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January 31, 2011

Grand Mystic Quest Of Discovery
Creator: Hulahulahest
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Grand Mystic Quest Of Discovery borrows its story from the first Legend Of Zelda game, in that there really isn't one from the start. (Not even so much as an old man to say "It's dangerous to go alone! Take this.") Instead, the story is written as the quest deepens. Guided only by the cryptic writing of scattered scrolls, your hooded hero plunges into a dungeon. It isn't clear what he's seeking, only that weapons and tools, found along the way, become increasingly important—used to access areas that had been written off as inaccessible. The lack of music or sound effects may be a choice or just a result of the fact that the game was created in a hurry for the most recent Ludum Dare indie-game competition. In any case, Grand Mystic Quest offers a retro, ponderous world that opens up slowly with play. Two major factors get in the way. Controls are incredibly sticky: Jumping off ladders is an integral part of the game, yet even the slightest directional tap before the leap itself causes you to fall to the ground. Secondly, given that the game has an open-ended feel throughout, its ending is an anticlimactic letdown… B+


Creator: SRRN Games
Platform: iPhone
Price: $4.99 (currently on sale for $2.99)
Ash brings retro RPGs to a new platform with a game that looks like it was designed for the SNES. The dungeon-crawler follows a pair of mercenaries performing heroic deeds while on the run from an evil government. The plot isn't particularly original, but the dialog is often entertaining, and the score is so good, it’s worth playing with headphones on. The turn-based battles tend to be quick and easy, especially if you use your characters’ synergistic special powers. Using the touchscreen to navigate the map is tricky, but there’s also an option to activate an onscreen cursor for more precision. One significant weakness is the lack of a quest log or map. If you miss a dialog cue that tells you where to go next, you could be wandering a while… A-

Spare Parts
Creator: EA Bright Light
Platforms: Playstation 3, Xbox 360
Played on: Xbox 360
Price: $10 (800 Microsoft points)
Spare Parts is a solid platformer if you’re playing solo, but it really shines in multiplayer. Players control a pair of robots looking for parts to repair their spaceship as they battle hostile monsters and navigate around treacherous terrain. The robots collect special parts to gain abilities that they can swap in and out, like X-ray vision and extra-strong arms that smash obstacles. Teammates working together to deliver more powerful moves or solve puzzles is fun, but nothing new. The real charm of Spare Parts is friendly fire. It’s easy to wing your partner with any given attack. Fortunately, the penalty for death is minimal, so accidental or purposeful player-vs.-player kills tend to be funny and forgivable. The game deals with the inevitable problem of keeping two players on the same screen by killing characters that are out of focus and respawning them closer to their partners. But it isn't a precise science, and the multi-tiered terrain sometimes leads to a respawn in an area where the players can’t be easily reunited, forcing you to backtrack or press forward alone in order to get back together… B+

House Of Dead Ninjas
Creator: Megadev 
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Unlike other Adult Swim one-chuckle fodder like Floater Pro and My Li’l Bastard, the skillful House Of Dead Ninjas manages to be homage and satire at the same time. The game’s playful premise: You have to quickly descend through a tower filled with traps, monsters, and the eponymous dead ninjas. Your most fearsome foe is time: Only by collecting time-extending power ups, which manifest in the form of cartoonish alarm clocks, can you hope to survive. The 8-bit presentation is spot-on, right down to the terrific, echoing death groan and slow-motion pixel-blood spray. From the self-aware title to the pseudo-Zen rhetoric—“Ignorance is the night of the mind, but a night without moon or star”—House Of Dead Ninjas evokes ’90s-era Nintendo so effectively that players might find themselves searching for a cartridge slot to blow into… B

Bean Fiend
Creator: J.J. Wallace Design
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
An interesting thought: In 2025, there’s going to be a nostalgia-fueled surge of clean-lined, primary-colored games with addictive, simple goals. You will pay $20 to download Doodle Jump Anniversary DX to the iLens implanted in your eyeball, and you’ll happily drop cash on compilations of old Flash games like J.J. Wallace’s Bean Fiend. Just as nostalgia makes clunkers of the late 1980s like Blaster Master seem like better games in the mind’s eye, so will it make Flashers like Bean Fiend seem charming. Today, though, Fiend exemplifies the creative bottom of the browser and mobile game barrel. You’re an orange blob that jumps up a beanstalk eating golden beans for points. Touch a baddie (crabs, bees, etc.), and you get knocked down into an ever-rising pool of water where you’ll drown if you linger. This concoction—amorphous pop art, imprecise jump play, one-minute score runs—will be food for fondness one day. For now, it’s just wallpaper… C

