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November 22, 2010

Maze Of Space
Creator: Petri Purho
Platforms: PC, Mac
Played On: PC
Price: Free
Not long ago, Petri Purho experimented with the use of ersatz Post-It notes to render the “pixels” in his Space Invaders clone Sticky Notes Shooter. In Maze Of Space, the blocks are stamped out in squares of paint. The game plays like an old-school maze shooter—think Wizard Of Wor with gear. Trudging through the game’s randomly generated space station is a bit of a chore, but the allure of loot provides an ample carrot. Dead aliens drop armor, weapons, and the occasional health orb. For an off-the-cuff game, the variety of space blasters is admirable. Shotguns spray death, bigger weapons have kick, and some just don’t shoot straight. The endless stream of goodies wears thin, though, once the novelty of +1 trucker caps fades. That’s just about when Maze Of Space throws a boss battle in your face. As an avid proponent of rapid prototyping and game jams, if there’s one thing Purho knows, it’s short and sweet…

Ravenwood Fair
Creator: LOLapps
Platform: Browser (Facebook)
Price: Free (with optional micro-transactions)
Some gamers turn their nose up at Facebook games, but as more celebrated game designers try their hand at the medium, the platform becomes harder to ignore. The latest to turn: John Romero (of Doom and Quake fame), who consulted on Ravenwood Fair, which was designed by Brenda Brathwaite (Wizardry). Your goal is to build a Chrono Trigger-inspired fair deep in the woods while increasing your fair’s “fun” in a business-sim format. Most of the tropes of Facebook games are present, like energy that limits your play sessions, random drops of necessary items (which can also be purchased at a minimal fee, of course), and a vague layer of multiplayer. Ravenwood Fair also possesses an interesting marriage of form and content that other Facebook games lack. Its premise is well-supported by the game’s graphics and sounds, and a wide variety of quests can be completed before it becomes necessary to fork over some money. It’s a small but necessary step forward for the rapidly maturing “social games” market… B+

Enemy 585
Creator: Nitrome
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The inventive Enemy 585 positions itself as the anti-platformer. In a world modeled after Super Mario Bros. 3, you control neither the hero nor the enemy, but literally a platform. The enemy—a pith-helmeted mini-Grimace—slowly walks backward, stopping for nothing short of a two-story wall. The platform you wield can be flipped around and moved into position, allowing the little guy to waddle across gaps and scale previously insurmountable heights. You can also trap him temporarily while you wait for giant spiky blocks (or whatever) to clear out. In later levels, your block morphs shape, making for new spatial challenges. Some Tetris aspects of Enemy 585 can be frustrating: The platform doesn’t respond well to rapid adjustments, or when escaping from narrow squeezes. But the shift in perspective is a break from a traditional guy-jumps-on-turtle platformer. Levels are played right-to-left, starting in the final dungeon and ending at world one. And the levels are multifaceted, with hidden tunnels and puzzling coin collection included. Enemy 585 commits to its concept and makes few concessions for the uninitiated, resulting in a compelling cognitive twister… B+

Bit.Trip Fate
Creator: Gaijin Games
Platform: Nintendo Wii (WiiWare)
Price: $8
The fifth and penultimate entry in the Bit.Trip series combines Atari-level game complexity with acid-tinged visuals. Fate is an unforgiving shmup that intriguingly turns the genre on its ear by forcing players to stay on rails. You can move left and right—slowly—as much you please, but movement along the vertical axis is mandated by a static sine wave. Of course, this raises the risk of collision, but it also somehow allows you to completely take your eyes off hero Commander Video and stay focused on the enormous pixel-bullets coming your way from the right side of the screen. When you blast enemies, they turn into power-ups that crop up along your flight path. Dedicated players will eventually develop an ability to play cross-eyed, darting back and forth to grab rewards without taking any hits. Don’t be fooled by Minusbaby’s soothing chiptune soundtrack: Fate is much more frantic than its modest graphics might suggest… A-

