January 11, 2010

Pixel Force: Left 4 Dead
Creator: Eric Ruth
Platform: PC
Price: Free
It's said that the test of a well-written song is whether it can be recreated in any other genre or format and still hold up, but does the same hold true of videogames? If Eric Ruth's “retro de-make” of Left 4 Dead is any indication, the answer is a screaming yes. This new take on the Valve zombie shooter imagines what the game would be like had it come out on the NES in 1986, and it stands the test of alternate history remarkably well. The core mechanics and levels are all still there: There's no room for panic if you want to survive, so coordinating with your fellow player (that's two players max—the Four Score multi-tap didn't hit shelves until 1990) is essential for survival. Also present is the game's unforgiving difficulty, itself owing a great debt to the 8-bit era. Just remember not to throw your keyboard at the wall out of frustration… A



Tuper Tario Tros.
Creator: SwingSwing
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
A Super Mario Bros. and Tetris hybrid is a bizarre idea, but given that these are the two games that absolutely everyone played in the '80s, it's also surprising that nobody ever tried it before. The other surprise: It sort of works. You start Tuper Tario Tros. in a facsimile of SMB's World 1-1, complete with goombas and mushrooms. When you run into a seemingly impassable wall, you're instructed to switch into Tetris mode, where you can break down the barrier by sliding in tetrads and completing lines. Switch back to Mario mode, and he can continue on his way. Tuper Tario Tros. performs a few variations on this trick before concluding with a frantic boss battle. The entire experiment spans a single level, wisely getting out before the gag wears thin… B+



Hook Champ
Creator: Rocketcat Games
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $2.99
Hook Champ isn't the first game to focus on the grappling hook—Bionic Commando comes to mind—but it's the best. You're a cave explorer collecting the treasures of a lost civilization. Every time you pilfer a sacred idol, you're predictably accosted by an angry demon. You use the grappler to swing and glide through a twisting cave to safety. Hook Champ isn't a rhythm game per se, but it does develop a fantastic beat as you snag, release, snag, release your hook with simple touch controls. Even the earliest stages have secrets that invite repeated exploration, and the developer appears committed to adding further levels in free updates… A



Turf Wars
Creator: MeanFreePath LLC
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: Free
The biggest flaw in Turf Wars may come not from the game itself, but from the limits of your 3G network. The concept of building a mob and battling or recruiting other players for supremacy of the underworld has been done before. At first glance, Turf Wars seems like a cosmetic update of the Mafia Wars concept. But the game takes advantage of the iPhone's GPS, meaning that what turf you can claim and what players you interact with is based on your actual geographic location. Claiming turf in crowded areas and big cities gets you more income, but is more likely to stir the ire of other capos, forcing players to divide their resources between building a bankroll and building an arsenal to take on the often highly aggressive player base. Regular attention and travel is rewarded, making it an addictive download that's continuously delivering new challenges… A-



Hoshi Saga Ringo
Creator: Yoshio Ishii
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Yoshio Ishii's Hoshi Saga find-the-hidden-star games rarely pose much of a challenge, but they are a pleasant way to spend an hour. Each stage is a spare tableau of two-dimensional shapes that somehow hides a star. You use the mouse to poke and prod at the seemingly innocuous images—a Christmas tree, a padlocked chain, etc.—until you discover the rules of the miniature world onscreen. The cursor has a different, unspoken function in each stage, so your scattered clicks have the sensation of feeling around a varied, surprising tactile experience. Hoshi Saga Ringo doesn't exhibit the same sustained imagination as its predecessors, but the addition of color to this previously monochrome series is a welcome change… B



