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July 19, 2010

Fault Line
Creator: Nitrome
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Fault Line is yet another puzzle-platformer with mid-’90s-level graphics and a twist in the execution, but the twist more than makes up for the game’s lack of originality in presentation. The protagonist—a curious little metal man—is lost in a maze of twisting passageways occasionally interrupted by spiny things or death-lasers. Naturally, he has to navigate his way to an exit point in each level. The wrinkle that makes the game work involves just how the hero finds his way out—making new paths by folding together pre-selected points within the passages, as if they were Mad magazine back-cover fold-ins. Threats disappear, new platforms and passages appear, and the mazes tangle further or detangle completely. By the last four or five levels, the game can be maddening, but in that way where the need for one more try is ever-present… A- 

The Ultra Mission

Creator: Cactus (Jonatan Söderström)
Platform: PC
Price: Free
The Ultra Mission is Robotron 2084 re-imagined as a tense hostage situation. Rather than shooting first and letting God sort ’em out, players must solve tactical puzzles to rescue innocents and punish their captors. The game’s designer, Cactus, is both a stylist and an experimenter. This retro-flavored shooter appears dim around the edges, like an old silent film. Explosions rock the screen with a jarring, chip-generated boom. Like most of Cactus’ games, Ultra Mission is short, sugary, and light on instructions. Know that the right mouse button does something important… A

Easy Joe

Creator: Gamystar
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The recent surge of point-and-click browser games has, unfortunately, brought back one of the greatest pitfalls of the genre: Too many of these games require something less like a rational thought process and more like the willingness to try all possible combinations of potential actions, like randomly tossing everything in the inventory at the Yeti in King’s Quest V until the custard pie, of all things, finally takes him out. The striking Easy Joe takes place in an appealing, fluorescent world—all maroons and lime greens—but that turns out to be the only thing the game has going for it. Experienced adventure gamers will complete the thing in 10 minutes. But everyone will complete the game in 10 minutes. All that’s required is to enter each scene, click on the three or four highlighted objects until you stumble on the right order, then move on to the next thing. It’s right there in the title, but Easy Joe is simply way, way too easy… C-

Little Wheel

Creator: OneClickDog Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
A better option than Easy Joe is the similar but much more comprehensible Little Wheel, set in a world of powered-down robots shown entirely in silhouette. Like Joe, Little Wheel involves a number of short scenes the main character—a robot awakened from his millennia-long slumber by an errant lightning strike, now bent on reviving his race—must “solve” to progress, but the solutions here, though never terribly complicated, can’t be solved easily by clicking at random. Navigating the streets of the robot city requires some amount of logic and careful action, and observing how different items interact will prove just as important. It’s still only a 15- to 20-minute diversion, but it tells a sweet little story, features some gorgeous artwork, and boasts a jazzy, rambling soundtrack… B+

Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent

Creator: Telltale Games
Platforms: iPhone, iPad, Mac, PC, WiiWare 
Played On: Mac
Price: $9.95
Anyone who says adventure games have gone extinct hasn’t been paying attention. The Monkey Island and Sam & Max series are enjoying a resurgence with upgraded re-releases and new episodic installments, and even the long-dormant King’s Quest series is back. At the forefront of this renaissance is Telltale Games, which leaps out of its comfort zone with the original game Nelson Tethers: Puzzle Agent. In this quirky, intelligent, charmingly dark title, mild-mannered Tethers is the sole agent of the FBI’s Puzzle Investigation Unit. Tethers is sent on a field assignment to Scoggins, Minnesota to investigate why the town’s eraser factory has stopped production. He winds up helping all its citizens, who are only able to assist his investigation after he sorts out their mental blocks—which, luckily, come in the form of puzzles. The challenges run the scope from place-mat brainteasers to Mensa-caliber head-scratchers. Fargo-like dialog and Twin Peaks-like intrigue offer a nice setting for the unfolding case. Nelson Tethers is also smart enough to mock itself for the frequency with which puzzles unnecessary crop up: The hotel owner doesn’t see anything odd in the fact that her assistant wrote your room key down in code, but Tethers roll his eyes before rolling up his sleeves and tackling another puzzle… A

