October 31, 2011

Mercury Hg
Creator: Ignition Entertainment
Platforms: PlayStation 3, Xbox 360
Played on: Xbox 360
Price: $5
Like its predecessor, Mercury Meltdown, (which traces its heritage to Marble Madness), this action-puzzle hybrid requires you to navigate a puddle of goo from one end of a map to the next, not by moving it directly, but by manipulating the tilt of the world around it. Then, once that cognitive shift is sufficiently in place, Mercury Hg asks for more: Change your blob’s color to get past occasional barriers, or split your blob for easier access to bonuses, or navigate sticky terrain under a time crunch. The list goes on, and the result is the expansive world of Mercury Hg. No two puzzles feel alike, and each plays to a different skill-set. Sometimes it’s a race to the finish, but other levels require you take a step back—made easier with intuitive camera controls—and ponder the best route from point A to point B. Then, after you squeak by a level with the minimum requirements to move on, you revisit it in Challenge Mode, where you must achieve near-perfection. There are hundreds of levels and multiple ways to play each one, plus a slick, futuristic soundtrack to add to the fact that, yes, you’re manipulating a puddle of goo, and it feels revolutionary… A



Ruins

Creator: Cardboard Computer
Platforms: Mac, PC
Played on: PC
Price: Free
Few things tug at the heartstrings like dogs, bunnies, and Chopin. If they were merged poorly, the mix could resemble the worst the Lifetime Channel has to offer. Yet the indie game Ruins manages to combine such sentimental staples into a surreal, melancholy exploration of a failed relationship. You control a dog chasing rabbits through a muted pink plain peppered with dead trees and peculiar objects, like a grand piano. Each hare contributes to the story, and frequently, they’ll ask for your opinion on the matter. Your answers dictate how the plot develops, and it’s worth replaying to build a better understanding about what’s really going on. In spite of a surreal presentation that’s equal parts pretty and bleak, there’s a human story under there… B+ 



Fisher-Diver
 
Creator: Eli Piilonen
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Fisher-Diver is a more sinister game than its generic name implies. Controlling a vague outline of a diving helmet, you plunge into the unknown to shoot fish portrayed as abstract shapes, and collect their corpses to sell. That lets you purchase gear granting the abilities to dive further, strike harder, and carry more. At first, the easygoing, cyclical nature is reminiscent of Thatgamecompany’s flOw, but the cryptic diary entries from a former sea captain and unnerving themes about man’s ambition driving him deeper into the earth’s core have more in common with BioShock. The initial Zen-like atmosphere, full of bright blues and upbeat tempos, gets repetitive, but the slow start makes the inevitable chilling descent into the abyss all the more unsettling… B-



Fruit Ninja: Puss In Boots

Creator: Halfbrick
Platforms: iPhone, iPad (“HD” version)
Played on: iPad
Price: iPhone—$0.99; iPad—$1.99
Fruit Ninja: Puss In Boots shares about 99 percent of its DNA with its not-tied-to-a-film predecessor, which was inevitable. After all, the whole premise of Fruit Ninja is in the title: Slice fruit with your ninja-esque fingers. And aside from a few distractions, that’s pretty much all you get. Fruit Ninja: Puss In Boots is exactly that game, with minor graphics upgrades and the ability to customize your “weapon,” like you could before—only this time, with objects related to DreamWorks’ CGI film Puss In Boots, like a guitar that plays a little musical note every time you slice. One welcome addition is “Bandito mode,” a mini-adventure where challenges are presented at random, like slicing a hard-shelled coconut under a time crunch. You conquer each micro-game until you reach “the finale.” But momentum is an illusion; the challenges barely get harder, and the randomness lets you occasionally coast your way through to the end. Other than the ability to watch the trailer for the film, there isn’t much different about Fruit Ninja: Puss In Boots. As far as fruit-ninjaing goes, stick with the original… D+



Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf

Creator: Cactus
Platforms: Mac, PC
Played on: PC
Price: Free
One of the early concerns with the music video was that MTV would hijack listeners’ imaginations, training them to picture specific, spoon-fed images when hearing their favorite music. Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf does something similar with gameplay. This collaboration between gonzo game maker Cactus and the bit-punk band Fucking Werewolf Asso feels like a music video cobbled together from mini-games. Every time the pace of the tune veers, the way you play changes. At first, the left turns are disarming. You start by jumping from platform to platform à la Ice Climbers. Then, at the drop of the hat, you’re told to start jamming on a pair of buttons. You have only seconds to recalibrate, and failure means starting the song over. But eventually, the game trains you to anticipate transitions. Frantic sequences are accompanied by musical freakouts, and mellow musical moments feature play that isn’t quite so hairy. Keyboard Drumset Fucking Werewolf may not be the future of music videos, but it is damn effective (perhaps moreso than Guitar Hero) at implanting the shape of a pop song in gamers’ brains… A-



Closed World

Creator: Singapore-MIT GAMBIT Game Lab
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Closed World is a student game that aims to communicate queer issues in the form of a game. And though the bite-sized role-playing adventure is occasionally ham-fisted in its approach, it proves that games can be a path to mining empathy. The setup is that you’re a young person struggling with being different in an unforgiving world. Coming to terms with your situation means leaving home, plunging into a dark forest maze, and fighting demons—loved ones who undermine and attack with their words. These encounters unfold like turn-based RPG battles, with players combating verbal aggression with a rock-paper-scissors arsenal of passion, logic, and ethics. These moments are simplistic in the extreme—more a proof of concept than a fully baked combat system. But they achieve their goal. By game’s end, there’s a sense of accomplishment in confronting loved ones with who you are. Closed World seems to say “It gets better,” but only after you’ve found the courage to face those monsters… B



