December 13, 2010

Cheap (or free) games worth the price

Pac-Man Championship Edition DX
Creator: Namco Bandai
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Played on: PlayStation 3
Price: $9.99
Even with games like Super Mario Galaxy, Portal, and Bioshock populating the same 12-month stretch, there’s an argument to be made that the original Pac-Man Championship Edition was the best game to come out in 2007. Reimagining the dot-gobbling reflex challenge as a five-minute, widescreen high-score rush was unexpectedly successful, and the game’s blend of slick, simple neon graphics with thumping electronic music made the game immortal. Pac-man Championship Edition DX bests the original in every way. The revision packs in the original game with eight other maze modes, which are unlocked by playing through a well-organized set of challenges, including time- and score-attack modes. The centerpiece maze is Championship II, which evolves the ghost-eating chains of the original to its logical conclusion. Where Championship I populated the maze with the familiar four primary-colored ghosts, II is littered with ghosts. Most of these sleeping ghosts who are awakened when Pac-Man passes by. As they chase the hero, they form into one long, ghoulish string. When Pac-Man hits a power pellet and turns the tables, that chain transforms into tens of thousands of satisfying points. There are also a wealth of presentation options that cover the gamut of Pac-man’s 30-year history, including even the weird rendered version of the little dude from 1996’s curio, Pac-Man ArrangementA



Aurora Chapter 1

Creator: Pastel Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
That Adobe Flash reopened the point-and-click-adventure floodgates over the past decade is wonderful and everything, but there’s no getting away from the fact that most Flash adventures are ugly as sin. Polish adventure-game consortium Pastel Games make worlds that are downright gorgeous, bringing a painterly eye to a genre more commonly associated with wide-eyed Disneyisms or dour, Myst-style surrealism. Their latest episodic tale, the weird Western Aurora, definitely has more style than substance, but the former is strong enough to recommend the game. A cowboy wandering on the range in 1874 is whisked off by a tornado to a ghost town whose scant denizens are prisoners of Aurora. You don’t meet your captor in this first chapter; you merely find a way out of town. The item-finding is the simplest sort of fair, never really taxing players with deep logic challenges—you just click whatever you see. The atmosphere and art are captivating, though, making it easy to forget that you aren’t doing very much… B-


Fiends
(Casual Gameplay Design Competition 9 entry)
Creator: StefanT
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The theme of Casual Gameplay Design Competition 9? Friends. The name of StefanT’s entry? Fiends. It’s a cheeky move, but Fiends is a cheeky game, full of goofy, meta riffs by its cast of archetypes about how they can make it to the end of the ‘game’ and why they’ve failed so many times in the past. Even if the humor isn’t your bag, Fiends is a winning puzzler that requires coordination of the skill sets of characters like Gummy, who can shield other members of the cast but is otherwise helpless, and Bonnet, whose droning stories are capable of leaving enemies in a hypnagogic state. The simplistic visuals don’t detract much from the experience, and Fiends plays almost like a top-down version of that other team-based, comedy-infused puzzle game: The Lost Vikings... B+


But That Was [Yesterday]
(CGDC 9 entry)
Creator: Michael Molinari 
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Michael Molinari’s [Together] won the CGSC 8 with its simple but arty execution, polished soundtrack, and nerve-jangling 8-bit smoke monster. Molinari’s winning entry for CGDC 9 is But That Was [Yesterday], which keeps the catchy brackets but forgoes the streamlining, opting instead for a three-act story. Your own memories are the villain, a burbling black wall that bars progress until your latest friend and mentor imparts some necessary skills. The presentation is as lovely as ever, and [Yesterday]’s wordless cut-scenes are surprisingly moving, but the game’s pace can become practically meditative, with lengthy tutorials required for tasks that take seconds to master. Maybe not everyone will find it worth their time to unlock those multiple endings, but Molinari’s latest creation is absolutely worth playing through once... B+



