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February 8, 2010

Muscle March
Creator: Namco Bandai
Platform: Nintendo Wii (WiiWare)
Price: $5 (500 Nintendo points)
It seems contradictory that a game about girthy bodybuilders (and their polar-bear friend) can be so crushingly thin. Based on an unreleased 2006 Japanese arcade game, Muscle March piles so much flamboyance atop its wispy plot that it’s no wonder the overall game feels as brain-dead as its brawny characters. No matter who you choose to play, the game remains the same: A nefarious thief swiped your crew’s precious protein powder, so you all make haste to chase him down, single-file, in three different locales. Running is automatic, but you’ll need to mirror the poses struck by the thief at the front of the line (with the Wii-mote and nunchuk) so you can pass through the wall instead of crashing into it. Once you catch the thief, he merely tosses the powder to another accomplice, and the game starts over. Unfortunately, Muscle March’s charm dissipates the more you play it. It’s exemplified by an “endless chase” mode that shows off how impossible the game becomes when the speed picks up to an absurd blur… D-

The Magic Obelisk
Creator: Game Arts
Platform: Wii (WiiWare)
Price: $5 (500 Nintendo points)
The cheery puzzle-platformer The Magic Obelisk follows Lukus, a young tree spirit in search of a place to set down his roots. Lukus can only travel in shade, so a light spirit accompanies him, casting shadows for him to travel in. The simple format requires increasing skill, as players must time when they create shadows and analyze their surroundings to find a path forward. Some levels are just storytelling segments, but the cartoony characters populating the colorful world are endearing enough to make these breaks pleasant. The only major flaw comes in the controls: Lukus tends to wander, or stand still when he shouldn’t, messing up timing in ways that often send him back to square one… B+

Chronos Twins
Creator: EnjoyUp
Platform: Nintendo DS (DSiWare)
Price: $5 (500 Nintendo points)
Chronos Twins has a strange history: Spanish developer EnjoyUp originally showed off its unique take on Mega Man-styled running and jumping in early 2004, on the GameBoy Advance. When EnjoyUp couldn’t find a publisher for the game, Twins was ported to the DS and released in Western Europe near the end of 2007. Now, more than half a decade after its coming-out party, Americans can get Chronos Twins on both WiiWare and DSiWare. The game itself isn’t as interesting as its prolonged development. Its hook—one screen of the DS has your character in the past, the other in the present, and you control them simultaneously—is novel but awkward in execution. The game quickly becomes about navigating tricky jumps in both time periods, and the game’s pace is slowed as a result. Hundreds of free games scratch the same itch as Twins, but if you have five bucks and a fondness for weird cultural artifacts, it’s a good bet… B

Creator: Unconditional Studios
Platform: Wii (WiiWare)
Price: $10 (1,000 Nintendo points)
The difficulty level of bittos+ desperately needs a middle ground. This puzzle game boils down to a Tetris look-alike where you can stop the block formations anywhere on the screen, clearing them away by forming squares. Standard play puts no limit on how long you can rotate your pieces and decide where to land them. The catch is that if a piece of a block isn’t used quickly enough, it solidifies and can only be removed by forming squares nearby. Leave solid blocks alone for too long, and they start replicating and filling up the board. The game offers two difficulty settings: “Mellow” lacks challenge, while “Wired” is a desperate battle. Given that the game prizes high scores and leaderboards, it’s a huge oversight that you can’t use your Mii; bittos+ only allows play with pre-made profiles… C+

Creator: Yohanes Suyanto
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
There’s a fine line between Zen meditation and outright boredom. With its soothing music and artful presentation, Fuli aims for the former, and it winds up achieving the latter. The idea is to use a syringe that vaguely resembles a robot penis to dribble drops of paint into a series of glasses—or, as the game calls them, “glass boxes.” Fill up three glass boxes in a row with the same color of paint, and—you guessed it—they disappear. Your reward: A new tier of glass boxes that require your syringe’s attention. The game features 20 stages that purport to offer slight variations on this formula. But after the first 10 minutes, including the time spent sitting through a detergent commercial, you’ve seen everything it has to offer. Trouble sleeping tonight? Try Fuli and a glass of warm milk… C

