April 4, 2011

New ultra-cheap videogames

Pica Pic
Creator: Hippopotam Studio
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Even amid the rush to nostalgify every aspect of pre-1995 gaming, early portable LCD games have failed to garner much retrospective love. Maybe nobody loved them much in the first place. The extremely limited technology, which “animated” a game-like substance by switching various drawings on and off around the primitive screen, made these handheld units the unsatisfying last resort of a desperate gamer. In the United States, the market was dominated by Tiger Electronics, while in Japan, the standard was set by Nintendo’s Game and Watch devices, so named because they included a digital clock. (The ability to keep time was worthy of top billing, it seems.) The Poland-based Hippopotam Studio has carefully digitized more than a dozen of these primitive LCD games from the ’80s and ’90s, preserving the experience down to the plasticky “thwap” of the buttons. Revisiting this corner of gaming history with the distance of a couple decades reveals plenty of creativity to appreciate. Highlights include Coffee House, a proto-Diner Dash which demonstrates that the stereotype of a harried waitress has long served as a premise for vapid fun. Mickey & Donald is a prime example of Nintendo’s early experimentation with dual-screen gaming, but the relatively modest Search Light may feature the most inventive use of the LCD canvas, using negative space to carve out a vivid beam of light. Best of all, most of the games tell time, too… B+



Roadkill Revenge

Creator: Kizi Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Fed up with the victim mentality that’s haunted them since the days of Frogger, the woodland-animal cast of Roadkill Revenge takes to a rocket-powered truck in the hopes of cutting the widest possible swath of destruction through a busy highway. Predictably, meeting the specific demands of a level—destroying a bank, for example, or rerouting traffic into the path of an oncoming train—takes a backseat to causing as much mayhem as possible, and that’s where Revenge ably delivers the pyrotechnic goods. Aside from selecting a starting position and deciding the perfect moment to let ’er rip, there isn’t much player agency in this game, and most of the car-totaling that occurs will be the result of dumb luck and traffic pileups. Still, levels reload quickly, there’s a mess of optional objectives and bonus stages to aim for, and if the game’s random elements get frustrating, there’s a “skip level” button. It’s there for those moments when you’re having trouble caroming off the exploding gas station at just the right angle… B



From Beyond

Creator: Tom Vian, Catherine Under, and Adam Vian
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
From Beyond entices players with a distinctive look and a funny premise—a glaring deity who staves off boredom by flinging celestial objects in the direction of a helpless Earth. And then, after a couple of minutes, it’s over. See, From Beyond is the product of a weekend game jam, and it bears the most common symptom of game-jam-itis: a hugely underdeveloped idea. The game has five rounds, allowing you to prompt mass extinctions by flicking away such destructive space detritus as a UFO and a black hole. Each of the projectiles behaves a little differently, which makes the challenge less straightforward than it initially seems, and there’s some fun in replaying the game to max out your bonuses—like “You’re A Horrible Person” for destroying every animal. Still, the game can be mastered in 10 minutes. It’s good to leave people wanting more, but perhaps not this much more… B-



Elephant Quest

Creator: John Cooney for Armor Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The elephant who starred in the Achievement Unlocked series—a sort of unofficial mascot for indie-game juggernaut Armor Games—has moved on to a larger stage. Elephant Quest is an exploratory platformer with a little more meat on its bones than Achievement Unlocked, but it maintains the tradition of amplifying videogame conventions to their logical conclusion. The elephant is ridiculously upgradeable, inane fetch-quests abound, and a near-constant stream of rewards (and, yes, achievements) sparkles across the screen. There’s nothing special about the design of the world, and the meta-gaming joke does wear thin. The game is bolstered by its chipper spirit, though, and by its earnest cuteness, exemplified by the elephant’s adorable midair waggle… B



Black Thing

Creator: Karma Team
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
If H.R. Giger oversaw art direction on a 2D demake of de Blob, the result might look like Black Thing, a sludgy game with walls, floors, buzzsaws, and levers that are invisible until the titular Thing has launched some of its tarry gunk onto them, transforming a hazard-strewn void into a filthy black-and-white maze. That mechanic forces players to take their time on the first run-through, but the stages are so short and simple that locating the exit with just a few precision globs isn’t so hard after the basic outlines have been filled in. Black Thing offers the freedom to explore previously completed levels in search of treasures (and, inexplicably, robot parts), but slightly clumsy controls and inconsistent collision detection on some browsers mar the game’s already spare charms… C+



Cursed Treasure: Don’t Touch My Gems!

Creator: IriySoft
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The sheer number of browser-based tower defense games has forced players to develop a refined palette, at least to distinguish between all the choices. Only a connoisseur of the genre would care about the fine differences between Desktop Tower Defense and more recent titles like Cursed Treasure: Don’t Touch My Gems!—it takes an acquired taste to discern the heady bouquet of one game’s turrets or the oaky flavor of another’s enemy classes. From that perspective, seasoned tower-defense players won’t find much in Cursed Treasure to excite their palate. Its 15 levels and 28 upgradeable player stats are simple and satisfying, but not especially taxing. Players new to the style will find an accessible, pretty entry point. There are three types of weapon-firing towers—wood arrows, ice, and fire—that you set up to lay low a variety of treasure-hunters marching toward your cache of gems. Cursed Treasure adds an elemental aspect to the standard template, as each tower type can only be built on a specific type of terrain, limiting your attack strategies… B



Not Your War

Creator: Pawel Lyczkowski
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Not Your War starts out with promising variations on the twin-stick style of spaceship shooters. As in games like Geometry Wars, you fly a tiny ship around a contained play field that swarms with enemies, dividing your attention between maneuvering through the crowd of baddies and directing shots with your mouse pointer. War distinguishes itself by actually having a story—Ian Morgan, an exile of the war-torn planet Rhea, captains your spacecraft. Ian is trying to leave Rhea, lest he be executed. This setup is conveyed through a hazy intro that sets a nice mood. The game maintains that mood in its inky black, grey, and yellow presentation as well as the angular ship design. War stumbles in its execution, though. While alternative weapons are available—not to mention necessary for dispatching all but the most basic enemies with any efficiency—it’s unclear when they’re even there, let alone what their uses are. If you choose an ineffective upgrade, there’s no convenient way to undo your mistake. Plus, the game is more sluggish than others of its type, which can make a level feel longer than it is. That’s a detriment to a game that should feel fast and tense… C+



Forget-Me-Not

Creator: Nyarlu Labs
Platform: iPhone/iPad
Price: $1.99
Forget-Me-Not is as noisy as an entire damn arcade and twice as chaotic. Fortunately, the guiding concept couldn’t be simpler. It’s Pac-Man re-imagined as a roguelike game—created anew as you play, and never the same game twice. There are a few twists on the classic formula. For instance, your character has a gun, said gun fires whenever you move, and there are no magic pills to make the bad guys helpless. All of this necessitates some careful strategy, because each procedurally generated level is only over once you’ve collected the key and dragged it to the lock, which only appears after you’ve scarfed up all the tiny X’s. One detail ratchets up the difficulty: Your bullets wrap around the screen, so you could wind up shooting yourself in the back. Snatching the key quickly is essential, as it’s the only way to literally cover your ass. That said, you also need to keep a close eye on the rogue’s gallery of randomly appearing enemies who can torment you with bombs and instant death. The action quickly gets insane, though a trio of modes can help vary the game, depending on what sort of challenge you desire… A-



Bed And Breakfast 2

Creator: FreeWorldGroup.com
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Bed And Breakfast 2 is the same game as the original Bed And Breakfast, simply adding more possible upgrades to the shameless knockoff of Hotel Dash. You control the owner of a bed and breakfast who, like Dash’s Flo, is constantly running around, tending to guests to earn more money. Unlike Flo, the proprietor of Bed And Breakfast 2 doesn’t feel the need to do every job himself, and in fact can’t keep working solo if you want to have any hope of beating the later levels. What starts off as a time-management game quickly degrades into a dull process of clicking on customers to check them in and out while your hired housekeeper, bellhop, chef, and assorted other workers keep things running. The most infuriating part of the game is that whether you beat a level depends on how much money you make, not customer satisfaction, so if you buy too many upgrades rather than banking all your dough, you’ll lose. Bed And Breakfast 2 is a free version of a better game, and in this case you really get what you pay for… D+



