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Friday, April 19, 2024

'Bloons TD 6' Might Be the Best $5 I’ve Ever Spent

I never expected to get hooked on a game where cartoon monkeys pop balloons, but three years in and Bloons TD 6 is still my go-to mobile game. It's a highly polished and thoughtfully designed tower defense game with a comical art style that belies its strategic depth. Gameplay comes in satisfying frenetic chunks, which makes it perfect for filling small gaps in your day.

The tower defense genre is tailor-made for smartphones. Touchscreen controls can detract from shooters and racing games, but they do not impede a good tower defense puzzle. That’s the real hook here: Every level is a puzzle that can only be solved with the ideal selection of monkeys, the perfect placement, and the correct upgrades triggered in order.

If you’re unfamiliar, Bloons TD 6 takes place across more than 50 levels. Each has a weaving path filled with balloons. You place monkeys armed with darts and other weapons, and they'll try to pop the balloons before they escape. To complicate matters, balloons come in various colors with different strengths and weaknesses, monkeys have unique powers and branching skills trees, and you earn the means to improve them by popping those pesky “bloons.” Throw in three difficulty levels for every map, each with its own set of modes, and you have an enormous amount of balloon-popping fun ahead of you. And that’s before mentioning special events and bonus challenges. 

Bloons TD 6 nails that finely balanced equation between frustration and fun. Sure, it costs $5 and there are microtransactions, but you can ignore them. It’s relaxing to play and works great for short bursts of time, but it's also challenging enough that you'll sometimes fail, which makes the victories you earn all the sweeter.

Staying Power

Most mobile games feel played out for me within days, but not this one. I can trace the moment Bloons evolved into a long-term addiction. I was seeking a distraction from the mind-numbing boredom of the exercise bike, and so I started to play Bloons daily during my workouts. I cranked up the speed on my bike and found the frenetic action in the game simultaneously encouraged me to cycle faster and distracted me from my aching legs. It became a daily ritual.

The updates are what help pull me back into Bloons. The game continues to grow substantially, three years after release. Seasonal content reskins the game for holidays, there are special races and boss events, and developer Ninja Kiwi recently added co-op play. You'll regularly see new maps, there are tons of trophies and achievements to unlock, and you get small daily rewards for returning.

“We've released 27 major content updates since the game launched in June 2018, as well as dozens of minor patch fix updates,” says Tosh Baird, head of analytics at Ninja Kiwi. “As a small dev studio, many people on the team contribute to all of our games and projects, but roughly 10 people are full-time on Bloons TD 6 at any given time.”

There aren’t many games I can credit with helping me get fit. Yet I remember initially recoiling at the $5 price. Five bucks for a mobile game? Like most people, I was used to free games and might occasionally spend a dollar or two. But this expectation that mobile games should be free is a part of the reason why so many titles are littered with in-app purchases and ads, which subsequently led to the freemium model. Most mobile games focus on how to part you from your cash.

Worth the Money

Some of the best mobile games are well worth paying for. There are also games that teach you to love the freemium grind. Strangely, Bloons TD 6 does both. It’s a premium game that fully justifies the price of entry, but it also offers a wide range of microtransactions that includes the usual cosmetic upgrades, gameplay boosts, and unlimited access to special events.

“We pride ourselves on being super generous with in-game currency, unlocks, and rewards," Baird says. "As a general philosophy, we love making games that we want to play ourselves. With that said, in-app purchases generate around 50 percent of revenue from the game, so we continue to look at ways to improve players' experience with them.”

I never felt the need to spend a cent beyond that initial $5. I enjoy the challenge. I don’t care about skins and never understood the drive to pay to win. You are paying money to skip playing the game. But surely that’s the fun part?

Nevertheless, the fact that the game is still so popular three years after its release is a testament to its quality and depth. Baird says Bloons has around 600,000 daily active users and around 3 million monthly active users. Clearly, I'm not the only one that's developed an obsession. It's available on Android, iOS, Windows, and MacOS.

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