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February 13, 2012

Creator: Colaboratory
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPad
Price: $1.99
There are people who are good at Tetris and there are people who are good at Boggle. Those who are in the middle of that Venn diagram can count themselves lucky when playing Puzzlejuice, which tests—nay, taxes—players’ spatial dexterity à la Tetris and their jumble-y discovery abilities à la Boggle at the same time. The game starts off like Tetris. Various shapes fall, and you fit them into one another. The shapes are also color-coded, though, and lining up three blocks of the same color transforms them into letters. Or, if you complete a Tetris-style line, that line becomes letters, too. Then you must find hidden words to further clear the board as the Tetris pieces continue to fall, faster and faster. It’s the mental equivalent of rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time. And if that isn’t enough, Puzzlejuice introduces challenges, like completing three lines at once or finding a six-letter word, that you must complete to move on. Puzzlejuice asks a lot, but it also gives a lot back: Each achievement feels like it was earned, and like a cause for celebration. At least until more blocks start falling… A

Cuboy: Back To The Cubeture—Era 2

Creator: Edible Castle
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Show-business people who know Don Rickles always say that the insult comic is the nicest guy in the world, and the people who wrote this point-and-click adventure game are probably swell folks, too. You just wouldn’t know it from the smart-ass attitude of Cuboy, their hilarious, hexahedral hero. For this long-awaited sequel, Cuboy journeys back to the Classical era (“Cubathens,” to be specific) in his quest to recover a cardboard time machine from an unpleasant cat. As the creators openly admit, Cubeture 2 isn’t terribly hard, but the game’s merely average craftiness is secondary to its wit. One of the highlights amid the consistently amusing voice performances is Cerberus, the three-headed dog with Broadway dreams. A selection of bizarre mini-games break up the puzzle-solving action, so while Cubeture 2 has occasional moments of tedium, it also has its moments of frantic armpit-hair ingestion… A-


Creators: Terry Cavanagh, Hayden Scott-Baron
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The instructions for ChatChat read, in full, “Be a cat.” In this meowing, purring, multiplayer experience (read: glorified chat room with cat avatars), it might seem impossible to do otherwise. Not so. Execute the right combination of moves, and you can in fact be a dog—ChatChat’s version of “moral choice.” Players can catch mice and deposit them at a human’s front door, which technically qualifies as a “fetch quest.” If you want a different color of cat, just hit reload—customizable characters! So is ChatChat a canny commentary on gaming tropes, a reductio ad absurdum of genre staples that exposes a hollowness within the modern MMO experience? Could be. Then again, to paraphrase Freud, sometimes a dumb videogame where you pretend to be a cat is just a cigar… B

The Cat That Got The Milk

Creator: Ollie Clark, Jon Mann, Helana Santos, Chris Randle
Platforms: PC, Mac
Played on: PC
Price: Free
Videogames have always been about abstractions. This used to be a technical limitation, back when a handful of Atari 2600 pixels were supposed to represent mesmerizing, otherworldly aliens, but as games began to resemble reality, it became increasingly rare for a title to willingly channel the obscure. The Cat That Got The Milk eschews this trend by portraying a cat’s night out as a line zipping at right angles through suprematist art. The journey ends at a circle, signifying a bowl of milk. The “cat” automatically moves horizontally to the right, so the player’s only agency is to guide it straight up or down, as if using the right knob of an Etch-A-Sketch. An increasing cacophony of colorful geometric shapes evoking Wassily Kandinsky paintings form around the feline, and single-screen challenges dynamically shift into new stages until the game resembles the best opening-credits sequence to a Hitchcock thriller never made. An instant restart alleviates frustration, and those who just want to see the game through to the end will appreciate the option to skip a level after 20 failed attempts. Not offering this option after the player loses nine lives seems like a missed opportunity, but The Cat That Got The Milk’s sophisticated visual palette seems above such cutesy humor… B

