January 23, 2012

Abobo’s Big Adventure
Creators: I-Mockery, Pesto Force, ThePoxBox.com
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Abobo’s Big Adventure is billed as “the ultimate tribute to the NES,” but if that’s true, it raises the question of what exactly qualifies as a “tribute.” In terms of quantity, Adventure certainly references a greater tonnage of Nintendo kitsch than any artwork heretofore known to man. There’s the Double Dragon connection, of course—Abobo was the muscle-bound boss on the first level of that NES classic—but that’s only the beginning. On Abobo’s quest to rescue his beloved son Aboboy, Adventure pays homage to canonical games like The Legend Of Zelda, semi-obscurities like Balloon Fight, and even deep cuts such as Spy Vs. Spy. Each level is a parody recreation of a different game; at one point, Abobo crams himself into Mega Man’s blue suit to jump and shoot through a replica of Mega Man 2’s Quick Man stage. The mimicry is meticulous—the look, sound, and feel of each parody is spot-on—and there are countless “Hey, I remember that!” moments. All this is fun, yet the game rarely transcends that mild delight of recognition. Instead, the overall effect is that of a loving regurgitation. There’s no particular craft or coherence evident in the way Adventure rehashes its shopworn NES tropes, and it suffers in comparison to similar tributes that precede it. Adventure lacks anything like Retro Game Challenge’s bittersweet perspective on youth, or the wit and surprise of Nitrome titles such as Enemy 585. (Adventure’s idea of wit is a Zelda dungeon shaped like a penis.) The game isn’t so much a tribute to the games of the late 1980s as a tribute to the seemingly insatiable appetite for NES nostalgia… B-



Verge

Creator: Kyle Pulver
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
In videogames, there are only a few things worse than dying, and one of them can be found in Verge: dying when you’re already dead. This platform puzzler is heavy on that sort of emotional baggage. In order to successfully navigate your inkblot-faced hero from one door to the next, you must kill him and move forward in the upside-down underworld. While the main world isn’t exactly the jolliest of fields, there are still plenty of fire-breathing dragons to stomp on. By contrast, the underworld is nightmarish and barely visible, populated by specters that sneak out of every corner to steal your soul. As you run in fear through the life and death worlds, killing yourself becomes not a chore, but something gleeful—an everyday ritual that loses any sense of the macabre. Soon, the barriers between life and death are reduced to nothing, and your little guy has taken on the form of his own executioner. Verge masterfully sucks all the sadness out of dying and replaces it with unnerving glee… A



Midas

Creators: Harry Lee, Jarrel Seah
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Midas, like Braid, asks you to solve puzzles while pondering BIG QUESTIONS ABOUT LOVE. But unlike in Braid, that pondering fails to cohere with the puzzle concept—which is already compelling enough on its own. As Midas, every block you touch turns to gold, but so does the woman you’re trying to rescue at the end of each level. So before you reach her, you must first touch one of the blue squares that negate your transformative power for the remainder of the stage. Just like the original King Midas, your power can have dire consequences—walk across a bridge, and the newly heavy bricks plummet into the ether. As these unintended effects pile up, agility and strategy come to the fore, making the puzzles even richer. Then the game ends with a whimper and one more philosophical comment about the nature of heartbreak… B+



Hidden Chronicles

Creator: Zynga
Platform: Browser (Facebook)
Price: Free
Zynga’s latest title is just further proof that the makers of Words With Friends and FarmVille are masters at creating addictive games. Hidden Chronicles players must unravel a mystery by playing a series of hidden-object games. To advance, you’ll need to earn trophies by doing each scene several times and racking up high scores, making the game as much about memory as perception. You’ll also need to deck out your estate with everything from topiary to swimming pools with the help of other players. Fortunately, there’s already an active community happy to exchange resources. Get bored of tackling the same scene again to advance the plot? Then challenge another player to a 60-second speed-round hunt that brings some competition to the game—in case you weren’t hooked already… A