Doodle God

Creator: JoyBits
Platforms: Browser, iPhone
Price: Browser—Free; iPhone—$0.99
Doodle God traffics in the thrill of discovery, though the discoveries seem obvious in hindsight. This simple point-and-click strategy game starts you off with the four simple elements of fire, water, air, and earth. You combine one with another to yield something totally new. Water and air mix to become steam; water and earth become swamp. As the number of elements at your disposal increases, so too do the possibilities for creating primitive life forms, transportation, even mythological beasts like dragons and ghosts. And because there are no penalties for getting it wrong, finding new combinations becomes a mix of imagination, good old-fashioned trial-and-error, and sense of humor—try combining human and human, or human and alcohol. The thrill of infinite possibilities drains when you near the end of the game, but an ever-increasing universe—made possible via App Store updates that add just one new element—means there’s plenty of discoveries to be made… B+

Wine Pong

Creator: Adult Swim Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
“The actions witnessed in this game are performed by serious and competitive bourgeois athletes from the classiest echelons of society.” Adult Swim’s self-proclaimed “twitchy” online game Wine Pong doesn’t go much deeper than that when making with the yuks. You face off against 10 stereotypes straight out of The Hills, like blondie Chardonnay, trying to sink a ping-pong ball in their cabernet before they do the same to you. Get bigger scores for consecutive shots and bonus points when you nail a glass of wine with a big diamond floating over it (i.e., “sink the bling”). The game is below the usually high standard of Adult Swim Games’ other offerings. Dilettantes playing pong with expensive vino is a little on-the-nose for a site with the reputation for absurd hilarity like Cream WolfC+


Creator: Atmos Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
It’s hard to see anything on the screen when you begin playing Coma. But the barely lit room that contains nothing more than a piano and your nondescript character is thematically appropriate. Thomas Brush’s lyrical side-scrolling adventure is about Pete the protagonist journeying back to the waking world, and his route to consciousness literally goes through darkness to illumination. You guide Pete through individual screens, jumping over obstacles and securing items with the help of your avian pal Bird. When you first leave the room with the piano, Bird tells you that your father has locked your sister in the basement, so your goal initially seems to be her rescue. As you wander through Coma’s autumnal landscape, though, it’s clear that nothing here can be taken literally. Saying more would ruin the game’s charms. Though some solutions to the game’s challenges are oblique, Brush has made a wonderful tone poem of a game… B+


Creator: Gregory Weir
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Gregory Weir’s new game, a primitive-looking archaeological parable, is eerie, bleak, and austere. Looming uses some of the most evocative tricks of early computer games—expert use of empty black space, minimal audio, poorly defined characters, and pointillist graphics—to make his strange tale of grueling discovery both haunting and easy to understand. You control September, who, as you discover through his despairing letters to a lover named January, is trying to discover the secrets of Looming, a desolate land once inhabited by the advanced, spiritual Seecha. As you wander the small, fenced-in world, you collect artifacts including bones, lore (written by the scientific Lorem as well as the Seecha), and incomplete diagrams. It seems incredibly simple until you play it a third or fourth time, with September’s letters sounding more desperate, and even more of Looming revealed to you… B+

60 Seconds To Save The Queen

Creator: Ozzie Mercado
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Vintage platformers had a frantic energy—enemies swarmed as clocks ticked down, the music paced accordingly. The deceptively simple web game 60 Seconds To Save The Queen is that essence incarnate. Using the arrow keys and space bar, you navigate a pixelated king through the halls of his castle as the walls collapse around him. Each room is exited through a looming black door, and if you fail—by falling in a pit, say, or getting pierced by a spear-toting guard—you give that room another shot. But you have to finish the game once through (in spite of occasionally wonky controls) to realize the title is mercilessly accurate: If you’re even one second past 60, you fail. Then it’s back at it again, blindly bouncing past obstacles, surrendering to sheer momentum. And if you’re delayed by just one second, you throw yourself into the abyss, praying that next time, you’ll get it right… A-

Puzzle Dimension

Creator: Doctor Entertainment
Platform: PC
Price: $9.99
Roll a ball around a map to collect flowers: The concept behind Puzzle Dimensions is simple, but it requires patience and plenty of experimentation to master. Players must figure out what the different terrains do and how they can navigate them to get to their quarry, then orchestrate carefully timed jumps and turns through the 3D environments. Bonus points are rewarded for speed, but even a methodical approach can be a challenge, as constantly shifting camera angles produce a dizzying effect. Some boards are viciously hard, so it’s fortunate players have plenty of sub-levels to choose from at any given time. If something stumps you, you can take a break and try your hand at a different puzzle… B+

