Moonshine. White Lightning. Hooch. Traditionally associated with the southern Appalachia region of the United States, moonshine is an unaged, homemade, distilled alcohol usually made from corn, yeast, sugar, and whatever else the local backyard brewer feels like adding to create his own distinctive local flavor. Skirting local and federal taxes that compose over half the cost of your average bottle of booze, a backyard still can produce 1,000 gallons per week and net their owner a cool $6,000. If it can be brought to market. That’s where you and your big red fanboat come in. Shine Runner is the new game from Vector Unit that gives you $500, ten days, and a pimped out airboat to see how much cash you can make smuggling goods around the ol’ swampland. Does Shine Runner go down smooth or leave you gagging and blind in one eye?
Unless you’ve been sampling the product, the first thing that is going to grab you about Shine Runner is the absolutely stellar production values. The bright, clean art style is backed up with a fast framerate and generous view distance. A surprisingly robust set of options are available for tweaking the balance between pretty and performance for older devices. Skyboxes and lighting conditions are thoughtfully created for a handful of environmental conditions. It’s never too dark to see at night and you won’t be blinded by the sun in the daytime. The water has just enough texture and depth to give a sense of fluidity but never becomes a wave hopping challenge to piloting of your craft across the stagnant swamp. The real stars of Shine Runner’s graphical showcase are the destructible objects in and along the track. From busting up chicken coops, to bowling over ‘gators, to blasting through swamp shacks, the tributaries of Shine Runner are positively packed with poppable props.
Likewise, Shine Runner’s audio has been given the five star treatment as well. The drone of your boat’s engine is kept mercifully low. The splashes and crashes of your passing are appropriate and nicely sampled. The quips of the local yokels, while very stereotypical and unoriginal (“Gator ate my chicken!”), are clear and there is just (barely) enough variety to keep you from getting sick of them. The Kentucky Fried banjo soundtrack is excellent and plays to the setting of the game nicely. Of special note is Shine Runner’s excellent use of positional stereo sound and the pitch perfect echo effect used in tunnels. While any handset’s default speaker will serve you well enough, you’ll want to play with headphones if at all possible.
Two control schemes are available for your flat bottomed speedster. The first is a standard auto-throttle, tilt steering scheme. While I’m not usually a fan of tilt controls, I took to Shine Runner’s motion controlled steering instantly and never felt the need to touch the thoughtfully included sensitivity slider. The view can be set to tilt along with the device or not and works wonderfully. The other, and default, control option also features an automatic throttle, but uses digital steering where touching the left or right side of the screen turns your vehicle in the appropriate direction. Surprisingly, I absolutely despised the touch controls. Even after several runs, it never felt confortable. The narrow, twisty waterways of the swamp practically necessitate the use of an analog input, especially if you’re looking to nail those big ramp jumps to gather the bonus cash power-ups hovering overhead. It is a shame that such an inappropriate control scheme is the default. Still, your boat handles very well. A good deal tighter than it probably should, in fact. Shine Runner actually feels more like an arcade style off-road racer than a waterborne one. With it’s bevy of destructible objects, this game reminded me a good deal of the Flatout series. Except on water. And there’s no racing.
That’s right, Shine Runner is not a racing game. There are no opponents to chase or be chased by. Police watercraft occasionally show up and yell at you to slow down, but a friendly boat bump is all the effort they’ll put into stopping you. There is a par time for each course, but no failure state for not meeting it. In fact, there is no failure state for anything. Smashing every residential dwelling in the swamp holds no meaning since there’s no bonus nor penalty for doing so. There’s no ‘nitro’ styled boost, no bonuses for stunts, and no time limit. While the local police do show up once in a while, their quips indicate that they’re more concerned over your speed rather than the contraband you’re hauling. Either way, they aren’t going to actually do anything about it. You will never be caught. I once left my boat spinning in a circle for seven minutes before continuing the race with no consequences other than missing out on the par time bonus. So what is Shine Runner if not a racing game? A trading game.
Buy low, sell high. Starting with $500, your goal is to make as much cash transporting such questionable commodities as “shine”, “tobacky”, and “peter pep” (which, after searches on both Google and Urban Dictionary came up empty, I can only assume is a clever euphemism for meth). You have 10 days to wheel and deal across the six connected shops of the swamp. Extra money is collected by getting anywhere near the par time for the segments of waterway you use to travel between stops. Even more cash can be made by boating over the silver and gold money bags that litter the area. The bonuses even continue to increase in value throughout your adventure as every day brings more and more moolah regardless of your abilities. With no additional boats to buy, no upgrades to purchase, and no damage, cosmetic or otherwise, to repair, even the economic side of Shine Runner is a no-loose proposition. Icons on the shop’s trading screen show you whether an item’s price is above, below, or at market value. Stock up on the cheap stuff, tap map, pick a random location since you can’t see their prices, drive a 50 second, can’t loose run, and sell off your cargo at the next stop. Repeat 9 more times over the next ten minutes and the game will tell you how much money you’ve accrued. Online leaderboards provided by both Game Center and OpenFeint are the only real measure progress unless you want to chase after the game’s 26 achievements.
The whole gameflow feels like it was designed for young children. Whenever you sit down with Shine Runner, you are guaranteed to complete its 10 stop campaign. Everyone plays and everyone gets a trophy! While a modicum of driving skill will score you a few extra bucks here and there by completing runs in good time, most of your income will be left to chance as you blindly wander from stop to stop. Sure, there are a few places you can bet on for having a lower price on a particular item, but you are mostly at the whim of digital dice. All win, no loose, every time. Roll the dice and try to beat your last score.
It’s a shame really. Piloting Shine Runner’s fan boat feels great. The A/V presentation is both technically and artistically triple-A. The setting is a very welcome break from every other conventional title out there. Even the commodity trading is a great new twist. This game is just missing some manner of a risk versus reward system to make it engaging. Perhaps with some manner of damage modeling or upgrade system threating your bank building efforts Shine Runner could have given gamers a good buzz. Sadly, as it stands now, this ‘shine don’t got no kick.
Shine Runner is available as a unified app for iPhone 3GS or newer, iPod Touch 3rd Gen, or iPad via iTunes for $0.99. An Android version is also available for Android 2.2 or higher devices at Android Market for $1.99. Reviewed on iOS 5.0.1 iPad 2.