Creator: Smartkit
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
“Interactive fiction” isn’t necessarily limited to text consoles and “go north” commands. ShipWrecked turns a text-free comic strip into an engrossing puzzle game. The goal is to assemble 14 disjointed panels into a comic about a shipwrecked captain and a three-wish-granting genie. It’s the type of brainteaser you might see in a kids’ puzzle magazine, except that this story’s twists—dream sequences, circular cause-and-effect, etc.—make it unusually hard to reconstruct. Finding the solution can take the better part of an hour (thanks in part to a constrained viewing window and crude interface), yet some of the “wrong” answers are just as entertaining and coherent as the story the developers had in mind, so don’t hesitate to craft your own fiction… B

Flood The Chamber
Creator: Matt Scorah
Platform: PC 
Price: Free
In the masochistic Flood The Chamber, you play as a teeny-tiny blocky prisoner escaping an increasingly waterlogged chamber/obstacle course that’s covered wall-to-wall with booby traps like white-hot lasers and piercing spikes. The entire game takes place on a single screen, which can add to the sense of determined progress, but also makes each step feel insignificant: While you can respawn at the last checkpoint after dying from a trap (and you will, dozens of times), immersion in the water is an automatic game-over. The precision-timed jumps and constant surveying of what lies ahead will make players’ blood pressure rise, so only those seeking a challenge and subsequent bragging rights need apply… B

Lethal Application
Creator: Daisessen
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Remember that one gun in Earthworm Jim that packed so much punch that its recoil would knock Jim back and against the floor? Well, Lethal Application is built entirely around that idea. In this Japanese vertical-scrolling shooter, your gun functions as both a weapon and a jump button: To ascend, you turn your gun against the floor and shoot your way up to the next platform. Lethal Application’s 10 levels aren’t greatly varied visually or in navigation—every level is simply about blasting upward, enemies can be avoided outright and usually aren’t worth aiming at—but at least the price is right… C+

Creator: Tatsuya Koyama
Platform: PC
Price: Free
If there ever were a college course on shoot-’em-ups, Genetos would make for a fantastic visual aid during the lecture on the genre’s history. In four short levels, the game and your ship evolves from Space Invaders simplicity to Galaga and finally Rez-like insanity and player freedom. You jump ahead on the evolutionary chart by collecting 1,000 green dots left behind in the wreckage of your enemies’ ships, but how you evolve depends entirely on your play style. For instance, if you keep getting blasted by enemy fire, you’ll develop the ability to slow down the torrential downpour of bullets that come your way in the later levels. More than anything, though, Genetos is an example of how to pay tribute to touchstone games without cannibalizing or merely rehashing them. Who said learning can’t be fun?… A-

Ne Touchez Pas!
Creator: Jack Brockley
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
When Ne Touchez Pas! first loads up in your browser, you might be wondering how the game’s creator is using the French colloquialism. After all, minimalist, black-and white browser games are typically meditations on bittersweet love these days. None of that sentimental pap here. Ne Touchez Pas lets you know what you’re in for with its simple instructions: “Prepare to fly through 40 challenging levels of monochromatic glory.” A bumping techno track by Kevin Macleod starts up, and you’re on your way. You make a small “bird” flap upward while moving sideways to navigate increasingly angular corridors to reach a checkered finish line. Touch a wall, and you die. You’ll die often, and the game keeps a running tally of how many times you beef it. Ne Touchez Pas! is an addictive but sinister little game, as likely to drive you nuts as amuse you. And make sure to mute your machine. Macleod’s song is catchy at first, but by its 10th repetition, you might want to break something… C+

Creator: Bit Battalion
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Gnop is not only an inversion of the word “Pong,” it’s also an elegant inversion of Pong’s overly familiar gameplay. Instead of controlling the paddles, Gnop puts you in charge of the floating Pong pixel itself, and challenges you to make your way past the A.I.-controlled paddles. Control is simple: Up and down keys steer the ball, which is always in motion. Slip by the paddle on the right side of the screen, and you’ll confront quicker and smarter paddles. Due to the game’s uneven A.I., the paddles can occasionally seem frustratingly prescient; at other times, you’ll inexplicably sail past them without a hitch. The game is also painfully short, and can be consumed in its entirety in minutes. But that moment of trying to juke your way by one of gaming’s most indelible symbols—the Pong paddle—evokes a worthwhile new experience from this ancient game. B+