The Magician’s Handbook: Cursed Valley

Creator: G5 Entertainment
Platforms: iPhone, iPad
Reviewed on: iPhone
Price: iPhone—$2.99; iPad (”HD” version)—$4.99
A goofy sense of humor helps make up for some of the flaws in The Magician’s Handbook. You play an aspiring wizard learning magic from a mail-order spellbook. To learn the spells, which have names that easily could have come from Harry Potter, you have to find enchanted objects in a variety of scenes. Your magical knowledge is actually useful in the hidden-object games, letting you cast spells that illuminate dark rooms and banish distractions like flying books and creeping spiders. The game has fun with the clues—for instance, “wolf” might be a hint for a picture of a wolf, or it might be directing you to seek out the word “wolf” itself. But some objects are nearly impossible to find unless you’re using hints. As the difficulty quickly ramps up, it’s easy to be left squinting and frustrated… B



Shadowess

Creator: Playchilla/Jon Kagstrom
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
These dots are a bunch of assholes. Not only did the aggressive pink, blue, and red blighters steal the smile off an innocent smiley face, they also insist on murdering the lonesome mouthless freak whenever they lay eyes on her. Playchilla’s game is a little light on coherent context, but no matter. The smiley face’s plight is just a thin excuse to make players sneak past the light-radiating, homicidal spots of color that patrol Shadowless’ 32 stages. You can win the little face’s smile back by reaching the goal in each single-screen stage. In order to so without getting spotted, you have to carefully time your movements to stay hidden from the evil dots’ searchlights. One second, you’re hiding in a moving blind spot; the next, you’re tossing pebbles to divert your nemeses’ attention. The game’s stark prettiness is such an elegant hook that it’s strange Playchilla wanted to clutter it up with quirky dialogue, but that isn’t a fatal misstep… B+



Flirt Off

Creator: Radstronomical
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Consider this: While Flirt Off’s lovelorn bobble-headed pixel hipsters look like actual sweaty twentysomethings at actual parties in the present day, the game’s fashion sense will serve as a hilarious and embarrassing time capsule by the time 2017 rolls around. Yet even though the visuals capture a specific scene in history, the game itself captures something timeless: awkward party pick-up banter. Players try to string together a coherent sentence of flirtation by picking each word, one by one, while a timer ticks down. It evokes that treasured, horrible experience of struggling to hold an attractive stranger’s attention. The effect is enhanced by the fact that the dud words cluttering the screen—“gorf,” “zarf,” etc.—read like someone reciting the script to a 1960s Batman fight scene. Once you’ve successfully initiated a makeout session by racking up your paramour’s heart meter and clicking “Go For It!”, there’s not much else to see. It’s cute, but not necessarily harmless. For anyone grown out of this mating ritual, Flirt Off is toothless fun. For gawky college-aged daters, it might sting a little… B-



Run Roo Run

Creator: 5th Cell
Platforms: iPhone, iPad
Reviewed on: iPhone
Price: iPhone—$0.99; iPad (“HD” version)—$2.99
Australia has a nasty pollution problem, if the road between Perth and Sydney is anything to go by. The entire stretch of the country is littered with bones, rocky debris, spikes, weird fans, and tires embedded in the ground. This environmental tragedy is great for Roo, the pudgy kangaroo star of 5th Cell’s Run Roo Run—without all that clutter, Roo’s cross-country adventure wouldn’t have all the fun jumping. When Roo’s baby is kidnapped—no, not by a dingo—you set off across a couple hundred single-screen obstacle courses to save the kid in Sydney. All you do is tap to make Roo jump as he moves across the stages. Unlike 5th Cell’s previous games, like the inspiring Scribblenauts, Roo is all about quick reflexes, not patient problem-solving. It’s impressive how tight and satisfying these bite-size stages are. They take just a few seconds to finish and relish. Roo doesn’t have a crazy hook to distinguish itself from a billion other platformers in the App Store, but its quality sets it apart… A-



