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June 28, 2010

Loved: A Short Story
Creator: Alexander Ocias
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
When Loved begins, it asks for your gender; whatever you say, it flatly contradicts you. If you ask for a tutorial when the game gives you the option, it retorts, "No, you don't deserve it." Alexander Ocias' short story is about basic cruelty, and what it lacks in subtlety, it makes up for with interesting aesthetic choices. The game gives you commands throughout—throw yourself on these spikes, do not touch the statue—and it gradually changes its presentation based on whether you obey. Rebel, and the environment is obscured by increasingly colorful blocks. Acquiesce, and the monochrome world is rendered in even more stark hues. The metamorphosis is open to interpretation. Is the game an abusive lover? A vicious pet owner? A "win" comes only if you obey every command. Loved is blunt, but not without merit... B

Kill Me!

Creator: Game Pirate
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
What Kill Me! lacks in original gameplay design—yes, it's yet another puzzle-platformer—it more than makes up for with its witty premise. The game stars Invincible Man, a masked superhero who is weary of eternal life and wants only to experience what he calls in his suicide note the "sweet relief" of death. It's up to you to guide him to his demise. The goal is to penetrate a top-secret government lab in search of X-12, a poison that will put Invincible Man down for good. Each level requires you to hurl Invincible Man onto spikes or from great heights—go ahead, he asked for it—and then to use the corpses left behind as stepping stones to reach the exit. Kill Me! never takes itself too seriously—unlike games like Braid or The Misadventures Of P.B. Winterbottom—or too lightly. Instead, it manages to find the sweet spot between mere diversion and portent... A

Creator: Locomalito
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Hydorah is both a selfless labor of love—its creator toiled on development for three years before releasing it as freeware—and the future subject of your frustrated profanity. The former makes the latter that much more forgivable in this homage to shoot-'em-ups like Gradius and R-Type, because although you'll inevitably snap your head and neck away from the screen when you die—and you will die—that toughness is what makes the game fun. Hydorah's years in the incubator have paid off; it feels as rich and nuanced as the series that inspired it. The Mr. Sulu-sounding vocoder voiceovers, unhelpful weapon descriptions ("powerful if hits enemies"), sparkly power-ups, and Zen-inducing barrage of bombs, lasers, and bullets serve to transport players back to the game's obvious source material. Although its harsh three-save limit is especially unforgiving, that's just one of a handful of ways Hydorah successfully excavates something that's been lost in the age of achievement points: an actual feeling of achievement when you finish a level... A

Creator: Mad Monkey Studio
Platform: Nintendo DSi
Price: $5 (500 Nintendo Points)
Few developers seeking to create a rich universe from a classic arcade template would choose Breakout as their starting point, which is what makes the success of AlphaBounce such a pleasant surprise. The block-breaking format somehow still has more to offer in this exploration-based RPG, where each section of the outer-space map is its own Arkanoid-type challenge. Somewhere amid the game's thousands of levels is Earth, and the mission is to find it. To aid in this hunt, your fleet of block-breaking paddles (inexplicably referred to as "envelopes") can be souped up with a huge number of upgrades you acquire along the way, each one boosting your capability to search or destroy. While the game gets off to a slow start, the map eventually opens up to reveal the staggering breadth of the AlphaBounce galaxy. There are even a few clever fixes to longstanding flaws in the format—for instance, when you've broken most of the blocks in a stage, your envelope acquires a laser cannon to prevent that exasperating scenario where you're desperately trying to bounce the ball toward that one... last... brick. On the iPhone, AlphaBounce would be a hit, so it's unfortunate that the title languishes in the wasteland of obscurity that is Nintendo's DSiWare store... B+

Don't Cross The Line
Creator: Jupiter/Aksys
Platform: DSiWare
Price: $2
Jupiter makes good games. The company's joint production with Square Enix, the adventure/fashion-trend simulator/coming-of-age story The World Ends With You, is one of the best DS games out there. The company's most enduring creation, however, is the Picross series. A more likeable version of Minesweeper, Picross lets you slowly excavate a picture from a grid of initially blank boxes. Don't Cross The Line features strengths from both of these Jupiter creations: the purity of Picross and the expert implementation of DS touchscreen controls from TWEWY. Each stage features pairs of colorful symbols and a number of barriers between them. You must draw a line between each symbol set without crossing the streams. If you fail, you get a horrible buzzing sound and the line retracts, killing your completion time and lowering your chance of earning a golden leaf. The game quickly becomes a logic challenge as well as a race against the clock, with the method for connecting two symbols becoming obtuse by the 10th puzzle. There are free games that scratch the same itch, but few are made with hands as delicate as Jupiter's... B+

Larry And The Gnomes
Creator: Jazza Studios
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The once-peaceful, cute gnomes have gone berserk, and it's up to the chosen one, Larry, to stop them. His quest in Larry And The Gnomes involves a spectacular amount of carnage, as he culls mobs of the little forest folk using anything from swords, hammers, and axes to the heads of his fallen foes. The comically gory game has excellent voice acting and absurd humor from characters like the clueless king and the patronizing wizard who sends Larry on his journey. It also provides a solid balance in difficulty. Destroying a swarm of armed gnomes is fun, but not particularly challenging. Boss fights are hard, though, requiring a strong grasp on timing, Larry's repertoire of moves, and often a little luck... A-

