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November 9, 2009

Hi, How Are You
Creator: Dr Fun Fun
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $1.99
Daniel Johnston’s shaky, damaged music is pretty much the last thing imaginable as the source material for an iPhone game. But considering the imagery available from Johnston’s superhero- and Beatles-laden catalog, Hi, How Are You could be a lot more messed-up. His game plays like the bastard child of Frogger, Pinocchio, and Super Mario 64. You control Johnston’s drawing of a stalk-eyed frog who seeks to be turned back into a real boy and reunited with the woman he loves. How? By trolling around three-dimensional levels and hopping on patches of ground to make them green while avoiding Thwomp-like blocks, of course. Once they’ve all turned the proper color, you can advance to the next level, continuing your descent into hell to face Satan, who personally turned you into a frog. The game is simple and very colorful, and while it’s nothing astonishing, it serves as an odd appendage to the songwriter’s output, and a mark of alienation for his more hardcore followers. Now it’s just a matter of time before a Wesley Willis RPG is released… B

Small Worlds
Creator: David Shute
Platform: Browser (Casual Gameplay Design Competition entry)
Price: Free
The theme of the sixth Casual Gameplay Design Competition is “explore,” a word that conjures epic aspirations and far-off horizons. So naturally, the game that restricts itself to the tiniest spaces is the most surprising—and moving. At the outset, Small Worlds looks like little more than a clichéd pixel-art lightshow, with huge blocks of color dominating the screen. As you maneuver your 1-by-3-pixel protagonist through his surroundings, though, the camera pulls back and the details fill in. You’re in a bubble. The bubble connects to an underground facility. The facility has suffered serious damage. The joy of Small Worlds comes in painting the scenery yourself through exploration, so it’s hard to say much more without ruining the experience. The game ought to be savored—it offers patient players more poignancy than the modest setting would suggest… A-

The Fantasy Of The Sord
Creator: Klint Honeychurch
Platform: Browser (CGDC entry)
Price: Free
Most games end once you beat the final stage, but a few cycle back to the beginning, changing something to provide an extra challenge. Like the SNES game Chrono Trigger, The Fantasy Of The Sord ends back at square one, only this time, you keep all the spells and weapons you gathered the first time through. The game itself plays out like a combination of The Legend Of Zelda 2 and the original Metroid: Your pixelated character (chosen from a few purely aesthetic options, like a rock monster or a tree guy) makes his way through a handful of platformer-type levels, slashing enemies with pointy weapons he finds along the way. Each new one is more powerful than the last, and you pick up spells from killing bosses—early ones heal you, later ones provide abilities like invisibility and the ever-helpful teleport. Because there are multiple ways to get to each new area, the game lacks a linear progression. But that’s part of the fun: When you start over by slaying the final boss, you get a second chance to collect what you didn’t before. Completists will log multiple hours, but even casual players can easily get sucked in by the eerie 8-bit scores accompanying each level, and by the simplicity of the goal: Wander around aimlessly, kill a few bad guys, and pick up huge machetes along the way. It’s good enough to play twice… A-

Strange Mile Island
Creators: Aquilino Griffin and Chris Johnson
Platform: Browser (CGDC entry)
Price: Free
Thanks to Lost, deserted islands will always be creepy—just what, or who, is out there? Strange Mile Island amps up the dread with a simple premise: A small group of airline passengers has been stranded, and they need to be guided through a mess of trees to an odd building. The kicker is that you can only see small areas of the map when you move over them, so your party is prone to attacks by roving natives and mysterious booby traps. Happen upon one, and you lose a party member; take too long, and you lose another one. (People get hungry, so guess what happens next.) Completing the mission starts you over with a bigger jungle, so you feel like you’re in a very special circle of hell—the more you try to escape, the deeper in the jungle you find yourself. Some aspects of the game feel repetitive, like the collection of gold blocks and the fact that party members seem indistinguishable from one another. But the game becomes increasingly challenging as you avoid the army of natives and navigate the forest under the influence of magic mushrooms. It’s a mixed bag, but Strange Mile Island is like a skipping record: It’s annoying at first, yet there’s a soothing rhythm to be found over time, and it creeps up on you… B

Beyond The Never
Creator: Uproar Multimedia
Platform: Browser (CGDC entry)
Price: Free
Moody atmospherics and a foreboding sense of isolation alone aren’t strong enough reasons to press on in a game hinged on developing a need to explore. Beyond The Never can’t grasp this simple concept. You control a nameless lost soul that must make its way back from “beyond the never,” a dreary, cloudy place where everything is silhouetted, and the inspiration apparently stems from a high-schooler’s tattered, poetry-filled journal. You must traverse the “valley of the past,” “the nursery of night,” “the caverns of lost yesterdays,” and other embarrassingly named locales in pursuit of golden orbs to return to the Temple Of Light. But without a map or a sense of where to go next, you’ll wind up wandering blindly before realizing that a chunk of silhouetted terrain looks awfully familiar because you’ve been there before. Then you figure out what you’re supposed to do, and it’s too late, because you’ve fallen into a huge pit. Beyond The Never gropes for ambition, but comes across as aimless and coy… D

