Swordigo: Going Retro on iOS

If there was one game I never understood growing up, it was the 2D overhead Zelda games on the original NES and SNES. I never thought they were bad, but they weren’t for me. As much as I liked the idea of attacking bizarre creatures with a sword, I preferred the side-scrolling world of Mario to Zelda any day of the week.

That’s why I was thrilled to discover Swordigo. Swordigo is a universal iOS game that is basically a combination of the RPG world of Zelda and the side-scrolling world of Mario. You’ll jump, run and attack your way through multiple worlds of side-scrolling, shore-wielding action. And I think it’s a blast.

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The Eye of the Beholder

Swordigo is a 3D side-scroller, which means that there is a certain depth to the image. You can’t traverse across the depth as you go, but it does make the game feel a little bit more modern. You can tell right away that the game is about art design instead of pure graphical prowess, because the game doesn’t look terribly pretty, but it does have a certain style.

Dungeons are, ironically, always well-lit!

Dungeons are, ironically, always well-lit!

To a certain extent, it wears its visual influences on its sleeve. I can see traces of old Japanese samurai movies in the way that the characters are drawn and it’s not hard to see the obvious Zelda influence everywhere. You’re likely to hear me return to that a lot as a reviewer, which I really don’t think is a bad thing. If anything, Swordigo is more of a homage to a lot of your favourite games of the past. Instead of mind-blowing 3D, what it actually focuses on graphically is recreating the same atmospheric experiences that a lot of us grew up with. Its goal is to create a sense of nostalgia while also doing something new and embraces touch-screen gaming like Nintendo never has.

Touching an RPG

As you move through Swordigo, you’ll hack and slash at a myriad of enemies. You’ll face bosses. You’ll traverse plains, forests, caves, and dungeons. And you’ll gain experience all along the way. That experience turns into levelling up, better magic and better swords. I wouldn’t describe Swordigo as Final Fantasy-esque, but I certainly wouldn’t say it shies away from its RPG roots. And it all works surprisingly well. Everything you need to know is inside a single menu screen, so you can scroll through your character’s stats and easily change magical abilities with just a tap.

Accessing the menus is really easy. It never feels like too much.

Accessing the menus is really easy. It never feels like too much.

To move left or right, you push the buttons on the bottom left corner. Jumping, attacking, and using magic are done with the buttons on the bottom left. The setup doesn’t feel at all cluttered on iPad, which is great. Even though it’s not an analog controller with a joystick and physical buttons, I never feel like I don’t know where my thumbs are supposed to be. Swordigo just works on that level.

Getting the controls right and keeping the RPG levels just simple enough to be pick-up-and-play, but still satisfying, is possibly Swordigo’s biggest trick. Beyond all the homages and the fantastic creature design and the challenging (but awesome) bosses, it’s most impressive (and subtlest) trick is that you always feel like you are in complete control of your character. I never wanted to throw my iPad in frustration. It’s great.

Making Use of iOS

Swordigo also supports iCloud and Game Center Achievements, which means that everything you do will keep in sync with all your devices. If you happen to have more than one iPad in the house, or your kids want to play it on an iPad and an iPod Touch, the games are always kept in sync. After playing it for months, I still haven’t experienced any issues with saving across multiple devices. Unlike some apps in the Store, iCloud works really well here.

iCloud will keep all your game saves synced between devices.

iCloud will keep all your game saves synced between devices.

The game supports Retina displays, and does so without a hitch. The game looks a little worse for wear at higher resolutions, but that’s more because it was never really meant for them to begin with. It could look better in a sequel, but to me, the stylized characters and setting really is part of the charm.

There is a story here; albeit, it is a simple one.

There is a story here; albeit, it is a simple one.

Charm is a big part of Swordigo. It’s embedded in the animation and it’s embedded in the story. Swordigo does tell a story – a simple one – about defeating a mysterious and evil enemy. That’s basically the gist of it. It’s told through voice bubbles, much like a comic book, and it really feels about as old-school as the games it’s referencing. I love it and it suits the game really well. And the game takes its time with the story. (I haven’t beaten the entire thing yet, but then again I’m not a particularly good gamer). Some people could breeze through this in a week, but others will take substantially longer.

Sit Down and Play

Swordigo can be picked up in minutes and learned quickly, but it has an old saving convention that makes it difficult to play for short periods. Saving progress is done at portals, which come after what I would consider relatively significant chunks of gameplay. It’s not my first choice for instant-gratification gaming on the bus, just because I don’t think a fifteen minute commute really does it justice. Swordigo is a game you really need to sit down to enjoy.

The game uses checkpoints called "portals" to save and sync your data.

The game uses checkpoints called “portals” to save and sync your data.

I don’t meant that Swordigo is going to be an imposition on your time; the game is high enough quality that you’re likely going to want to give it your time. But since its saving system is based on checkpoints – again, like the old games it references – it’s not what I would consider quick-and-easy gaming. It’s old-school in every way possible.

Final Thoughts

Swordigo is a game that lovingly references a lot of the classics that came before. In that sense, it’s the sort of side-scrolling RPG that Quentin Tarantino would make if he was an iOS developer: full of references and homages to old legends that have long been gone. Graphically, it could be prettier, but it just gets the atmosphere so right that its weaker graphics feel charming instead of bothersome.

Beyond that, the game itself is just downright fun. It’s rewarding to sit and play it for extended periods; eventually, reaching a new checkpoint really does feel like an achievement — not because getting there is frustrating, but because it’s just challenging enough. If you’re looking for a side-scroller for your iPad, I personally haven’t found a better way to kill your battery.


Swordigo might not be the prettiest iOS game ever made, but its appeal to old classics like Zelda makes it well worth spending quality time with.