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June 27, 2011

George Plimpton’s Video Falconry
Creator: Tom Fulp
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
In the vein of other phony finds like The Great Gatsby for NES, George Plimpton’s Video Falconry fleshes out a nerd-tastic joke with retrofitted graphics, winking gags, and a just-shy-of-convincing backstory. Shameless Malört shill John Hodgman essentially summoned the game into existence during an episode of his podcast Judge John Hodgman; all that remained was for Tom Fulp to actually develop it. Plugging the Paris Review founder into a Colecovision title isn’t actually much of a stretch, considering that Plimpton regularly pimped Mattel’s Intellivision, and the smokescreen is made even thicker by this excellent promo spot. The gameplay itself is obviously of secondary importance to Falconry’s This-Actually-Exists appeal, so the main levels, where players fly slow circuits around a field while adjusting their yaw and pitch, are something of a snooze. The bonus stages are where the game really takes off, though, as players race to edit a Philip Roth manuscript, or pilot the Newgrounds tank through World War II Italy… B+

Continuity 2: The Continuation

Creator: Ragtime Games
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Reviewed on: iPhone
Price: $0.99
For the first dozen or so levels, Continuity 2 plays much like the original game, a student project that won a few awards and surprised its creators with its popularity. (The A.V. Club reviewed Continuity in this feature last January.) The brilliant premise remains the same: The levels of the game are painted across sliding tiles, which you can (and must) rearrange to change the terrain and find a path to the exit. The iPhone update brings some familiar bells and whistles, such as checkpoints and achievements for completing a level quickly. But the game also offers surprises that are too good to hint at here, so suffice it to say that the ingenuity of Continuity was no fluke, and the sequel has its fair share of “Aha!” moments… A-

The Adventures Of Red

Creators: Rob Donkin and John Donkin
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Poor Red. The strange yellow creature just wants the free muffin he was promised, but to get it, he has to navigate a vast, puzzle-filled castle. Solving the point-and-click riddles gives you color-coordinated keys to unlock more rooms. The first challenge is often figuring out how you’re supposed to proceed when, say, you’re shown a tapestry of dots and lines, or you’re staring at two pictures accompanied by the line “Five is a lucky number.” At other times, it’s easy to intuit that you need to light all the torches or move rings around, but actually figuring out the steps is tricky. The riddles are challenging, but rarely exasperating. It’s hard to get too annoyed when Red is there to entertain you while you work, by playing music, juggling, or just looking cute in one of the many hats hidden throughout the castle… A-


Creator: Thomas Brush
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
There’s nothing more endearing than a sad robot. Skinny is a melancholy robot; close enough. Skinny’s eponymous game opens with him enjoying an idyllic sunset at the beach, but as you proceed, a dystopian reality peeks through. Skinny has to gather batteries and upgrade his capabilities, but there’s a sinister edge to the technology in this game. Completed quests and new gadgetry don’t feel so much like cause for celebration, but they do offer new insights into the truth behind this strange world, dominated by an omnipresent mother. (It does seem that these sad robots always have mommy issues—cf. K.O.L.M.) The atmospheric visuals bear traces of Limbo and the silhouette levels from Donkey Kong Country, and the similarly entrancing music makes it easier to ignore the somewhat loosey-goosey controls… B+

Froggish Swimmer

Creators: Ludosity Interactive and Remar Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Few people have done more to promote the cause of having fun on the Internet than the team behind Flixel, a free, open-source development library for independent game makers. After Danny Caranowsky and Flixel creator Adam Saltsman used it to build Canabalt—one of the most influential, successful indie games ever—the library gained an instant cachet. Froggish Swimmer isn’t the best Flixel game out there, but it does have the crisp movement and bright visuals that are a signature of games developed using the toolset. You play as a frog-like entity plumbing the depths of aquatic caverns, sort of like the underwater level from the NES Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles game, except without the crushing desire to murder the human beings responsible for creating it. The controls are simple: Click to jump. The object is to make it through the challenges with as few clicks as possible, a clever conceit that livens up what would otherwise be a fairly humdrum platformer. Oh, and as with The Adventures Of Red, there are funny hats… B

