June 6, 2011

Ambia
Creator: Ian Snyder
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Ambia is slightly reminiscent of old, old puzzle-action games like Adventures Of Lolo, only it replaces block-moving with gun-shooting—and the difficulty comes in figuring out the order in which you should blast enemies. Generally speaking, you want to kill everything you come across instantly, but it isn’t always that easy. Enemies hide behind blocks that only they can shoot through, and you have to cleverly navigate platforms to get a clear shot at their ugly mugs. Once you’ve eliminated all the enemies, a door unlocks, which lets you proceed to the next level. There are wrinkles to the formula, mainly in the form of power-ups which unpredictably change your gun. Not all power-ups are created equal, though. Lasers are great because they can shoot through the whole screen, and when leveled up, can go through walls. But items like the sword can be less desirable because of its extremely short range, and its perk of deflecting bullets is more often a liability. Even with a moody, procedurally generated soundtrack (read: new music every time), Ambia eventually wears a little thin in its repetition, but it’s still a fun ride until then… B+



Steamlands

Developer: Nitrome
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Steamlands is steampunk. Kind of. The game’s association with hacker culture isn’t so much about the concept of cool or technolibertarianism, but instead about an obsession with ornate construction and customization. You play an tank engineer on a vague quest for Queen Victoria, building a tank from scattered blocks of metal and guns you find along the way. The concept is appealing, but it’s betrayed by clunky controls. Yes, they fit the setting, but clicking on your engineer to aim him at what needs to be done is odd at first, and saps the game’s intensity later. Most everything about Steamlands is adorable and clever, except playing it… B-



Silly Sausage

Creator: Nitrome
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The pixel-art aesthetic is common among browser games to the point of cliché. With games like Steamlands and its latest, Silly Sausage, Nitrome has established itself as one of the leading purveyors of the look. But Nitrome games are distinguished by the fact that they’re often inspired not just by the look, but also by the innovative spirit of the early console generations. Silly Sausage fits right into a late-’80s/early-’90s mentality, but also feels new. It has traces of classics like Bubble Bobble and Snake without seeming like a facsimile of any one game. The star of Silly Sausage is a sausage dog with a Stretch Armstrong-esque ability to extend his torso to ridiculous lengths. Anchored to the wall, the dog can twist around corners to collect gems and snap back to normal size in a hurry to avoid enemies. The presentation is cute yet not cutesy, and the cartoonish humor of the impossibly rubbery dog doesn’t get old… A-



Samegame Fighter

Creator: Hojamaka Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
An intriguing mixture of turn-based combat mashed up into puzzles, Samegame Fighter has you face down nefarious enemies like goblins and giant spiders by carefully selecting icons like axes, swords, shields, and potions from a Columns-like grid. There is no correct order of attack; it’s a matter of maintaining your offense and defense depending on the enemy’s tactics. Axes are more aggressive, and therefore are more likely to miss; swords are more reliable but deal less damage. It sounds simple, and while the guiding concept is straightforward, Samegame Fighter is anything but. The difficulty takes a sharp uptick by level three, and by that point, it hardly feels frustrating because it’s so captivating. Who’d have thought something as routine as turn-based combat could be reinvented?… A



Tobe’s Hookshot Escape

Creator: Secret Base (Raymond Teo)
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The pixel-perfect caves give Tobe’s Hookshot Escape a superficial resemblance to Derek Yu’s beloved Spelunky, but unlike the fearless adventurer in Spelunky, Tobe craves sunlight. He wants out. The cruel reality is that he’ll never get there, as Escape’s cavern goes on forever, becoming harder to climb as it goes. To avoid death as the screen slowly scrolls upward, the kid must stay in the picture. His feeble jump isn’t enough to keep him from sliding off the bottom of the image into the abyss, so he’s brought a hookshot, which extends and grapples onto ledges that would otherwise be out of reach. The game creates new levels each time via procedural generation, which is far from new, but has become especially fashionable of late. It’s used here as an effective way to make each ascent feel like a fresh adventure, although players will notice certain arrangements being reused by the game’s cave-building algorithm. Peppered throughout the cave are a few gadgets, like double-jump boots, that can briefly enhance Tobe’s abilities, but Escape doesn’t overdo it, allowing players to focus on strategy and reflexes rather than gizmos… B+



