Swap This! from Two Tribes
I have been reading a book called Irresistible: The Rise of Addictive Technology and the Business of Keeping Us Hooked by Adam Alter. In it, he explores everything from Sigmund Freud’s cocaine addiction to the way in which modern “one-armed bandits” in casinos use AI to alter the type of symbols they display (win or lose) after learning about the player’s habits. In both cases, and many others, the exploit is preying on behavioral addiction and the way human dopamine receptors work.
Freud, for example, discovered that cocaine would enable him to walk miles on end without any real fatigue and return home sharp and energized. It was only after some time he noted that he had to use increasingly large doses to return to the same initial effects. Nonetheless, he extolled the virtues of the coca leaf and its weaponized white powder derivative until he was nearly hopelessly addicted. He claimed the pain in his sinus cavity was so intense that he had to create a water and cocaine paste to apply to it in order to soothe it.
The book makes the case that we are in that same sort of boiling frog paradigm with current technology: where the software is designed to stimulate our dopamine receptors, constantly reinforcing our preferences via algorithms that serve us what the collective, our social networks, and we ourselves deem to be worthy of our attention via hashtags, likes and other interactions.
Shiny, Shiny Boots of Leather
In the mobile game space, this pattern is reinforced through the flashing lights, sparkling sounds, rapid micro-transactions and micro-interactions and fundamental mechanics that play to our inherent desire to organize, sort, identify, optimize, collect, hoard, explore and discover or unlock treasure.
Indeed, Candy Crush Saga has grossed over two billion dollars to date, and yet, as Alter notes, it offers nothing essentially significant in terms of emergent play. It is so simple, in fact, that it is almost pure in its form as a dopamine stimulation.
We all know the story from there, and are easily able to identify its kin – Peggle, Diner Dash, Reigns, Star Wars Galaxy of Heroes; the shirt may change, but you are dealing with the same fire.
That Same Old Routine
Of course, this cognitive exploit has led to the creation of thousands of so-called match-three games, rail shooters, and quick PVP, Solitaire or Minesweeper-likes and so on, ad nauseam.
So what am I supposed to do when presented with a new offering? Well, challenge, it of course! I mean, a well-established developer like Two Tribes couldn’t possibly think that we would find something like yet another match-three game novel enough to care about?
Granted, there have been some rare but interesting exceptions in the past few years: Globlins from Cartoon Network, Fractal from Cipher Prime, THREES! from Sirvo, Scurvy Scallywags from Beep Games, and Imbroglio from Michael Brough, to name a few.
So you can understand why the curiosity is there.
The answer to this question comes directly from the devs: ” It’s a long story that we can’t dive into too deeply. We ended up doing a very small-scale release on mobile, then pulling the game just a few weeks later. Let’s say we were not happy with how the game’s release was handled, and we felt it didn’t get a fair chance.
After that it lingered in the Two Tribes treasure chest for a long time. We even tried to convert the game to a free-to-play model, but failed because the game is about real skill, not about buying your way to victory.”
Note that Two Tribes technically hung up the towel after their last release Rive, but they explained why they came out of retirement for Swap This!:
“We announced in 2016 that we wouldn’t develop any new projects after our sci-fi action game RIVE. This is still the case. But we also promised back then that we’d still support our existing games and fans, which is why we’ve been releasing titles from our back catalog on Nintendo Switch: RIVE, Toki Tori 2+, Toki Tori and now Swap This! Each one of these releases is the best version of that respective game, and each one feels quite at home on Switch.”
We Make Lists
The first thing I noticed about Swap This! is that it is a touchscreen-only game. Your JoyCons won’t so much as change menu item selection, so you are holding your Switch like a phone or tablet.
The second thing is that you are going to be using both your thumbs or index fingers in tandem all the time: this is a fast-moving action/arcade title, rather than a contemplative one, in all modes except the Puzzle mode.
The third thing I noticed is that I hate the font for the various play modes menu: it is one step short of Comic Sans.
Look, if you are going to ask me to come to the water for yet another Bejeweled-like – you had better do something with the aesthetic.
The theme of this incarnation is the ocean. Why? Who knows. There are several different cute-by-design bubble-fishy things, and the bad tiles are sea urchins. That’s about it for that. I really would have loved to see some more visual variety – developer Two Tribes’ other previous titles like Toki Tori, Rive, Edge, and Swords & Soldiers belie a knack for chunky and enticing visual elements, so I am not sure why this one feels a little provisional and generic. Maybe because it was shelved for 7 years?
The music is decidedly middle of the road and besides adding a pleasant as a virgin pina colada vibe, stays out of the way.
The are four play modes, as of this writing (which is a few days in advance of the game’s official launch date).
- Minute Match
- Wave Mode
- Fish Fight
– time-based level clearing for maximum points.
– clear the level as quick as possible or before time runs out.
– a boss climbs up a ladder – you can keep them at bay (pun intended) by clearing rows and tiles.
– solve in as few moves as possible.
The more you play, the more power-ups you can unlock. Power-ups, it turns out, are tied to specific tile types.
Keep The Streak
You will start to figure out the power moves. You can definitely play this Tetris-style, going for complete columns so as to wipe off half the board. Focusing on the middle of the grid rather than the outer edges means you can wipe half the tiles off the screen. If you reduce the number of tiles to only eight, you enter a Zoom Mode that is claustrophobic and frantic but works as a major multiplier to your score.
Interestingly, you are often competing with yourself – once four matched tiles are touching, they will lock into position before self-destructing. This is great – and the objective – except that often you want eight of them touching, preferably in a vertical line, so you can clear a chunk of the screen out. But if, in the height of the action, you don’t set this up correctly, you may end up detonating your four faster than you can find tiles to complete the full vertical row.
This may not seem like such a big deal at first, but as things get faster and the board fills up, you may end up wanting that one missing extra tile, or not finding it in time for the big KABOOM you need to stay in play. Again, this is not groundbreaking material, but just an observation on the play style created here; Swap This! is by no means a contemplative title like some of its ilk.
Chain reactions can be amplified. Hazard tiles can be converted to innocuous types, or cleared by being boxed in, Go-style. There are global leaderboards.
There are a lot of little play details that start to emerge and actually turn this into quite a fun little engagement. Before long, my behaviorally addictive propensities kicked in, against my better judgement, and I found hours sliding past as I tried to beat my last best score or reach the next big fish boss to defeat.
And that’s kind of the point of it. Besides the complete and utter lack of meaningful byproduct, Swap This! succeeds in delivering what it promises: an engaging, colorful diversion to pass the time. I can’t fault it for making good on that promise and think this is a good one to have on your Switch when you need a break from Dark Souls or Breath of the Wild. The only real challenge I have is why not just play it on your phone? Well, because it is a platform exclusive.
This is a bonus, because it means that you won’t be nagged by ads and freemium upsells on QOL add-ons. It’s a one-hitter and retails for around two bucks.
Caveats in check, I give Swap This! a go for your Switch catalog. What was all that stuff I said about irresistible tech at the start? Yep, Swap This! will get you hooked.
Swap This! is available via the Nintendo Game Store.
Watch the official trailer for Swap This! below: