Aquaria

For the first hour, Aquaria seems like nothing more than a cute game–a 2D adventure about a paper doll-style amphibian girl who lives in an underwater cave, but wonders what's outside. It takes its time in becoming impressive: Every section of the impressively large world brings new details and surprises, and nobody throws signposts in players' faces to tell them where to go next. The detailed backdrops and lovingly illustrated fish are alluring, and the music, though twee, is infectious. And even the character's evolution from fin-faced naif to force of destruction feels natural.

Aquaria isn't so much a retro adventure as a fresh take on everything that made the old 2D adventures great. Decades-old conventions and puzzle ideas are handled with subtlety, and the bells and whistles are pared to a minimum, making every discovery a surprise. And the game gets a lot of mileage out of such simple tricks as turning off the lights. But the careful pacing sells the experience, forcing you to slow down and enjoy the journey.

Beyond the game: The two-man team behind this epic includes programmer Alec Holowka and illustrator Derek Yu, who also runs indie game blog TIGSource.

Worth playing for: Plot points and revelations sneak in when you least expect them. For example, the first time you discover the Veil, the game makes sure you stop to appreciate it.

Frustration sets in when: Your character sings a series of notes to trigger special moves and abilities. Each note is color-coded, but a few of the colors are confusingly similar: It can be tough in the middle of a fight to guess which yellowish-reddish-orange note you're supposed to hit.

Final judgment: Amazing mash-up of a classic NES adventure and that fish-tank screensaver you had in the '90s.

Grade: A-