I've broken my little fellow's back umpteen times over the past few hours. I've landed him on his head many more—he's got a helmet on, obviously, but still, by now he's going to be feeling it. When he crumples, collapsing from his BMX, he does so in a rib-tickling ragdoll fashion; and yet there's a greater satisfaction to be found in getting him over the finish line of any obstacle course, in one piece, ideally with a challenge or two achieved. The jumps, grinds, and half-pipes have been bested; now there's just the ignominy of the game confirming that I missed a couple of key tricks, and that my total score is tens away from what it needed to be.
Do it over, again and again. Bedtime can wait. I was only supposed to be playing Pumped BMX + for 20 minutes, after the wife had gone up, but here I am, well after midnight, still pedaling, still flicking the Xbox One's analogue sticks to make my always-smiling rider pull off the most ridiculous tricks, still chasing those high scores, still in search of the perfect run. As I complete the challenges on each stage, I earn points to unlock more difficult courses. Sometimes these are simple: Perform a bar-spin at some point in a run, or score a modest amount of points in a single combo. As I get further into the game, they become incredibly complex, requiring both brain power enough to remember what each direction on the right stick represents in trick terms, and digit dexterity of a level where precise button presses deliver results, pad-mashing rarely the right way to beat any level.
This is one addictive little bastard of a video game. Wholly unassuming, invitingly cutesy of visuals and bubbling of soundtrack; but fiendishly engineered to keep the player in a loop of risk and reward: play harder, go further, be better. Or crash out and start over, and over, and over.
"Pumped began as, basically, just a game that I wanted to play," says its maker Adam Hunt, founder of his own studio Yeahus. "I wasn't a programmer at the time, so I learned Objective-C to make the first game, originally on iOS and later ported to Android. That ended up doing quite well, amongst BMXers who wanted to play a similar kind of game. It wasn't heavily marketed towards anyone else outside of the BMX scene, but it did reasonably well. I was halfway through making Pumped BMX 2 when I'd saved enough money to quit my job, to give this being a full-time indie thing a bash. Pumped 2 came out on iPhone and did crazily well— think it was the number one game in 30 countries when it came out. It was well up there, and that was bonkers."
Pumped BMX + is Pumped 2 ported to consoles and PC, with extras. It features 500 challenges, based on total scores and individual tricks and more, spread across 50 levels. The control scheme is simple enough in theory—on an Xbox pad, you hold the A button to "pump," and you need to do this in the lead up to any jump, and then right before landing one to maintain your speed into the next obstacle. Sounds easy. In practice, it takes a wee bit of time to get used to—and even then, on later levels, absolute precision is required to even make it to the finishing line, and that's before you factor in the need to nail a suicide, a manual, a table, or a kickout. Or some complex combination of moves that'll have callouses on your thumbs before every run's been seen.
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"It was a pretty easy decision to make in terms of bringing it to consoles," Adam says. "I'd always thought that this was the kind of game that suited a console, so I got in touch with Curve, they were into it, so here we are with a console version."
It's at indie publisher Curve Digital's London headquarters (they're also behind the likes of The Swindle and Action Henk) that I first play Pumped BMX +, and sort of immediately fall in love with it. It's a perfect game to put on when mates are over, passing the pad between people, laughing at each other's ineffectual abilities and genuinely roaring with cheer whenever a tricky course is completed. Clink a drink, do a shot, take another slice—there's meta-games to be played while playing this actual one. And Pumped was always created with a connection to the real world in mind—Adam's a BMXer himself, and his friend, pro-rider Dan Lacey, can see how this game can have a positive impact on the BMX scene.
'Pumped BMX +' launch trailer
"There are a lot of crazy tricks to do in it, stuff that can take you an hour to pull off, and you're losing your mind over them," Dan tells me. "But then you'll find yourself flowing through the jumps and trying to make it look as realistic as possible. You can do very normal tricks. You can also do a triple backflip double bar-spin, and things like that, and there's no way anybody's doing that in real life. But you can get stuck into the idea of trying out moves that you could do for real. I get lost more in doing that than getting through the challenges. As a rider myself, I enjoy the aspect of being able to make it look like you're riding a bike.
"When you're riding for real, there are so many ways in which you can go wrong, when you're trying to do four things in a row. One of those can go wrong—and it's the same with this game, so you have to keep working at it, and seeing what works and what doesn't."
"A lot of people will enjoy the crazy stuff," Adam says, "but the focus, originally at least, was on making sure that when you're going for a run, that it looks relatively realistic. The achievements that are in here, a lot of them are rider names. Like, Dan's got one, and they're all to do with doing tricks that the rider in question would do. But there's enough creativity there that you can do a run that's the same sort of run that Dan would do, or one that Chase Hawk would do, for example. And the feedback we're had from the BMX world is mental. It's been so good. We've had a huge amount of support from pro-riders. People may well have even started riding, because of this game."
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"I think it's had a really positive effect on the BMX scene, and has got more kids into riding," Dan says. "This game is not only just for kids who ride already; it's for those who go to school and hang with kids who don't, but they'll play it and find it so addictive. I'm a 27-year-old grown man, and I find myself sitting here for hours on end, stressing myself out over not being able to do one of the challenges. So there are kids all over the place who are introducing their friends to this game, to friends who aren't necessarily into riding, and then all of a sudden they want to get a bike. I've seen it happen. Kids who think that if they can do it on Pumped, then they can do it for real."
Much like RedLynx's Trials series and Roll7's OlliOlli games, Pumped doesn't look like much, versus many modern-day console releases, but it very quickly hooks its just-one-more-go claws into the player. And slowly it turns the crank, getting ever harder as you unlock more challenges. "I think it's quite deceptive, in a way," says Adam. "It's not a harsh-looking game, but as you move further through it, it can get very difficult." Which is why I've spent several hours since that accidental marathon, smashing my avatar into planks of wood and solid rock, just occasionally producing some miracle moves. Every time my rider's down, though, he gets up, restarts, smile intact. Perhaps because he knows how good he's got it. It's not incredibly common for mobile games to transition to consoles successfully—I mean, I know it's an opinion, but who really wants to play Angry Birds on their Wii U? But Pumped pulls off the move with rare elegance. When you're not wiping out constantly, anyway.
Pumped BMX + is out now for Xbox One and PC, with PlayStation versions following on September 22 and Wii U on September 24.
Follow Mike Diver on Twitter.