I enjoy the simplicity of Grapple Dog. The title tells you this is a game about a dog with a grappling hook, and it is what it says on the tin. It's this direct approach that encompasses all of Grapple Dog's design philosophy, recalling the heyday of mascot platformers. The result is a mostly unsurprising but very solid retro platformer, with controls that are precise enough to achieve an enjoyable flow.
Similar to classic platformers, the story of Grapple Dog is delivered with a very light touch. Pablo the dog and his anthropomorphic friends accidentally empower a robot bent on collecting mystical Gadgets--artifacts that resemble everyday items from our world–to open a portal and return to his world--which would, of course, destroy theirs. It seems to be mildly commenting on disposable culture, and when it ventures into more serious territory, it doesn't really feel earned. That said, the writing is unobtrusive and what is there is often funny, especially with incidental dialogue when you meet townsfolk in the various stages. And in a meme-friendly touch, an especially good performance grabbing collectibles in a stage lets you pet the dog.
Grapple Dog looks like a lost mascot platformer from the Game Boy Advance era, when the relatively small screen lent itself to thick outlines and saturated colors. It's a nicely nostalgic aesthetic that goes underused now, as most retro-inspired games tend to be modeled after styles more akin to experiences found on the NES and SNES. I enjoyed the chunky look, and it felt especially at home on my Switch OLED while playing in handheld mode.
Much like the platformers of that era, Grapple Dog restricts itself to a few simple functions and then iterates on them. You can jump (with associated wall-jump and wall-sliding), do a mid-air stomp, and, of course, grapple. With only a handful of moves in your arsenal, it's always very clear what you have to do to move forward, even as each subsequent level progressively ramps up in difficulty. While the game never reaches the level of punishment as a tough-as-nails platformer like Celeste, it does continuously test your skills with iterative challenges. Thankfully, the game never fails to provide players with the foundation they need to improve.
As examples, one stage may have you grapple onto a moving platform, which then builds the skills for the time when you'll need to switch between a few moving platforms. Another level might see you fired from a cannon into an area that needs to be wall-jumped; after which, you'll need to grapple between cannons. By the time you've reached the latter half of Grapple Dog, you'll find yourself agile enough to dodge fireballs and razor blades while swinging around a moving platform in a wide arc to jump on top of it--which then gives you the right amount of height to reach a cannon that fires you just short of the next grapple platform. It's a feat you might not have been able to pull off from the start, but the game has built up your skills so iteratively by this point that it's become an approachable challenge--you might even just easily fall into the zone, only realizing afterward how much complicated choreography you pulled off.
The game also has a fairly generous checkpointing system, which banks any collected stage items, like fruits and gems, that you've gotten up to that point, and will restart you from the last flag you managed to pass if you lose all of your life (represented by the pads of a paw). If you happen to fall off a tricky platforming section with life remaining, though, you'll just start at the nearest safe area to try it again. This player-friendly approach remains throughout, including in boss battles, even dropping health pickups if you get down to critical levels. It's just enough to give you a fighting chance, but not so much help that you're kept feeling comfortable with full health stocks.
The one spot in Grapple Dog where the difficulty takes a sharp turn away from this smooth difficulty ramp is during one of the later boss battles. The battle adds a mid-air element, akin to Sonic riding on Tails' plane in various Sonic games, that's unique to this battle alone. It is a cute homage to the blue hedgehog, but this departure doesn't work well, making it by far the hardest battle in the game. While the game up to that point had offered a fluidity of movement, the airplane element adds an artificial level of restriction to your movement that just feels stifling. Even the challenge of the final battle felt relatively easy in comparison, with the difficulty feeling more aligned with what I had come to expect from the rest of the game.
In terms of bugs, I had a few crashes throughout my play time, including one after I had just managed to snag some particularly difficult gems. The levels are bite-sized enough that I didn't lose much progress at any point, but it can be frustrating if you just passed a difficult gauntlet and have nothing to show for it.
Snagging gems is an especially important goal, because, unfortunately, Grapple Dog borrows one of my least favorite elements from more recent platformers: the boss battle for each area is gated behind collecting a certain amount of gems. There are seven available in each stage, with five scattered around the stage itself and two more available for reaching a certain level of fruit-collecting. You can also find bonus stages that give you three gems apiece for defeating enemies, collecting pips, or racing to the finish line. The gem-gating isn't too much of a hassle until the very end. I had been progressing through the boss stages without needing to backtrack, but my safety margin was progressively shrinking with each boss. By the time I reached the final encounter, the requirement was well above my current gems. This meant I had to go back and scour previous stages to find enough gems, usually only collecting an additional two or three in a run, until I finally collected enough for the final stage. There's some fun to be had revisiting early stages with all the grappling skills I had developed since, but it's less satisfying when it feels compulsory. The post-game consists of additional extra-hard challenges, but these are also gem-gated, which quickly sapped my interest in exploring them.
Grapple Dog isn't doing anything new or revolutionary, but it is nicely delivering on a simple premise. It felt like uncovering a forgotten gem in a Game Boy Advance bargain bin, then taking it home and discovering some parts that are a little uneven or awkward. It's the kind of game that's just imminently likable and endearing, even if I don't expect it to hook me long-term.