Decimation X3
Creator: Xona
Platform: Xbox 360 
Price: $1 (80 Microsoft points)
In Decimation X3, aliens appear in rigid, military-like formations overhead and march to the lefthand side of the screen. Once they reach the left edge, they descend a level and slowly make their way rightward. Yes, Decimation X3 is a Space Invaders clone. After enduring over three decades’ worth of Space Invaders clones, does the world need another one? Particularly in the wake of Space Invaders: Infinity Gene, the answer is no. As far as Space Invaders clones go, though, Decimation X3 isn’t terrible, or incompetent. The spare visuals make it appear as if the game’s graphics were rendered with a Hasbro Lite-Brite. Power-ups are also intentionally low-fi. Example: a shield booster appears as a lower-case “S,” and nothing more. The game’s only real sin isn’t that it’s derivative and redundant, it’s the pounding, clichéd techno soundtrack. Why so many videogames insist on sounding like a ’90s-era Ibiza dance club is a mystery… C-

Cthulhu Saves The World
Creator: Zeboyd Games
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: $3 (240 Microsoft points)
Robert Boyd, the man behind last year’s breakout Xbox Indie Games role-playing game Breath Of Death VII, is back with another parody, Cthulhu Saves The World. Where Breath hearkened back to the 1980s tropes established by Dragon Quest and its imitators, Cthulhu plumbs early-’90s staples like the Lunar series for its inspiration. The setup: The elder god from H.P. Lovecraft’s mythos wakes up and is all set to raze the Earth when a wizard locks up all his powers. The only way to unlock them is for Cthulhu to become a true hero, so he decides to be a good guy for a while and take over the planet another day. Boyd’s game is warm and funny, with some great dialogue. (Cthulhu: “I don’t need your pity fear!”) Beneath the reference points to classic JRPGs is a system of play that captures what made those classics so fun to play. While many fights can be won in seconds by selecting “Attack” as quickly as possible—you’re rewarded for finishing fast—just as many require tactical thinking… B+

Aban Hawkins & The 1000 Spikes
Creator: 8 Bits Fanatics
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: $1 (80 Microsoft points)
Like Super Meat Boy and I Wanna Be The Guy, Aban Hawkins & The 1000 Spikes is a retro platformer that should probably come packaged with an industrial-sized bottle of Excedrin. Created by 8 Bits Fanatics (who also helmed the excellent Tempura Of The Dead), Aban Hawkins outfits you with a thousand lives before shunting you into the most booby-trapped of all ancient, booby-trapped temples. And yes, you might very well need all thousand of those lives. The graphics are Cave Story-esque, the stop-and-catch-your-breath moments are few and far between, and unless you’ve already spent countless hours honing your response time in similar games, you should probably stay away. Unlike Super Meat Boy, Aban Hawkins doesn’t quite hit that sweet spot of supreme difficulty mixed with appropriately short level-length, so be prepared to hit the “I give up, skip this stage” button more than a few times… B+

Balls In Space
Creator: Damijin
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
On the other end of the platformer difficulty spectrum lies Balls In Space, which is sweet, polished, and over in the blink of an eye. Each of the game’s 25 stages takes place on a single screen and is more than a little reminiscent of the night world from Super Mario Bros. The sole power-up is a ninja costume that outfits your spherical avatar in black and transforms the balls you fire at enemies into shuriken. This time-limited ninja mode also allows a few precious moments of double-jumping. The levels escalate the challenge only slightly, though they do show some welcome variation, with invisible floors and some hidden rooms. Unfortunately, even the game’s boss is a bit of a pushover. If it were twice as long, Balls In Space would be a nice diversion. As it is, it’s barely enough game to last through the commercial break… B-

Armor Mayhem
Creator: Louissi
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Last year, we saw Halo remade as a brilliant Atari 2600 cartridge. Now Armor Mayhem filters the jarheads-in-space template through the sensibilities of your typical Newgrounds browser game. A weirdly somber orchestral soundtrack is the first sign that, like Halo, this run-and-gun romp wishes it were more profound than it actually is. The modest truth is that this is an amusing enough, mostly team-based contest in which your squad of intergalactic meatheads tries to out-slaugher the evil teams (i.e., the guys wearing a different color). A level ends when one of the teams reaches the goal—a kill quota, say, or a set number of capture-the-flag scores. The action is weighted too heavily toward the player at first—your drones always seem to be working off the primest cuts of the AI algorithm—but the challenge evens out over time. The action alternates between a handful of premade maps, of which the smaller landscapes are the best. There’s also a level editor, but it’s hard to imagine that much of a developer community will glom on to Armor Mayhem. For once, that troglodytic message-board axiom does hold true: This game would be better with multiplayer… B

