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May 17, 2010

Super Mario Bros. Crossover
Creator: explodingRabbit
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Even clocking in at only eight bits, those old Nintendo characters were fully realized, as Super Mario Bros. Crossover demonstrates. This browser-based game is a re-imagining of the original Super Mario Bros. in which you can play as Mario or one of five other characters: Link, Samus, Mega Man, Simon, or Bill R. from Contra. Each has his/her own set of skills, some of which upgrade as you pick up mushrooms and fire flowers. Samus, for example, goes from short-range cannon to long-range to wave cannon—while the whole time, she can roll into a ball and drop bombs. Of course, each character also has drawbacks: Link has a sword and a boomerang, but lacks size and easy maneuverability. So you have to choose the best character to face each level (especially given that power-ups stay with them as they swap out), and the Super Mario Bros. strategy becomes richer, more nostalgia-laden, and packed with unexpected mystery. What happens when you fire the Mega Buster past the warp pipe to break hidden blocks? Nothing, but it sure is cool to see this beloved game and those beloved characters flipped on their heads… A

Enough Plumbers
Creator: Radix
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Bringing the trend of Mario clones to its logical conclusion, Enough Plumbers is a game where you create Mario clones. Every time your anonymous mustachioed Italian plumber collects a coin in this game, he spawns a duplicate of himself. In the first few levels, this means little more than the fun spectacle of watching an army of squat little dudes hop across the screen chirping “It’s-a me!” In short order, though, those clones become more useful as you enlist them to solve the game’s increasingly elaborate puzzles. You might need to send 10 fake Marios to stand on a switch while one heroic clone stays behind to cross the passage they’ve opened, or sacrifice a Mario with a leap into certain poison-mushroom death so he can spawn another clone in mid-air, who will then make it to safety. In any case, the hard part is splitting up those Marios. Whether you have one character onscreen or a dozen, they all respond to the same controller input. Like Super Mario Crossover, this is one Mario knockoff that manages to stand out from the crowd… A-

Linkin Park 8-Bit Rebellion
Creator: Artificial Life
Platforms: iPhone, iPad
Played On: iPhone
Price: $4.99
Bragging about owning an NES back in the day somehow has become the new “bragging about attending every clandestine show CBGB booked in the ’70s.” Even if it’s true, who really cares? So when the guys in nü-metal band Linkin Park—easy targets, sure—brag about being “total gamers” to add credence to their new iPhone game, it does nothing to obscure what it really is: a highly interactive marketing gimmick masquerading as a flimsy River City Ransom clone, and a lazy nod to every 8-bit cliché. Traversing seven different areas like SoHo and The Beach, you must hunt down the six members’ missing tracks to unveil the game’s true incentive for hardcore fans to play: the Rebellion-exclusive song “Blackbirds.” Along the way, you’ll be bombarded with tinny renditions of the gang’s other songs, repetitive combat and fetch-quests, and hiccup-laden load times. You’re always connected to the Internet while playing, so you can interact with other players, chat, add them to your in-game buddy list, or help other players navigate the insultingly easy quest. It’s enjoyable enough, but it becomes somewhat hard to digest when Rebellion has the gall to assign an irony-free mission where you must tear down subliminal advertisements scattered all across the city… C-

BigTree Defense
Creator: Burstyx Studio
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
BigTree Defense takes the tower-defense game to a weird place: Your towers are flowers, which you place on a tree seedling in order to fend off space bugs that are invading the stricken, polluted earth. Wait, don’t insects and flowers normally get along? Well, never mind. Point is, BigTree Defense adds a few nifty organic wrinkles to tower defense. For one thing, you choose how to construct your tree. Killing insects gains you water, which can be used to heal your tree or upgrade it with more branches. Branches can also be upgraded to permit more flowers, or more sub-branches. And branches can be manually angled outward for layered defense, or inward to pick off those pesky insects as they concentrate on your trunk. As a result, you can wind up with a slim, upright tree or a huge bushy one, depending on your design choices. Individual flower types can also be upgraded—though upgradability has to be purchased via victory points earned through attempting (not necessarily winning) levels, and you have to choose which plants to take into a battle, Plants Vs. Zombies-style, which leaves even more room for customization. All of which adds a lot of complexity to what could be mistaken for a simple game, given its clunky sprites and crude backgrounds. There are options in the play style, too: Play well, and you can typically wipe out all a level’s insects quickly, then move on to new levels. But miss just one, and it’ll leave the screen and eventually return healed up, and with some friends to join the fight. As a result, if you find a good balance—enough to keep attackers’ numbers down and keep your tree alive, while letting a few survivors escape to keep an attack wave going—you can literally play one level for hours, racking up astonishing numbers of victory points and gaining access to powerful plants. There’s none of the usual tower-defense maze-building in this game, but the myriad options may make gamers feel like they’re wandering through a maze themselves… A-