Sakura Samurai: Art Of The Sword

Creator: Grounding Inc.
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Price: $6.99
A princess has been kidnapped, and it’s up to you, a still-wet-behind-the-ears samurai, to save her. The game requires you to clomp about in your wooden shoes between a series of showdowns against encroaching hordes. Eschewing the visceral, slice-and dice kineticism typically found in samurai simulations, Art Of The Sword employs a slower, more cerebral pacing. Players must note an enemy’s stance and the position of his sword to prepare their attack. Dodging incoming strikes at the last possible moment not only earns a coveted “precision point,” which can be traded for gold at the “Frogs Plus” store in town, it also leaves the enemy open for a devastating counter. These always-tense battles grow in scope over the course of the game, with exponentially more enemies to juggle—it can feel like a vaudevillian plate-spinning routine. The game also demands—and rewards—absolute perfection. The demanding play, when coupled with a look and feel reminiscent of The Legend Of Zelda: The Wind Waker, makes Art Of The Sword into an upbeat, watered-down version of Dark SoulsB+

Paper Monsters

Creators: Crescent Moon Games
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPhone
Price: $0.99
This saccharine platformer, which stars a tiny, cute-faced robot fashioned out of cardboard boxes, wants with all its humble heart to be a cousin on the LittleBigPlanet family tree. Really, a more appropriate title for this game would have been We Rented LittleBigPlanet For Several Hours And Really Love It. Aside from being derivative, and more than a little dull, there’s nothing wrong with Paper Monsters. The touchscreen controls, which can be sloppy on iOS devices for side-scrolling experiences like this one, actually provide an above-average amount of control. Instead of collecting stickers à la LittleBigPlanet, Paper Monsters asks you to collect stray buttons and paperclips. The game become more interesting whenever warp pipes, which typically whisk players down to subterranean levels, instead whisk you deeper into the game screen itself. Unfortunately, the effect of hauling players into the backgrounds of 2D worlds would have felt more original if the recently released Mutant Mudds hadn’t already done this—and done it better—on the 3DS. Some levels, like a submarine digression, do show evidence of elbow-grease and imagination. In these moments, Paper Monsters briefly has a pulse… C-

Rokko Chan

Creator: King Soukutu
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Somewhere close by is an alternate reality where Hot Pockets are little pretzels with dehydrated cheese in them, and Combos are microwavable pastries filled with ham and cheese. Superman witnessed his parents get gunned down in front of him, and Batman was the last son of a dying world. That world also got Rokko Chan instead of Mega Man. King Soukutu’s game mimics the Blue Bomber’s 1980s adventures so precisely that it feels less like homage to the hero known in Japan as Rokku Man and more like a transplant from some other Earth. As in Keiji Inafune’s classics, a kindly scientist makes a fighting robot to fight the evil robots made by a mad scientist living in a giant skull-shaped castle. Rokko herself fights robot beasts in a variety of elemental-themed locales before going on to fight the evil doctor. Many components of the game, including backgrounds and fonts, are directly lifted from classic Mega Man games, but Rokko Chan is elevated by its cunning, challenging level design. Fair warning: Don’t play with a keyboard… B+

The Fourth Wall

Creator: DigiPen Institute Of Technology (Team Pig Trigger)
Platform: PC
Price: Free
The seed of Portal was sown by a DigiPen student project called Narbacular Drop. Now a new class has emerged from the famed institute to bring us another novel take on teleportation. The Fourth Wall’s central conceit delves back to gaming’s infantile era, where it was a given that if you moved too far to the left in Asteroids, you’d come out on the right side of the screen. This ouroboros-like design forms the crux of The Fourth Wall. What initially looks like a simplistic grayscale platformer is transformed by the ability to lock the scenery in place, causing any open exits to wrap around to their opposite end. Need to get past a pit of lava? Jump up so the hazard is offscreen, then freeze the environment in midair. Now, if you leap into the pit where the lava should be, you fall from the sky, allowing safe passage to the other side. It takes time to grow accustomed to this awkward approach, but eventually, isolating scenery becomes second nature… A- 

Mutant Mudds

Creator: Renegade Kid
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Price: $8.99
Certain questions come to mind while playing Mutant Mudds. Why does this kid have a jetpack? Why does he have a gun that seemingly shoots eggs? Why does his grandmother live in the middle of 16 abstract levels that are covered with lava and ice? If a giant meteor of sentient mud landed on earth and started causing trouble, how will collecting little diamonds help? Renegade Kid’s game is not forthcoming with answers, but it makes up for its incoherent sense of place with a series of excellent precision-platformer challenges. In each stage, there are 100 diamonds to collect, and an additional secret stage within that is even harder. Take three hits from red-eyed baddies, and you have to restart the level. Mudds can be taxing, but it’s rarely unfair. It’s always clear what you must do to proceed, even if many of the levels have you bouncing between background, foreground, and right up against the screen… B+

