February 21, 2011

The Great Gatsby
Creators: Charlie Hoey and Pete Smith
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The Great Gatsby, best known as required reading in high school, certainly doesn’t scream “Make me into an old-school Nintendo game!” (At least not in the way that classic work of literature The Legend Of Zelda did.) Yet this reimagination of the book is near-perfect—an homage to F. Scott Fitzgerald and vintage games like Castlevania alike. Nick Carraway is the high-jumpin’, hat-slingin’ hero, battling his way through butlers, flappers, boxcar hobos, and gangsters as the story of The Great Gatsby unfolds. Daisy and other characters appear, as does the giant pair of spectacles, as a boss fight. Everything in Gatsby services its 8-bit inspiration: The screen is laid out like Ninja Gaiden, graphics are charmingly simple, the music recreates frantic ragtime in retro tones. It all works—so well, in fact, that it’s disappointing when the game ends after only four levels. But faulting a game because it’s over too soon can be a compliment in itself… A



High Tea

Creator: Wellcome Collection
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Created as part of an online conceptual exhibition for Britain’s Wellcome Collection—a trust-funded network of art galleries and other sites—High Tea is meant as an educational game, designed to illustrate the opium trade triangle that developed during the British tea craze of the mid-1800s. But it’s neither dull nor stuffy; it’s a beautifully slick, fast-paced trading scenario that eventually turns into a mad dash for success. It begins as a simple enough trading game, with only a few options: Beginning in 1830, you start buying opium in India to trade for tea in China to satisfy the insatiable building demand in Britain. It’s necessary to buy low and sell high in order to stockpile silver and build up your business, and to weather price fluctuations driven by historical events and increased product demand. The game only covers 10 years, but as your tea quotas rise to impossible heights, you have to trade more frantically to keep the Brits from becoming dissatisfied and pulling your shipping charter. Meanwhile, the Chinese are looking to crack down on your illegal business and shut you down from the other end. High Tea is a quick-playing game, easy to learn but difficult to win, and hindered only by repetition. The first few playthroughs are a blast: They’ll teach most non-historians a few new things about the British tea trade, and the game’s visual aesthetics and play dynamics are impeccable and professional. But ensuing games lack variety, so most people’s playtimes will be short and to the point… B+



King’s Guard: A Trio Of Heroes

Creator: funflow
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
King’s Guard: A Trio Of Heroes merges an RPG and RTS with a Bejeweled-like puzzle board, though really, the game feels like a puzzler with light RPG and RTS touches. Your three heroes—a swordsman, a spearsman, and a wizard—travel to various lands, defending the city walls from an onslaught of enemies. Each hero is in charge of one section of wall, and automatically attacks anything that gets in the way. But in order to heal each character or reinforce defenses with additional units, you must complete a switcher puzzle while the battle is going on. Aligning three or more of each color makes something happen in the game, so the faster you can click, the better. Between battles, experience points are tabulated, levels are gained, and weapons or armor can be purchased. The game’s many elements flow smoothly; it’s always clear what action needs to be taken, or what contributed to the success or failure of a battle. Due to the frantic nature of the switcher, though, it’s difficult to pay attention to the fighting, or spend much time strategizing over where to place backup units. And all weapons pretty much seem the same until late in the game… B+



Auralux

Creator: E. McNeill
Platform: PC
Price: $4.99
Abstraction is a risky goal in game design. If it fails, you end up with a game with no immediate allure and nothing to recommend it. Success, on the other hand, can reveal the fundamental core of a game style. Happily, Auralux is a success. It distills the real-time-strategy game to its purest form, with only a single unit, automatically generated by a star system. You have three choices: attack, defend, and sometimes upgrade. Even better, the trance music and musical notes during combat are reminiscent of the abstract masterpiece Rez. The AI can put up a fight, although it doesn’t deal well with indirect attacks. Multiplayer is only a theoretical at this point, but that’s Auralux’s only real flaw… A-



Chick Chick Boom

Creator: tons of bits
Platform: Wii
Price: $8
The Wii’s motion controls are generally acknowledged as one of the most important interface developments in the industry, but the kinds of games they make possible are still being determined. Chick Chick Boom is an odd little Frankenstein’s monster of a game, built around using the Wii-mote to trace the plants, bombs, or weights with which you attack your enemies. You have a team of five Angry Birds-esque chicks, whom you try to defend as you attack the enemy’s team in phased combat. The back-and-forth action has notable depth, with various special attacks, healing, defense sabotaging, and unlockables, but it lacks a strong initial hook to grab players and make them stick around to see that the depth is there… B



