Surgeon Simulator review: Entertainingly grisly iPad game
One key factor when evaluating PC and console games ported to iPad or iPhone is how well the controls have been adapted from keyboard, mouse and/or joypad to a touchscreen. But in this case that doesn’t really apply, because the controls in Surgeon Simulator are deliberately terrible.
Surgeon Simulator became a cult hit after being devised in a couple of days for Global Game Jam, and then being quickly polished up for commercial release. The whole thing is a single joke, essentially, but a rather good one: a life-or-death medical sim built around slapstick, ragdoll physics and cartoon graphics.
You’re Nigel, a catastrophically clumsy surgeon, bumbling and fumbling your way through complex operations on a (frequently blood-spurting and bone-fragment-strewn) patient/victim named Bob. This clumsiness is imposed by the game’s controls, which are so inaccurate that you spend half the game knocking medical instruments on the floor and losing things in the chest cavity. There is a vast and seemingly universal humor to this.
Yet we do need to discuss the touchscreen controls a little. On the PC, both of the surgeon’s hands were shown onscreen, and a fairly complex set of actions were possible using the mouse and keyboard: you could rotate a hand, control individual fingers, grasp, move up and down, all through specific (and totally unmanageable) inputs and key presses. Simply grabbing something was a challenge in itself.
The iPad version is simpler and—appropriately enough—more intuitive. You don’t see your hands (although you can still dual-wield); you just tap on things to grab them and swipe to move them around. You can tap with another finger to set a target, then make stabbing or sawing gestures to attack the spot—sorry, I mean operate on the spot.
Toning down the sheer physical awkwardness was a risky move, of course; humor is notoriously delicate, and it would be a great shame to upset the balance. Happily, it’s still nicely judged. It’s also very challenging, particularly when compared to the hand-holding, tutorial-heavy games common on mobile platforms. Your first few cracks at the heart transplant that opens the campaign will end in disaster and panic, since you’re given pretty much no advice; this is almost certainly deliberate, since failure in Surgeon Simulator is fun too, and you wouldn’t want to miss out on the comedic value of misguidedly trying to crack open the ribcage with a hammer (instead of the correct tool) before you learn the ropes.
Gradually you’ll assemble the rudiments through tips on the (unhelpfully brief) loading screens and by delving into the PDA (a parody of the Apple Newton, pleasingly) on Nigel’s desk. This explains the steps involved in every operation.
Through sheer ignorance we found that the game’s scant four levels lasted us a decent. The levels repeat a second time around in a more challenging “corridor” environment, where your trays of tools roll past only occasionally. Surgeon Simulator has heart and kidney transplants, as well as deeply unpleasant dental and eye surgeries.
Replayability is good, even after you’ve mastered the eight challenges. You’ll want to experiment with all the tools and objects on the various operating tables, and don’t discount the simple pleasure of showing off. It’s fun to horrify and amuse colleagues and friends with a quick demo, but there’s also a multiplayer mode (where you race to complete a surgery before your rival) and a brilliant Recorder mode, expressly designed for the YouTubers who gave the game its early fame.
Surgeon Simulator is a very good joke that doesn’t outstay its welcome, and a pretty fun game in its own right. Terrible controls, basic graphics, limited number of levels, all in very bad taste—in other words, it’s brilliant.