Bumpy Road

Creator: Simogo
Platform: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Price: $2.99
Bumpy Road is primed to overtake ilomilo in the whimsy department. Like that Xbox Live Arcade game, Bumpy Road is about two companions who simply want to travel down the same path together. In this case, it’s an elderly couple in their blue jalopy, and you must help them reach their destination via randomly generated levels. How? By dragging your fingers across the screen to raise a bump in the road under their car, which appears to be stuck in neutral. Manipulating the bump allows the old folks to go careening over pits, speed up, or slow down. Though there are only two modes, they each focus on different skills and mechanics. The Evergreen Ride mode is more like a prototypical platforming level, with deadly water pits carving up the landscape with increasing regularity. Sunday Trip, which sounds more soothing, is actually more chaotic, as it depends on you quickly scooping up icons to keep gas in the tank. Such a simple game risks being hit-or-miss, but it excels at what it does… A-



Siegius

Creator: Juice-Tin
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Like a mini-Warcraft 2, Siegius tempers fantasy-based real-time strategy with the sad reality of economics. Those units have to be paid for somehow, so peasants are employed to mine gold just like knights or archers are employed to kick butt. But Seigius lacks a two-dimensional map to explore. Set up like countless quasi-RPGs before it, the game situates you on one side of a strip, and your enemy on the other. You send units toward the enemy camp whenever peasant-harvested resources allow it—the variety includes healers, heavy defenders, and other classic choices—trying to break through defenses and take down the opposing castle. There isn’t much different or new about Siegius; plus, even on basic levels, the AI is relentless (more Starcraft than Warcraft) and overwhelming in an instant. But whiel it’s a simple siege game, it’s a simple siege game done well: The graphics are playful and inviting, and level-ups, distributed to whatever unit type you prefer, at least offer some customization… B-



Help The Hero!

Creator: Antony Lavelle
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Games often perform the amazing feat of making mundane tasks compelling. Help The Hero! has its work cut out for it on that front, however, as it’s built around one of the most annoying components of gaming: inventory management. You play a helper for an RPG-style protagonist, following him around as he gains items, fitting them into his storage space, then equipping him properly for a big boss fight. Help The Hero! almost makes it work. By putting a timer on the task of arranging the hero’s burgeoning stash in a tiny space, Help The Hero! turns inventory management into a Tetris-like affair of getting the right things in the right places in the right time. But arbitrary boss fights and a lack of variety prevent it being much more than a fun concept… B-



Casey’s Contraptions

Creator: Snappy Touch
Platform: iPad
Price: $2.99
Puzzle games like Cut The Rope for the iDevices allow players to interact with a world operating under normal-ish rules of gravity and momentum. That makes sense, given that the entire screen is the controller, and your hands serve almost as an extension of the game. Casey’s Contraptions is another in this vein. Casey must accomplish some menial task—get a tennis ball in a basket, say—by constructing Rube Goldberg machines out of household items. Balloons are released into the air, knocking soccer balls down shelves and into books, which fall onto punching bags that knock a tennis ball into a basket. Building off already-constructed machines, the game removes a piece or two in each level, asking you to take on more ambitious construction projects. Luckily, the game allows as open-ended a solution as possible; on later levels, there’s rarely just one way to finish it off. Casey’s Contraptions creates a nifty little sandbox to play around in, and other than some overly childish touches (which seem out of place, given how complicated the game can be), it’s an excellent addition to the iPad game library, which grows more robust by the day… A-



Dofus: Battles

Creator: Ankama
Platforms: iPhone, iPad (“HD” version)
Reviewed on: iPad
Price: iPhone—$2.99; iPad—$5.99
Set up like a wave-based tower-defense game, Dofus: Battles tasks you with keeping enemy units away from your “dragon leader” by arranging fighters on a gridded Final Fantasy Tactics-like battlefield. There are only 12 types of fighter, all of which have their own strengths. There’s the warrior, who can swing a sword one square away. There’s the skeleton-rogue, who poisons nearby enemies. Then there’s a panda-thing that hurls what appear to be bottles of fire at whatever’s around. You’re allowed multiples of each, so long as you have enough crystals to pay for a unit. Characters level up and can be outfitted with weapons and armor, though funnily enough, even though there are only 12 unit types, there are a ton of accessories—daggers, shovels, necklaces, rags—and each is only a tiny bit different than the other. Battles can get repetitive. The grids only grow slightly in size, never really changing shape. Still, the mechanics of each character are different enough that constructing the ultimate army is a compelling pursuit… B+



