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October 12, 2009

Creator: Damp Gnat
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Icycle hit the web around the same time as Canabalt, and as a paired set, the two games illustrate a dichotomy in contemporary game design. Your character can’t move backward in either game, only forward, and this design decision plays out in two different ways. Canabalt’s messy, randomly generated skyline compels players to make snap decisions just to survive until the next jump. But the meticulous icescapes of Icycle ask for careful perfection. As a naked bald man in search of some company on glaciated post-apocalyptic earth, you pedal your squeaky bicycle through vistas that are tricky to navigate, but never unfair. Frozen soap bubbles from a mysterious source hint at the one ideal path through each stage. The game draws visual inspiration from diverse sources, including Soviet propaganda and Japanese woodblock prints, yet it all works together, united by a sense of lonely fatalism: You can never go back, but at least you can go forward… A

Dragon Quest Wars
Creator: Intelligent Systems
Platform: Nintendo DSi (DSiWare)
Price: $5 (500 Nintendo points)
Dragon Quest Wars isn’t quite Dragon Quest chess, but it isn’t checkers, either. Like the recent DQ games, the grid-based strategy game Wars uses Slimes, Drackys, et al., to put a cute face on a deceptively complex set of rules. You assemble a team of monsters—another familiar DQ trope—to wage a turn-by-turn slugfest against up to three rival squads (with friends or against the computer). Each monster has a specialized set of tactics that seem simplistic until the chaos of the battlefield proves that the game is more clever and intricately balanced than it seems at first blush. The touch controls sometimes make movement on the quasi-3-D board frustrating, especially on more advanced boards, where each turn is on an oppressive time limit. If you can forgive the occasional slip of the stylus, though, Wars’ easy-does-it approach makes the game a good way for enthusiasts to share the charms of turn-based combat with novices… B+

Alien Havoc
Creator: Creat Studios
Platform: PSP
Price: $4.99
An actual alien probe seems like an appealing alternative to Alien Havoc, the PSP “mini” that’s beyond dull, starting with its lazy premise. You play as a customizable alien of your choice (though he’ll still be stumpy and slow as molasses no matter what color you paint him) who must infiltrate 20 different tiny farms and return all their cows to your ship for—uh, Alien Havoc doesn’t actually say why, but it’s safe to assume it isn’t so you can pet their soft noses while classical music plays in the background. When the farmers spot you, you can either toss rocks, cabbages, or the cows themselves to daze them, but there’s no need, as you can toss the cattle toward your ship and the farmers will immediately lose interest. Apparently, the notion of infiltration is an empty threat. The tired wackiness in Alien Havoc could be forgivable if there was more going on here, but as it is, you’ll be contemplating all the other things $5 could’ve bought instead… D

geoDefense Swarm
Creator: Critical Thought Games
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $2.99
One dirty little truth about iPhone games is that they’re largely described as “fun” because they’re so absurdly easy. Which is why the original geoDefense distinguished itself with its brutal challenge. The sequel, geoDefense Swarm, wisely borrows a page from the Fieldrunners playbook by allowing players to express themselves via their own handcrafted gauntlets of destruction. Drag and drop your towers where you see fit, then brace yourself for the onslaught of enemies (called Creeps in common tower-defense-game parlance). The game once again employs a Geometry Wars-esque aesthetic; whenever things explode, they do so in satisfying, cornea-searing bursts. While you can expect an above-average challenge, the sequel isn’t nearly as frustrating as the original. And it’s more inventive than the original was, with constantly evolving criteria that make each level feel fresh and exciting. Finally, humor is always welcome in games, but seeing the wisecrack “VOTED EASIEST LEVEL EVER” after a defeat is less funny the 10th or 20th time it appears… A-

Sweaty Boy
Creator: Spelgrim
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Online games are likely played in silence (to avoid your boss’s attention), but those who don’t put on a pair of headphones will miss a large part of what makes Sweaty Boy such a bittersweet joy. This puzzle game asks you to navigate a shivering pale kid over to a warming fire and keep him there for three seconds. He can’t move on his own. Instead, you use gravity and moving blocks to navigate him over to the goal. Clicking on a white object makes it disappear, so if your guy is on a white rectangle hovering over a ramp, clicking on the rectangle sends him tumbling down. Running into enemies, like a snowflake cannon, forces you to start the level over. While all this is going on, the background flashes shades of orange, and the creepy, slowed-down house/trance hybrid music pulsates. You’re forced to be mindful of timing as levels progress, since certain puzzles require multiple parts moving in concert to catapult you forward. Everything operates in harmony, from the scribble-like drawings to the sound of the raging fire underneath the musical score, casting a melancholy shadow over this inventive puzzle game. Silence wouldn’t do it justice… A