Exit Path
Creator: Armor Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Like many games to come out of the Armor studio, Exit Path is a pithy, straightforward adventure designed to be finished in one sitting. Yet it also features a session clock—another Armor Games signature—that invites players to return and shave a few minutes off their best times. The question is whether Exit Path's bleak world, tinged with Portal-esque wit, is worth a return visit. You're a prisoner trying to escape a nameless oppressor by way of a 30-level obstacle course peppered with lasers and giant buzzsaws (the preferred tools of nameless oppressors everywhere). Your special ability is Flow, a burst of speed you can unleash after building up a head of steam. The strange wrinkle is that Flow almost never needs to be invoked to complete the game—it's more of a tool for those second and third runs where you're racing against the clock. That would be a more defensible design choice if Exit Path didn't seem so ordinary on the first playthrough. Flow is such an enticing device that its irrelevance to the escape-from-hell quest amounts to a huge missed opportunity. In both single-player and multiplayer modes (where you race against others, if you can get the game's network alchemy to work), Exit Path has the feel of a first draft that could have used another pass... C+

Pix'n Love Rush
Creator: BulkyPix and Pastagames
Platform: iPhone
Price: $0.99
Pix'n Love Rush is a mash note to what have come to be called "old-school" platformers. While no single game is used as a sole reference point, Pix'n gets the spirit right by keeping it simple. The game has no story—aside from the intro screen with a winking kitty imploring you to "help me score to buy some cake"—and instead places all its emphasis on its simple-to-learn but tough-to-master running and jumping. Through 125 levels, all you'll do is collect plus signs, avoid minus signs, spit at bats, and protect bats with halos. That's it. Frankly, adding anything else to the streamlined game design would be akin to giving the Mona Lisa plastic surgery—it's fine as is. Through either five-minute or unlimited-time mode, Pix'n unloads a gush of endorphins to players' nostalgia gland by rewarding long streaks of plus-sign collecting with "upgrades" to the blocky graphics that emulate the Virtual Boy, Game & Watch, and even the unreleased holographic handheld Atari Cosmos. Regardless of what it looks like, Pix'n is deep enough to drain hours on the couch, but also casual enough to distract throughout an entire commute... A

Dinosaurs: Carnivore Hunter
Creator: Tatem Games
Platform: iPhone
Price: $4.99
Early on in the second Jurassic Park, big-shot game hunter Roland Tempo delivers this poignant dialogue: "All I want in exchange for my services is the right to hunt one of the tyrannosaurs. A male. Buck only. Why and how are my business." It's unlikely anyone watching really thought Tempo to be a good guy by any stretch of the imagination, but who wouldn't want to hunt dinosaurs in the modern era? Carnivores: Dinosaur Hunter, an iPhone update to a late-'90s PC title, lets you safely carry out this fantasy. This isn't Doom with dinosaurs: patience, cautiousness, and skillful planning are all necessary to bag one of the extinct beasts with modern weapons like sniper rifles and shotguns. Better weapons and different settings can be earned through successful hunts. You also have extremely limited ammo and no way to heal yourself, which means that unless you know what you're doing, you're more than likely to wind up being hunted yourself, uttering your last words to that cunning velociraptor: "Clever girl..." B

Blurst 2
Creator: 2Play Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
"Blurst" isn't an actual word in the English language, at least according to C. Montgomery Burns, but it is an appropriate title for 2Play's Flash game. While the name Blurst 2 is meant to onomatopoeically describe the game's shape-popping, it also works as a descriptor of what happens to your brain after a few minutes of play. There are two modes, action and classic, which respectively have you completing 20 stages with three "lives" and 25 stages you're supposed to finish as fast as possible. You are presented with an array of triangles, circles, and squares in various colors, and each stage has you popping certain kinds—only red triangles, say, or blue squares. Blurst 2 is as complex as an interactive banner ad at the outset, but after 10 rounds, it's mesmerizing. The stage parameters are worded confusingly (on purpose), and it becomes harder to focus on the task at hand, making a successful round that much more gratifying... B-

Shoot U!
Creator: Camel Games
Platform: Android
Price: Free for Lite version, $2.99 for full version
The Android Apps market is a barren realm, empty of creative games specific to the platform. Camel Games has been attempting to rectify that issue, but too many of its titles feel like pale rip-offs of games more popular on other platforms. Take, for example, Shoot U!, which is a pretty fun diversion on a Droid, but pales in comparison to its obvious influences. Everything about the game is slightly pandering, from the way the graphics style apes Crayon Physics to the fact that the little figures your cannon fires at the target are pandas, robots, zombies, and Spider-Man. (To be fair, in the full version, you can upload photos of your friends to be cannon fodder.) Shoot U! has a lot of problems common to the genre, particularly that it's far too easy (especially in the medium-difficulty stages) to solve a puzzle without having any idea how the task has been accomplished. In later levels, though, players are better able to see the string of events that lead to success. They just have to find a way to perfectly time them, walking the line between achievement and frustration... B

Creator: Your Infamous Harp
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Toilet humor and intentionally cruddy visuals aren't exactly rare in Flash games, but "random music RPG" Geo-Duck uses its crude tools in such a bizarre fashion that players may have a hard time looking away. You're a geoduck (a sort of giant clam) hopping through sewers and waterfalls to find musical weapons and other treasures. But these details are just a loose framework on which Geo-Duck hangs its tapestry of weirdness. A marine-biology-challenged clam asks for her pearl back, a seahorse priest gives you a Christ-adorned Jesus candle to measure your experience points, and you use a harp to shoot hippie flowers of death at black rats. And this is just in the first level, the sewer, before the increasingly odd journey ventures above ground and into the great enlightened beyond. Geo-Duck features clumsy controls and an erratic save system. It's obscene (definitely not to be played at work) and sometimes offensive. But it's aggressively unusual, and in this case, that's enough. (Plus, the music isn't bad.) B