Creator: Eli Piilonen
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Ever since Portal, the idea of a crazy yet funny female-voiced computer has been all over indie games. Call it homage or rip-off, depending on whether you actually like any of those games, but either way, give credit to 2DArray’s Eli Piilonen for taking it a step further with Viricide, a visually simple retro shooter in which you’re helping one such crazy computer debug herself, so that she becomes increasingly self-aware—and increasingly morose about it. The story is melancholy and creepy at the same time, but it succeeds more on the basis of the game, in which you zip around the screen shooting glowing geometric viruses, collecting the bits that result when you destroy one, and using the bits to fund upgrades. The game isn’t too difficult, but it approaches manic at several points, thanks to the array of zooming baddies and the “one hit, you’re dead” philosophy. (Though you keep all bits collected on a level regardless of whether you die, so it’s worth suiciding in order to keep replaying the mid-range levels and buying the upgrades to make later levels easier.) The story progresses over 17 zippy, short-and-sweet levels, and the ending is actually pretty touching… A-

Little Stars For Little Wars
Creator: Maxim Karpenko
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The problem with Little Stars For Little Wars isn’t the concept, which has you spawning planetfuls of attackers to send against enemy worlds, which you absorb in order to turn them into breeding sites for more soldiers. The problem is that it doesn’t do enough with the genre to make it stand out past more visually appealing competitors like Phage Wars 2, Nanowar, and especially the adorable, ambitious Civilizations Wars. By contrast, Little Stars is a visually crude throwback that feels like a smarter version of an ’80s arcade game. But for experienced fans of this particular viral-command-and-conquer subgenre, it has one particular appeal: It’s actually hard. While the other games linked above let you free-form your attack strategies and take on any target at any time, Little Stars creates designated space lanes where your forces can travel, mandating specific strategies and requiring more thought and tougher choices. And the opponents are tough—even the supposedly passive blue civilization is pretty aggressive—which makes for a lot of scrambling. In spite of all the implied slaughter, Little Stars’ predecessors are cuddly by comparison… B

Warlords: Call To Arms
Creator: Ben Olding Games
Platforms: Browser, iPhone, iPad
Reviewed on: iPhone
Price: Browser—Free; iPhone—$1.99; iPad—$3.99
Strategy in the fantasy-based world-conquest game Warlords: Call To Arms takes a while to factor in; at first, the game simply asks you to make like Zapp Brannigan in Futurama and send “wave after wave of men” at your enemy. Your army is made up of units you purchase, each with different range and power (archers, swordsmen, giant trolls, etc.), who combine to help you break through enemy forces. If you can make more guys break through the front line than your opponent, you take over the territory. As your army grows, so too do the possibilities and requirements for stopping your enemy—for example, agile spearmen are great against archers; mounted spearmen, not so much. You still send wave after wave of men, but which men, and how often? Uninitiated players will be thankful for the slow-build complexity, while veterans will find the game changes little each time around—different playable races have different strengths and units, but the variety is slim. Game upgrades come often, though, so expect Warlords to grow in complexity… B+