The Ocean Around Me: Week One
 and Week Two
Creator: Moshdef
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Behind the low production values of The Ocean Around Me is a multifaceted game that keeps players on their toes by operating like Myst one moment and a platformer the next. Ocean’s stick-figure protagonist wakes up on a very small desert island with no memory of who he is or how he got there. Scrounging for food is a first priority—the game provides entertaining (and sometimes challenging) mini-games involving coconuts and fish—but soon, players are knee-deep into figuring out the island’s mysteries. The game is cut up into episodes that last seven days, and each day has its own obstacles and revelations, making the passage of time a thematic part of play. With only the first two weeks released, it remains to be seen how Ocean goes about answering its riddles, but the early chapters are deft and intriguing… A



Robots Can’t Think

Creator: MyPlayYard Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Robots Can’t Think is a modest game with delusions of narrative grandeur. Players control a pint-sized bot as it tries to open a series of locked doors that are guarded by spikes and time-sensitive force fields. The robot can replicate itself or become invulnerable for a short time, and these powers have to be used in conjunction to solve some of the trickier levels. Figuring out how to unlock the door, survive the spikes, and reach the exit requires a fair amount of trial and error, but the puzzles aren’t so hard as to lose their entertainment value. Where the game goes wrong is the backstory, which is parceled out via side-scrolling subtitles and two-second cutscenes. There’s not enough meat here for these snippets to be intriguing, so they come across as meaningless and a bit pretentious… B+



Where Is 2012?

Creator: Mateusz Skutnik
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The timely sequel to Mateusz Skutnik’s Where Is 2011?, Where Is 2012? rings in the new year with a dose of holiday tomfoolery. Taking control of an anemic Santa, it’s your job to explore a snowy estate collecting presents in search of the elusive 2012. The hand-painted watercolor art depicts a kooky yet slightly solemn winter wonderland, with haunting backgrounds full of ramshackle wallpaper and half-melted snowmen, while your avatar’s frazzled expression recalls Graham Annable’s similarly frosty Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent. Mechanically, Where Is 2012? is rote, with simple platforming and puzzles, but tinkering with the scenery to plunge further into its depths keeps the scavenger hunt fresh. The game rushes along with the carefree ease of a children’s book, revealing a lovely new illustration around every corner… B



All That Matters
 
Creator: Ahmet Ali Bati
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The story in All That Matters—a mustachioed father named Walter tries to reconnect with his blonde wife, teenage son, and baby—might resemble Breaking Bad without the meth. But it’s a touching tale, due in large part to wonderful presentation and inventive mechanics establishing the relationships between its characters. The goal of each level is to get all family members—represented by rolling circles with faces—to a portal. Each character behaves differently. When you’re controlling Walter, his wife, Sydney, will move the opposite way. Switch control to Sydney, however, and Walter will mimic her movements. Baby Toby can’t jump, but he can roll around with reckless abandon, while teenage son Billy can double-jump, and grandpa’s delirium allows him to float. Each level explores a specific rapport or event, such as bringing everyone together for dinner, or the brothers helping each other reach the goal without their parents’ aid. The piano piece playing in the background adds a nostalgic flavor, while the characters’ cute monosyllabic utterances paint a vivid portrait of the family. The only bum note is the heavy-handed narration in the intro and epilogue, but this is a minor gripe in an otherwise brilliant experience… A



Traal

Creator: Jonathan Whiting and Alan Hazelden
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
In The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy, the Ravenous Bugblatter Beast Of Traal was a creature so horrendously stupid, it presumed that if someone couldn’t see it, it could not see them. Traal employs this ludicrous notion to create a new twist on stealth horror. Rather than avoid enemies’ gaze, you must tiptoe around them, careful not to allow them into your cone of vision. While early survival horror games explored the notion of limiting mobility, and more recent titles like Amnesia: The Dark Descent penalized players for looking at monsters, Traal takes both of these conceits to their logical extreme by making your avatar so freaked out upon catching sight of a foe that it high-tails it in the opposite direction. Sometimes this is a good thing, such as when your lily-livered character’s extra boost of adrenaline allows you to smash through barriers, but most of the time, it leads to you running head-first into deadly spikes. As such, the creatures pose less of a threat than your avatar’s perception of them. In spite of the Hitchhiker’s reference, Traal recalls another science-fiction classic, Dune, where Frank Herbert aptly surmised that “fear is the mind-killer.” B+

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