April 26, 2010

Synopsis Quest Deluxe
Creator: Skipmore
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Every annoying convention of early RPGs—endless dialog boxes, lobotomized villagers parroting their one line over and over, item-fetching missions—is present in Synopsis Quest Deluxe, and those design crutches are the source of its wit. Over the course of 25 mini-quests, the game pokes fun at the creaky genre's old habits and twists them in tricky ways. It starts on the character-creation screen, which invites players to select from an array of different classes—mage, bruiser, etc.—yet inevitably squeezes you into a Model T situation: You can play any role you like, as long as it's “knight.” The more familiar you are with classics like Dragon Warrior, the more liable you are to fall for the game's traps, which count on players to approach puzzles like grizzled RPG veterans. Getting duped is part of the game, though. If you complete a stage on the first try, you've probably missed half the fun… A-



Tiny Castle
Creator: Nitrome
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Tiny Castle lasts longer than a single-room quest is generally expected to, but still not long enough. As you strive to reach the distressed damsel in the medieval studio-apartment castle, the environment reconfigures itself. Pipes burst, stepladders unfurl, and walls collapse to create a new set of challenges every time you near your goal. The disruptions are the product of various deus ex machina, like a sleepy magician who's roused by your dungeon-diving and decides to screw with you as a result. But while there are some nice moments, the developer, Nitrome, doesn't take the idea far enough. A straightforward boss battle ends the game just as the castle's machinations are starting to get interesting, leaving the tantalizing question of what Tiny Castle could have been with a bit more gestation. There are still enough twists to justify the one-hour playing time, including a cute surprise ending… B



Hetherdale
Creator: Red Herring Labs
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
As soon as Hetherdale starts, it's clear the story isn't going to end well. The plot follows Dr. Heather Montrose, a literature expert recruited to help a team uncover a lost African city, only ever referenced by an insane English writer. The point-and-click adventure requires you to use all the objects at your disposal to solve problems, like getting around walls, fires, and locked doors. Most of these issues are pretty intuitive, but sometimes the graphics aren't sharp enough to show elements you're meant to interact with. At those points, it's handy that a walkthrough is posted with the game, so you can always cheat for a moment to move on with the story. The visuals are weak, and the text could use some copy-editing, but the cast of characters and World War II setting create the perfect tone: a mix of curiosity and dread… B



NerveJangla
Creator: Ninjadoodle
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
It only takes a few minutes to play through NerveJangla, but the game still feels too long. Players try to complete a series of mini-games as fast as they can, which include matching, pattern recognition, and geometry challenges. The best mini-games are the ones where the rules and mechanics aren't immediately obvious: You have to figure out exactly how to help a lonely black sphere find happiness as half of a yin yang, or assist a chubby ninja in collecting his stars. But while some of the games still have novel elements to offer during their second and third iterations, most begin to break down into tests of timing and muscle memory, so they feel like unnecessary filler… C



Mushroom Madness 2
Creator: Silen Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The first Mushroom Madness was a reasonably cute browser game where players tried to protect mushroom patches from marauding animals by smacking them with a spatula, or occasionally gaining temporary guns for more satisfying splatter. Mushroom Madness 2 is bigger and better in all ways: It piles on more adversaries, achievements, weapons, goals, upgrades, modes, and mini-games. It also keeps Mushroom Madness' flexible play system: You can move freely through “adventure mode” even if you eke through each level with mere bare survival, or you can achieve side-goals to unlock additional levels in tower-defense and shooting-gallery modes. Finding a level too hard? Play mini-games or replay levels and upgrade weapons and powers. Finding a level too easy? Frantically smash trees in your spare time for extra cash. Either way, it's a fast-paced, appealingly designed, colorfully cartoony game, and there's a lot of it to unlock and discover as well. The only issue is that it's sometimes hard to tell where your weapon focus is—there's a tiny indicator dot, but it's impossible to see when you're frantically pounding on hordes of tough bears, fast-moving birds, and tricky moles—and flailing away at enemies that aren't taking damage is infuriating. But that rarely happens. Mostly, MM2 is a cheery arcade game that's strikingly smart about letting you choose your own difficulty level just by deciding which goals to pursue… A-



Ghost Guidance
Creator: Hatched Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The common gripe with the little shooter Ghost Guidance is that with only three levels, it's way too short; it feels more like a test balloon for a pay game than a full experience. That said, if it is a trial run, the general consensus seems to be “Make more!” The premise is terrific—you're an AI virus that can infect any mechanical device, from fighter ships to the missiles they fire, but you've been discovered and need to escape from human-controlled space. So you enter a target-rich environment where every ship is an enemy—and a potential host. Each possible host has a different amount of shielding and a different weapon rate and power, so strategy is largely a question of choosing what you want out of a host, and never being caught without one, since you die quickly on your own. The action is samey and gets tedious as you chip away at tough bosses with no life meter to indicate what progress is being made, but there's usually a sweet spot where the bosses' bullets don't go, and a lot of other antagonists to dodge. Ghost Guidance could use more variety in ships, strategy, and combat, but the clean, bright design and the basic concept are promising, and what there is of it is enjoyable. If a later iteration provides a Mushroom Madness 2-like super-expansion, this will be a mesmerizing game… B



