Chris Schilling's column The Pick-Me-Up focuses on games that can make you smile in just ten minutes.
There are times when ordinary games are just too much effort. When you're hungover, for example, or when the weather is unseasonably, face-meltingly hot as it is in the UK right now. When the mere thought of finding the remote, switching the TV to the right HDMI input (because it's never on the one you want), plugging your controller in (because you forgot to leave it on charge) and playing something that requires physical and mental dexterity leaves you exhausted. Sometimes you need that little hit of dopamine without the exertion that usually goes with it.
Sometimes, in other words, you need a clicker. One of those dumb but weirdly compulsive Skinner boxes that have become increasingly prevalent in the era of browser and mobile gaming. Magikarp Jump is one such game, and it's as profoundly stupid and weirdly loveable as its subject.
It's from a developer called Select Button, creator of the similar—and, for my money, superior— Survive! Mola Mola!, an unexpectedly hilarious game about the many, many ways the ocean sunfish can (and often does) meet its demise. This being a Pokémon-themed game, it's not quite as dark, but the same streak of black humour runs through it. Yes, your Magikarp can die: it might be carried off by a Pidgeotto should you leap out of your pond too many times, or be blown up after mistaking a Voltorb for a Poké Ball.
But those are random events. The object here isn't to go on adventures to find new and exciting causes of death, but to win jumping competitions. The very notion is instantly funny to Pokémon fans who've grown to know Magikarp as an utterly useless Pokémon that tends to flop around pathetically on its side (its crapness has, perversely, earned it a cult following). Its signature move, Splash, is wholly ineffective. The payoff for investing the laborious effort in levelling it up is its eventual transformation into the powerful Gyarados. You can do the same here, tapping your Magikarp until you shatter the Everstone that prevents it from evolving. Which also means game over, since Gyarados is understandably banned from competing.
Still, by feeding and training your Magikarp, you can steadily boost its jumping power (JP) until it's tournament ready. Eating is simply a matter of tapping the floating foodstuff and watching your JP tick slowly upward. Training exercises range from head-butting a sandbag, to nudging a sleeping Boldore, to haplessly flailing against a frozen tree: they give you much more JP than food, but you only have three training points at a time, and once spent, you've got to wait 90 minutes to replenish them all.
For battles, meanwhile, you simply push a big, red button and watch to see which fish leaps highest. Win, and you'll earn some coins and move onto the next round. Lose, and you'll need to bulk up your 'Karp ahead of a rematch. But if it's reached its maximum level (which is dependent on your trainer's level, which in turn is determined by the experience earned through tournament success) then it's forced to retire. At which point, you grab a rod and fish out another contender.
Regular unlocks keep you wriggling on the hook. You'll get new and more nutritious, JP-spiking types of food. Fresh training options unlock, from the troublingly named Ball Smash to Power Generator, which sees Magikarp repeatedly pressing a button for its reward. How very meta. You'll collect diamonds which allow you to invite Pokémon friends to lounge around the pool: Pikachu and Litten will give you a hefty JP boost, while Piplup restores your training points and Meowth hands you a stack of coins. All are bound to lengthy cooldown timers, though a Slowpoke will instantly refill one of their meters at random.
Then there are the patterns. You underestimate the appeal of raising a purple-spotted Magikarp at your peril. I genuinely cheered when I finally unlocked the grey diamond pattern. The ability to name your fish, meanwhile, gives you a stronger sense of attachment to their fortune—or, perhaps, an opportunity to go wild with the puns. Take my third-generation fish, Karpaltunnel, for example. A calico-striped one was dubbed CallieFisher (no space; names can only have 12 characters). I called one of my grey Magikarp Zanatomy.
Look: it's a grind, no doubt. Even a percentage boost that ensures each successive generation levels up quicker can't prevent it from growing stale and repetitive. The random events grow familiar, such that quaffing an energy drink that makes your Magikarp feel like "major crud" no longer raises a smile. But as I stare at my Generation 67 'Karp, Dorian (guess the color), getting that delicious quantum of dopamine as I lose half my bodyweight in sweat, I'd be lying if I said I hadn't got my money's worth* from this silly, bizarre, oddly heart-warming celebration of the world's worst Pokémon.
(*I know it's free. That's the joke.)