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November 1, 2010

Mega Man 8-Bit Deathmatch
Creator: CutmanMike
Platform: PC (Mac and Linux releases forthcoming)
Price: Free
Considering how long ago the Doom modding community yielded such classics as Simpsons Doom and Star Wars Doom, it’s commendable that Mega Man 8-Bit Deathmatch has been able to summon so much buzz. Then again, it isn’t too shocking: It’s freaking Mega Man in a FPS. More specifically, bosses from the first Mega Man through Mega Man 6, plus 50-some weapons and power-ups, are all brought into the third dimension for your online fragging pleasure. FPSes have come a long way since Doom, so there’s no cover system, barely a jump, and no sign of modern-day trappings. But 8-Bit Deathmatch has been so lovingly woven together that it still comes together as a nice throwback experience. There’s a single-player campaign, but the action is really best experienced online against strangers… A-

Game Dev Story

Creator: Kairosoft
Platform: iPhone
Price: $3.99
Game Dev Story almost plays like an eye-opening cautionary tale intended for oblivious or callous game critics. It’s a business sim that lets you run your own game company for roughly two decades, from the heady days of PC gaming up through the console-dominated modern era, all in adorable tongue-in-cheek fashion. The end goal is to maximize profits, and although you know what happens to the thinly disguised systems after they launch (the Wii here is called the Whoops), you can also alter the future by creating your own system. It all depends how cutthroat and/or experimental you want to be with your staffing and output, thanks to a wide variety of jobs, title types, and genres. Are you willing to ditch that enterprising young coder you started with, once a ridiculously talented one inquires about a job based on your company’s success? Will you be a slave to trends and pump out whatever’s popular at the moment, or will you color outside the lines and try your hand at a swimming-detective or racing-spy game? It’s entirely up to you, and like the real-world industry, you’ll likely shake your head at dismissive reviews of your games where the arbitrary grade doesn’t seem at all in line with the snippet of text. Really, the only thing missing is a series of mini-games that let you try the crazy-fake games you make… A

Sonic The Hedgehog 4 Episode 1

Creator: Sega
Platforms: iPhone, PC, PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Played on: iPhone
Price: $9.99 ($14.99 on other platforms)
When will companies learn that the iPhone’s touch-screen capabilities are not meant to have traditional controller schemes grafted onto them? It almost always winds up being clunky, and the lack of tactile feedback results in drifting and inaccurate handling. This is especially pronounced in the first episode of Sonic 4, an entry meant to usher in a new celebration of the Sonic series’ roots. (It ditches Tails, Knuckles, and all their other sneaker-wearing mammal ilk.) The first episode succeeds at bringing the glory days back, but falls short of making an enjoyable or fully playable game. The physics rarely make sense: There are tons of sudden bottomless pits in sequences where Sonic is careening around at unbelievable speeds and finesse is impossible. The speedy hedgehog, for some reason, is saddled with patient platforming reminiscent of Castlevania clock-tower levels. All of this is compounded by the too-close camera, made even worse on the iPhone’s small screen. Sonic’s disapproving title-screen finger-wagging is appropriate…

Notebook Wars

Creator: Francisco Ferreres
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Imagine a bored kid scrawling planes and gun turrets in a notebook during some endless junior-high class. Now imagine that scrawled combat coming to life. That’s the central gimmick of Notebook Wars, a top-down scrolling shooter in which the sprites are planes childishly drawn in colored pencil, moving across graph paper to attack each other. Visually, it’s an entertaining game, and it’s largely enjoyable to play as well, with enough going on to keep players busy. It’s essentially a slowed-down version of a bullet-hell game, with tons of enemies, plus achievements to earn, money to gather, upgrades and new weapon slots and superior planes to buy, level ratings to earn, and so forth. It’s all pretty basic, but it’s a cute, absorbing meat-and-potatoes example of a mini shooter. There are some problems—the upgrade system is buggy and tends to temporarily overprice purchasable items or downgrade purchased items, and the very few bosses are easy to dodge and defeat, but take tedious eons to wear down. Still, Notebook Wars provides a nice balance of challenge and choices. Even with high-level weaponry, players likely won’t be able to kill everything on a level-appropriate board, so prioritizing dangerous or big-money targets becomes part of the strategy… B-

