August 9, 2010

Alien Swarm
Creator: Valve
Platform: PC
Price: Free
It feels piddly to complain about Alien Swarm. The experience of the game is so much better than the vast majority of free PC games that it seems unfair to niggle over just how little the single-player experience contains, or how often the multi-player experience freezes up, creating catastrophic in-game situations. Sure, the controls are a little hinky from time to time, but this is essentially a game that Valve could have easily packaged in a box and sold for $30, and it’s available to players for absolutely nothing. An update of an early ’00s Unreal Tournament mod, Alien Swarm takes an isometric viewpoint as it tracks the slow infiltration of a planetary base that’s been overrun by, well, an alien swarm. A tiny squad of two to four must plumb the depths of the research facilities to find out what happened on the planet, and the far-off screeches of aliens, or the sounds of their claws colliding with doors you’ve just welded shut, create a sense of mounting dread. Even on its easier levels, the game is fairly unforgiving. Ammo is scarce, and it doesn’t take many thwacks from an alien’s claws to kill you. At the same time, it’s a good kind of unforgiving, easily dragging players in for just one more try. There’s a sense that Alien Swarm is ever so slightly derivative of Valve’s Left 4 Dead, but it manages to be just as compelling an experience, which is a high compliment. Minor quibbles aside, this is a must-play game for action gamers, especially those who enjoy playing cooperatively online… A



Halo 2600

Creator: Ed Fries
Platforms: Browser, Atari 2600
Played on: Browser
Price: Free
Demakes—popular games re-imagined for earlier generations of tech—are often little more than entertaining jokes, quick little one-offs created for the fun of seeing modern icons in antique trappings. (Some of the best demakes aren’t even playable at all.) Halo 2600 is more than a gag, even though it’s one of the most ludicrous demakes yet. Former Microsoft executive Ed Fries has transplanted the soul of the Halo series into an Atari 2600 game whose code occupies 4 kilobytes, or 0.000045 percent of a modern Xbox 360 disc. This is no slapdash hack job. If Fries’ game had been released in 1978, it almost surely would have been a system-seller for Atari, just as the modern Halo series has been for Microsoft. As a sort of Cro-Magnon Master Chief, players soldier through a world that’s four zones deep, peppered with equipment upgrades, and populated by low-res but recognizable Covenant enemies. Much of the game’s excitement comes from the screen-by-screen exploration that was standard in games of that era. (Think Adventure.) When you walk off the edge of the screen, you have no idea what’s on the other side. The image redraws instantly, though—no loading times here—so players have to stay alert. A limited run of Halo 2600 cartridges sold out at the Classic Gaming Expo last week, but Fries put the ROM online in a Flash emulator. So now, the masses can enjoy this gem that straddles five decades of gaming history… A



Helsing’s Fire

Creator: Clickgamer
Platform: iPhone 
Price: $0.99
Before True Blood and Twilight swayed public opinion, we all used to agree: Vampires should die. The puzzler Helsing’s Fire nudges some common sense back into our national obsession with bloodsuckers, although Professor Helsing and his assistant Raffton engage in far less violence than we’re used to. Instead of wooden stakes, the duo has gathered torches and multi-colored potions to take on Dracula’s minions. Differently colored rats, bats, and other creepy-crawlies lurk behind decaying columns and walls. The only way to take them out is by carefully positioning a torch so your enemies are illuminated. If enemies are hit with the potion of the wrong color, the attack will strengthen them instead of finishing them off. The difficulty ratchets up over 90 levels, so don’t be put off by how much the earlier stages hold your hands. Helsing’s Fire oozes with charm, thanks to flourishes like the self-mocking Victorian-ish dialog and Helsing’s celebratory fist-bump upon completing a level… A-



Battle Of Britain: 303 Squadron

Creator: Channel 4
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Some things about Battle Of Britain are as frustrating as browser-based gaming gets. It’s admirable to do a 2-D, side-scrolling aerial combat shoot-em-up—basically 1941 seen from the side rather than from above—and it’s great that the developer, UK Channel 4, has tried to keep the onscreen gadgetry to a minimum, the better to enhance the game’s surprisingly cinematic appeal. But the minimization of those items has created a situation where the only way to figure out just how much more damage you can take, or how far you can climb straight up before you stall, is via trial and error, which makes the early levels of the game more frustrating than they need to be. Still, the game’s presentation is stylish to a fault (the between-level cutscenes advancing the story of a Polish air squadron in Britain are gorgeously done), and once you figure out the game’s visual tricks, it becomes a solid flight actioner… B