Call Of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land

Creator: Red Wasp
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPad
Price: $4.99
Here’s the challenge of making games based on H.P. Lovecraft’s work: There is no easy way to impart madness on a player. The horror and allure of Lovecraft’s stories—particularly those about Cthulhu and other star-born old gods coming to cover the Earth in ruin—is that his characters confront things that shatter their minds. It’s hard to foster unknowable delirium and brain-crushing dread while also asking player to, say, swap health packs with a party member. That doesn’t make Call Of Cthulhu: The Wasted Land a lesser game. Red Wasp’s role-playing game is a fine exercise in strategic decision-making and moodiness. The dark battlefields evoke some of the gloom that characterizes Lovecraft’s work, as does the campy dialogue exchanged between British soldiers and occultists as they describe your objectives. Even as you move from fighting soldiers to slaying monsters, though, the game’s overall sterility keeps it from fully reflecting its inspiration. After a while, you’re just watching numbers get bigger as you take turns flinging pain across the battlefield. The only madness here comes when you run out of resources well into a fight and have to restart from the beginning… B-

Burrito Bison Revenge

Creator: Juicy Beast
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
Burrito Bison Revenge is a sequel, but if you haven’t played the first one, it might be better to go ahead and fire this one up blind. Watching a giant, buffalo-masked wrestler crush parallel-universe gummi bears—apparently they stole his wallet—is a lot more fun without any context. To recover his billfold, the buffalo has to fling himself from a wrestling ring, down a road covered with destroyed rocket ships and candy smears. He gains distance and speed by bouncing off fleeing gummies. Like other browser games in the fling-something-from-a-massive-slingshot vein, you’re given cash to purchase upgrades. Oil keeps your speed up, for instance, and a spring means extra height when landing on a gummy bear’s dome. Like gummi bears themselves, Burrito Bison Revenge is addictive, but the calories are empty… B-

Chuck The Sheep

Creators: John Cooney, James Pearmain
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
One wouldn’t expect a game where a lamb pilots a homemade aircraft to be heavy on strategy, but Chuck The Sheep is richer than it seems. At first, the game looks straightforward—you control Chuck as he launches himself to freedom, dodging mines and wayward birds—but plane upgrades and achievements change the dynamic entirely. Upgrades are fashioned out of collectible materials like water, oil, and iron. Chuck can get water by catching floating droplets, but to gather wood or oil, he has to crash his plane into trees and silos on the ground. Crashing damages the ship, so the trick is figuring out where and when to gather certain materials—likewise for pursuing achievements, some of which directly contradict others. Chuck The Sheep is most rewarding when players have to think two or three steps ahead instead of blindly piloting the title character through hazardous terrain… A-


Creators: Vasily Mironov, Nikolay Polovinko
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
As proof that smart games can be simple, Infinitix only needs the space bar to work its magic. Players control a spaceship as it makes its way through claustrophobic corridors, picking up fuel to keep going. Running out of fuel means the craft will blow up, and if the ship isn’t oriented in the right direction, it will collide with the walls around it and crash. Hitting the spacebar rotates the ship 90 degrees, letting you snap up fuel or dodge walls, and timing it right takes attention and luck. The ship’s increasing speed and the ever-smaller margin for error keep the tension high… B+

Frederic: The Resurrection Of Music

Creator: Forever Entertainment
Platforms: iPhone, iPad
Played on: iPhone
Price: iPhone—$1.99; iPad (“HD” version)—$3.99
Frederic: The Resurrection Of Music is essentially a cartoon with some interactive segments—Dance Dance Revolution for lovers of Disney’s Fantasia. Classical composer Frederic Chopin is raised from the dead and must figure out who’s behind his resurrection. Each level is a one-on-one battle against a musical adversary who plays Chopin’s work in a distinct style (the first level is techno, the second is reggae, etc.). Players need to hit piano keys at the right time to keep the song going. Frederic attempts to make up for its rote play with an off-the-wall story and incredible production values, but the extras end up taking over. For every five minutes of play, at least that much is spent on cut scenes. C+