Desktop Dungeons

Creator: QCF Design
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Winning a game of Desktop Dungeons takes about 10 minutes, plenty of skill, and at least a little luck. Players navigate an adventurer through a randomly arranged, single-screen dungeon, discovering monsters, treasure and new spells as they go. The goal is to level up and defeat the board’s boss. Exploration is key, as venturing to new tiles restores your health and mana. Success depends on carefully choosing when to use each of the tools at your disposal, from potions to prayer to one of the game’s demanding gods. Victory unlocks new classes and improves the quality of items in your next play, but also means new, more dangerous monsters show up in future runs. Most games end in death. Unlocking everything requires players to use a variety of classes, each of which has its own tactics. Individual games are short, but it’s easy to get hooked into seeing what the next playthrough will bring… A

eBoy FixPix

Creators: eBoy, Delicious Toys
Platform: iPhone
Price: $1.99
You don’t exactly play this iPhone toy from artist eBoy. The game fills the screen with a jumbled image taken from one of eBoy’s elaborate pixel tapestries, and you tilt the phone until all the pieces line up to form a coherent picture. It’s less a game than an experiment in a new medium that fits the artist. FixPix forces players to look closely at the details in the onscreen image, and peeling back the multiple layers of minuscule detail is the joy of an eBoy work. At the very least, by playing the game you can acquire a set of 100 sweet iPhone wallpapers: When you finish a level, tap on the image to dismiss the “Fixed!” message, then push the phone’s home and sleep/wake buttons at the same time. The screenshot will be saved to your camera roll for future use… B

8-Bit Girlfriend

Creator: Jaded Horizon
Platform: Xbox 360 (Xbox Live Arcade)
Price: $1
Most gamers who were around for the 8-bit generation have a shared nostalgia for anything passing itself off as homage to the 8-bit era, but 8-Bit Girlfriend makes a strong case for letting the old days go. Based on the web comic of the same name, Girlfriend claims to be a “comedy dating game” where Sir Knight valiantly tries to court four different women: a princess, an item-shop girl, a thief, and an elfin lass. But nothing about this game is funny, unless you think getting slapped with a game-over screen for not making the same jumps in logic the creator did is worth slapping your knees over. When the princess asks you what color her panties are, you lose when accidentally guessing correctly, and you also lose when intentionally guessing incorrectly. Be prepared to jot down all the right answers as you wind through each attempt to ask for a date, as every wrong guess dumps you back at the title screen. At least in the 8-bit era, games this frustrating were also challenging. Here, it’s just a series of mindless Microsoft Paint-produced still screens that punish any attempt at logic… F

Whale Of Noise

Creator: Increpare (Steven Lavelle)
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
From Ecco The Dolphin to Endless Ocean, something about an under-the-sea setting brings out the slow, contemplative side of game designers. This 10-minute game from indie mainstay Increpare follows a whale upward from murky ocean depths. The whale can learn new songs that cause its body to vibrate into different shapes, helping it squeeze through the tight rock formations that block the ascent to daylight. Created in a jiffy for TIGSource’s A Game By Its Cover competition, Whale Of Noise has a shallow first-draft quality that’s typical of indie-game jams—once you grasp the concept, there won’t be any more surprises. Yet it’s still a success as a soothing meditation of sorts, a simple palate-cleanser to take the edge off after a few hours of more frenzied games… B

Vegetable Game

Creator: Terry Cavanagh
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
If Whale Of Noise represents the simplest work that can come out of a game jam, Vegetable Game represents the stupidest. Created at the World Of Love independent developer conference—in a session with a suggested theme of “vegetables and hugs”—this game casts you as a brown bear in a fighting game where you can only defend yourself through aggressive hugging. Players take on evil challengers including John Wayne Gacy, Joseph Stalin, and Someone Who Plays Music On Their Phone At The Back Of The Bus, embracing them all into submission with the bear’s crude paws. The question for indie developers: Do these game jams advance worthwhile new ideas, or do they just make the medium seem more inconsequential and disposable? Vegetable Game’s answer: “Look, you can hug Hitler!” C+