Super Stickman Golf

Creator: Noodlecake Games
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Reviewed on: iPad
Price: Free
If you’re making a golf game for the iPhone and iPad, the most logical thing to do is to turn index-finger swipes into golf strokes. Super Stickman Golf takes a less-obvious approach. Instead of attempting to mimic the third-person perspective that golf sims almost always take, this game embraces a 2-D point of view. Stickman is located on one side of the screen, and the hole, complete with flag, is on the far side of the screen. Choose the angle of your shot via a pair of arrow keys, then use the power meter/“Go!” button to determine the force of your shot. Playful ball types, like Mulligans that permit do-overs and Sticky Balls that adhere to steep surfaces, are necessary to achieve par. Though the game is free, impatient types can use real-world cash to instantly unlock all 26 nine-hole courses. Super Stickman Golf is a no-nonsense hybrid of a platformer and a golf sim that manages to be the rare iOS game with staying power… A

99Bullets

Creator: EnjoyUp Games
Platform: Nintendo DSi
Price: $5 (500 Nintendo Points)
EnjoyUp Games hasn’t had it easy. The studio formed in 2005, and it has spent the past six years working on solid, small games—mostly for Nintendo’s handheld consoles—that are founded on traditional arcade principles. Those games have been mostly ignored. Previous titles like Chronos Twin and Little Red Riding Hood’s Zombie BBQ weren’t exactly revelations, but they were the work of yeomen steeped in the old school. So is 99Bullets, an all-too-brief effort that may be the group’s finest work. You are a small wireframe man with, yes, 99 bullets, tasked to shoot enemies as they fly around you in patterns. A familiar setup, but the hook is that these bullets are also your lives. Once you run out, your goose is cooked. Complicating matters is the win condition for each level. You have to achieve a specific score, and maximum points are awarded for never missing a shot, but points and available lives/bullets are taken away when you’re hit. It looks good, sounds good, and the execution is tight. It’s a shame that this one will also toil in the obscurity of the DSiWare store… B



Waterslide Inferno

Creator: This is Pop
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Sonic the Hedgehog 2 is a beloved classic, but it’s rare to hear anyone talking about how much they loved the game’s bonus stages. In these torturous side levels, you controlled Sonic as he ceaselessly ran down a tube. You viewed him from behind and had to help him avoid obstacles by circling the tube, sometimes going in a full circle into the air. Waterslide Inferno is all that, except you can’t go too far up the sides of the tube, lest you fall out and die. It’s a hateful thing. You are a small boy (rather than a hedgehog) plummeting down an endless waterslide fixed on an erupting volcano. Collect quarters to increase your points and water bottles to keep cool while avoiding open flames and burning citizens. (All these elements are randomly placed each time you play.) Unlike Sonic 2’s bonus stages, Inferno at least gives you warning when hard turns are coming up, but after the third checkpoint, fires are placed so tightly and the boy is moving so fast that survival becomes a matter of luck… C



Reimagine: The Game

Creator: Nutcase Nightmare (Nicklaus Liow)
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Reimagine: The Game is, on the surface, a culture blitz of most every meme and bit of pop ephemera from the past year or so, sandwiched into bizarre 30-second bursts. It manages to avoid Jason Friedberg and Aaron Seltzer-level shallowness by marrying its myriad references to clever, disorienting jumping challenges in constantly rotating stages. A Lady Gaga-themed level has you controlling a legless caricature of the pop star: You don the infamous meat dress and use the climb-the-wall play of Super Meat Boy to get through a level filled with buzzsaws. The sheer variety is impressive, in spite of the borrowed ideas. But the humor isn’t exactly pants-wettingly funny, the jumping isn’t so precise as to inspire a real sense of accomplishment, and the puzzles aren’t too severe… B



The I Of It

Creator: Gameshot.org
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
It sounds like the title of an obscure, challenging art game, but The I Of It could not be more approachable. After being abandoned by its companion “T,” the letter “I” from the word “it” sets off on a journey of danger and self-discovery. “I” can’t jump, but it can stretch itself and use its serifs to grab outcroppings and clumsily maneuver around the dangerous world. The best part of the game is the narrator, who not only provides heartfelt advice to the wayward letter—“Don’t touch the spikes, little ‘I’!”—but also voices the sound effects, all in a vaguely East European accent. It’s a charming game that’s clearly the expression of one man’s idiosyncratic vision, so it’s odd that the only author credit is “gameshot.org,” an anonymous, slapdash repository of browser games. B+

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