The Pinball Adventure

Creators: Michael Gribbin and David Robinson
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
It’s difficult to get the physics of pinball correct in a videogame, so The Pinball Adventure doesn’t bother. The ball leaps around the playfield, defying gravity one second and plunging into it the next. Rather than failing to emulate a real machine, the game succeeds at getting into a groove of its own. Each of four tables is peppered with skulls, dark fairies, and other monsters who submit to the wrath of your wonky-looking white pinball. The battle strategy leaves something to be desired—in essence, you whale away on bad guys until they disappear, and then you wait for them to respawn. Repeat until the ball drains. The game could use a nudge control, as any pinball simulation is incomplete without one. Even with its deficiencies, though, the homely game has enough of a swing to make chasing the top score an enjoyable pursuit, albeit one that falls short of the “adventure” billing… B



Frogatto & Friends

Creator: Lost Pixel
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC, iPhone
Played on: Mac
Price: Desktop—Free; iPhone—$4.99
A couple of deeply annoying issues keep Frogatto & Friends from being an essentially perfect little platformer: The difficulty level ranges widely (most of the levels are casual-play exploratory wonderlands, but a few randomly distributed areas require pixel-perfect precision), and couple of the boss fights are preceded by lengthy dialogues, which you’ll likely have to wade through over and over and over before you beat those bosses for good. These are a couple of majorly surprising flaws in a game that’s otherwise polished, professional, and smart. You play Frogatto, a lazy, selfish frog on a quest to stop a blackmailing bully in hopes of a hefty reward. This means jumping and swimming through a visually rich, layered world full of enemies, which you can dodge, hop on, or in many cases, nab with your froggy tongue and then spit at other enemies. Unlimited lives, frequent save points and auto-checkpoints, and not-very-lethal baddies still edge Frogatto closer to a casual game than a serious challenge, but the design is great, the gameplay is as familiar as comfort food, and the wrap-up once you beat the game is a hoot. Paying customers might want to hold out for the upcoming version that will supposedly fix that infuriating pre-boss conversation problem, though… A-



Mt.

Creator: Luke O’Connor
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The promise of Mt. is substantial. Type in any word, and the game will generate a mountain for you. The next time you type in that word—be it your name, your hometown, or “boob”—and it will generate that same mountain again. If you tire of climbing Mt. Ambergris, you can move on to Mt. Puppy, and come back to Mt. Ambergris the next day. And the gameplay is simple enough. Just click ahead to swing along from a grappling hook and hold down the mouse button to rotate so you land feet-first. But the game’s physics model seems as if it’s based on the moon, and the problems start almost immediately. The sense of what qualifies as a mouse-click is graded too heavily, so even the slightest click will set the little climber to twirling, leaving players frantically clicking to get right-side-up again. And many of the randomly generated mountains are simply impossible to climb without spending hour upon hour on the same tricky slope or grade. Even the slightest mis-click can send you all the way back to square one… D



Gravity Hook HD

Creator: Semi Secret Software
Platforms: Browser, iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played On: iPhone
Price: Browser—Free; iPhone/iPad—$2.99
Gravity Hook HD is made by the same company that crafted last year’s side-scrolling parkour-fest Canabalt, and since GHHD is a similar game—only with the orientation turned clockwise—it’d be tempting to call GHHD a lazy knockoff. It isn’t. The original Gravity Hook predates Canabalt and has now been overhauled and enhanced in this pretty update. What hasn’t been touched is the punishing difficulty, sure to aggravate those not patient enough to tackle the learning curve of swinging your robot’s grappling-hook arm from floating buoy to floating buoy. You’ll have to harness both centripetal and centrifugal force early on, as many of the higher-up buoys are land mines that explode if you touch them. In other words, it’s as frustrating as Canabalt, but much more skill-based—and another example of why the world needs many more grappling-hook-based games… A-