Dibbles: For The Greater Good

Creator: thePodge
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Slavishly loyal to the crown and willing to sacrifice their lives without hesitation, the antennaed heroes of Dibble: For The Greater Good aren’t exactly inspiring, but they do boast a Lemmings-like single-mindedness. As in that game, Dibbles can be converted into various useful forms—from bridges to drill-bits—with the ultimate aim of getting the head Dibble from mushroom-house A to mushroom-house B. Unlike in Lemmings, players click on the location where they want a transformation to take place, not the Dibble itself. It’s a welcome change that makes the game’s 33 relatively easy, single-room stages even simpler to navigate. While the difficulty never ramps up very high, the gruesomeness with which Dibbles dispatch themselves does: In the early stages, one will transform to stone to turn her comrades around. Later on, she’ll smash herself into a sticky paste to provide a leg-up over a wall. The graphics and sound could use some more polish, but with its handy fast-forward feature, brisk pacing, and harshly utilitarian worldview, Dibble is as charming as it is disturbing… B-

3D Classics: Excitebike

Creator: Nintendo
Platform: Nintendo 3DS
Price: Free (until July 7)
The first of Nintendo’s “3D Classics”—retro games given a quick and dirty three-dimensional facelift for the Nintendo 3DS—also happens to be one of the company’s first videogames. Excitebike isn’t regularly cited as one of Shigeru Miyamoto’s masterpieces, but like Duck Hunt and other early NES works, it is remembered fondly. That fondness is well earned—even 27 years after the fact, the simple but challenging motocross racing is pleasing. There are five courses, including a qualifying course to acclimate you to the vagaries of speed management and bike positioning. Two modes allow for either solo races or competition with AI riders. Excitebike also beat Mod Nation Racers to the racecourse-creation mode by a quarter of a century, and in this refresh, you can save up to 32 tracks. The 3-D is interesting, giving the pixel graphics a diorama-like veneer, but it isn’t exactly a wild improvement. Nintendo is already touting how cheap and easy it is to convert games in this style, but it’d be nice if they souped up these 3-D classics with a few more features… B+

Goin Up

Creators: Komix (Florian Himsl), Gonzossm, Gamma Method
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
No one would have guessed just how influential Ice Climber, the old vertical platformer for the NES, would be in the age of Flash and the iPhone. Yet here’s the world of 2011, glutted with games that ask players to jump up and up a vertical chasm as high as they can. Goin Up at least distinguishes itself from your average Doodle Jump-inspired Ice Climber descendant with a nice, blobby art style. As a deformed demon named Roofus, you jump up the chasm, popping goombas and flying fish to get height as you go. Hitting bombs gives you a boost, and landing on a baddie gives you skulls. In turn, these skulls can be used to purchase upgrades, such as an improved wall-jump and more powerful boost, or new characters, like Plunger and the shotgun-toting Turtle. It’s pretty and basic but unreasonably difficult at first, as both the mouse and keyboard controls lack precision… B-

Dinosaur Zookeeper

Creator: Not-Vlambeer
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Much as in Jurassic Park, your zoo in Dinosaur Zookeeper is doomed to fail. Unfortunately, the game doesn’t make fighting to stop the chaos or watching it unfold fun. Each night, you get new dinosaurs, and you must build enclosures to keep them from rampaging and eating other dinosaurs—not to mention your guests, who are such tiny morsels that they can barely be seen on the screen. You only get a few lines of text about each animal to tell you about their special needs, such as the stegosaurus’ innate hatred of triceratops. After that, you’re left to trial and error to figure out the realities of dino husbandry. Did you know that raptors explode when they come in contact with an electric fence? They do. Poor controls make it tough to clean up the inevitable messes. And there’s no way to erase a fence if you make a mistake, or move escaped dinosaurs after all the guests have left, meaning sometimes it’s inevitable that as soon as the park opens, the rampage will ensue and end your game… D