Rage: Mutant Bash TV
/Rage HD
Creator: id Software
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Reviewed on: iPhone
Price: Rage—$0.99; Rage HD—$1.99
This simplified spinoff of id Software’s as-yet-unreleased Rage series is a preview of what’s to come in 2011 and also a spiritual sequel to Smash TV. You parade from rust-colored room to rust-colored room in three five-minute levels, firing off headshots and collecting cash prizes. Gorgeous graphics aside, one of the more interesting revelations is that Rage does away with the lame onscreen thumbstick. The game instead automatically moves you from room to room, allowing you to focus solely on aiming and shooting, either by touching or tilting the screen. You remain stationary until you’ve cleared the current room, and while you need to stay on your toes to look around for guys crawling out from the ceiling or behind barriers, one of your biggest foes is the stupidly placed pause button, right in the middle of the screen near where your thumb would rest. In some respects, Mutant Bash TV is a tech demo, showing that the iPhone can pull off impressive visuals, but it also manages to squeeze in enjoyable, although somewhat fleeting, running and gunning… B


Escape From The Underworld
Creator: Banov
Platform: PC
Price: Free
The lack of choice in videogames has proven effective fodder for titles big and small, but Escape From The Underworld’s tutorial takes that lack of choice to a bizarre and awesome extreme. You play an angel, and you learn the controls by slaughtering a town full of innocents. Your heavenly superiors do not look kindly upon this, so they strip you of your powers and send you to the underworld, from which you have to escape by collecting items and power-ups, Super Metroid-style. The game was made in a hurry for a contest, hence the clunky graphics and wild swings in difficulty. However, the music and a well-executed concept are enough to balance out the rough edges… B+


Dismantlement Series
Creator: Gam.eBB
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
“Please dismantling burger. You have only screwdriver. The tool you can use is the screwdriver.” It’s a simple, if bizarre, premise. But as with all of the “dismantlement” games, taking apart a hamburger with a screwdriver is more difficult than it sounds (though just as weird). The screwdriver conceit provides the framework for a series of mouse-driven logic puzzles that you solve by poring over the object you’re trying to dismantle and interpreting the cryptic clues hidden throughout. There are eight games in the series so far, and while they vary in difficulty—the hamburger is relatively easy, but the hard drive is insane—most of the little puzzles hit a sweet spot of obscurity: They seem impossible at first glance and laughably obvious when the solution hits you. (One critical hint: Sometimes you have to click outside the edges of an object to get a different view of it.) Don’t worry about the Japanese text on the Gam.eBB homepage; these games speak a universal language of subterfuge… B+


Brother Nephi’s Ultra-Funtastic Point-And-Click Adventure Chapter 2: Quest For The Plates
Creator: Book Of Mormon Toons
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Given the frequency with which Mormonism is satirized—Trey Parker and Matt Stone have pulled down many a paycheck by swinging at the massive easy target that is the Church Of Jesus Christ Of Latter Day Saints—you’d be forgiven for not being able to tell just what the hell Brother Nephi’s Ultra-Funtastic Point-And-Click Adventure is getting at. Is the game making fun of the Book of Mormon’s wacky founding myth about a family of Israelites bringing their giant metal bible to the United States? Or is it just trying to make it relatable to them youths on the Facebooks? In the 20 minutes it takes to play through this simple game, you likely won’t have found an answer. The game juxtaposes a grotesque, God-ordered beheading with love poems about camels. The “find-item, give-item” puzzle solving is downright strange. Also, what’s with the hobo jokes? And the animal smuggling? The developers are apparently former Mormon missionaries themselves, but it’s hard to tell if this chuckle-eliciting mediocre adventure is winking at the player or not… C+


Endeavor
Creator: Zillix
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
As roughly seven pixels of hero, your task in Endeavor is to obtain a treasure that rightly belongs in your dwarfish family. The path to said treasure cuts through a sprawling Metroidvania world, complete with some I Can Hold My Breath Forever-style aquatics, volcanoes, jungle mazes, and even a disembodied voice whose suggestions just might be on the self-serving side, à la Depict1. Most of the game’s charms rest in its jumping and “endurance” mechanics rather than in its cosmetic appeal, but for a game built in a month for the Ludum Dare October Challenge, Endeavor delivers the platformer goods, and with multiple endings to boot... B+