Winner Vs. Loser
Creator: Ben Foddy
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
There are no winners in the arcade-style marathon hurdle game Winner Vs. Loser, just red-faced participants ripping out their hair in frustration. There are only a few leaps to make, with a single button used for jumping and running, but the timing is so unforgivably user-unfriendly that victories are only assured to those who can master a mystifying rhythm of finger-pecks. It's polarizing, to be sure, and it trades heavily on 8-bit flashbacks to games like Track And Field as it tries to make even the most winded gamer feel like an athlete. Without an in-game opponent to compete against, Winner Vs. Loser relies on you to supply a challenger. But not even the clever inclusion of motivational speaker Tony Robbins as your coach makes this worth more than a passing glance… D



Sketch Nation Shooter
Creator: Engineous Games
Platform: iPhone/iPad
Price: $.99
Game-creation software for consumers is perhaps a bigger deal to marketers than gamers, but it's gotten more sway with everyone as it's progressed from Klik & Play in the early '90s to the more recent and formidable LittleBigPlanet. But the majority of gamers don't want to make games—they want to play them. Sketch Nation Shooter offers a simple template to make your own shoot-'em-up: You take snapshots of your black-inked doodles from unlined paper, and SNS plops them into the same cookie-cutter game. You can opt for more advanced enemy and power-up insertion, like assigning a movement pattern for each foe and deciding exactly what kind of power-up emerges where, but it's still ultimately the same game. Other players can upload their quirky or borderline pornographic twists for downloading, although the wonky hit detection and drifting controls are major deterrents. But hey, if you ever wanted to make a bland game where floating kittens must defeat a spinning pumpkin, who's gonna stop you now?… D



Tremerz
Creator: Tom Fulp
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Movie-inspired videogames are often seen as the most brainless of shovelware, but Tremerz does have this going for it: It waited 20 years before turning the Kevin Bacon monster flick Tremors into a simplistic Flash game. The result of a 24-hour game-creating marathon, Tremerz reduces the science-fiction Western's tale of enormous subterranean worms to a survival game where you must use the mouse to lead Bacon's Valentine McKee character through an automatically scrolling, minutes-long adventure. You click to hop as giant worms emerge from the ground, and along the way, you recruit other characters from the movie, causing the screen to shake and flash with the words “UH OH TREMERZ.” Nostalgic fans of the movie will get more mileage out of Tremerz, but for everyone else, it's a brief ride that occasionally frustrates. The other members of your obedient party will patiently wait their turn to jump, which means they can get chomped by the worms even if you leap out of the way with plenty of time to spare… C



I Can Hold My Breath Forever
Creator: Jake Elliott
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Created for the Experimental Gameplay Project's March theme “10 seconds,” I Can Hold My Breath Forever is a slight, engaging experimental title in the vein of Small Worlds—but with the addition of an ominous, screen-filling timer counting down whenever you dip underwater. As you explore an increasingly labyrinthine series of caves in search of your lost friend (don't forget, he's the one who can hold his breath forever), you'll discover pockets of air and some surprisingly moving notes that he left behind, simultaneously encouraging you to follow him deeper into the murky depths, and filling you in on your shared history. This is a game more interested in creating a mood than in getting your heart racing, but with its droney score, minimal story, and shrinking passageways, it certainly wrings every bit of claustrophobic menace out of its chunky graphics… B+



Nano Ninja
Creator: Rogerio Penchel
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Fans of One Button Bob's stripped-down game mechanics can now enjoy its less-is-more approach within a deadly multi-floor pagoda instead of a booby-trapped castle. In Nano Ninja, a click of the game's single context-sensitive button allows players to throw shuriken, dodge skewering spears, and eventually defeat the outsized assassin who—as villainous ninja tend to do—murdered the master of your 16-pixel warrior. Many of the levels are straight ports from OBB (like the blades dropped from the ceiling, and the game's platformer stages), but occasionally a missed jump could send you to the floor below, where bad timing and worse luck might require you to replay a room. Challenges start to repeat later in the game, with the complexity scaling up enough to remain daunting without ever approaching rage-inducing, but the real difficulty lies in besting your ghostly past self, as you play through the game again with an eye toward speed and economical clicking… B-