Creator: Smuttlewerk Interactive
Platform: iPad
Price: $4.99
The intention behind Companions is noble: Guide four customizable characters through dungeons, slaying skeletons and uncovering hidden treasure. It should be like Gauntlet++, especially considering the touch controls of the iPad. But Companions is a victim of self-sabotage. Those touch controls simply don’t work at times. Tap your character all you want, but it’s unlikely you’ll select the right person, or move them to where you’d like them to be. Your fighters are supposed to attack enemies automatically when they come within your range, but unless they’re facing the right direction, it won’t happen. Passing weapons between characters involves unnecessary tedium: You have to drop it on the ground, move out of the way, move the other character over the weapon, and pick it up—and since there’s no crossover between weapons and armor (even freakin’ rings), this process is necessary… often. Companions is a long game with a decent (albeit kinda vague) story, made even longer because its seemingly simple mechanics are impossible to get going… D+

Championship Manager Rivals

Creator: Jolt Online Gaming
Platform: Browser (Facebook)
Price: Free (with optional micro-transactions)
Surely the world should only expect two things from a Facebook adaptation of the wildly popular soccer-management sim Championship Manager: Facebook-style monetization, and simplification of the core mechanics. Both of those changes are present, although the latter is, if anything, too much of a success. As with other soccer-management games, you select your team, formation, and strategy, and see if it works. The game is cleverly monetized (or not) by forcing you to train your team after each match, which takes time—or not, if you want to pay. Unfortunately, Rivals doesn’t have much beyond that. There are no injuries, retirement, or even red cards, so once you have a working plan, there’s no reason to change it. To make it worse, it isn’t a realistic simulation, and for a “social game,” the inability to play in a league with your friends feels downright antisocial… C+

Empires & Allies

Creator: Zynga
Platform: Browser (Facebook)
Price: Free (with optional micro-transactions)
Empires & Allies has been treated as Zynga’s pitch for more “hardcore” gamers to take Facebook seriously. Designed by some of the people behind the classic Command & Conquer series, and with a war-based theme—albeit using toy soldiers—it seems to fulfill that goal. That is, until you get the first quest to plant X cornfields so the kids can play in a corn maze. So yes, it’s still a crop-planting-for-money Zynga game, but the addition of war, with units you build and lose in simplified combat, adds a marvelous new level to the experience. You don’t just share resources with your friends; you can invade them and take their gold. The game is also well-designed for the frugal gamer. If you have enough friends, you can do anything, though paying Zynga makes it go faster. Turns out that adding combat was exactly what social games needed… A-

Magic: The Gathering—Duels Of The Planeswalkers 2012

Creator: Stainless Games
Platforms: PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Reviewed on: PC
Price: PC, PlayStation 3—$9.99; Xbox 360—$10 (800 Microsoft points)
Players of the original Duels Of The Planeswalkers, a late-’90s Magic expansion pack, may be disappointed with its modern namesake. There’s no world map, no deck customization, and only the most cursory single-player campaign. The occasionally clunky interface and release history of this incarnation suggests that it was built for consoles and deliberately simplified. Still, the core mechanics of Magic: The Gathering are still here, refined and polished for over a decade, so Duels 2012 is still a good game. The narrow range of options actually strengthens the game in some respects, as each deck has its own specific play style and strengths, and they all seem balanced… B

RPG Shooter: Starwish

Creator: Anonymous D. Studios
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
A surprisingly palatable blend of side-scrolling shmup and space-opera RPG, Starwish is an epic tale of intergalactic piracy shrunk down to browser-window size. Players control Deuce, a standard-issue hunky pilot beset by waves of Federation forces outside the mothership and waves of female adulation inside it. The downtime between stages offers an opportunity to level up Deuce’s abilities, buy new weapons and modules, and move the primary and romantic plots forward through conversation. Mercifully, those talky, manga-fied cutscenes come with a “skip” button for when the strained banter gets to be groan-inducing. The action sequences, too, are thin and a bit repetitive, as diminutive enemies soften Deuce up with microscopic bullets before the inevitable gigantic boss encounter. While the individual elements aren’t strong, there’s enough variety and addictive leveling to make Starwish’s weird, photo-collage worlds worth visiting. B