Paper Venture
Creator: Arcade Armory
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Paper Venture will expose just how terrible your mouse set-up is. The unfrill-y puzzle game demands the kind of mouse dexterity that hours of web-surfing and self-Googling simply don’t require. Backed by a poor man’s Moby soundtrack, a robot blindly walks forward, strolling off platforms and into whirring buzzsaws if given the chance. You control a block with your mouse, which can fill in gaps, lift the robot off the ground, or act as a wall for him to walk into (which makes him change direction). The game hinges on your ability to maneuver that block, thus early levels are a cinch if you can maintain the requisite discipline to put the robot on top and slowly move the mouse across to the exit. Later levels, though, can be failed with only the slightest wobble of the wrist—which will happen. The reliance on the mouse oversimplifies Paper Venture at times, but the game still sets itself apart with pleasant hand-drawn graphics… B+


One Eye Open
(2010 Interactive Fiction Competition entry)
Creators: Colin Sandel and Carolyn VanEseltine
Platforms: Browser, Linux, Mac, PC (Glulx interpreter required)
Price: Free

A technical note on the Interactive Fiction Competition entries reviewed here: Most of the games can be played in a web browser—the competition organizers have provided a list of links—but some games run slowly when played online. Yes, they’re just text, but for whatever reason, this is a problem. So the more reliable option is to use a dedicated application that can interpret the handful of languages used to program interactive fiction. These applications are lightweight, available for a wide variety of platforms, and usually free.

One challenge for authors writing in the second-person perspective is deciding how much to tell the players what they’re supposed to be feeling. In the hands of a clumsier scribe, the gory, thrilling “interactive nightmare” One Eye Open could have been bogged down by text-adventure clichés like “You are disgusted” or “You are horrified by what you see.” Instead, this game is confident that players will react to its intense depiction of a hospital overtaken by a massive genetic abomination. While One Eye Open doesn’t break much new ground in the “biological experiment gone wrong” trope, it’s a striking example of the style. The story fleshes out a large cast of characters despite the fact that you are essentially alone in the hospital—you experience the others through psychic flashbacks and scraps of writing. Taking third place in this year’s Interactive Fiction Competition, this memorable game probably fell short of first only because of some text-parser glitches and its extraordinary length. Competition judges must evaluate a game after two hours of play, but fully exploring Mt. Airy Hospital can take more than twice as long… A-


Aotearoa
(IFComp 2010 entry)
Creator: Matt Wigdahl
Platforms: Browser, Linux, Mac, PC (Glulx interpreter required)
Price: Free
The first-place finisher of this year’s IF Competition is also one of the most accessible. You play as a 12-year-old headed to a summer of volunteer work in New Zealand, except this is an alternate reality where that country’s surviving dinosaur population allowed the native Maori to resist colonization. The game has a pretty straightforward “Billy And The Cloneasaurus” feel, with simple puzzles and a simpler plucky-kid-vs.-poachers conflict. If Aotearoa isn’t exactly bursting with surprises, it is at least executed with craft, and a motif of native mythology—based in actual Maori myth—adds an appealing mystical flavor… B+


The Blind House
(IFComp 2010 entry)
Creator: Amanda Allen (writing as Maude Overton)
Platform: Linux, Mac, PC (GLULX interpreter required)
Price: Free
Weirdly mesmerizing, The Blind House is like a combination of Roman Polanski’s Repulsion and Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, crossed with something like Single White Female. Allen’s prose can be a little overwrought, but she’s very good at poking holes in the usual “you’re wandering around someone’s house, looking into things you shouldn’t be” gameplay by suggesting the player character is hiding something very, very disturbing. Allen freely says in her introduction that the game is meant to be less about puzzle solving and more about telling a story that’s open to all manner of interpretations, and that’s probably true. There are few, if any, traditional puzzles, and while trying to trigger new events may drive some players nuts (particularly since the hints are so vague), it’s just fun to wander around the house of the title, trying to figure out the secret of just what it was main character Helena did to seemingly drive her out of her head and why she’s so obsessed with house owner Marissa. The ending will frustrate some, with its lack of easy answers, but Allen’s descriptions nicely layer on the foreboding, creating a wonderful atmosphere, and there’s a surprising amount to do in the small house… A-


