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March 29, 2010

Digital: A Love Story
Creator: Christine Love
Platforms: Linux, Mac, PC
Price: Free
For some people, the squeaks, buzzes, and hisses of a dial-up modem negotiating a connection are irritating noise. For others—nerds who cut their teeth in the BBS days—that cacophony is the sound of anticipation. It's the latter group that is most likely to appreciate Digital, an interactive short story told through a faux-Amiga workstation from 1988. The Internet is in its nascent, pre-dot-com stages, a mostly empty frontier dotted with tiny outposts of activity. You gain access to those outposts only if a friend passes along the phone number that connects you to the sysop's PC, a convention that feels both archaic but also exclusive: Once you're in, you feel like you belong to something. The pre-global communities in Digital offer the thrill of the local, a sense that the relationships you form over sporadic bulletin-board posts and private messages are more real than the easy point-and-click connections of the Facebook era. Of course, your correspondents in the game are not people, they're pre-programmed bots, and Digital plays with that artifice. Your main love interest, Emilia, turns out to be even less "real" than the other characters, but the moving story raises the question of whether that matters… A

Creator: Anna Anthropy
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Begin Redder, in which you're a spaceman marooned on Mars (perhaps) seeking crystals with which to power your ship, and you'll think: "I got this." It seems to be a little Metroid, a little Montezuma's Revenge, some VVVVVV. Easy. And it is, for a while. Power crystals are hidden in a maze of rooms, the navigation of which requires jumping skills and the manipulation of colored switches to open new pathways. Liberally placed save/warp points prevent too much frustration from creeping in. Things may even seem too easy. But soon the environment begins to take a toll. This is first manifest in what appears to be a graphics glitch; in the corner of a room, one brick may flicker. But then the soothing looped music may scratch. Gather more crystals and things get oppressively weird. The narrative is kept at the level of implication: Is the spaceman faltering? Are the crystals harmfully radioactive? More important: Should you have grabbed only the bare minimum needed to get off that rock?… B+

Creator: Daniel Lutz
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $1.99
It sounds dull, but Colorbind—a puzzle game in which you drag colored strips of paper along the iPhone’s screen to cover their corresponding dots—can easily become an obsession in action. The earlier levels instill a certain “is this all there is?” cockiness, but that quickly gets shut down by later stages, even on the least formidable difficulty. Colorbind’s hitch is that while the other strips of paper can overlap each other, bending them to loop around different areas of the screen makes for an insurmountable roadblock. In other words, you have to plan several moves ahead, and if you turn on a dot, it doesn’t count as being covered. At the same time, Colorbind invites a lot of experimentation, and the end result of every level is something far prettier and eye-catching than all the cusses you’ll let loose just trying to get that yellow paper into that one goddamn spot… A

Bit Pilot
Creator: Zach Gage
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: 99 cents
In space, no one can hear you scream, but that doesn’t mean you can’t die terribly over and over again. Bit Pilot is an tough, unbeatable game in the style of old arcade games like Asteroids, in that it defies you to survive in a stretch of starfield being constantly bombarded by asteroids, lasers, and, uh, pills that serve as your only aid in staying alive. Bit Pilot’s simple graphics belie the atrocious challenge at hand. Likewise for the controls: You place each thumb on the iPhone’s two bottom corners and swipe to swerve and propel your pea-sized ship in the desired direction. Every 1,000 points bumps you up to a new level (indicated by a new background color) and a new set of obstacles. The obligatory inclusion of achievements, unlocked by amassing cumulative point totals across all your play session, means that every death is not in vain—although when you're blown to smithereens, the game does taunt you with quips such as “More like bits pilot.” Ouch… A

Extreme Gardening
Creator: Jan Willem Nijam
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Gardening is said to be one of the most beneficial ways of relaxing. You’re outside, methodically grooming some pretty little plants, and others can look on at the glories created by your green thumb. Fortunately, Extreme Gardening isn’t anywhere near that boring. The “extreme” part of this freeware puzzler doesn’t involve jetpack-clad azaleas shotgunning sports drinks, but instead refers to the breakneck pace at which you hack away at shrubberies. In 15 10-second levels, you’re asked to recreate increasingly contorted horticultural atrocities by working from an example that flashes on the screen for just a moment. Then the timer starts, and you hack away at the shrub in the desperate hope that you can come close to the "ideal" topiary. It’s about as simple as a game can get, but the focus on frenzied precision works. At some point, though, if the beatboxing soundtrack doesn’t get to you, your own inability to reasonably recreate a serpent from a bush will… B

