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October 26, 2009

Castlevania: The Bloodletting
Creator: Piscesdreams
Platform: PC (beta)
Price: Free
When Sega’s 32X peripheral for the Genesis crashed and burned in the mid-’90s, it took with it a number of suddenly canceled titles. Castlevania: The Bloodletting was one such game, which, according to legend, got absorbed into 1997’s sublime Castlevania: Symphony Of The Night for the PlayStation. But the original game’s true form has remained the source of much speculation. One devoted fan decided that 12 years was long enough to wait, and so, after two years of faithfully piecing together what could have been, he has dutifully taken the project as far as he can with Castlevania: The Bloodletting. It’s a polished beta, so while that means that, yes, glitches abound here, it’s further than anyone else has taken the title, and thankfully, it doesn’t feel like wildly inaccurate fan-fiction. Bloodletting is true to the Castlevania lineage: Precise jumping and patience with the whip are the only way to survive the unyielding onslaught of Medusa heads and zombies. It also boasts some inventive twists on the franchise’s notorious difficulty, like scenarios where you actually have to take damage from an enemy to survive while also leaping from pillar to pillar over spikes. Moments like those make the occasional inexplicable death from climbing a staircase and other head-scratching bugs worth enduring… A- 

Creator: Danny Miller
Platform: Browser
Price: Free 
Danny Miller’s Boomshine is a nearly perfect casual game: It only takes a second to learn, but the rapidly ramping difficulty is deceptively addictive, and the drifting dots and sweetly tinkling music are downright hypnotic. Miller’s follow-up, Obechi, looks and feels much the same, with play taking place on a field full of colored balls in slow Brownian motion. And once again, Tim Halbert provides a soothing musical accompaniment. But the magic isn’t quite the same. For one thing, Obechi is much easier, though the strategies are more flexible. On each level, you try to capture a set number of gently wafting dots within a set number of flexible, expandable rings. Some levels call for gluttonous completism, and others for micro-precise corralling, but in this target-rich environment, only the levels where you have to keep your capture numbers low are actually difficult. Either way, it’s worth the reward of seeing all of a level’s dots cohere into a complicated, dancing pattern, and global leaderboards for completion time may excite competitive spirits. But while Obechi is a fun quickie distraction, it lacks Boomshine’s obsessive replay value. Which may be a good thing for those with jobs and other obligations… B

LostWinds: Winter Of The Melodias
Creator: Frontier Developments
Platform: Nintendo Wii (WiiWare)
Price: $10 (1000 Nintendo points)
The Wii has been a barren wasteland of late, so the downloadable LostWinds: Winter Of The Melodias is a no-pun-intended breath of fresh air. The attractive little platformer uses the Wii Remote to summon and control wind in swirls and currents. An upward flip summons a gust to enable a jump, while more complex gesture and button combos create cyclones and vortices with which you can overcome puzzle challenges. Break barriers, manipulate water, or form fast snowballs to activate weighted switches. Soon the hero is switching seasons from summer to winter and back again, opening new puzzle opportunities in each level and offering more beauty than the game’s low-poly aesthetic should be able to provide. The only weakness is the imprecision implicit to the Wii Remote. The action is forgiving, but after a while having to repeatedly gesture to summon the proper wind power sorta blows... B+

Miami Shark
Creator: Wiesi
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
You’re a shark, and you’re hungry. That’s the premise of Miami Shark, a sidescroller where players control a pissed-off great white wreaking havoc on Miami’s coast. You gain points by diving into the water and leaping up to crush boats and chomp on planes, which you can drag out of the sky to produce huge destructive explosions. These in turn blow up more stuff, with people pouring out of the wrecked vehicles. Chase swimmers down for snacks, and they leave behind bloody stains on the water, which is the only real hint of gore the game provides. Otherwise it’s just hilarious and addictive as your victims freak out, screaming "OMG!" and "Shark!" It’s easy to rack up a satisfying path of destruction, but mastering the timing needed to grab the B-52s and Apache helicopters inexplicably flying above the city’s mansions and palm trees requires practice. Luckily, the sheer variety of stuff to destroy keeps things feeling fresh game after game… A-

Critter Crunch
Creator: Capybara Games
Platform: PS3
Price: $6.99
Hooky chew-and-spit game mechanics earned the simpler iPhone edition of Capybara’s Critter Crunch top honors in 2008’s Independent Games Festival Mobile, and the PlayStation Network edition gives this puzzler the expanded treatment it deserves: lush hand-drawn art and a fully realized world. You play as Biggs, a tubby critter with a froglike tongue he uses to snag smaller creatures and feed them to bigger ones on a vertical board, clearing them when they pop. In all three modes—adventure, challenge, and puzzle—this food-chain play gets deep. Create chains by popping adjacent creatures of the same color, collect the jewels they drop to sate Biggs’ appetite, and vomit rainbows to feed his son Smalls for extra points. The game is cheerful about its grossness, but it’s cute enough to excuse the cheek (fuzzy Biggs’ booty-shaking victory dance especially). Framed by mustachioed narrator Hank Hudson and his earnest documentary of feeding habits on Krunchatoa Island, it feels like playing a Saturday-morning cartoon. With the small-file digital distribution model has come a wave of lazy puzzlers for console platforms, but Critter Crunch demonstrates that small bites can still pack a lot of polish… A