EarthBound Tower Defense

Creator: XXStone
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Few gamers have inspired as much postmortem enthusiasm as the whimsical RPG trilogy EarthBound (a.k.a Mother). It ended in 2006 with a Japan-only finale, but its second entry, from 1995—the only one released in the U.S.—captivated innumerable devotees enough that they’re still wringing joy from it: Last year, a group of fans dug into the ROM data and found more than two minutes of unused text. So it’s no shock that in 2010, one enthusiast spent a couple of weeks to make a tower-defense game paying homage to the series. In EarthBound Tower Defense, EB creatures like energy-shooting Mr. Saturns, spike-flinging Tendas, and canon-like Foppies band together as fierce stationary units to prevent Starmen from storming suburban Eagleland. If you haven’t played any EarthBound, none of that will mean a damn thing to you—which is fine, since this is obviously aimed at anyone yearning for more EarthBound, no matter how they can get it. As a tower-defense game, ETD is nothing revolutionary: Its three levels (one per difficulty) are bland, and its unit-upgrade system is predictable. But what’s here is unmistakably made with love for the series… B-



Epic War 4

Creator: Artlogic
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The Epic War games are following a strange path: Each one automates more of the game’s processes, to the point where with Epic War 4’s levels, you can pretty much hit the “assault” button and sit back to idly watch as if the game was a fantasy-themed ant farm. Epic War is a standard castle-defense game: Your castle sits on the left of your screen, your opponent’s is on the right, you each spawn units and send them toward each other, trying to reach and smash each other’s castle. Epic War 4 uses many of the same fantasy units as 3—goblin infantry, centaur archers, etc.—and as with 3, it auto-spawns each unit for you, up to the maximum number allowed, instead of requiring you to specify each spawn and pay a mana cost. EW4 also adds high-powered heroes who “lead” units, and it attempts to make the attacking system more dynamic and complex. But units still charge blindly to their deaths regardless of orders, and a strategy-free full-on attack will beat most levels, so there’s little incentive to get involved. Besides, beating a level quickly means you get fewer upgrade points because you killed fewer enemy units, so there’s every reason to let battles rage on inefficiently and at length as background processes. There’s still a CCG element to comparing, upgrading, and selecting spells, heroes, and units for each level, but this time around, they’re treated as equip slots rather than cards in a deck. That’s one change among many that make EW4 feel different from EW3, but most of the changes are cosmetic. Apart from heroes and a few seriously tough bosses, EW4 feels a lot like every other castle-defense game. It’s increasingly polished, but plodding and repetitive. The fact that each “normal” level can now be replayed as unlockable “hard” and “epic” levels extends the experience hugely, but when every level is about the same and only a few are truly challenging, that isn’t really a good thing… C



The Company Of Myself

Creator: 2DArray
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
There’s rarely much narrative in a puzzle game, though often not much is needed: Pull this, push that, don't get stuck. Yet in The Company Of Myself, the story fuels the mechanics, and vice versa. This “find your way to the exit” platform puzzler plops your well-dressed character into a boxy world scored by melancholy haunted-house music. In order to reach the green square and move on, you enlist the help of shadow copies of yourself. You move how you want them to, hit spacebar, and begin the level anew with these apparitions running about for you to leap on. Meanwhile, the narrator laments his loneliness and chronicles his spiral into darker thoughts. The simple elegance of The Company Of Myself is how it can turn on a dime, like in a middle section that shows the way things were when “she” was in your life, allowing you to control your other half to help reach the end. The sudden shift back to solo is emotionally hefty, as is the wrenching conclusion that demonstrates the narrator’s torment. If only the game weren’t so short, it would represent the ideal pairing of the logical and illogical… B+



Covetous

Creator: Austin Breed
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
“I felt myself becoming thick and lump.” Lump isn’t an adjective, but when this skewed usage of the word pops up early in Covetous, it tells you everything about your avatar in the game, both literally and metaphorically. You play a parasitic, unicellular lump of an organism that slowly consumes a lumpy, sexless human host. At the beginning, you're just a red dot consuming green dots, but as you grow, so do the parts of your host that are being consumed. Each stage of growth is punctuated by text, narration from the parasite that gets increasingly unhinged as your host starts to die. The crude graphics effectively set the mood: The color turns sickly, and the lumpy host body’s doofy smile changes into a frown as the parasite emerges as a Lovecraftian beast. Covetous is a blunt short story about self-loathing and self-destruction, and the ending is a good emotional punch, but it's the only moment where your control of the game seems to matter… C