Bastards

Creator: Octavian Stirbei
Platform: iPhone
Price: $.99
All these years later, there’s still plenty of life in the old Doom engine. While Bastards isn’t the first Old West homage done as a FPS (remember Outlaws?), it is a mighty fine one. Indeed, one of the best things about Bastards is that it hardly feels like Doom. Its three levels showcase an impressive effort to give the classic framework new texture, from the chickens and horses out in the dusty fields to the sunny sky out in the distance. And though it sounds short, it isn’t, which is cause for both celebration and hand-wringing. Each level entails a considerable amount of exploration just to determine where you should be headed, with no shortage of ambushes tossed in, though the key/door system is somewhat obtuse: You tap on doors to open them, a trick that’s never explained to the player. When the single-player stages have been fully explored, there’s a handy local-network multiplayer option for co-op and deathmatch, which are both major reasons that people keep returning to DoomB



Tetris Labs

Creator: MoFunZone.com
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Tetris Labs isn’t enjoyable enough to be worth the time and patience required to play it. The game integrates Tetris into a puzzle platformer where you must lay down pieces to plot a path your character can use to get to a flower somewhere on the board. The pieces can give you a safe path across hazards, or they can be stacked to allow you to reach a higher perch. Figuring out how to arrange the pieces and making sure they land in the right formation would be challenging enough, but you can also be faced with levels that are unbeatable because the randomly determined pieces can’t fit together properly. As a result, players have to constantly retry boards, trying to figure out a strategy, then hoping the right pieces will fall from the heavens… C



The Legend Of The Golden Robot

Creator: Flipline Studios
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
There are elements of Minesweeper in The Legend Of The Golden Robot—a turn-based RPG that combines treasure-seeking with goblin-smacking. Armed with a weapon and a shovel, your vaguely Homer Simpson-looking explorer heads out to one of many grids. On each grid, there are enemies to fight and levels to gain (bolstering the usual stats), but the focus is on digging up treasure until the break-o’-dawn. Players are guided by numbers in each square that indicate how many treasures are in adjacent squares, à la Minesweeper. And as with that free Windows productivity-killer, there’s a certain thrill in being a completist—leaving levels completely free of treasure. The game matures as you play: Different shovels are ideal for digging into different surfaces, so shovel selection plays a part in effective time management. In addition, certain treasures are usable in battle, and the most powerful ones are must-haves when facing the ever-stronger enemies. There are only a few glitches and missteps—some levels are far too easy, seeing as they’re almost nothing but treasure—but for the most part, the makers of Minesweeper should be proud of this homage… A-



Sky Island

Developer: Neutronized
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Pity the poor side-scroller hero, only able to move in two dimensions, but secretly able to see three. Why jump over a wall when you could just as easily walk around it? Because the game says so, that’s why. But that isn’t a concern for the main character of Sky Island, a deconstructed platformer along the lines of the still-unreleased indie darling Fez. Sky Island lets you rotate the camera at any time, getting new perspectives on what seems at first to be flat world, but proves to be a puzzling 3-D landscape. Feats that were impossible from one angle become doable when the camera is moved. With middling platforming, the camera positioning becomes the primary antagonist in the game, which feels wrong—maybe the developers thought that wrestling with the camera is the best part of 3-D games. The concept is remarkably clever, but Sky Island is a bit more clever than good… B-



Color Cleaner

Developer: marsyong
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Color Cleaner is an unassuming puzzle game with a simple interface: click a colored block, remove it and all adjacent blocks of the same color. Gravity that goes in different directions complicates matters slightly, but things only start getting really difficult when you have to time your clicks. That’s an odd choice—it turns a calm, smooth game experience into a hectic one—but otherwise, Color Cleaner is nothing more, or less, than what it seems. It entertains for an hour and is easily forgotten… B



Cactus McCoy

Creator: notDoppler
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Looking at the pieces of Cactus McCoy one at a time gives a false impression of a satisfying-enough platformer. Get this: A cactus man slugs his way through a cartoony spaghetti Western, occasionally picking up a sharp implement (or a squirt gun) to aid the cause. There are hidden treasures, impressive climbing maneuvers, and lots of comically large boxing gloves. Elaborate fight combos involve only one button, and you can hit enemies in mid-air, even after they’re already dead. The pieces are in place, but their cursory execution keeps Cactus McCoy from cohering. The weapons are so similar that it’s hardly worth seeking out new ones. And the secret treasures don’t aid your quest; they’re simply another stat to post on the Kongregate site. (And, really, no one ever started playing a cheap web game for the “achievement sharing.”) Only the fluid range of actions—allowing for the world to expand vertically in both directions—separates McCoy from the pack; the presence of a man-cactus is not enough. C-

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