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June 7, 2010

Human Centipede: The Game
Creator: I-Mockery, Rainbow Cemetery
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
How the major studios missed out on a surefire licensing opportunity like The Human Centipede (First Sequence) is anybody's guess, but their loss is indie developers' gain. The Flash-game version of the bizarre horror film is a one-note gag, loosely translating the movie's plot into the format of the arcade classic Centipede. Chains of humans bound mouth-to-anus weave their way down the screen as you, Dr. Heiter, attempt to gun down your misbegotten experimental subjects. In an odd way, the logic of Human Centipede holds together better than both the film and the game that inspired it. But this isn't about logic; it's about getting a rise from the audience on the basis of one stupid concept. Which makes it the perfect adaptation... C-

Breaking Bad: The Interrogation
Creator: AMC
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Breaking Bad's Hank Schrader is, generally speaking, a boor, which makes the glimpses of his occasional bad-assery all the more rewarding. Breaking Bad: The Interrogation offers a chance to watch Hank at his intimidating best, as players navigate conversation trees in an attempt to pump Hadley Berkitz for information on a church fire that revealed a cache of cartel weaponry. Take too long or play too rough, though, and Hadley will lose his patience and leave, or worse, he'll lawyer up with a slightly hideous, gun-hands-throwing Saul Goodman. The game takes place in the slightly clunky netherworld of the "motion comic." Think Marvel's semi-satisfying Spider-Woman entry, with its shifting backgrounds and limited animation, but sans voiceover, and with most of the motion relegated to cutscenes. Steve Ellis' art is nice enough, with scratchy line-work and a static overlay to reproduce the artifacts and "noise" of television. But the interactive element feels a little flimsy: Conversation options are laid out in Mass Effect fashion, letting Hank play both sides of the good-cop, bad-cop dynamic until he finally seizes on a contradiction in Berkitz's story with the classic, "But how would you know about [blank] if you were busy doing [blank]?" Hadley falls into the trap, certainly, but players have little to do with it... C+

Wallace & Gromit: Sprocket Rocket
Creator: Aardman Animations
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
"I think it's fair to say that intellectual property isn't the most entertaining subject," says Lawrence Smith-Higgins of the United Kingdom's Intellectual Property Office. He's right! "But," he adds, "if you put that with... Wallace & Gromit, then you've got the basis of getting that message out to a huge audience! Potentially." That's the inspiration behind Wallace & Gromit: Sprocket Rocket, a puzzle game designed to breed a new generation of British inventors in a way that the American Fantastic Contraption apparently couldn't. You pilot a round orange rocket ship in search of small cogs that have tumbled to different corners of a sprawling factory. To reach the cogs, extend your ship with custom-made tools that extend from the craft's belly. Those tools are nothing fancy—just shapes you draw on a grid—but the fact that you can sketch practically any form gives the system enough versatility to make up for its simplicity. Of course, draw-it-yourself physics games are nothing special; what propels Sprocket Rocket above the pack is that it challenges the player in such myriad unexpected ways—no single approach is likely to work more than once. And as you play, you'll learn so, so much about the United Kingdom Intellectual Property Office. Two birds... B+

Truckers Delight: Episode 1
Creator: Mobigame
Platform: iPhone
Price: $2.99
After the dot-com bubble burst, the challenge for many popular Internet sites has been tricking users into paying for what they've already been enjoying for free. The latest contender is Truckers Delight: Episode 1, an adaptation of a viral music video for Flairs' "Truckers Delight" that's amassed more than 1.5 million views for the French band on YouTube. More accurately, it's the first installment of a series that will apparently be dished out piecemeal, according to this OutRun homage's title. It isn't a stretch that the song has made the leap to a game, since the profane video—about a lonely trucker and the lengths he'll go to corner a buxom blonde—is presented like a series of mini-games, complete with power-ups. In execution, though, Episode 1 is flat. After a short cutscene culled from the music video, you'll face more and more lanes of traffic that keep you from ramming the woman's red convertible. Worse yet, there are unforgiving 30-second time limits for every checkpoint. That's the entire game. Hopefully this isn't the first wave of viral-video-to-game adaptations, tempting as it might be to pay to play Spaghetti Cat: The Game... C-

