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October 10, 2011

The Binding Of Isaac
Creators: Edmund McMillen and Florian Himsl
Platforms: Mac, PC
Reviewed on: PC
Price: $4.99
The Binding Of Isaac is pitch-black and hard as hell. If you die in the middle of crawling the game’s randomly generated, Zelda-styled dungeons, you start the game from the beginning, armed only with the knowledge of the mistakes that led to your demise. Luck plays a factor: Stumbling upon the right magic weapons and power-ups can give a leg up. But persistence is the key. The necessity for masochistic patience in the face of terrible odds might be familiar to those who played Super Meat Boy, the brutal platformer Edmund McMillen co-created with Tommy Refenes. But here, the difficulty dovetails uncomfortably with a plot steeped in biblical lore, mommy issues, and scatology. Isaac, naked and unarmed, defends himself by spraying his aggressors with his own salty tears. It’s impossible to play The Binding Of Isaac without coming away with the feeling that McMillen could really use a hug. Don’t let that stop you… A

Another World: 20th Anniversary Edition

Creator: Eric Chahi
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Reviewed on: iPad
Price: $4.99
In 1991, this science-fiction adventure from Eric Chahi (released under the title Out Of This World in North America) became the best game on the Amiga computer system. For 20 years, it’s been ported to many other platforms. This iOS version, which arrives with optional upgraded art (swipe the screen to flip between original and upgraded) is among the best. You control a Ferrari-driving physicist who is dropped into a violent alternate dimension when an experiment goes wrong. It’s like a lost segment of Heavy Metal: The Movie with rotoscoped character animation to rival Prince Of Persia. The puzzles in this platformer are unforgiving—expect to die a lot—but rarely too mind-bending. The basically non-verbal story is energetic and thrilling, and in spite of a relatively short amount of gameplay (one or two hours for many) Another World still feels like a standard-setter in action-game design. An “easy mode” lets up on the dexterity requirements without dumbing down any puzzles, so the fumble-fingered can still enjoy the memorable ride… A


Creator: Focus Home Interactive
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: $10 (800 Microsoft points)
Rotastic is many guy-swinging-around-a-rope games in one. First, your little Viking (or skeleton, or bear—a few avatars are available) must collect jewels by flipping through the air, connecting his rope to hooks that rotate him in circles. Then he must bash flying storks and collect the jewels they leave behind. Later, he must survive for a few minutes without being eaten by a giant flying fish, or hit blocks Arkanoid-style until the board is clear. Each variation takes place in a state of constant motion; as long as your rope is connected, you’ll spin around, and the only way to die is to let go. The controls are mindlessly easy. One button connects your rope to the closest hook, and to move, you let go, allowing the momentum of the spin to fling you forward. Then you connect to the next hook, like Indiana Jones whipping his way across a vast bottomless pit. Sure, it gets a little repetitive, but Rotastic reinvents itself on almost every level, with minimal cognitive reconstruction required… A-

Coinbox Hero

Creator: John Cooney
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Harvest cash, buy upgrades, repeat. You’ve done it before, and if browser-game developers have their way, you’ll do it again. John Cooney recognizes the most tired trends in online gaming and he’s twisted them to create some deft satires in the past—he’s the guy behind the wry, clever Achievement Unlocked games. Coinbox Hero doesn’t send up common tropes as much it lazily indulges in them. You’re invited to assault a Super Mario Bros. style coinbox with infinite capacity (Mario reference, check) to collect its coins and purchase weapons to brutalize the coinbox even harder. You can also augment your crew with chunky, blockheaded helpers (intentionally crude visuals, check) as you pursue the goal of racking up $1 million, with which you can nuke the stubborn coinbox once and for all, unlocking an ending that rehashes a shopworn message-board meme (check)… C


Creator: Mikolaj “Sosker” Kaminski
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
If a game’s merits were judged solely on how pleasurable it is to control, then Thelemite would be one of the best browser games of 2011. Melex, the game-designer-super-ninja protagonist of Mikolaj Kaminski’s tribute to ’80s anime tropes, moves fast in every direction of the game’s two-dimensional little city, whether through the local mutant-filled park or up skyscrapers. The goal is to wipe out other mutants attacking the city. This is accomplished through bonkers collisions. Melex’s only attack involves surrounding himself with purple fire, drop-kicking objects, then ricocheting off them, so Thelemite’s brief fights are frantic, bouncy flashes of color more than they are exercises in careful maneuvers. It’s kinetic stuff, good for a quick high, but there isn’t much to it after the first few minutes. Boss fights against big monsters slow the action down, requiring you to perform the charged-up version of your one attack. This cools things off long enough for you to realize that just because there are upgradeable skills doesn’t mean there’s much depth here… B