Pinball Pulse: The Ancients Beckon
Creator: Fuse Games
Platform: Nintendo DSi (DSiWare)
Price: $5 (500 Nintendo points)
The developers at Fuse Games make great pinball simulations—like Metroid Prime Pinball and the old Pinball Pro series—because they pay homage to the best real-life pinball. The Greek mythology-themed machine in Pinball Pulse: The Ancients Beckon takes its design cues from the great Williams and Bally tables of the ’90s, like Funhouse and The Twilight Zone, although The Ancients Beckon is much less difficult. Since Fuse has been at this a while, the ball and flippers feel right (only Crave’s Pinball Hall Of Fame series is better), and the sound cues hit the right kitschy tone. The game does get a bit too literal by placing the controls to nudge the machine on the DSi’s touchscreen. It’s a nice thought, but the screen is too far from the flipper buttons for the split-second reaction you need when a ball is headed straight down the middle… B

Creator: Damien Clarke
Platform: Web
Price: free
It’s been years since a Matrix movie has been in theaters, yet the film trilogy’s influence on fighting games continues—specifically, slow-motion brawls. Electricman2HS is a fighting game in which your guy has both regular-speed punch/kick/throw abilities and slow-motion versions of the same. The latter look a hell of a lot cooler and do more damage, but they use up some of your battery life. (He’s an electric man, after all.) Each level plops your guy on a screen with a handful of metallic meanies, and your mission is to beat them all up. Your man can duck, he can weave, and he can do flying kicks, all with the push of only a few buttons. The simple control scheme, however, doesn’t make up for the tiny size of each arena; executing a slow-motion throw could be a lot of fun, if only there were enough space to do anything more than run back and forth. Plus, after a while, each level/mission feels the same—the opponents don’t change, they just get a little more powerful. Electricman2HS adapts the Matrix fighting style quite well, it just didn’t leave room for much else… C-

In Another Château
Creator: Andreas Jörgensen, Miroslav Malešević
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Americans and the French have a deep-seated misunderstanding of each other, but games like In Another Château are doing what they can to bridge the cultural gap. Okay, so the plot isn’t very relatable for Joe Six-Pack—you play as a dashing Frenchman who seeks to recover his biplane, which was stolen while you were on an afternoon stroll—but its execution is straightforward enough: You grab a crate-shooting gun to navigate pit-laden, obstacle-heavy, and notably enemy-free platforming levels, rescuing mademoiselles along the way. To drive the Continental feel home, you pass from level to level by entering a red phone booth adorned with a French flag. It can get repetitive after the initial charm wears off, but the game’s gimmick of shooting crates is versatile. It can be used to create staircases or to turn ridges of pits into popcorn bags for your precious boxes. So you can overlook all those fancy accent marks and foreign-sounding words like “château”… B

Hell Is Other People
Creator: George Buckenham
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Hell Is Other People is haunted. That is, it’s a straightforward top-down shooter with a novel twist: The enemies you face in dogfights are previous human contestants. Their bobbing and weaving and bursts of gunfire have nothing to do with you—it was their turn in a prior life. The longer you endure your mysterious opponents’ maneuvers, the more ghosts emerge. Hell Is Other People starts off simple, with a battle against just one enemy ship, but it gets downright insane when 15 or more ghosts fill the screen. Your frenzied hiding in the corner while blasting endlessly might make perfect sense to you, but you’ll look like a spaz to the next person facing you down after the fact. While the game is free to try, British creator Buckenham offers upgrades should you choose to invest: £3 adds gamepad and full-screen support, plus the option to replace your ship with a head; £50 lets you sub in whatever graphic you feel best enhances the action… A

Evidence Of Everything Exploding
Creator: Jason Nelson
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Don DeLillo kicked off his novel Underworld with a panorama of the 20th century’s biggest figures, all centered on a baseball game. Jason Nelson also taps cultural moments of the last century, but his approach is far less portentous. Nelson’s latest browser-based art game, Evidence Of Everything Exploding, patches together conspiracy theories, primary sources, and the use of words as both signifiers and stuff that blows up. The gameplay entails a series of obstacle courses, which play more smoothly than Nelson’s I Made This. You Play This. We Are Enemies. The backdrops are primary documents, and the references run the gamut of geek heroes and popular conspiracies: Andy Warhol and Fidel Castro shuffle beside Bill Gates and Neil Gaiman, and aliens, copyright law, and Spanish Influenza are presented as equally menacing. Visually, Nelson strikes the right balance between stimulating the eyes and overwhelming them. The live-action video and the irritating yet addictive finale reinforce the feeling that this is history reduced to memes—funny, surprising, and easily distracted… A-

Cuboy: Back To The Cubeture 1
Creator: Edible Castle
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The exact recipe for Cuboy’s strange speech pattern is hard to discern—it’s something like John Lennon with a dash of old-timey newsreel announcer thrown in—but everything he says comes out sounding funny. It probably helps that the voice behind the right-angled protagonist, Andy Dennis, is also the writer of the goofy point-and-click adventure Cuboy: Back To The Cubeture 1. With his every move backed by an a capella soundtrack (which is 90 percent less annoying than you’d expect such a thing to be), Cuboy chases an evil cat back in time to the Wild West, where he tries to stop him from traveling through time—and fails, obviously. This adventure and its simple puzzles are a nice diversion, even if the controls can feel a little muddy, but for once the highlight of a game is the huge dialogue trees. (If you like the game’s awkward wit, there’s also a Cuboy animated series.) Further episodes of Back To The Cubeture are promised, which is welcome news, as this installment feels short. A-