The Trader Of Stories: Bell’s Heart

Creator: Pastel Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
At its core, The Trader Of Stories: Bell’s Heart is a standard point-and-click mystery game, where you hunt out interact-able items and figure out how to use or combine them to complete a story. But while the gameplay is standard, the aesthetic is outstanding. Mellow, haunting music and beautiful artwork turn the story into a rich children’s picture book with a dark story about love, betrayal, and death. Your job as a traveling trader stuck in a small town is to assemble the town’s story from memories the residents can be prompted to reveal. Talking to them gives you literal pieces of a puzzle in your storybook, revealing an image and assembling a fable-like history. Some of the gameplay options are mighty odd—players have to pick up anything not nailed down, including other people’s hair and personal property, and eventually a mind-controlled person will become an item in your inventory as well—and the whole thing could stand to be longer and more convoluted. But as a bite-sized exploration game, it’s polished and pretty, with an appealingly winsome, melancholy style… B+

Chase Goose 2

Creator: Hideous
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
If you didn’t play the original Chase Goose, don’t worry. Everything you need to know is right there in the title. Once again, you take control of an innocent little goose and aid its escape from an enormous chomping monster that’s perpetually gaining on the poor bird. Essentially, this is Canabalt with far more button presses: To run, you have to alternately mash the left and right arrow keys, and press the keyboard key specified in an onscreen prompt when you near a ledge. It starts off simply enough (and thankfully, the font is much clearer and crisper than in the original), with players having to tap “v” or “b.” Before long, you’ll have to solve short math equations to take the next leap, and eventually, the instructions get purposefully vague—unless you happen to have all your Japanese lucky numbers memorized. It’s a workout for the hands, and like Canabalt before it, it eventually becomes impossible… B+

Road Of The Dead

Creator: Evil Dog 
Platform: Browser 
Price: Free
One of the trashiest games never released stateside is D3’s Zombies Vs. Ambulance, an obscure Japanese survival-horror game which challenged gamers to drive—or, more accurately, plow—an ambulance through encroaching zombie hordes. Road Of The Dead is a decent approximation of that experience. With zombies on the loose, instead of holing up in your home, you instead decide to get behind the wheel of your flashy car and drive to freedom. The object of the game is to reach checkpoints as your car threatens to disintegrate around you. Burning wrecks, roadway obstructions, panicked pedestrians, limping zombies, and the military all obscure your path. Your worst enemy, however, is the game’s tricky, unresponsive control scheme. Trying to find the gas, brake, and handbrake keys on the keyboard is next to impossible during frantic driving sequences. Still, if you’ve ever wondered what a zombie looks like as it meets the front bumper of a speeding sportscar, then you’ve found a fine way to pass a lunch hour. Just don’t expect to have much appetite for the lunch… B

Cut The Rope

Creator: Chillingo
Platforms: iPad, iPhone
Played on: iPhone
Price: iPad—$1.99; iPhone—$.99
In spite of its straightforward title, Cut The Rope is a deceptively complex puzzler. A piece of hard candy hangs from a rope, and a hungry frog-like monster waits patiently below. You cut the rope with a slice of your finger, it falls into his mouth, and he smiles. But then new elements are introduced to hinder the task. Timing becomes of the utmost importance when the candy starts to swing, spiders close in, and bubbles threaten to lift the candy offscreen. There are blowers activated by touch, tight ropes that fling the candy across the screen, and spikes that you can only avoid by cutting multiple lengths of rope in the proper order. Even freakin’ gravity is an obstacle in Cut The Rope; you have to ensure the candy falls from a proper height. All the elements work together brilliantly. Later levels require subway-stop-missing concentration, yet after a little trial and error and head-scratching, it’s never unclear what has to happen, and in what order. It’s just a matter of cutting the rope, right?… A-