Super Mario Bros. X
Creator: SuperMarioBrothers.org
Platform: PC
Price: Free 
Nintendo Of America shamefully dragged its heels before announcing that, yes, like Nintendo Europe and Japan, it will be releasing a Wii version of Super Mario All-Stars to mark the 25th anniversary of Super Mario Bros. But the Italian plumber’s fans have been celebrating Mario all along. One of the latest tributes is this commendable fan-made freeware game that mashes up attributes of every side-scrolling Mario title up through Super Mario World, tosses in a Battle Mode (basically what Smash Bros. might’ve been like, were it on the NES), and gives players the same level editor used to make the game’s 50 original stages. Link from Zelda II even gets in on the action—he’s a selectable character who can stab goombas on his scenic route through Mushroom Kingdom to rescue Zelda. The game’s two-player co-op even manages to improve upon New Super Mario Bros. Wii’s clunky handling of screen space: When players get too far apart, the game switches into split-screen and lets them go wherever they want. Download it while you can. Chances are, if Nintendo’s smart, they’ll sue the creators in public, then hire them in private to crank out extras for that upcoming re-release of All-Stars

Samurai II: Vengeance
Creator: Madfinger Games
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Reviewed on: iPad
Price: $2.99
Amid the continuing effort to invent a control scheme to make old console genres feel at home on buttonless iOS devices, the on-screen gamepad is an idea that refuses to go away. The development community seems to have reached a consensus on the virtual buttons and joysticks: They aren’t great, but they’ll do. That verdict also goes for Samurai II: Vengeance, a mêlée fighter that casts you as a pissed-off samurai, with all the decapitations and splattery disembowelments that entails. The game is set in a soft-edged, verdant vision of Japan that draws inspiration from Capcom’s Ōkami and from modern manga. (One nice touch: Sound effects like a windmill’s “clack” are animated with spelled-out onomatopoeia.) The enemy onslaught is intense from the outset, which might be more tolerable if Samurai II could be played with hard buttons. Instead, players are forced to aim for the same smear of finger oil on a glass screen, with no tactile feedback. As a result, missed hits abound. The next Samurai game would do well to compensate for this imprecision… B-

Super Crate Box
Creator: Vlambeer
Platform: PC
Price: Free
It’s something of a tradition to put “Super” at the start of a platformer’s name, but it’s a bit deceiving in the case of Super Crate Box—this is more original Mario Bros than Super Mario Bros. The action takes place on a single screen, with enemies falling from the top and becoming more powerful if they make it to the bottom. Your goal is to collect crates scattered throughout the level; each gives you a random new weapon for fighting off the monsters, from bazookas to mines and laser rifles. Each weapon behaves differently enough that Super Crate Box constantly offers the interesting choice of clearing the screen of baddies or making a beeline for the next crate. The pace is manic, the ’70s action-movie vibe is charming, and the game’s extreme difficulty is balanced by the ease with which you can start a new game. Just hope you don’t get the dual pistols when you’re in a tight spot… A-

Space Miner Blast
Creator: Venan Entertainment
Platform: iPhone
Price: Free
Venan Entertainment’s excellent Space Miner: Space Ore Bust updated the arcade classic Asteroids and added an RPG frame. Space Miner Blast strips away the plot and dialog while ramping up the action. Players mine asteroid fields for valuable ore. Clearing the board can earn you power-ups, like more guns and improved shields, but the challenge rate increases fast. Many of the hazards will be familiar to Space Ore Bust players, with levels populated with space mines, asteroids that explode into damaging icicles, and increasingly nasty UFOs. Space Miner Blast also adds some novel obstacles, like asteroids that reflect shots. Levels are short, making it perfect for quick sessions. The game can be played for free, but it’s worth shelling out $1.99 for the Blast Pack, which unlocks access to three extra types of ships, allowing you to experiment with different strategies… B+