Vectrix

Creator: Vibe 13
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Throw a soft-light filter on a camera, and all of a sudden any craggy, pockmarked human being looks better than they ought to. It’s a cheap trick, but it works. Toss a generous helping of motion blurs on some simple line graphics, and the effect is pretty much the same. Vectrix is another twist on the spaceship-in-a-tunnel game we’ve been playing for the last 30 years. Head down a corridor, avoid the pillars that inexplicably jut out from all four walls, and maybe take out some bad guys while you’re at it. Vectrix gets those basics right and combines them with a more modern approach, tailored for the ultra-brief playing sessions that are in vogue: Die once, and it’s game over. The visuals are gaudy, overdone, and yes, clichéd, but sometimes clichés got that way because they’re so pretty to look at… B-



Sierra 7

Creators: Simon Hason and Cody Hamway
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Sierra 7 tries to capture the violent special-forces/mercenary shooter, which has become the dominant form of blockbuster gaming, in a browser form. It’s a rail shooter, but with pretensions of being more, as its name—sequential to Rainbow Six—indicates. Sierra 7 looks marvelous, with smoothly animated greyscale graphics—the only color comes from the blood and brains that creepily splatter everywhere when you shoot the otherwise-anonymous enemies. Unfortunately, it’s far too short… C+



Grow Cannon

Creator: Eyezmaze
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The Grow series of puzzle games involves thinking in four dimensions; you solve them not with what’s in front of you, but what might be in front of you. Grow Cannon is set up like its brothers: Engaging one of seven areas on the map causes something to grow; if you grow things in the right order, the elements interact with one another and hopefully become stronger. Considering Grow Cannon’s goal is to wake a sleeping man, strength is of the utmost importance. Rockets, dragons, and trains appear, animated in typical Grow-series sugary, plump graphics. The difference, this time, is the cannon—which isn’t a neat framing device as much as an unnecessary middleman in the “click on thing; stuff happens” process. Plus, because the cannon fires down a long range, you can’t see every element in front of you at one time, which helped in earlier titles. The Grow games weren’t much fun to play more than once, and Cannon follows suit; with only 10 cannon shots to work with, the game’s limits are revealed from the get-go, eliminating much of the thrill of discovery… C-



Bubble Tanks 3

Creator: Hero Interactive
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Bubble Tanks 3 gets points for adding user-generated content to a browser game. You can just play the game, or you can delve into a tank-creation system, where using cheerful blue, white, and yellow bubbles, you design tanks of various sizes, speeds, and weaponry. You can drive a massive, slow, bubbly ant around, shooting a steady laser beam. Then again, you could dart around in a nimble little tank with a gun whose bullets bounce off of walls. It’s unfortunate that the actual game engine attached to all this creativity isn’t all that exciting. Shoot, dodge, repeat. Upgrading your tank and encountering new enemies is reasonably fun, but it feels like there should be more… B



Bitejacker

Creator: Secret Base
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Bitejacker stars Anthony Carboni and Jon Rivera, the hosts of an online show that reviews downloadable games. Don’t let their smarmy, in-game personas turn you off to their program—Bytejacker video reviews are watchable and informative. Their game isn’t half bad, either. It’s a top-down zombie shooter rendered in ever-stylish pixel art and embellished with a thick layer of mini-achievements. These goals aren’t tangential. Unless you meet certain requirements (such as gunning down a certain number of enemies), you can’t progress through the game. Rather, you’ll be stuck in a Groundhog Day-style time loop, replaying the same levels. That’s fine, because the basics of this shooter are satisfying, especially when the upgrades start to rack up. The game balances risk and reward nicely. Linger too long scrounging for loot (like upgraded weapons and cash) and you’ll get swarmed by the walking dead. Between zombie kills, be sure to keep your eyes peeled for geek-culture cameos… B+



Mecharon 2: Survival

Creator: MoonMana
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Mecharon 2: Survival is the sequel to a top-down shoot-’em-up that suffered from repetitive motion syndrome, but was also buffed to a bright metallic sheen. Players pilot a WALL-E-like drone (minus the hopeless romanticism) and attempt to defend the central base from the mostly insectoid home-worlders, using a variety of lasers, missiles, landmines, and Half-Life-style bug guns. MoonMana has wisely carved out the exposition and eliminated the between-stage breathers that blunted the original’s frenzied momentum. And even without the variety and added graphical punch of some of the Wii’s survival shooters, the game’s simplistic, addictive leveling system helps paper over its lack of variety… B