Creator: Gabob
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Word nerds who thrive under pressure should addict themselves to Clockwords, a browser-based game that applies the word-making mechanic of Scrabble to a tower-defense-style combat game. The player constructs words using letters of unequal value: R and S are small-bore, while a Q does serious damage. You can use any word in the dictionary—for extra points, you can use the dictionary.com word of the day—but you'll have to think fast to stop a series of steampunk spiders from invading your base; your carefully crafted "remunerate" and "callipygous" shrink to a stream of "toe"s and "not"s as the enemy creeps closer. The spiders get tougher with every level, and they can be hard to monitor while you're focused on the letters at the bottom of the screen. While you can aim the cannon by hand, you probably won't want the distraction. But the dictionary is exhaustive, and over time, you can earn new letters or upgrade the power of the ones you have, giving longevity to a simple concept... A-

Pixel Legions
Creator: Pixelante
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The easiest way to portray battle on a massive scale is to make the soldiers as tiny and simplistic as possible. Darwinia used stick figures, Galcon went with triangles, and now Pixel Legions has you command an army of, yes, pixels. It's not so much about the soldiers, though, as the arena, for the battlefields of Legions are constructed with ingenuity throughout. There's a touch of wit, too: One early stage, "The King Is Dead," puts an enemy stronghold amid conveyer belts that constantly push your attackers out, and the next level, "Long Live The King," puts you in that central spot—except this time, the conveyer belts face in. While the tip sheet correctly notes that flanking tactics are always crucial, larger strategy decisions are up to you. Most challenges will yield to a variety of approaches; the trouble is finding even one that works. The game suffers a bit when it stretches beyond the bounds of its tiny onscreen box, and tedious scrolling becomes necessary. Even with pixels as its protagonists, Legions would benefit from a larger canvas... B+

Breath Of Death VII: The Beginning
Creator: RainbowDespair
Platforms: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Price: $1
If you cut your teeth on RPGs on the original NES back in the '80s, you're old, and everybody's sick of hearing you whine about how they don't make turn-based fantasy games like they used to. Breath Of Death VII: The Beginning, an XBLA indie RPG, should change your tune for a good four to six hours, though: A winking homage/parody of games like Dragon Warrior and the whole 8-bit era at large, Breath mocks everything from the ellipse-spouting protagonist to towns foolishly settled in an area landlocked by high-level monsters. Endearing as it might be, Breath is also dependent on the annoying tropes it satirizes, like random battles and level-grinding. There are some welcome innovations, such as a random-battle counter that lets you know exactly how many more chance encounters remain in a given area, and branching stat-distribution options when you level up. Were Breath any longer (or any less funny), it would risk falling victim too much to what it sends up. But at its concise length, it's more of an interactive mash note to the countless epic quests in faraway lands that demanded you load up on potions... B+

Art Style: Light Trax
Creator: Skip Ltd.
Platform: WiiWare
Price: $6
Nintendo does not trade in cool. Their games are notorious for cartoon cheeriness; accessible, considered play; and a silly sense of humor. You might get away with calling WarioWare hip, with its Dadaist vignettes and outré presentation, but you wouldn't take it to the club. Art Style: Light Trax, on the other hand, is cool as a cucumber that can breakdance. The latest in the Art Style series is a perfect minimalist blend. Its only visuals are black backgrounds and starkly colored lines, its soundtrack a collection of thumping beats that recalls Warp Records' best output. At its core, Light Trax is a racing game; you are one line trying to beat other lines on two-to-three-lap courses. What sets it apart is that your speed is dependent on proximity to the other lines, so the game becomes as much about quick decisions and risk assessment as about being the fastest. There are five Grands Prix, and four must be unlocked in Light Trax's Freeway mode, a time trial that sees you snaking your line along a Tron-ified Route 66. It's the coolest way to spend six bucks... A