Bunni: How We First Met
Creator: Andre Spierings
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
The storyline of Andre Spierings' Bunni ends in a fairly weird place—it's a game seemingly designed for cuteness-obsessed teen girls, and yet the whole point turns out to be for the player to fulfill all the greedy needs of a shallow little blonde bunny, until she has enough bling that she feels like a pretty princess who wants to marry your bunny protagonist. But until that point, Bunni is an adorable, well-designed, and at times appealingly macabre charmer that has you hopping around talking to ghosts and trying to slowly bring their dead island back to life by planting trees, sowing flowers, setting up mines, and putting bunnies, foxes, pandas, and monsters to work for you. The gameplay eventually gets a little repetitive, especially if you design your islands poorly and have to keep manually rebuilding your exhausted production areas, but the bubbly round pastel art is achingly sweet, and the game design—which has all your unused items hippity-hopping around in a queue behind you—is borderline hilarious. Once you catch on to the goals, progressing through the story becomes addictive, especially since there are new things to unlock and discover right up to the end… B



Every Day The Same Dream
Creator: Molleindustria
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
An unsettling short developed for the Experimental Gameplay Project's “art game” theme, Every Day The Same Dream is a simple work that tickles the bounds of what games can do, be, and say. It presents a faceless man in a grayscale world, marching the endless rut of his commute toward a prison of identical suits and cubicles. With few cues to elucidate, the player must find ways—something, anything—to disrupt the daily routine, even though success means waking up to the same day all over again. The net experience is striking in spite of its simplicity. There is a way to “win,” and though the final scene risks deflating the experience with melodrama, the moments leading up to it are the game's major triumph. That kind of hitch in the narrative's fine grain can be forgiven—after all, this inventive little essay was developed in only six days… B+



The Simpsons Arcade
Creator: Electronic Arts
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $4.99
Fans of the '90s standing Simpsons arcade game will be both nostalgic and slightly disappointed by this revamped portable version. The letdown is mostly because only Homer remains a playable member of the Simpsons family. But the disappointment ends there: The Simpsons Arcade is the button-whomping tour of Springfield it always was. A cabal of the town's most elite members hide the key to their sinister plans inside a doughnut, and Homer punches, body-slams, and head-butts his way through the mean streets to get the sugary treat. Noninvasive see-through controls, coupled with a few iPhone-specific touches (you slap Homer's face to wake him up when you die), place the gameplay itself in the foreground. It's a shame that this engrossing title has a glitchy, unreliable save function, a huge drawback on a device known for constant interruptions. Still, for a marathon gaming session on a long train ride, The Simpsons Arcade is far more “Woo-hoo!” than “D'oh!”… B+



James Cameron's Avatar
Creator: Gameloft
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $6.99
Finally, something with the James Cameron imprimatur which we can all agree on. The iPhone adaptation of Avatar takes place 20 years before the events of the film, and has you controlling one of the first avatars the humans send into the jungles of Pandora. Equipped with a machine gun—or, later, a spear and various other sharp implements—your character hops over plants, slides down branches, climbs rock faces, and slashes at creatures. The range of motion is astonishing for such a small game, made possible by a tiny digital control stick and two buttons that change function depending on the context. What's more, the world is surprisingly lush and detailed; glowing trees and flashy animals dot landscapes that turn intuitively with your third-person perspective. Aside from the occasional input lag, this is as engrossing a portable game can be outside of 3-D… A-



Cease Fire
Creators: CyberPhobx (Peter and Csaba Horvath)
Platform: PC
Price: €9.90
With the look of a sepia-toned film reel preserved from the '40s, Cease Fire delivers side-scrolling fighting between two characters—and the characters are animated with photos of live actors. From saucy nurses and burlesque bosses to flyboys, Tommies and Russkies, Cease Fire marries impressive style to a demanding fighting mechanic. The combat is controlled through the keyboard, and two players can go at each other on the same PC. But if you'd prefer to tackle the AI, make sure you memorize all the special combos in the instruction manual. Even on the easiest setting, the attackers are merciless. Don't hesitate to change the default key mappings to your liking, and if you need to polish your skills against a dummy, just go into two-player mode without a human opponent. The game takes practice, but its hilarious aesthetic is your reward. B

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