The gameplay itself starts very simply -- you control a little rolling guy called a Rolando by tilting the iPhone left or right. But bit by bit, Rolando adds more and more to the process -- with a swipe on the screen, your Rolando can jump, and there are things to move and press in the landscape, and you can find other Rolandos, and select multiple ones just by dragging a rectangle around them. And there are "royal spikey commandos" that will stick to things, and bombs and platforms, and shadowy bad guys to avoid, and a King and Prince to save, and, and, and... Things spiral into complexity pretty quickly, but Rolando never lets them get out of hand: the controls are flawless (there's always something you can hit or do to bring back whatever you're working on into focus, and by dragging two fingers on the screen, you can explore the levels to find a path to try), and, like the greatest platforming games, the difficulty curve lets you explore first and then excel later.
The main goal of most levels is to move your Rolandos to the exit (a very Lemmings feel, even in the look of the exit doors). But you're also timed for challenges in each level, so while the first time through will let you experiment and explore, later, you can go back and try to do it faster, and/or save more Rolandos than you did the first time. And finally, there are diamonds spread throughout all the levels to collect (some of which will require some ingenious movement with the various Rolandos' abilities). Some levels also have other goals -- sometimes you'll need to save royalty (the Prince is a crazy little kid who can't be controlled and won't stop moving, and the King is a sleepy big guy who you'll have to escort along with the other Rolandos), and there are even some bonus levels that make use of the iPhone's accelerometer with a gravity game.
As you can tell, the gameplay is varied, and while it probably won't challenge the most hardcore of gamers (although some of those time challenges are definitely tough), it is consistently fun from start to finish.
Technically, the game is practically flawless. This is a polished piece of software -- it runs excellently, the graphics are bright and well thought-out, and the music, a mix of casual jazz and chill beats by British DJ Mr. Scruff, is teriffic (though you can even listen to your own iPod music while playing if you'd rather do that). Even when you're not playing, the game works well -- whenever you press the home button to leave, the game's state is saved automatically for you by something called "iSave," and there's even a number notation on the App's icon to tell you how many Rolandos are in your care while you're away.
And there's hidden magic also: the storybook level selection screen is so beautiful I spent a while just exploring that (the graphics are designed by illustrator Mikko Walamies), and even the game's start screen slowly reveals itself to be itself a playable level. The characters call you "Finger," and as you move throughout the game, a deeper mythology and story about Rolandoland reveals itself -- it never gets in the way of actually playing, but it helps you care about these little guys you're rolling around.
There were two flaws I encountered: just like most platformers, the view is sometimes annoying -- while you can always deselect your Rolando and zoom out to see what's where in the level, selecting a Rolando causes you to focus in on them, every once in a while leaving that obstacle you're trying to dodge frustratingly right out of sight. And while there are checkpoint balloons placed throughout some levels (once you hit them, you can reload the level from there rather than restarting from the beginning), moving multiple Rolandos through those can be a pain: the first one you send through will activate the checkpoint, leaving all the other guys to redo whatever puzzle was right before the checkpoint every time you reload.
But those complaints pale in comparison to the game at large: this is a brilliant, original puzzle platformer that shows off almost perfectly the iPhone's potential as a gaming device. It's a game you could only create on the iPhone, and it's that much better because of it. It is a must-play for anyone who loves gaming, and it's especially important for iPhone fans -- while it might not top anyone's Game of the Year list (although you never know), it's the first iPhone game that really belongs in anyone's top 10, and it's a big sign that there are going to be some really, really great experiences exclusive to this platform.
Unfortunately, Ngmoco (the game's publisher -- while they've called Rolando's creator Simon Oliver "the Miyamoto of the iPhone," we expect more great games from them as well) hasn't provided a demo for the game, but given that you enjoy a good platformer and want to see just what's possible with gaming on the iPhone, we can't recommend Rolando highly enough.
It's available right now on the App Store for $9.99, but even at that price, Rolando delivers on all the potential it promised way back when. The bar is set for original iPhone gaming, and we can't wait to see what's next.
Also be sure to check out our exclusive interview with Rolando creator Simon Oliver right here on TUAW.