Metal Torrent
Creator: Arika
Platform: DSiWare
Price: $5
Metal Torrent means its title literally. It isn't so much a game as it is a pulsating, flashing screen of polygonal metallic blocks flying all over the damn place for about 15 minutes straight. All the elements that typically distinguish a game where you control a tiny spaceship that shoots other spaceships are absent here. There are no memorable ship or enemy designs, no particularly interesting backgrounds, no intricate and devious patterns of bullets and baddies. You face the same five or six ships, look at the same background, and fight just one boss three times before the game ends. Your weapon never changes. You can, if you like, do it again with a ship that has a less powerful area attack. It's the videogame equivalent of a rattle, more or less: You shake it, it makes noise. There are hundreds, if not thousands, of shmups you can play for free on the Internet. Practically all of them are better than Metal Torrent... D

Johnny Deep
Creator: BGames
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Go down, get gold coins. Run out of air, buy more air tanks and scuba gear, go down again, get more coins. Avoid jellyfish, sharks, and landmines. Save gold coins, buy a harpoon gun, kill sharks and jellyfish. Watch the days go by. Johnny Deep doesn't have a whole lot going on, but in the grand tradition of games like Ski Free, there's a peculiar pleasure in doing one thing over and over again, trying to do it just a bit faster each time. Since it doesn't take more than five minutes (at the absolute max) to play, there's no guilt over wasted time. A word of warning, though: Turn off the sound. The 30-second loop of butt-rock that plays as soon as the game loads up is hellishly grating. It's like having to listen to a 1995 Road Rules commercial forever... B-

Give Up, Robot
Creator: Matt Makes Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
It is a scientific fact that grappling hooks are the single awesomest thing to build a videogame around. It isn't enough to just have a grappling hook in your game; the play has to focus entirely around using the grappling hook in interesting ways. Give Up, Robot has a funny wisp of a story, hazy and bright pixel graphics, and a swell chiptune soundtrack, but what makes it is the grappling-hook platforming. There are 50 stages in the game's normal mode, and 11 in an unlockable hard mode, but the normal levels get very difficult very quickly. By the ninth stage, you're grappling onto blocks floating in midair that will kill you if your body touches them. It can be frustrating, but when you nail a sequence of tricky grapples and walk through to the next stage, the satisfaction is immense. The save feature also ensures that you can pick up where you leave off when you've had enough swearing at your monitor... B+

Creator: Arthur "Mr. Podunkian" Lee
Platform: PC
Price: Free
A frowning green face in the lower right corner of the screen keeps track of player deaths in Streemerz, an indie remake of the Action 52 NES game. Be warned: That counter is going to climb to embarrassing heights before Super Joe manages his escape from Master Y's fortress. Using an off-brand Bionic-Commando grappling hook called a streamer, players navigate through demanding levels populated by clowns, jet-flames, and "Master Y's balls," which Joe is urged "not to touch" in the game's intentionally mangled dialogue. The graphics and music strike the right tone of garishness and charm, and players who spend much time in the indie-developer community will recognize some familiar names. After Joe plants a bomb in the CPU and the complex begins to depressurize, the already difficult game becomes almost amusingly hard, with each new room introducing a disheartening mix of flying objects and deadly surfaces, all of which kill Super Joe on contact. Fortunately, the game's goofy, infectious humor blunts some of the inevitable frustration... B