Creator: Tyler Glaliel
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Closure’s minimalism, blackboard-scrawl palette, and eerie ambient sound promise an experience worthy of such a weighty title, but Closure won this year’s coveted IndieCade Gameplay Award purely for its twist on the concept that light is always good and dark always bad. Using the arrow keys and spacebar, your simple figure carries only tiny, light-shedding orbs in a mysterious black-and-white world where objects are only solid when illuminated, and cease to exist in the dark. Achieving each stage’s single objective—reaching a door, sometimes shuttling a key along—requires creative use of this shadowplay. Leave the guiding light behind or place it in a traveling sconce to pass through a solid wall, but if you end up alone in the dark, you’ll fall through nothingness to your death. Solutions always feel like they’re just outside the range of your little sphere, a mesmerizing effect that grows as the nine stages increase in complexity. Strong details, like your character’s tendency to whip a paranoid glance over his shoulder when idle, ice this spooky cake… A

RunMan: Race Around The World
Creators: Tom Sennett and Matt Thorson
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Microsoft Paint gets a bad rap for its limited graphics capabilities, but it’s hard to imagine a more advanced program capturing the crude, vivid spirit of RunMan: Race Around The World. True, you do nothing but run from left to right in RunMan’s quest to win the title of being the fastest thing on two legs, but that simplicity belies a considerable charm and depth. For instance, the understated, blocky art style is paired with an incongruous soundtrack of Robert Johnson and Louis Armstrong—instead of the de rigueur chiptune bleeps and bloops—tapping the freewheeling nature of those musicians to make RunMan’s velocity and pebble-on-water quickness that much more visceral. You’re encouraged to beat your times on every level and outrun different enemies, like a pie-hungry fiend and a gigantic Zamboni-driving robot snowman, for variety. Aside from a couple of pesky crashes, RunMan’s main problem is that it eventually ends… A-

Ninjas Live
Creator: Storm8
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: Free
Games with “ninja” in the title don’t often involve a lot of waiting around, but killing time—rather than other ninjas—is an unfortunate inevitability in Ninjas Live. You are a ninja in this role-playing game, and you begin with a certain amount of life, energy, and stamina. The goal is standard: choose to complete missions, which involves training your sword and searching for clues, or do battle. Completion of either task drains life, energy, stamina, or a combination thereof, and the only way to get more is to either gain a level (after many missions and battles) or wait. See, each stat is assigned a countdown timer, so if you sit around long enough, you’ll be healed automatically. Without a central storyline to drive things, Ninjas Live feels like a whole lot of time spent doing nothing. The fun increases marginally when your clan grows bigger as you invite friends, but it’s hardly worth the effort… D+

Fatale: Exploring Salome
Creator: Tale Of Tales
Platforms: PC, Mac
Price: $7
Fatale, the latest interactive experience from Tale Of Tales (The Path), lets players literally explore Oscar Wilde’s play “Salome.” After a striking opener, you end up on a kind of stage. but instead of watching the drama, you’re exploring it after the fact; you float through the tableau as a ghost, studying the actors, the veils, and of course, the head of John the Baptist. The utterly gorgeous game captures an exotic setting, but a few modern elements invite a wider set of associations—for example, the pick-up bar matchbook with “CALL ME—SALOME” written on it. Players are expected to bring their own perspective to what they discover, but naturally, the beautiful Salome is the star, and your brief interactions with her are sensuous. Only the fiddly, non-intuitive controls hamper the experience—and the stellar character design, original music, and choreography more than compensate… B+


Creator: Zach Gage
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Lose/Lose isn’t a videogame per se, but as a top-down shooter, it more than lives up to its name. Less a game than an interactive philosophical art exhibit—or malware—Lose/Lose heightens the stakes by mapping every defenseless “enemy” to a real file on your computer: Destroy the foe and you’ll permanently delete that file, cryptically represented in the game only by the file extension that emerges in the rain of debris—cold “WAVs” and “ZIPs” against a dark, serene starry sky. Rooting around in the Recycle Bin will prove fruitless, but simply holding your fire won’t help either, because if you crash, Lose/Lose self-destructs and deletes the program itself—you’ll have to re-download and install it to try again. By aiming a spotlight at some of gaming’s unquestioned conventions, like blasting anything that moves because you can, Lose/Lose asks: Sure, you can get the high score, but at what cost? C