Super Mind Dungeon

Creator: Bad Hed Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Bad Hed Games’ Super Mind Dungeon distinguishes itself well in the realm of minimalist Flash platformers. The chunky chiptune soundtrack, blocky graphics, and playful sense of humor—Easter Island heads saying, “Hey, girl!” when you pass by are pretty funny—are standard issue for browser games, as is the mechanic of jumping around spike-filled halls to reach a goal. Super Mind Dungeon’s hook is that you only press one button to get around. Your little blue dude starts with a kinetic charge. You use the mouse to position a target, then click once to bounce into the air. You’re recharged when you touch a wall, allowing you to jump again. The environments are balanced with metal walls that don’t renew your kinetic charge, so the challenge becomes aiming your jumps for maximum ricochet potential—without hitting the copious spikes, of course. The bouncing character is a little too unpredictable, though, to allow for real precision, keeping Super Mind Dungeon out of the elite class of pixilated browser games… B- 

Headspin Storybook

Creator: Brandwidth
Platforms: iPad/iPhone (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPhone
Price: $.99
Say what you will about the iPhone, the design-conscious nature of Apple’s customers has prompted iPhone game developers to focus on their games’ visual aesthetics—not “graphics,” the endless polygon-count arms race, but aesthetics. Sometimes, as with last year’s Spider: The Secret Of Bryce Manor, that artistic impulse results in a gorgeous, one-of-a-kind game. Other times, as with Headspin Storybook, the superficial beauty can be deceptive. Storybook takes the form of a pop-up book that flips through the story of a dragon-slaying knight. When the book flips to a new page, players have a limited time to flip elements of the scenery—cottages, trees, castle walls—so that the landscape on the right side of the book mirrors that of the left. The storybook is so appealingly illustrated that it takes a while for the reality to set in: There isn’t much game here. The tap-to-flip business wears out its welcome about five minutes in, and on the iPhone, many of the tapping targets are uncomfortably small, leading to misregistered touches. A nice way for geek aesthetes to show off their fancy Retina Displays, but not much more… C-

Journey Of Fortune: Dragon’s Fire

Creator: Cinemax S.R.O. 
Platform: iPad
Price: $3.99
Another entry from the too-good-looking-to-be-true files is Journey Of Fortune: Dragon’s Fire. The playing field for this iPad board game looks like a photographic representation of a thirtysomething’s inner child. The epic scene depicts a horrific cave where a cyclops, a giant spider, and other mythical monsters await your approach. You advance by spinning a slick wheel of fortune adorned with swords, magical spells, and dice for moving around the board. And it’s all laid out in the style of an elaborate 1980s arcade cabinet. The goal is to advance past the dragon, building your character and battling RPG-style by way of the game’s simplified dice-roll interface. The problem is that it’s too simplified. Whether you’re playing alone or with a friend, the game has all the strategy of Candy Land. In spite of the upgrade system and extended, turn-based battles, after a while it sets in that you’re just spinning the dice-wheel and watching to see what happens, over and over again… C+


Creator: Randy Ficker
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
When played against multiple players, the board game Risk can take hours, days, sometimes weeks to finish. Warlight is Risk-lite, online—at least in concept, as the execution is far more engrossing than a simple port. The rules remain roughly the same: Using an ever-growing army, conquer the world and vanquish your opponents via a battle simulator (dice in the board game, a simple algorithm in this version). There are cards to collect, just like in the board game, but that’s where the similarities end. The online version includes gameplay enhancers like fog (you can only see territories right next to you) and a savvy simulator that mixes enemy actions with your own for dynamic, unpredictable battles. Of course, board games can’t be played alone, and Warlight comes equipped with an AI, proving a worthy opponent when friends aren’t around. The game also provokes a special kind of frustration new to Risk fans: the quick re-strategizing that happens when the enemy strikes in the middle of your own attack. These little touches yield massive enhancements to the game, making Warlight a vital addition to the Risk-verse—and one that’ll suck up days, weeks, months… A