Scarabeus: Pearls Of The Nile

Creators: Digital Reality and Catmoon Games
Platform: iPhone
Price: $2.99
The puzzle game Scarabeus: Pearls Of The Nile is more tedious than mentally challenging. Players must unlock pearls on each level by matching colored marbles, which gradually trickle out from the top of the screen, with the colored scarabs on rotating discs below. While there is a timer on how long a marble can go without being in a disc, you’re given enough to make the limit largely irrelevant. Sliding marbles out of the discs sends them moving around a path that can include gateways that will paint them different colors, springs that will move them back, or arrows that will change their direction. The trap doors, which periodically open and suck in marbles passing over them, are what make the game so frustrating. Most levels turn into a routine of waiting for trap doors to close so you can move your marbles around freely, and there’s only really a risk of failure if you lose patience and stop being cautious… C-



Jeremy Bongstarr

Creator: Jordan Duchnycz, Jake, Bryan Singh, and Rutger
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
From the title to the Behemoth-style primary-colored graphics, Jeremy Bongstarr looks like the creation of a study-hall-bound seventh grader trying to amuse himself. The premise—a water-jetpack-equipped hero hydrates a drought-plagued town while looking for the fabled floating island Drysville—also has a junior-high vibe, like it’s made for an eco-conscious social-studies class. Still, Bongstarr is pretty entertaining. The characters, all three of them, manage to be endearing thanks to some nice animation, and there's a subtle satisfaction to be found in jetpacking around using streams of water. (Even more satisfying than in Super Mario Sunshine, the genetic ancestor of Bongstarr.) The only challenge is making sure you have enough water to successfully navigate platforms. The music, the look, and the play cohere into a nice story, but it ultimately feels like a rough draft of a larger adventure for Jeremy. Maybe the team will make that as the class project for eighth-grade computer science… C+



Effing Worms

Creator: Effing Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
In Effing Worms, you play as a gigantic, ravenous, diamond-mawed worm, or as the Kevin Bacon of Tremors might put it, one mean mother-humper. The game is simple enough: You are a hungry monster, and your appetite is slowly killing you. A hunger meter constantly depletes, so you have to eat the stick-figure soldiers above ground to fill it up. The goal is to build steady momentum, allowing you to vault through the air and eat a bunch of cows, dudes, and people on hang gliders in one fell swoop, building a combo chain and going into a “rampage,” increasing your speed even more. After each stage, you select one of two upgrades, from improved speed to harder skin. Effing Worms is pretty stupid. It's bloody, simple, and the controls are counterintuitive—you press up on your keyboard to move forward, rather than right or left. It says nothing good about society. It does not advance videogames as a creative pursuit. It is, however, a hell of a fun way to waste five minutes… B-



CellCraft

Creator: Carolina
Platforms: Browser, Mac, PC
Price: Free
Oh, games that try to make learning fun, why can’t you be more fun? CellCraft more or less illustrates why—its lessons about cell structure and chemical processes come with a whole lot of scientific exposition and not enough actual gameplay. The story is a lot of fun, though: Facing the death of their planet, two anthropomorphic alien platypuses set out to design a cell that can carry their DNA off-world. And the game design is creative and involving, as players operate that cell, collecting glucose to convert to adenosine triphosphate for energy, building peroxisomes to absorb free radicals, and fighting off viral infections. Problem is that the explanations overwhelm the gameplay. Most of the levels are easy enough for kids, but require patience and repetition, but the last one is punishingly difficult, and all of them involve a certain amount of tedious waiting. A little less scientific speechifying and a little more fun would serve the creators’ goals better by keeping players involved, and it might be nice if they rewarded players for proving they’ve learned something, instead of just clicking through all the science to get to the game… C+



Magnetic Shaving Derby

Creator: Nyarlu Labs
Platform: iPhone 
Price: $0.99
Nobody can call false advertisement on Magnetic Shaving Derby, a limited, wholly absurdist game where a stubbly human face doubles as a racetrack for a razor that is coerced along by a floating magnet. Nick the eyes, nose, or lips, and you’ll get docked—and likely cringe as geysers of blood spray all over. MSD has only two modes, and the score-attack one is the main attraction. The basic action, already bonkers, gets weirder with a downpour of power-ups like bonus letters à la Bubble Bobble, and spa-ready cucumbers to protect the precious eyes. Since there isn’t much variety, and the score-attack mode lasts a scant three minutes, MSD likely won’t hold anyone’s attention for long. But for a handful of minutes every now and then, it’s charming enough to lather up with. B

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