Wizard’s Run
Creator: Play Tower Defense Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Wizard’s Run is that rarity in the top-down shooter genre: a game that doesn’t star a missile-dodging jet fighter. Instead, players control a caped wizard, ducking spells from stationary mages and blasting orc-like foot-soldiers on a quest to defeat the motivationless “source of evil.” Compounding the novelty is a branching level-up system that allows for specialization in one of three schools: fire, ice, or divine magic. Players shouldn’t spread themselves too thin across that skill tree, as Wizard’s Run rewards expertise over generalization. Still, even without much planning, and even without allocating points toward the hero’s painfully slow movements, the game is far from “bullet-hell” territory. Those gold and silver medals, awarded at the end of a round, should come fairly easy. There’s no percentage in collecting them all, however, and after the sixth board—when Run exhausts its supply of new monstrosities and is content to simply swell their ranks—there’s little more to do. That’s especially the case if players have already maxed out their experience points at Level 15. Of course, there’s always survival mode… B-

Johnny Why Are You Late?
Creator: Keybol
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Johnny Why Are You Late? is a domestic point-and-click adventure with a gentle humor that’s scrubbed clean of any actual comedy content—aside from a puzzle that requires treating Johnny’s “fat kid” to a bit of chin music. The game begins with the hero explaining his titular lateness to his superior. That tardiness is pre-determined; the player simply decides its extent, while a clock in the bottom-right ticks away ominously without ever affecting play. MS Paint-level graphics and a goofy waltz accompany Johnny’s quest to start the family car. All manner of obstacles threaten his punctuality—such as a bathroom-hogging wife and a wayward spider—and inventory items will need to be combined into a potato gun before the implausible tale can be told. Late never pretends to be more than a breezy time-killer, but players who enjoy clicking through puzzles in an atmosphere of slightly twisted comedy are probably better off with Ugly Americans’ promotional tool/browser-based game Citizen Ugly C

Ray Ardent: Science Ninja
Creator: Ninja Robot Dinosaur Entertainment
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Cast in the mold of a more polished, pay-to-play game like Runman, Ray Ardent: Science Ninja is a hyperactive platformer with a diminutive hero whose primary concern is preserving momentum. An element called X6 distributed liberally around the maps keeps Ray energized, which is important when he needs access to a steadily growing bag of tricks that includes speed-bursts, slides, and precision diving. Just be careful not to plow headlong into the dinosaurs that populate the game’s 15 drab, barren stages. With its oddball, science-as-superpower chunks of dialogue, the game plays like a phony bit of pro-science edutainment bent on teaching kids without making them feel like they’re learning. Of course, the science here is hokum, and doesn’t even figure into the game, aside from Ray’s constant barrage of one-liners. Frenetic and unforgiving in its later stages, Ray Ardent is fun at full speed, but the level design and premise run out of juice early on… B-

Deadly Neighbours
Creator: Nerdook
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Deadly Neighbours is a basic turn-based RPG with an expansive inventory. Its sole problem lies in this imbalance: The mechanics are too limited, given the unwieldy scope of the weapon selection. In order to raise money, your family—three undead goons—wage war with the neighbors, using crowbars, tennis balls, watermelons, lighters, and whatever else you can get your hands on. Battles take place on a horizontal plane where you can move forward, backward, equip a weapon, or chuck another one. A few seconds of rudimentary commands are all it takes to make hay of your foes, and your reward is some cash and a weapon. The game places tremendous value on the arsenal, including a counter that displays how close you are to rolling with a complete set. But weapons are often indistinguishable from one another, so an expanded collection renders the majority of the selection obsolete, especially since battles rarely get more complicated than bashing and/or throwing. Mini-games break up the monotony somewhat, as does the kick of turning a pineapple into a deadly weapon. Unfortunately, there isn't much below the cartoonish, strategy-lite surface… C+