Creator: Juhana Leionen
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Interactive fiction requires either a great, original story (the better to keep players flicking through keywords to get more and more of it); an interesting setting to explore; or diabolical puzzles to keep players guessing. Starborn, a brief new piece of IF, seems as though it might have one of the first two, but its length keeps it from ever growing truly engaging. Centered on a protagonist who’s lived his entire life onboard a giant starship, Starborn makes no real attempt to let players/readers know what they’re supposed to be up to, beyond the most basic ideas. Still, it won’t be very hard for most players to figure this out on their own, particularly since author Juhana Leionen capitalizes all the needed keywords, making the whole game an exercise in typing all those words to see what the game spits back at you. This might work well as an introduction to IF, but the story is too slight, the setting too basic, and the puzzles too nonexistent to be much fun for anyone else… C-

Creator: Santa Ragione
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
There are two schools of browser-game minimalism: the pixel pastiche and the black-and-white art fest. Few games in either school use negative space well, though, so Fotonica is a rare specimen. It’s a minimalist browser game whose black-and-white vector look adheres to both schools and uses negative space, sound, and fast play to elicit visceral responses in players. There are two stages, Cairoli and Cardona, the first with a “broken bridges in the woods” theme and the second a ruined highway. Both are also available in “Pure” modes, where the loose aesthetics are tossed aside in favor of unadorned abstraction. You hold a single button to run forward and release it to jump between sections of track, managing speed to clear gaps, and collecting orbs that increase your velocity. The speed, the stages, and the clicking electronica soundtrack all cohere into a beautiful package. The game demands work—namely, trial and error to learn jump timing and speed management—but that work is rewarded with revelation. The first time the world shifts from black and white to black and gold, it’s breathtaking… A-

Moby Dick: The Videogame
Creator: La Ventanita Estudio
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The subtitle “This is what happens when you make a game from a book you have never read” makes sense: Moby Dick: The Videogame certainly doesn’t have much in common with Herman Melville’s classic, apart from a white whale that sinks ships and eats people. But hey, you get to play the whale, with a jaunty sea chantey urging you on as you smash ships and gobble sea life, sailors, and power-ups indiscriminately. Moby Dick isn’t particularly challenging—you’ll die if you get too hungry, or too wounded by spears and cannonballs, or if you stay underwater until you run out of air, but frequent health and air bonuses solve the latter two problems. And the former isn’t much of an issue, since nearly everything in the game is edible, including birds and—if you time your energy boosts right and get high enough into the air—aliens. And every time you eat something, you grow, until it’s harder to avoid food than to hit it. It’s something of the same principle as Sydney Shark—sea-dwelling omnivore charges through target-rich environment, wreaking enjoyable havoc—but Moby Dick is far more adorable and good-natured. It also has wonkier controls and no time limit, so it lacks a sense of urgency and excitement. Players keeping an careful eye on their various life gauges will probably tire of the game before dying or getting all the achievements, which are more endurance badges than skill badges… B-

I Am An Insane Rogue AI
Creator: Nerdook
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
I Am An Insane Rogue AI is an odd game, in that the developer seems to be encouraging players to storm through levels at top speed, but it’s easier to apply a little patience and get the job done in a duller way. You play as a HAL/Skynet/GlaDOS-type crazy computer; having achieved sentience, you set out to “eliminate pesky, pesky humans” by hacking computers and taking over facilities around the world. But wandering scientists and other operatives keep interfering, so you have to either gently usher them away from your target terminals—say, by turning off lights so they flee, then locking the doors behind them—or buy upgrades that unlock more aggressive and fatal tactics, like zombies, neurotoxins, and killer drones. The challenge is that all your actions cost “cycles,” and you only get so many per level, so really sloppy play will leave you powerless. But you can earn more cycles by making aggressive moves rapidly, and earning combo bonuses for your activities. So either slow-and-steady or random-and-frantic will work. Unfortunately, the game isn’t particularly difficult either way, so it’s up to players to make their own fun by playing random-and-frantic, and at least trying out more of the options. The game’s design is cute and sharply drawn, and the many options for mayhem are creative and entertaining, but this is more like a fishbowl than a game—one where you can just feed the fish, or go after them with a hand mixer for your own sadistic pleasure. C+