Diamond Hollow II

Creator: Lee Miller
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
The only reason Diamond Hollow II doesn’t need a surgeon general’s warning is that it only has seven stages. It will eventually end, allowing you to stop playing after a certain point. The sprite graphics, simple platforming, and shiny object collection are a smorgasbord of game features with proven addictive qualities. All the diamonds you collect in the underground labyrinth are used to upgrade stats, which only makes it more alluring. The measured pace of the whole package is its deepest hook, though. Getting past enemies and trickier obstacles requires a measured approach, lining up shots at foes above you in the cavern, and slowly moving up, collecting any diamonds readily visible or hidden. There’s plenty of game, as well. Each of the story mode’s stages should take close to half an hour to complete, and you’ll revisit earlier stages to collect items accessible once new weapons and upgrades are unlocked, making Hollow II beefier than the average browser game… B+

Demonrift TD

Creator: Menara Games
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
Demonrift TD launched on Kongregate on September 29 with a host of minor annoying issues and design flaws, but the developers have been quick and responsive about improving the game, and it’s been intriguing to watch it rapidly develop over a short space of time. It’s a simple but nicely nuanced tower-defense exercise where players build units like archers, knights, and golems to block waves of demons from attacking towns; successfully saved towns produce resources (in large quantities as an instant reward, and in small quantities over subsequent turns) which can be exchanged for unit upgrades and used to build fortresses that lower costs and give other bonuses. There’s also an overarching story that emerges in driblets, which were initially in laughably broken English but have also been improving with upgrades. Many of the biggest initial problems—like archers failing to prioritize the flying units only they can attack—have been fixed, and recent additions like a library of discovered info on player units and enemy units make for a better experience. As a tower-defense game, it’s good; as an example of how developers can win a fan base by accepting and quickly implementing feedback, it’s stellar. Only gripe is, it used to be a much more challenging game, and all the fixes have made it a bit too easy… B+

Cake Pirate 2

Creator: Smallfarm Games
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
Apparently “Its quite hard to make cup cakes with the cake pirates around.” (It’s hard to use apostrophes properly too; maybe the pirates steal them?) That aside, the “cake pirates” do have an annoying habit of flooding your cupcake maker with birds, starfish, and other critters who want to steal the cakes you’re busily making. So naturally you have to build and upgrade towers to defend them. Most of what sets Cake Pirate 2 apart from other standard TD games (apart from the cute but rigid manga design) is that need to build cakes, which function as life points: You can sell them off for quick cash if necessary, but success in a level is determined by how many cupcakes you’ve generated by the level’s end. Another mildly entertaining twist: Towers are upgraded via “recipes” that give them various powers. All this makes for a fairly adorable game, though it’s still simplistic and repetitive, and the levels tend to be frustratingly long without much difficulty ramp-up to keep them exciting. At least the special challenge stages vary things a little… B-

Gingerbread Circus 3

Creator: ioJoe
Platforms: Android, Browser, iPhone
Reviewed on: Browser, iPhone
Price: Android—$0.99; Browser—Free; iPhone—$0.99
The various browser versions of Gingerbread Circus are just previews of the full phone game, but they get across more about the game’s bright, silly humor than the play experience: It’s a different dynamic on the iPhone, at least, where you tilt to aim and thumb a corner of the screen to throw knives at targets. The browser version is also a little samey, with levels that vary in difficulty but follow the same basic format: Toss knives and hit all the targets, not your goofy-voiced gingerbread-person assistant. The free demos of the phone version have more variety, including touch-don’t-tilt levels, and more creative concepts, where you’re pinning circus posters to boards, for instance. Individual levels are super-short, but there’s a lot of creative variation on a theme here, and a hardcore mode with much more challenging versions of the original levels ensures some replayability… B


Creator: Llamasoft
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Reviewed on: iPad
Price: $1.99
Jeff Minter has been designing games under the Llamasoft banner since 1981, but GoatUp is his first overt platformer. Naturally, given his adoration of hoofed beasts, it’s a fast-paced 8-bit-style paean to Bovidae breeding. Preserve the life of a nanny goat by leaping her onto platforms as the screen relentlessly scrolls upward. Grazing platform grass digs up treats, but fall to the bottom and it’s game over. Kiss a billy goat, and the player’s ruminant will grow pregnant as she grazes, eventually spawning a kid. Baby goats will follow their mum like a tail, knocking away enemies. Infrequent poison mushrooms send the goat (and, by extension, the player) into a swirling psychedelic fit through which safe platforms can mostly be glimpsed. Other collectibles offer perks such as flight or invincibility. The relentless pace is matched by responsive controls (tilt or touchscreen, your choice) and irrepressibly zany audiovisual design. More capable as a distraction than a compulsion, GoatUp is tasty enough to chew on for a couple hours… A-