The End Of Us

Creators: Chelsea Howe and Michael Molinari
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Like rice writers who paint a scene on a single grain, game creator Michael Molinari has a talent for compression. In another life, he’d probably make a good ad man, but in our universe, he fits potent, heartstring-tugging narratives snugly into polished, two-minute experiences like [Together] and But That Was [Yesterday]. The End Of Us was created with Chelsea Howe for the San Francisco 2011 48 Hour Global Game Jam, and it demonstrates Molinari’s knack for brevity and anthropomorphism. With no instruction, you guide a purple meteoroid on its mysterious journey through the cosmos: Where is it headed? What are you trying to accomplish? Short to the degree where practically any information amounts to a spoiler, The End Of Us quickly introduces your orange twin, whose intentions are unknowable, and whose role you determine in something that’s more of a browser-based Rorschach test than win-or-lose gameplay. Like Molinari’s other projects, the game tosses fatalism and a bit of restrained whimsy—plus in this case, a smidgen of Bit.Trip Void—into the blender, producing a cocktail that’s surprisingly sweet… B



Hack Slash Crawl

Creator: Hatched Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Hack Slash Crawl is a stripped-down Diablo-style RPG too bloodthirsty to break up its titular charms with a Tristram Village, some weapons modification, or even a save spot. The loot-hoarding, randomized-dungeon dynamics are solid, though. And as with the character-creation screen that cheerfully nudges you toward the exit by doing the stat-point distribution for you, Hatched Games’ monster-masher wastes no time in getting to the good stuff. Weapons both mundane and magical drop with great regularity, and with so many spell-granting items and so much bonus-bestowing gear, it’s easy enough to recast your character as warrior or wizard, depending on the circumstances. When the inventory gets stuffed, items can be converted into mana pearls, which look like money but serve only as score-keepers. Death is eternal, inevitable, and comes easily once the dungeons get deep and the game’s balance begins to slide. It isn’t all for naught, though, as your character is granted a title and bonuses that can be applied to your next run. Besides the multi-level dungeon itself, there isn’t a great deal of depth here, and the game could certainly have done with another coat of paint. But for dumb, demon-skewering fun, Hack Slash Crawl presents a dangerous productivity-killer… B+



Explodemon

Creator: Curve Studios
Platform: PlayStation 3
Price: $9.99
Curve Studios’ Explodemon is the latest game that has players reach new heights by exploding rather than jumping. Unlike Capcom’s maXplosion, however, Curve’s game isn’t just a shameless ripoff of Twisted Pixel’s ’Splosion Man. Where those games are concerned with convoluted acrobatic challenges, Explodemon is a game of puzzles. Described as a “loving parody of badly translated action games,” it looks like a Mega Man-style action affair: A futuristic city is beset by aliens, and a bearded inventor’s robot must unleash his most dangerous creation, the eponymous Explodemon, to defeat the baddies and rogue robot Absorbemon. Across 12 levels, players will spend most of their time using explosions to manipulate blocks and bombs into tight corners. Explodemon feels nice and weighty as you move through the stages, but overall, the game’s physics are unwieldy. It’s too hard to predict how objects will react to explosions: A missile that seems like it should deflect instead explodes, for instance, or a block ends up on your head instead of on a switch. Worse still, many puzzles leading to collectibles can be permanently messed up, meaning you’ll have to replay the entire level for another shot— which is problematic, given that levels take about 20 minutes to complete… C+



Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?

Creator: Blue Fang
Platform: Facebook
Price: Free
Note: A.V. Club alumnus Chris Dahlen contributed writing to this game. It’s reviewed here by Samantha Nelson, who doesn’t know Chris and thus was able to evaluate the game without being swayed by his charm.
When Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? was first released in 1985, it required an atlas and an almanac to play. The game seems like it would thrive in the Internet age, but Blue Fang’s Carmen Sandiego fails to live up to its potential. The game follows the classic format, with players taking on the roles of ACME agents chasing thieves across the globe. Unfortunately, you don’t have to play very long to hit repeat clues. The words on buildings change depending on where you are, but otherwise, Paris and Beijing look pretty much the same. There’s also too much emphasis on social networking: Help from friends is required to level up or unlock better cases. The only way to get around that is with coins, which can be purchased with cash and are doled out occasionally for making special detours during missions… B