I Was Hungry But There Were Cannons
Creator: Armor Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
A vertical puzzle game with a sense of humor, I Was Hungry But There Were Cannons takes a classy 8-bit blob (he wears a top hat, and the background music is saloon-era ragtime) and tasks him to eat hamburgers (noms). Eating the target amount allows him to tip a scale, thus opening the door to each level's exit. Navigation gets trickier once spikes, color-coded switches, and those pesky cannons get in the way; and when your character bites the bullet, he explodes into pixels, leaving only his lonely top hat behind. It's difficult to maneuver the blob once he's in the air, so expect many premature deaths. But when they're followed by the character's comic groans and an "Oh, I'm dead," the chuckle makes up for the transport back to the start point. Just try to get that piano music out of your head… B+

Jetpack Jackass
Creator: This Is Pop
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Jetpack Jackass is an unabashed ripoff of the iPhone hit Doodle Jump, but at least it's a well-executed theft, more fun than the original if not as enduring. Instead of a jumping doodlebug, you play a moron with a homemade jetpack, trying to reach the moon and prove to his homely lover that he's worth something. The rocketbelt is somewhat lacking in pep, so as players make their vertical journey, they'll have to pilot the jet-powered schmuck toward incendiary boosters like gas cans, hot-air balloons, and exploding communications satellites. Miss a jump, and it's game over. Using the mouse to steer proves easier than the tilt sensor on an iPhone. Jetpack Jackass challenges players in a different way, though, by assaulting them with an endless loop of Joe Esposito's "You're The Best"… B+

Line Simulator
Creator: Devilish Laugh Studios
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Because games will never run out of "meta" premises, Line Simulator takes place outside a Best Buy in a queue of dorks waiting to buy the new PlayStation 4. Your protagonist is eighth in line, and you're tasked with pointing-and-clicking your way to the front. That quest involves a surprising amount of vomit and blood—the game's sense of humor doesn't employ a subtle touch. And while most of the puzzles are pretty straightforward click-on-item-click-on-enemy affairs, it is amusing to ditch the politeness of single-file monotony and take matters into your own hands. For anyone who's ever spent an embarrassingly long time in line for a game/movie/Harry Potter launch, Line Simulator provides a bit of catharsis… B-

PandaMania: Legend of the Fu Manchu
Creator: FizzPow Games
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $1.99
So many tower-defense games are available on the iPhone for free that it’s hard to shell out even two bucks for yet another one unless it's truly exceptional, and PandaMania: Legend of the Fu Manchu is not. The game follows a panda archer protecting towers as part of his quest to recover his stolen Fu Manchu mustache. Players use the touch screen to plot the trajectory of his arrows, determining their angle and power as he fires onto waves of attacking forces. As the pace quickens, you no longer have time to line up shots, forced to simply fire as much as possible to keep from being overwhelmed by enemies. Upgrading the damage of your arrows is a must, but this requires a lot of backtracking and grinding. Boss fights are an especially disappointing slog, a test of patience as you wait for a narrow window of opportunity to hit a vulnerable spot… C

Creator: Gamedoctors
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $1.99
The premise of ZombieSmash: the undead are attacking a boarded-up house, and it's your job to keep them at bay. Doing so requires quick, upward finger flicks on the iPhone's screen. With a swipe of the index finger, the encroaching zombie is airborne. You have two choices at this juncture: You can either let gravity take hold, or you can swipe downward on the screen, sending the zombie smashing back to earth. ZombieSmash is yet another entry in the castle-defense category, which is in danger of becoming the most irritating new genre since the advent of mini-game collections. The problem with castle defense is that the games always devolve into high-speed finger-swiping chaos, which is exactly what happens here. After a couple of well-paced opening levels, the difficulty level ramps up quickly. Zombies begin attacking from the left and right side of the screen. So much finger-swiping takes place that bystanders will think you're attempting to scratch a hole clear through your iPhone. The final outrage: The developers have the nerve to encourage gamers to use both thumbs to perform those dual swipes. Hold your thumbs in front of you, pretend you're swiping upward over and over again, and you'll have a sense of how well this actually works… C+

Don't Shit Your Pants
Creator: Rete
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Survival horror staples like zombies, giant spiders, and obtuse puzzles seem childish when compared with a horror we live with each day: the impending threat of filling one's pants with your own feces. Don't Shit Your Pants opens with a bald man standing in his undershirt and pajama bottoms outside a closed door. The opening line, "You really need to take a shit…," joins Zork's classic "west of a white house" line in the pantheon of gaming's great first lines. Via typed instructions—for example, "remove pants"—various crap-related achievements can be discovered. The charm of the production comes from the 8-bit era graphics, MIDI keyboard soundtrack, and the ineffable poetry found in lines like, "You couldn't hold it anymore, you just shit your pants! Game over!" Don't Shit Your Pants is a brief, crude survival-horror game that will elicit laughs from anyone still capable of appreciating a quality shit joke, and it stands firm as a digital companion piece to Everybody Poops. A