One Man And His Dinosaur

Creator: Megadev
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
One Man And His Dinosaur is made for micromanagers. You control a tyrannosaurus as he herds sheep across increasingly dangerous landscapes. It’s a pretty rote affair. The enemies look different in the various stages, but they mostly do the same things (run you over, shoot at you, etc.), and once you finish the five stages, you go right back to the beginning. There are achievements to win, but half of them seem dependent on dumb luck. The idea of a T-rex herding sheep is pretty funny in a vacuum, but since One Man And His Dinosaur is surrounded by similarly wacky games on the Adult Swim website, the joke seems pretty slim by comparison… C


Creator: John Funtanilla
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Zombocalypse strips the survival-horror genre down to its essence: one man, countless zombies, and an arsenal of weapons. Considering that playing this game is pure drudgery, it’s easy to see why we might want all the bells and whistles of other games. There’s a reason no one likes the endless mode in Super Smash Bros—what’s the point of fighting off a never-ending supply of faceless baddies if the surroundings don’t even change? At first, Zombocalypse seems like a side-scroller, but once you reach the edges of the playing field, you realize the whole thing’s about six inches wide. There’s nowhere to go, only zombies to kill, zombies that look like the baddies in Plants Vs. Zombies. There’s a point to be made about how the horror genre—and the zombie genre in particular—is getting boring and repetitive, but making that point in game form isn’t fun… D-

Weeds Social Club

Creator: Ecko|Code
Platform: Facebook
Price: Free
Like Pot Farm before it, Weeds Social Club bets on the idea that FarmVille would be better if you were growing different strains of marijuana instead of fruits and vegetables. In danger of foreclosure, your character reaches out to Andy Botwin of Showtime’s Weeds for money help, and he encourages you to turn your home into a grow house. Ecko|Code seems to only have permission to use Justin Kirk’s mug, as Andy is the only character from the show you deal with. So players spend most of their time peddling their pot to caricatures like Agent McGruff and Professor Nutbutter. It’s easy to rack up cash by planting, tending, harvesting, and selling weed, but progress is dramatically slowed by the game’s risk system. The more pot you’re growing, the more likely you are to get busted by the police, and the more you get busted, the worse the fines get. You can clear your record through some missions, but the game simply doesn’t have enough of these to go around. Many of the missions you receive can’t be completed for 10 or more levels, and of course you can only level up by growing more pot… C-

Super Smash Land

Creator: Dan Fornace
Platform: PC
Price: Free
The throwback graphics and music of “demakes”—retro simplifications of modern blockbuster games—add a pleasant aura of abstraction that modern games lack. Plus, they're cute! Take Super Smash Land, a Game Boy-style demake of Nintendo’s Smash Bros series. The music and graphics are just right for GameBoy, with the tinny Zelda theme sure to inspire a few smiles. The problem is that the controls are just right for GameBoy as well: authenticity demands simplification. The best demakes use technological limitations to illustrate the strengths of the originals’ core gameplay. Unfortunately for Super Smash Land, its two-button simplicity illustrates the strengths of the Smash Bros game by making it clear what’s missing without throws or power moves. Conceptually, Super Smash Land is a hit, but concept only goes so far… B

The King’s League

Creator: Kurechii
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
Getting into a strategy game is like dating. Getting to know someone’s eccentricities, conversational flow, likes, and dislikes can be as jarring and awkward as it is exciting. Sometimes strategy can be off-puttingly complex at first, and it’s best to just move on. The King’s League, however, is a great first date: It’s simple fun that reveals delightful complexity as you get to know it better. Here’s how it works: Every two weeks, your army of warriors (two at the start, four at peak) competes in the king’s tournament. Between bouts, you train the soldiers in one of six stats, and it takes days to complete the training. Optional quests can be completed to raise additional funds for unlocking new spots in your crew and recruiting new soldiers from a variety of classes, including cavalryman, wizard, archer, and soldier. League requires close attention and careful decision-making, lest your progress grind to a halt with each successive failure in the league bouts. Kurechii’s game is worth at least a second date… B+

Encyclopedia Fuckme And The Case Of The Vanishing Entree

Creator: Anna Anthropy
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
In addition to being a talented game designer (past works include Redder and Lesbian Spider-Queens Of Mars), Anna Anthropy writes good smut. Encyclopedia Fuckme And The Case Of The Vanishing Entree is a juicy work of interactive fiction billed as a “lesbian dating sim.” But that somewhat-innocuous warning doesn’t do this choose-your-own adventure justice—the trigger warning for this violent BDSM fantasy would be longer than A Song Of Ice And Fire. Anthropy’s second-person prose binds readers into the role of a voracious submissive paying a visit to the sex kitchen of a dom named Anni. Things quickly go awry, and readers wind up trussed, vulnerable, and doomed to die. At first, the binary decisions offered by Anthropy seem futile. They seem to lead to the same sad outcome. Know then, fellow pervs, that there’s a satisfying, incisive secret ending hidden among the branches. A-