August 24, 2009

It’s becoming clear that a great game doesn’t need to be a $60, hundred-hour time-sink. Game developers are testing their freshest ideas in the medium’s Off-Off-Broadway productions: experimental indies, iPhone curiosities, Facebook add-ons, etc. That’s why The A.V. Club is pleased to introduce Sawbuck Gamer, a recurring feature where we’ll take a look at new games that you can get for $10 or (usually) less. We’re playing these games, and so are you, so why not talk about them? In each edition of Sawbuck Gamer, we’ll round up a bunch of cheap thrills for your idle gaming pleasure, and we hope you’ll pipe up in the comments with your own finds.

The Thrill Of Combat
Creator: Messhof (Mark Essen)
Platform: PC
Price: $4.95
Crossing the hair-pulling challenge of Flywrench with the nauseating disorientation of Randy Balma: Municipal Abortionist, Messhof’s first for-sale title, The Thrill Of Combat, is in the vein of his past works—but this time, he adds lasers. Players steer a helicopter into a hail of rockets and bullets to drop off a gunner/battlefield surgeon, who, in a ghastly mini-game, harvests your victims’ organs. (No explanation for this is offered, or really needed.) The challenge lies in the controls: The helicopter moves propeller-first, forcing you to get around by spinning upside down or flying sideways, sometimes with no reference on which way is up. It’s hard to believe that flying a real chopper could be tougher than this. While you’ll start over many, many times, the constantly switching maps and GDFX’s excellent glitch/industrial score help fend off loser fatigue. The title doesn’t lie: The combat is thrilling, and while the game is hard, it never feels impossible. But it’s better with two people, one flying the chopper with the keyboard, and the other working the laser with the mouse. Recruit a friend and get happily seasick together… B+

Boxgame
Creator: Sophie Houlden
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Long after gaming rigs came to be defined by how many millions of polygons per second they could churn out, Boxgame manages to ply its craft with one humble cube. Each level begins by placing you down on a twisting box, where you have to use its ever-shifting gravitational pull to your advantage in order to escape. The tiny playing field belies the complexity of puzzle-solving it takes to pass the later levels. At its best, it’s like a travel-edition game, packing an impressive amount of play into the smallest possible package. Not all the puzzles are winners, though. Boxgame is initially uncertain that players will grasp its straightforward conceit, and many of the early levels are so slight that you’re liable to stumble over the answer by accident. Only about halfway through the game’s scant 15 stages does any real challenge set in… C+

You Only Live Once
Creator: Raitendo (Marcus Richert)
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The “Continue” option on most game-over screens is a lie. Choosing it doesn’t actually continue anything; it rewinds the action so you can try again. But Raitendo’s You Only Live Once is more literal-minded. In this simple Flash platformer, when your ersatz Mario dies—which won’t take long, thanks to a marriage of clumsy controls and bottomless pits—the “Continue” button advances the story without you. The postmortem vignettes lampoon the traditional save-the-princess narrative with a brilliant dry wit, grounding the action in a mundane reality of grieving and obituaries, central to which is your permanent death. No matter how many times you click “continue,” you never get to play again. Reload the page: still dead. Switch browsers: still dead. It’s Commitment To A Joke: The Game, happily alienating its audience with an Andy Kaufman-esque determination to see its comic vision through… B+

Seven
Creators: Makibishi Inc. (Shinnosuke Kumazawa and Shintaro Uchiyama)
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Seven is bizarre—Michael Moore and George W. Bush, floating on a cloud and pelting you with bombs, apples, and piles of cash bizarre. It delivers enough “Hey, what?” to merit a look, but its flaws are sadly mundane. A collection of mini-games by Japanese studio Makibishi Inc., Seven is disjointed in visual style and gameplay. Activities range from simple jumping and logic puzzles to a maddening upside-down platformer, while the décor skips from techno-ambient outer space to a world decked out entirely in plaid. Its Katamari Damacy-like looks charm instantly, but the gameplay is another matter: Some levels are punishing and fiddly, while others are over in seconds. And the portentous intro and chipper finale bolted onto the game take the spirit of “Why not?” a few steps too far… C

Word Challenge, Pet Society, Crazy Planets
Creator: Playfish
Platform: Browser (Facebook)
Price: Free
Playfish makes social games—the kind that Facebook is always bugging its members to play. But underneath the automated come-ons and micro-transactions, each of Playfish’s offerings has a compelling seed of gameplay. Word Challenge tickles the same nerve as Boggle. Fingers poised at the keyboard, players hammer out as many dictionary-legal words as they can before time runs out. The social angle here is minimal but effective. The game pats players on the back every time their score leapfrogs one held by a buddy. And, of course, there’s a leaderboard where anagram-sniffing cyborgs can lord their superiority over their dull-witted chums.