Hell Tour
Creator: NOB Studio
Platform: Browser (CGDC entry)
Price: Free
For everyone who gave up on NetHack after a few exasperating minutes, Hell Tour offers some of that random-generation flavor with almost none of the difficulty. Unfairly condemned to Hell, you hop around the underworld’s Chinese Checkers-style boards, fighting off various Beelzebubs as they appear in your restricted halo of vision. Your end goal is an audience with Satan himself. You might well make it on the first try—in spite of its dark trappings, Hell Tour is a soft touch. The upgrade system, though, staves off boredom for one playthrough, and a mild twist ending provides motivation for another, as the success of your deal with the devil hinges on the strategy you use to reach him… B-

Full Moon
Creator: Bart Bonte
Platform: Browser (CGDC entry)
Price: Free
Full Moon’s world is a dark place, literally: Each level features a sparse screen where the centerpiece is a wide-eyed bunny longing for something to eat. The colors are stark: a white moon on a deep blue sky above black grasses, trees, and occasional unlit light bulbs or brooding owls. Players must figure out what to click on, drag, or drop to help the rabbit find his snack. It’s the best sort of challenge, where experimentation eventually unlocks the right answer, though you might need to restart a level to undo mistakes you’ve made. Different levels require players to decipher patterns, solve problems, and sometimes just keep a steady hand with a mouse. The game is short but satisfying, proof that clever puzzles don’t require much graphic power… A-

Following Footsteps
Creator: Ming Iu
Platform: Browser (CGDC entry)
Price: Free
The glory of indie-game competitions and festivals is that they prompt developers to try out fresh ideas. The downside is that sometimes “fresh” means “raw,” as is the case with Following Footsteps. The game’s premise: After discovering the journal of a long-dead California prospector, you attempt to retrace his steps by finding points in the local landscape that match his writing. The concept of an amateur historian-cum-treasure hunter is intriguing, and the mix of language and landscape presents an opportunity for deep storytelling. But a crude 2-D map and connect-the-dots pathfinding make for a lifeless implementation of a strong idea. The prospector’s journal entries rarely stray from the template of “We went east for a while, and then we stopped,” and your adventure necessarily follows the same mundane path. Footsteps is still an intriguing first draft, however, so hopefully creator Ming Iu will pursue the thread further, or another developer will pick up where this game leaves off… D+

Cat Got Lost
Creator: Stephen Lavelle
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Where would the world’s productivity be without cats and the Internet? Cat Got Lost cares not for the nation’s plummeting economy; it gives people more of what they want in a simplistic but deceptively tough lock-and-key puzzle game where you must reunite with your wayward kitty. The feisty feline’s position changes along a plus-sign-shaped track with randomly generated but strategically placed colored doors and keys in 20 levels. Move too fast and you’ll wind up accidentally squandering a key when you didn’t mean to, leaving the poor puss to grow sadder and sadder in its newfound freedom. The reward for retrieving your kitty is an adorable mewling noise and a strangely fragmented musing on why he keeps absconding (“My cat gets lost some more,” and “Why do you run away, cat?”), suggesting a tragic subtext that maybe your cat doesn’t want to be rescued. You could actually be the villain. Whatever. You can read deeper into to it or just enjoy the cute meowing noise. Either way, you’re assured a satisfying 10 minutes of catty fun… A

Creator: Age Zero
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Wavives is a metaphor for something, but even if this very Japanese two-dimensional shooter were in English, nobody would be able to figure out what it’s supposed to mean. It’s impossible to describe this game without sounding like a raving lunatic: Atop a sheet of rippling graph paper, you control Kekujira, a fish with a brain for a body. He shoots exploding letters at puzzle pieces, colored springs, wire cutters, and eventually erasers, snowflakes, and molecules. Should any of these objects touch Kekujira, he perishes immediately in an explosion of letters. In addition to the overall unyielding absurdity, there’s a learning curve, as Kekujira’s movements weave a quasi-spiderweb/tangled kite string behind him that inhibits movement. There’s a lot of visual nonsense to absorb, but with three short five-minute levels and nefarious dice bosses, Wavives makes an exhilaratingly weird, strong case for a Dadaist approach to game design. A-