Daymare Town 3
Creator: Mateusz Skutnik
Platform: PC
Price: Free
In Mateusz Skutnik's third warped merging of Edward Gorey, Dr. Seuss, and Myst, you awaken after an ill-fated hot-air-balloon outing to find yourself in a strange town with stranger inhabitants. They're more scared of you than you are of them, and not without reason: As you click around the alternately charming and eerie hamlet, you'll have the chance to drug, steal from, trade with—and yes, perhaps kill—some of the misfits holding the keys to the game's myriad puzzles and your eventual escape. It's a good thing you can offload those hard-won cigarette butts and dead insects, too, as your inventory quickly fills to bursting with seemingly worthless junk that forces you to hike back through a bunch of sometimes-tricky-to-navigate screens in order to sell items and clear space. And the game is potentially unwinnable if you hand off something important to the wrong person at the wrong time. But these are minor negatives in a game whose carefully constructed tone lands just short of truly disturbing… A-



Quietus
Creator: Time
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Quietus, a moody effort from 17-year-old developer Time, is a pinch of Pitfall, two tablespoons of Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey, and a generous spoonful of Jhonen Vasquez. You play a suicide who regrets the rash decision to hang himself and is offered a challenge by the grim reaper: Run through hell's obstacle course, and win a second chance at life and happiness. As a game where you lead a sprite across perilous jumps, over lava pits and the mouths of beasties, and out of the way of swinging spikes, it's familiar but pleasing stuff. TimeBlog has made some cruelly devious stages where your frequent deaths are caused by your skill (or lack thereof) and not the inadequacy of the level design, physics, or controls. When coupled with a badass orchestral rock theme and sprites that ride the line between adorable, silly, and creepy, the play sings… B+



Mr. Driller: Drill Till You Drop
Creator: Namco Bandai
Platform: Nintendo DS (DSiWare)
Price: $5
It's hard to believe that Namco has only been making Mr. Driller games for 11 years now. The little bastard son of Dig Dug feels like arcade-game royalty at this point, every bit as familiar and welcome as his father or his great-uncle King Pac-man. Mr. Driller: Drill Till You Drop is the ninth iteration on the basic action-meets-puzzle premise of the series. You play the titular fellow, drilling down through vividly colored blocks toward a specified depth. The deeper you go, the harder it is to breathe, so you have to dig strategically to scoop air capsules. The DSiWare version of the game offers 32 stages total across three modes, including traditional drill-to-the-bottom levels, time-attack courses, and Drillstone levels that have you altering the terrain with items picked up through the course. It's a good amount of game for five bucks, but the lack of the online play offered in other downloadable editions is disappointing… B



SteamBirds
Creator: Andy Moore and Daniel Cook
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
It's easy to forget how substantial browser games can be. They aren't all Bejeweled variants and minimalist indie fare trying to art up your day. Andy Moore and Daniel Cook's SteamBirds is a serious, meaty game, the sort of thing that would have cost you $70 at Babbage's back in the early '90s. The lack of admission fee for this turn-based airplane-vs.-airplane beauty is a testament to how great the modern gaming age is. On a fatigue-green topographical map, you plot the attack course for your fleet of fighter planes, selecting a flight path that intersects with enemy planes. Your ships automatically fire, provided they're in range of baddies. You are awarded stars based on your performance, allowing you to progress through the stages and increase your rank. SteamBirds is deceptively simple, as bringing down even one plane can prove trickier than you first suspect. As the game advances, adding more abilities to your fleet and throwing cagier enemies at you, it becomes an exercise in delicious strategy… A



Angry Birds
Creator: Clickgamer
Platform: iPhone/iPad
Price: $.99
A little variety goes a long way. The goal in each level of this slingshot game is to fling birds against faultily constructed towers until they collapse on green blobs inside. But Angry Birds wisely asks that you engage with the screen after each one is launched. The blue birds, for example, break into three parts when touched in midair, and spray the structure like birdshot. Yellow ones are angular and launch normally, but can be sped up to maximize impact. Your arsenal diversifies in later levels, requiring you to save certain birds to take down certain types of building material—wood, glass, and stone are the most prevalent, and respond differently to different birds. With 105 levels to conquer, new types of bad guys later on, and a built-in trophy system, it's unlikely you'll want for variety… A



Across Age
Creator: FDG Entertainment
Platform: iPhone/iPad
Price: $5.99
The problem with the iPhone is that its controls are too natural, and some games—existing for years with less-intuitive control pads—have a hard time keeping up. Such is the main problem with Across Age, a fantasy action game in the realm of The Legend Of Zelda and Secret Of Mana. Your character walks through the land attacking enemies by running into them, but the embedded touch-sensitive directional pad makes hitting them at the right angle difficult. (Same goes for your secondary character, who has a hard time shooting her spells the right way.) Dungeons require your two-person party to split up, sometimes even throwing each other around to reach high ledges, but the buttons controlling such actions only respond about half the time. The developers managed to cram an engrossing multilevel RPG into the tiny iPhone space, but marred by frustrating controls, Across Age feels stuck in the past. C