There's good money on Pet Society being Playfish’s microtransaction cash cow. Your virtual critter starts life in a spartan home, with only scraps of clothes covering its shame. Downtown, there are tons of shops where furniture, costumes, and food can be scored. And that’s where real money comes into play. Dull mini-games generate a bit of dough, but it takes a small, virtual fortune to deck out the game’s ever-expanding cribs. Friends’ digs can be visited—yet another insidious motivation to drop a little cash and pull that pet out of squalor. The deep, mostly aesthetic, customization is the only reason to play Pet Society. This game is no Animal Crossing. Heck, it’s no Tamagotchi, either.

Easily the most ambitious of Playfish’s social games Crazy Planets transforms Facebook friends into an army of galactic explorers. Profile photos slapped over bobblehead noggins add character to these playable spacemen. Gameplay is turn-based. Players trudge around tiny planets, stopping to launch missiles and grenades at enemy robots. Then the mechanical baddies get a chance to shoot back. The lures here are many: Scrounged money can be used to personalize home planets. Resources won in battle are leveraged toward weapon upgrades and research. The final hook is a series of achievements that reward medals for persistence… Word Challenge: B+; Pet Society: C+; Crazy Planets: A-

When Pigs Fly
Creator: Auntie Pixelante (Anna Anthropy)
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
When Pigs Fly is the best test of your 2-D run-and-jump skills since Super Mario All-Stars. True, there are no enemies here or points to earn, but the game gets a lot of mileage out of making a meaningless idiom a reality, and an even stronger case for why pigs should never, ever fly. After your poor little piggy falls down a hill, she sprouts wings and attempts to navigate its craggy innards. If your impressive wingspan so much as brushes any surface, you’ll plummet to your death while a dusting of feathers peacefully drifts down and an annoyingly hilarious squeal serves as your death rattle. Get used to that sound—you’ll be lucky to scrape by with only 500 “accidents” after one addictive play-through of this ingratiating exercise in frustration. Masochists can get extra mileage by opting for a single-life play-through, or playing the entire game backward… A

FallOver!
Creator: Reactor Products (Arvi Teikari)
Platform: PC
Price: Free
The FallOver! soundtrack consists of an old-timey MIDI file that sounds a lot like a ragtime version of “The Bare Necessities,” which is fitting, since this is a platformer stripped to its core. You control an unnamed bloke clad in a derby and monocle. His only goal is to make it through nine screens worth of obstacles to touch a flag—but running too fast or jumping too high will send you toppling over, and with only two more chances to try again before having to start all over. While rag-doll physics are nothing new to gaming, FallOver! succeeds in turning a ubiquitous part of gaming on its head—spikes are just as dangerous as rocks, in that they only trip you up, causing the protagonist to politely harrumph, “Bugger!” or “Darn it!” As such, it’s more an interesting proof of concept than a satisfying gaming experience, but it should be experienced all the same… B 

William And Sly
Creator: Lucas Paakh
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
William And Sly wants so badly to be cut from the same tranquil cloth as big-name exploring titles like Ico and Shadow Of The Colossus that it forgets to provide a reason for all its wandering around. You play as Sly, a fox in the woods tasked by William (who looks like an extra out of an Esurance.com ad, scruffy soul patch and all) to fetch fairyflies in a forest to activate runestones—basically, you’re on a repetitive fetching quest to get insects so you can teleport around and collect more insects before a big boss battle. Not that a compelling story would be required here, but calming rainstorms and owl chirps in the woods do little to vary the persistent sameness… C

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time Re-Shelled
Creator: Ubisoft Singapore
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: $10
Ubisoft’s remake of the 1991 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles In Time arcade hit seems just as lost in time as the title’s green heroes. While the graphics have gotten an overhaul, the side-scrolling beat-’em-up is a cluttered, button-mashing trial with inconsistent difficulty. You spend most of your time combating swarms of Foot Soldiers, primarily distinguished by the color of their uniforms. While each turtle plays a little differently, they have a limited selection of attacks. The game can be finished in a little over an hour, and there isn’t much replay appeal, with multiplayer limited to the same levels. One of the most frustrating mechanics is the stun effect when your characters are damaged: Trip over an obstacle on your hoverboard or get hit by a boss, and you’re left vulnerable to another hit, which starts a vicious cycle that saps away your precious health and lives. The result is that even “turtle power” nostalgia is likely to be trumped by boredom and irritation… D+

Semantic Wars
Creator: Limex Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
It turns out Hangman is a lot more fun when it involves fortress defense rather than just stick figures. Money in Semantic Wars is acquired by filling in letters to guess words, and it’s spent to buy mêlée fighters, archers, and mages who defend your castle and march against the enemy. The warriors move along a line from base to base, attacking anything in their path and collecting power-ups, repair patches, and clues that will fill in part of your puzzle. There isn’t much strategy involved in army-building, but the biggest failing comes from the limited library of puzzle solutions. Words start repeating after only a few plays, making the game less about picking out missing letters, and more about basic recall. B