Death Off The Cuff
(IFComp 2010 entry)
Creator: Simon Christiansen
Platforms: Browser, Linux, Mac, PC (Z-Code interpreter required)
Price: Free
Impatient mystery readers skip to the last chapter for the big reveal; Death Off The Cuff is the text-adventure equivalent. It opens in the lounge of a swanky hotel, where the suspects of an upper-crust murder case have been gathered by you, famed French detective Anthony Saint Germain. This is the climactic moment when Germain is to accuse the culprit, except that he has no idea who did it. In fact, he doesn’t seem to have done any investigating at all, simply coasting on his reputation as the Continent’s greatest sleuth. Thus your dramatic moment becomes one huge bluff. The object of the game is to stall for time in the hopes that something in your blind prattling will prompt the culprit to slip up and reveal his or her guilt. It’s a clever satire, both of murder mysteries and of interactive fiction itself. After all, what IF player hasn’t experienced the struggle to come up with words that will make the game spit out something—anything—of substance? Death Off The Cuff takes that perennial frustration and builds an amusing half-hour out of it… B


Rogue Of The Multiverse
(IFComp 2010 entry)
Creator: C.E.J. Pacian
Platform: Linux, Mac, PC (TADS 3 interpreter required)
Price: Free
C.E.J. Pacian has become somewhat famous within the IF community for his fast-paced, often hilarious games based in weird universes, featuring strong writing and even the occasional action sequence. Rogue Of The Multiverse is no exception, boasting a strong non-player character in the hilariously amoral Dr. Sliss, a reptilian scientist just trying to figure out why the chimp before her (the player) doesn’t respond as fervently to promises of bananas as she thinks it should. The central device of the game—going on missions on various planets to “tag” objects of interest—is perhaps less exciting than it could be, though it’s still engaging, and there’s a surprising amount of stuff to do in such a short game, along with a legitimately thrilling jet-bike chase, done entirely in text. Also, like all Pacian games, it’s very funny. Slight, but well worth a look… B+


Flight Of The Hummingbird
Creator: Michael Martin
Platform: Browser, Linux, Mac, PC (Z-Code interpreter required)
Price: Free
It would never occur to you just how measured a superhero’s actions need to be until you play Michael Martin’s The Flight Of The Hummingbird. Dr. Sinister has kicked into motion a nefarious, though curiously undefined, plot to take over the world on New Year’s Eve in 2014. The Concordance Of Powered Response has sent you, The Hummingbird, to Sinister’s island fortress to put a kibosh on his evil plot. The Hummingbird’s special power is the basis for Martin’s twist on text adventuring. You can fly by drinking the Hummingbird Energy Drink, but only temporarily. One sip gives you five inputs of sustained flight, so many puzzles revolve around manipulation of altitude and refueling. It gets tricky fast, as you need to be at least 50 feet in the air to take another drink. The writing is good if unspectacular, peppered with some funny dialogue—"Ha HA! Take that, hidebound traditional villains!”—but language is the game’s downfall. Like many IF games, your progress depends not on cleverness and linear thought but whether you use the right words. You’ll waste minutes trying to turn on a computer terminal only to consult the hints and find you were supposed to say “MASTER POWER TERMINAL” instead of “MAIN POWER TERMINAL”… B-


Mite
(IFComp 2010 entry)
Creator: Sara Dee
Platform: Browser, Linux, Mac, PC (Z-Code interpreter required)
Price: Free
A fairy tale primarily aimed at children, Mite may be too simple for even the least experienced of young text adventurers. Players take on the part of a tiny being who ventures out into the wider garden to return a magical gem to the fairy prince, encountering hobgoblins, fair maidens, and an armored chipmunk along the way. Even by the shorter standards of the IF Competition, Mite is incredibly brief, and the parser has a bad habit of being finicky about language choices. The game’s also far too easy, though the writing is charming, and the plot is cute for this sort of thing… C+


The People’s Glorious Revolutionary Text Adventure Game
(IFComp 2010 entry)
Creator: Taylor Vaughan
Platforms: Browser, Linux, Mac, PC (Z-Code interpreter required)
Price: Free
The revolution in this game is a bloodless one, achieved with zany hijinks rather than riots and gunfire. You play a bitter communist determined to purge the capitalist scourge from your local suburb, helped by a few “comrades” who boast varying levels of competence. Partly because of the form’s inherent lack of a fourth wall, humor in interactive comedy tends toward the off-kilter variety, and TPGRTAG fits that trend. The logic doesn’t hold together too well, and the jokes are hit or miss. (Communist Ventriloquator: hit. “Wodka”: miss.) But the game remains appealing by virtue of the fact that it’s working in the nerdiest form of comedy. B-

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