Crescent Pale Mist
Creator: ClassiC Shikoukairo
Platform: Playstation 3
Price: $5.99
Created by ClassiC Shikoukairo and adapted for the PlayStation 3 by Japanese indie publisher Rockin’ Android, Crescent Pale Mist is a speedy, two-dimensional game where you play as a feisty anime chick with a sword. A demon world is encroaching on the human world, and naturally, it has to be stopped. The action looks familiar at first, but turns out to be fairly unusual. As you slice at enemies, they release light orbs called Pale Mist. Pressing triangle on the controller turns the mist into enemy-seeking swords, letting you rack up combos and press on into the horde. You can also cast magic by entering directional button combinations à la Street Fighter, but overuse will cause an explosion that damages you as well as baddies. The characters are small but pretty, standing out from the low-detail environments. Neat mechanical twists, six lengthy levels, and boss fights that have you flying instead of stuck on the ground aren’t enough to make Mist a great game. It’s merely an interesting one, as a lack of detail in the environments and loose-feeling action keep it from excellence… B-

Corporate Climber
Creator: Rich Grilloti, Miles Tilman, Jeffrey Nielsen, and Martin Sebastian Wain
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Adult Swim and Pixel Jams’ Corporate Climber seems to be the narrative sequel to Paperboy no one’s been asking for all these years. The two don’t play alike—you walk left to right and vice versa while scaling the floors of a mega corporation’s headquarters, jumping over obstacles rather than auto-scrolling up a street whilst riding a crap bike—but the scenarios you’re presented with are the logical evolution of the old Atari game. Now you’re engaged in all of the most mundane jobs a suburban white boy could perform after adolescence, while being threatened by violent citizens, dangerous fixtures of the workplace like fire-breathing furnaces, and death. Getting through each job requires figuring out that level’s objective. To move from telemarketer to email promoter, you have to answer a series of phones. And so on. It’s a fun diversion without much meat on the bone… B-

Creator: Bertius Games
Platform: Xbox 360 (Xbox Live Indie Games)
Price: $1
West is an ambitious Earthbound-style RPG that attempts to reflect on naturalism, how much we should allow science to govern our daily lives, and the biggie, the Meaning Of Life. It’s seen through the eyes of a 13-year-old boy named James who lives in an island town. The problem is an overall lack of polish. Typos and sentence fragments pervade the game’s 90-minute playtime, and the preachy tone feels pretty out of line, considering that the game starts in a village that’s rocked to its core by a pie-eating-contest fatality. A clunky battle system (just mash “A” to win) and the inability to effectively manage items are curious missteps. It’s cute and worth a laugh, but lacking any other compelling reasons to give it a go… C- 

Reachin’ Pichin
Creator: Kurechii Interactive
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The rules of Reachin’ Pichin are old by Flash-game standards. Your little avatar shoots up into the sky, and you use the mouse pointer to guide him onto platforms to bounce ever higher. After each failure, you upgrade your character and make another—hopefully loftier—attempt to reach the stratosphere. Kurechii Interactive, unlike their predecessors, have managed to gussy up the type with impressive and satisfying depth. Pichin, a flying blob, has five basic stats (launch speed, max speed, bounce speed, strength, and luck) that can upgraded. Additional stat-augmenting items can be created in the lab using objects and experience acquired during launch attempts stages. Up to five items can be equipped, provided your experience is high enough. Pichin himself can be evolved into four new versions, going from infant to tween to mature to champion. Taking a run at one of the game’s stages to earn quick points and level up is consistently joyful, in spite of the grating giddy tunes. There’s a ton of game to be had here, and it’s all delicious… A

After Years In Dark Tunnels
Creators: Maher Sagrillo and Elisha Seely
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
After Years In Dark Tunnels starts off impressive. There’s a story setup—a basic marooned-on-alien-planet, find-the-crew premise—and control instructions. They seem basic, too. Jump button, inventory button; surely you’re ready for adventure. Except you can press V to pray and Q to kill yourself. Those aren’t standard-issue commands. The goal is to wander from left to right and down to find your missing crew and the scattered parts of your ship, with the intent of making a beacon and signaling for rescue. The quest is rewarding but frustrating. The isolation of being stranded and alone on an unknown world meshes nicely with a play structure that forces you to experiment, but it’s very easy to die (and thereby lose all your progress), although death comes in interesting ways. For instance, you lose hope rather than health when falling into corrosive pits. The controls are too clumsy to match the precision of the platforming, but Tunnels has merit. Come for the non-linear play; stay for the creepy, sad story. B