Fishing Girl
Creator: Eric Woroshow
Platforms: Xbox 360 (XBLA)
Price: $1.00
Fishing games are tricky beasts, just as capable of being addictive and entrancing as they are infuriatingly banal. For every wonder like Sega Bass Fishing—there are few greater joys than hearing some squawking voice yell “FISH!” when you land a lunker—you have Twilight Princess’ mini-game buzzkill. Eric Woroshow’s Xbox Live Indie Games confection Fishing Girl is especially tricky, since it isn’t really a fishing game at all; it’s a love story. You are the titular girl, casting into a deep, diverse pool of exaggerated, brightly colored water-breathers. You have 10 minutes to catch as many as possible, raising your score, allowing you to spend points on lures to hook bigger fish and new rods for a farther cast. The win scenario comes when you get the legendary rod and reel in the island on the other side of the pool. The resulting payoff is cute and fun, and well worth the 80 Microsoft points… B

Zombie Panic In Wonderland
Creator: Akaoni
Platform: WiiWare
Price: $10
This game is filled with lies. It looks like a dense bundle of sweet clichés on the surface. A zombie outbreak in a stereotypically Japan-ified rendering of Wonderland blended with a touch of Oz, and populated by big-eyed, big-breasted gunslingers? An aiming mechanism that recalls Konami’s GI Joe Arcade? That sounds like just the kind of trash that satisfies to the core. Lies! First, Zombie Panic’s action is static. You can move your little manga proxy right and left, and even perform a lumbering dodge, but the depth of the game stages is an illusion, since you never move forward. Your weapon has all the oomph of a peashooter, and upgrades are distributed in such a miserly way as to render them useless as a core feature. Couple the weaksauce tools with the pushover undead, and you have a game that is decidedly not a panic… D

Sword & Poker
and Sword & Poker 2
Creator: GAIA
Platform: iPhone
Price: $1.99 each
Poker is a hard sell on the iPhone. Playing cards against a computer opponent gets old quickly, so online multiplayer is a must, but that rules out play on the subway or the plane—not to mention the fact that sometimes you aren’t feeling terribly social, which is why you’ve got your nose buried in your phone. Enter Sword & Poker, the best mobile poker game yet. It’s a simple RPG quest that plays out in a series of battles across green-felted card tables. Nine cards are dealt out in a 3-by-3 square, and on each turn, you or your opponent place two cards at the end of a row, column, or diagonal to complete a five-card hand. The better your hand, the higher the damage you inflict on your opponent, and naturally, whoever runs out of hit points first loses. Weapon and shield upgrades, spells, and special powers (like reordering the table cards by suit) add depth, but the basic task of calculating long-term strategies on the card grid proves surprisingly complex and engrossing on its own. The recent sequel, Sword & Poker 2, adds a few frills like rare “golden” monsters who must be defeated quickly, but it’s mostly more of the same. That isn’t a bad thing… A-

Time Paradox
Creator: Tadashi Tsushima
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
You don’t need a DeLorean to know that one of the basic tenets for successful time travel is to never cross paths with your past-you. Time Paradox reveals why: Past-you will go bat-shit insane from confusion, spin around, scream, and die—making it impossible for you to ever time-dash back in the first place. Unfortunately, you’re given little choice in this handful of mazes, which give you 30 seconds, a door, a key, and a time machine. Getting to the key and door within the time limit is impossible, so you’re forced to sidestep ethics and hop into the shiny gray tube. When you emerge, your previous actions begin unfolding exactly as you did them originally, forcing you to think much more strategically and work toward an easier exit path. It’s a deceptively straightforward premise that, even on the first level, proves anything but simple… B+

100 Rogues
Creator: Fusion Reactions
Platform: iPhone
Price: $4.99
100 Rogues is impossible. A turn-based dungeon-crawler in the vein of Diablo or Gauntlet, but with a greater sense of humor about itself, 100 Rogues dubiously asks players to bring back Satan’s head for an obviously bored, mysterious cabal that’s trying to get rid of you. To even get near the devil, you’ll have to descend multiple randomly generated levels with increasingly tougher enemies, distributing points along skill trees and keeping an eye out for fresh food so as not to die of starvation. A couple of drawbacks keep the addictive play sessions from being totally unencumbered, but the more dire among them include the game quitting unexpectedly on its own, and the controls conveniently crapping out whenever you’re surrounded by enemies. Fusion Reactions plans to integrate many more updates in the coming weeks, adding additional character classes, item shops, and other stuff that really should’ve been included at the outset, but what’s here already is a promising start to something players aren’t ever intended to finish… A-