Jorinapeka

Creator: Tonypa
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The goal of Jorinapeka is to clear all the colored circles on the board by clicking the colorless circles. Each time you click one of the discs, it sets off in the direction indicated by its arrow, gobbling up other pieces and changing direction according to their arrows.  Early levels can be solved by clicking the first move you see to clear a colored circle. To beat higher levels, you’ll need to plot your moves carefully, trying to clear away as much of the board as possible with a single move. Sometimes it’s correct to seek moves that don’t clear any of the colored circles at all, just to shake things up and accrue an extra turn to add to your score. Luck plays some role, but it’s mostly a highly satisfying test of strategic planning… A



The Sagittarian

Creator: Hyptosis
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Is a Choose Your Own Adventure story a videogame if you make choices with a mouse rather than turning a page? The Sagittarian makes the case that it is. You can cheat and avoid your untimely demise by flipping back a few pages with a book, whereas in The Sagittarian, you have to learn from your mistakes to charge forward as yet another survivor of the zombie apocalypse. You wake up to find your mobile phone’s signal out, the TV on standby, and your yard full of zombies. Hyptosis’ game is devoid of the tension that has made zombies so popular in recent years, but it fosters a mundane atmosphere that keeps players pushing forward to see what happens, like wandering around on a lazy Sunday. Each static image offers a scenario and multiple choices on how to proceed—do you take food and a first-aid kit, or a first-aid kit and tools?—with every decision progressing the story and offering a new choice. The lack of checkpoints makes the game’s frequent deaths frustrating, but discovering the safest path is satisfying, even if it leads through a predictable plot. Kudos to the scratchy radio soundtrack by Komozu… B



Flight

Creator: Krin Juangbhanich
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Launch games can often turn into a long, boring drone, almost workmanlike in their constant attempts to push players forward. Flight can’t wholly avoid those problems at its start, when the paper airplane you wing on its way toward the North Pole is so woefully underpowered that it flies only a few meters at a time. But as the game goes on and players collect more stars and—ingeniously—more paper cranes floating their way along through the sky, it’s possible to hyper-power your tiny paper airplane, giving it better aerodynamics, mysterious powers, and even flame-belching engines. A simple plane becomes a more complex model, eventually growing into something like the stealth bomber of the paper-airplane world. And the game nicely ramps up the level of player involvement, letting you control more and more of the plane’s functions, however unrealistic that may be. The game’s Christmastime trappings may make it seem like an odd choice to play in February, but the experience’s aesthetic lifts this above other launch games. The music bounces along majestically, the color palette changes subtly for each world location, and the game’s storyline is strange and touching… B+



Icy Gifts

Creator: Vitaliy Sidorov
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Essentially a slicker, more candy-colored, more modern variation on Boomshine, Icy Gifts invites players to start chain reactions in target-rich environments where most things interact by blowing up. In this case, it’s shiny little frozen gift boxes, floating amid bombs of various types; clicking on an area activates everything within that area, causing mines to explode, tesla activators to send out electricity, acid balls to create caustic puddles, and so forth. The goal is to destroy a certain percentage of the targets, gathering up awards that let you upgrade your special items. While it’s fun and catchy, it’s also luck-based and simpleminded, and the über-perky but repetitive background tune is likely to drill a hole into players’ brains. Boomshine is far simpler, but dreamier and more hypnotic; Icy Gifts has a lot more options, but they’re fairly headachy. Still, with plenty of achievements to earn and goals to reach, completists will be able to keep busy with it for quite a while… B-



Hot Throttle

Creator: Cactus and Doomlaser
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Adult Swim games generally fall into three categories: Accessible-yet-violent parodies of contemporary situations (Five Minutes To Kill [Yourself]), kitschy retro-pop pastiche (Robot Unicorn Attack), and genre standards filtered through the lens of madness. That last one is the hardest to pull off—for every Cream Wolf that is genuinely upsetting, there’s a Turbo Turbo Turbo that tries so hard to freak out the norms that a goth kid at the seventh-grade dance would blush. Doomlaser and Cactus’ Hot Throttle is the real deal, though—thanks to an MS Paint-meets-radiation-poisoning aesthetic, this game is genuinely weird. You play as what looks like a horrifying, nude burn victim. He pretends he’s a car and races other burn victims around obstacle courses while making “vroom, vroom” noises. The racing isn’t bad. Courses are challenging and unpredictable, and your car-man’s handling improves noticeably as you purchase upgrades between races. The creators forgot the cardinal rule of racing games, though: Make the other racers look different. It’s much too easy to lose your naked burn victim in the crowd, even with a red arrow pointing him out. B-

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