Give Up Robot 2

Creator: Matt Makes Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Video gaming’s negative rep for relying on sequels is only partly deserved. Given games’ mechanical nature, they tend to benefit from iterative exploration where purely narrative forms don't. Telling the same story twice isn't terribly effective, but game rules tend to get better when they’re tweaked and refined. In the best-case scenario, a game proves the quality of its central workings the first time out, then perfects the model the second time out: Call it the Mega Man rule. Matt Makes Games’ follow-up to May’s Give Up Robot is a solid example. The original’s slick presentation has been made warmer with an earth-tone color palette, and the tight grappling-hook play for navigating the game’s single-room obstacle courses has been complicated and improved with more moving parts. Smiling blocks carry you once you’ve grappled on, other blocks must be dragged down to open doors, rockets must be ridden to open new paths—it’s a whole new game. The new environmental factors make Give Up Robot 2 a bit slower than the original, but it’s a better game for it… A-

Monster Slayers

Creator: Nerdook
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
In many levels of Monster Slayers, you can start a fight, visit a different browser tab to do something else, then return to find your army victorious. The game is about building squads to go out and defeat monsters, but the fights are never really challenging unless you’re trying to use units that are too low-level. It has plenty of options for customization, with four base classes (swordsman, archer, spearman, and lancer) that can develop into a host of other careers. Plus there are items to gather and combine to help you summon towering creatures to boost your forces, and unlockable hats that provide various power-ups. But the actual gameplay boils down to four basic commands which control your whole army at once. The game quickly devolves into quick, unsatisfying runs through nearly identical missions to level up, collect trophies, and unlock the next upgrade for your units… C

Bunny Flags

Creator: CuaticGames
Platform: Browser 
Price: Free
In Bunny Flags, you play a little rabbit using a gun and a variety of protective towers to protect his flag—and himself—from swarms of disembodied fingers. The game gets hard fast. In the capture-the-flag levels, enemies will rush for your flag from different directions, then mob you while the flag carrier runs off. In the endurance challenges, it’s so hard to deal with the large groups of evil digits that new waves of enemies show up while you’re still fighting off the last two. The bad guys form swarms that you can merrily lead around your gun turrets to soften them up, but victory still requires frantic mouse-clicking as you try to keep shooting while placing new towers. Fortunately, even if you die, you level up, earning skill points that are used to improve your towers’ effectiveness or your bunny’s ability to take and dish out damage… B

Cuboy Facebutt

Creator: Edible Castle
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
As far as videogame names go, Cuboy Facebutt ranks up there with Axe In Face and Don’t Shit Your Pants. The game stars Cuboy, a Bartleby-like drone who is housesitting for his boss. (He also featured in last year’s Back To The Cubeture, among other games.) In the game’s opening scene, Cuboy completely misunderstands his boss’ instructions to “not break anything” as “break everything.” Using a stomp attack, as well as the eponymous “facebutt,” players guide Cuboy around a six-by-six grid causing as much property damage as possible to objects, including ottomans, cat-scratch posts, and kitschy flowerpots. To achieve higher scores, players are encouraged to alternate between facebutts and stomps. Each level is complicated by a time limit, as well as the occasional indestructible object like a stone garden gnome. As objects pile up around you and time wanes, the game feels like an approximation of what it might be like to drown in a vat of parfait. The learning curve is steep—it takes a good 20 minutes to make the direction keys feel comfortable—but failing a challenge is almost worth your while, if only to hear Cuboy utter his trademark line: “No, that was rubbish!” B+