World On Fire
Creator: Free Games Jungle
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Memory is the key to victory in World On Fire. Players must match tiles to enable and improve their attacks as they fight fiery creatures attempting to take over the world. The trick is to divide your time between making pairs and focusing on what’s going on at the top of the screen, keeping track of life totals and watching as ability bars fill up. Things get touch-and-go quickly as more tile varieties are introduced, making it harder to get matches. Suddenly, players are in danger of losing the game because their screen fills with tiles just as the bad guys start getting tougher. But it only really takes one “game over” to get a better hang of the techniques needed to win on a second go… B+

Love And Death: Bitten
Creator: PlayFirst
Platforms: PC, Mac
Played On: PC
Price: $6.99
It was only a matter of time before a game developer tried to capitalize on Twilight’s success. Love And Death: Bitten is a love story between Victoria, a particularly brave mortal girl, and Damon, a vampire. Fortunately, rather than just staring into each other’s eyes and mooning about forbidden love, the pair works in tandem to return Damon’s humanity and free him from the control of an evil witch. The game combines easy point-and-click adventure puzzles with insipid hidden-object searches. A few clever puzzles break from the mold: Some of the best involve retracing one character’s paths with the other. When both characters must get onto a roof, Damon uses his enhanced strength and agility but needs to steer clear of crosses, while the more demure Victoria needs to be resourceful but lacks supernatural restrictions. The simple task brings home the theme that they need to be a team, which sparks creative design in an otherwise lackluster game… C+

The House 2
Creator: SinthaiStudio
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The House 2 stretches the definition of “game” a bit, offering up a point-and-click (and click some more) sequel to the horror hit The House that relies more on pointer-finger endurance than brainpower. You’re a nameless, faceless hero investigating the home where a family committed suicide en masse. Your job is to randomly click on bloodstained Bibles and eerie family portraits until a corpse falls out of the shadows to deliver a few more nuggets of grisly, perfunctory exposition. But plot and puzzle-solving aren’t really the focus: The House 2 has whittled the horror genre down into a hyper-efficient scare machine, where even if the appearance of a Ring-esque little girl or a sink filling with blood sounds eye-rolling on paper, the chills are there as long as you’re willing to turn off your brain (and the lights) before you play. All in all, it’s more an experience than a game, but that doesn’t mean it would work just as well without clickable hotspots. Forcing players to set their own pace means they can never be exactly sure which click will trigger the next creepy lullaby or ghostly apparition… C+

Undead End
Creator: Armor Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
If you loved Left For Dead but wished it had been a sloppy Final Fight retread, then Armor Games’ Undead End is for you. Whether the suspiciously Boomer-like bile-slinging zombies are rip-off or homage is barely relevant. Undead End is concerned with delivering big, attractive zombie sprites to blow away, and the detailed side-scrolling backgrounds in which to do it. But wonky controls and ho-hum weaponry detract from some of the game’s spiffier environments, as you hack through ever-growing waves of the undead, waiting for one of them to cough up the key to the next board. Music is noticeably absent until a few stages in, effectively cultivating a sense of dread on the early enemy-free maps where you have nothing but your trusty Maglite to keep you company. Once the crowds of new-school “fast” zombies start to congregate, however, the game loses any menace it might have had, as it becomes clear that dying is easy enough to avoid, and doesn’t mean much more than restarting a level without power-ups. For careful players, an already short game will be over in a flash—which is probably a good thing… C-

Neo Aquarium: King Of Crustacean
Creator: Nusso
Platform: PC
Price: Free
In a way, fighting-game developers have been limiting their inspiration considerably by only casting humans in fireball-throwing roles. Neo Aquarium: King Of Crustacean strikes back against the tyranny of humanity by putting hermit crabs and lobsters in their stead and arming the arthropods with lasers, missiles, and remote-control limb-mines. It’s a damn shame that Neo Aquarium hasn’t been translated into English—and that the controls are inexcusably clunky—because the end result is an indecipherable pile of Japanese atop an impenetrable mecha-combat game that lets combatants molt their outer shells. Even without understanding any of the onscreen text, though, Neo Aquarium’s graphics are pretty and its idea is bonkers, and worth at least a passing look on the strength of its creative novelty. B