Talesworth Adventure: Quest For The Dragon's Hoard
Creator: Sean Gailey
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The tongue-in-cheek puzzler Talesworth Adventure: Quest For The Dragon's Hoard doesn't bear much resemblance to its glitzier strategy-game brother, Talesworth Arena. Instead of character classes and skill-building, Adventure asks players to guide dim-witted hero Questy through blocky, primitive mazes by forcing him through one-way doors and tempting him with sacks of gold, which dictate the direction Questy will turn at a crossroads. Early tutorial levels can drag, as pressure plates, trolls, and gates are slowly introduced to mazes that could be solved by accident—and often are. But there's a mildly enjoyable game hidden underneath the ugly graphics, and as the difficulty ramps up in later levels, players are required to devote a couple minutes of careful thought (along with a few flailing test runs) to coax Questy through the exit. Those patient enough to continue playing past the noob stages are rewarded with frustration and satisfaction in equal measure... C

Robot Wants Puppy
Creator: Hamumu Software
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Apparently the desires of blocky, retro robots are as insatiable as those of their human counterparts. In last year's Robot Wants Kitty, players built a repertoire of basic platforming moves before finally rescuing the titular feline; now, the titular robot has to rescue a puppy as well. The gameplay remains much the same, although instead of upgrading the robot, players will learn to incorporate Kitty into their running-and-gunning, by launching it claws-first at hapless one-eyed aliens, or using its tail as a propeller to access new abilities, like double-jumping. Minor headaches from the previous entry, like a lack of checkpoints, are remedied here, and some oversized bosses break up the action nicely. The graphics have been given a slight nudge toward the cutesy end of the spectrum, but many of the enemies are recycled, and if the game's claustrophobic mazes and rhythms of trial-and-error didn't appeal before, there won't be much here to entice players into assisting Robot on its ill-fated quest. Still, for fans of back-to-the-basics platforming, Robot Wants Puppy is a short, well-constructed game that's slightly more forgiving and slightly more polished than its predecessor... B+

Creator: Likwid
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The most impressive thing about Castaway is how much content the browser game offers. Players control a boy who washes up on an island and gets enlisted to help the locals by fighting off monsters and reactivating a set of magical generators. There are dozens of quests, six zones, and a full slate of weapons, armor, and accessories, providing hours of play for any old-school RPG enthusiasts. The game is viciously hard. Taking on a monster even a level higher than your character can prove lethal, and money and healing are highly limited resources. Unfortunately, it's also repetitive, with monsters constantly recycled: "sand beetles" turn into "grassland beetles," for instance. But worse sins have been committed by DS games that cost $30... B-

Ninjatown: Trees Of Doom!
Creator: Venan Entertainment
Platform: iPhone
Price: $1.99
Ninjatown: Trees Of Doom! is an ideal iPhone game. It makes excellent use of the touchscreen, requiring a mix of timing, aim, and fast thinking as players control a little ninja climbing a pair of trees as high as he can. Even a good attempt rarely lasts more than a few minutes. While the challenges always get harder the further you climb, the nature changes from play to play, so you'll never get stuck on one particular obstacle. If you have a hard time timing your shimmies to avoid patrolling demons, you might have better luck next time, when the earlier trials involve aiming jumps to avoid deadly goo. Goofy elements like riding on a floating cartoony mustache keep things feeling light and low-stakes... A-

Creator: Mobigame
Platform: iPhone
Price: $2.99
It's hard to believe the innocent-looking Edge ended up in the crosshairs of a turbulent legal battle when it was originally released on the iTunes store back in late 2008. The ensuing blog posts and folderol that resulted every time the game appeared and disappeared from the store overshadowed the game, and the furor spread hype for something no one could play. Here's the quick lowdown: Another developer, which hadn't released a game since 1994, claimed to have a trademark on the word "edge," and Apple somehow allowed that silliness to carry sway. Fast-forward to mid-2010, and Edge is finally on sale for good. A hybrid 3-D isometric platform/puzzler, Edge is simple. You're a sticky cube, and you must navigate each level to get to the endpoint. That's easy enough at first, but later stages require mastery of techniques like clinging to the edge of moving obstacles. Any other wrinkles in the formula are unfortunately telegraphed with hologram tutorials. While not much changes throughout the 43 levels, Edge's straightforward approach and charm make for a compelling experience—not necessarily one worth waiting for since 2008, but solid nonetheless. B+