS tapes that show the situation developing from every character’s point of view. I can’t decide what’s more satisfying, the victory of finally finding a tape and unlocking a small piece of the puzzle after several rounds of searching, or the fact that a developer decided to provide a reason behind the Space Invaders-style death from above in the first place.
In addition to being integral to the plot, each character also has a different special ability that can be improved with unlockable upgrades. Sally’s offensive power of shooting bombs, for example, can be upgraded to an anti-air strike from her friends on the police force. The coins you collect can also unlock extra lives, or special in-game boosts like freezing time.
Of course, players who don’t want to save up their coins can purchase the upgrades with real money. A one-time payment can also put a stop to the ads displayed between rounds. The game is clearly structured to encourage players to pay for it, but it’s not impossible to win by playing for free. There are no limits to the number of rounds you can play or any other maddening freemium features. In fact, with the option to continue your round by watching an ad, developers are acknowledging that time spent playing Ultimate Briefcase is in itself a valuable commodity.
This rings especially true when we consider the fact that arcade games all used to cost quarters, unspecified amounts of them, every time we wanted to play, for as long as we wanted to play. If a game is good, I have no problem paying for it, with real money or with my time. And Ultimate Briefcase is arguably the best Android action game I’ve ever played. So if you’ll excuse me, my briefcase and I have some bombs to dodge.
Addictive gameplay, fun design, and an engaging plot all come together to make an Android action game you won’t want to put down.