Grinning Cobossus

Creator: Gama11
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Grinning Cobossus is not interested in wasting your time. There is a stone-faced beast floating left to right in his starship as space floats by. You are a small ship, seemingly a technological relative of the one in Galaga. The Cobossus never stops shooting, his tiny green bullets floating down toward you, and in turn, your ship sends back an endless stream of little yellow bullets. You blow up the Cobossus’ shield first, then his ship, then the Cobossus himself, contending with new attack patterns in each phase. In each of three difficulties, the simple task of moving between the bullets invites a delicious trance state. Offensive, defensive, and dexterity stats can be upgraded, but taking a break for that is almost less useful than maintaining flow. Grinning Cobossus offers little depth in terms of features, but beguiling depth in your task… B



Hanger 2

Creator: A Small Game
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
The developers at A Small Game make nightmares, and they’re very good at it. If Intruded is that nasty dream about someone always watching you, and Pixel City Skater is the where you’re always falling down, Hanger 2 is the one where you almost figure out how to fly, and then it all goes wrong. You play as a featureless stick figure whose most memorable feature is the feeling of weight impressed on players when it’s swinging from a grapple line. That line is attached to whatever’s above your stick figure—a rock face, an overhang from a building, etc. The goal is to swing to the right until you reach a shimmering goal line. Fall, and you die. Clip an outcropping, and one of your limbs will detach. Even with little more than a head and partial torso, you can still reach the end, but a higher score is given for maintaining body structure and using fewer swings. Watching the little stick man flail through the air is as upsetting as any midnight-snack-induced night terror, but the relief of reaching each goal is enough to keep going… B+



One And One Story

Creator: Mattia Traverso
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
An unusually large number of games about jumping also seem to be about the hardship of being in love. Mario has always had it rough contending with his lady and her on-again, off-again relationship with another man/dragon. That whiner in Braid is obsessed with his own princess and a past transgression. Mattia Traverso’s One And One Story uses obstacle-hopping and spike-pits to more literally explore the trials and travails of romance and commitment. You control a man and woman in love, and as their relationship progresses, you must navigate the world in different ways. At first, you have control over both lovers, guiding one to the other with careful moves. Before long, though, the girl only moves toward the boy when he’s in her line of sight. Later, you move both simultaneously, but when he moves right, she moves left. What One And One lacks in subtlety, it makes up for with careful composition. Each stage can be navigated in multiple ways, which demonstrates that even if Traverso doesn’t have something especially mind-blowing to say about love, he understands something about its complexities… B+



Raze 2

Creator: Armor Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
For anyone who has dreamed of a Super Mario Bros.-style game re-imagined as an offline Halo deathmatch: Today is your day. Raze 2 stars a synthetic super-soldier tasked with fending off an alien invasion. The game is spread across a pair of 15-level campaigns. The Human campaign is labeled as “easy.” The Alien campaign is “hard,” though a more accurate descriptor might be “night of one billion deaths.” By level five, most gamers will have checked out, thanks to your brain-dead A.I.-controlled “teammates” (their deaths-to-kills ratio is typically 15-to-one—thanks, guys) and a wild-ride control scheme which uses mouse movement to determine bullet trajectories. Within the limited square-footage of the average browser window, aiming your gun often leads to inadvertent point-clicks on just about every advertisement on the page… D-



Kern Type

Creator: Mark MacKay
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Kern Type, like its name suggests, is a game about adjusting the space between letters, with each “level” dedicated to a different font—wait, where are you going? If an interesting documentary can be made about the ubiquitous typeface Helvetica, then a surprisingly enjoyable game can be made about a design practice that infiltrates every moment of our reading lives. Kern Type provides two letters—then three, then four—to shift around until players have produced a visually pleasing sequence. Answers are graded against those of a professional typographer, but low scores are no barrier to the next stage. (There are 10 in all.) Even if analyzing negative space leaves you numb, and you can’t tell Clarendon from Apple Chancery, this brief, illuminating blip of a game creates a space to ponder the ponderous until it magically becomes fascinating… B



A Game About Game Literacy

Creator: Damian Sommer
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
With the explosion of games about gaming conventions in recent years, “meta” might as well be its own micro-genre. Designer Damian Sommer has done his bit to populate that category with titles like Village Of The Glitch, in which players can win only by sufficiently slowing the game’s frame rate. Developed as a design exercise for the 9th Gaming Prototype Challenge, A Game About Game Literacy strips the Metroidvania chassis bare by relying only on arrows, clocks, colored keys, and colored blocks. Stages teach skills, build upon those skills, then ask players to make a conceptual leap. Success means being able to put all those newfound abilities to good use in a proper level, where time is the enemy, not monsters. It being 2011 and all, there’s a fake-out ending and some undulating electronic music (in addition to a real live Castlevania track) to add flavor to what is otherwise an intentionally minimalistic gaming experience. Tricky and thought-provoking, A Game About Game Literacy was built in only a day and a half—and it shows—but the structures it deconstructs are timeless… B



Bullseye

Creator: Moonbot Studios LA
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Played on: iPad
Price: $1.99
It’s too bad when “interesting” is the best word to describe a game, but Bullseye is more “interesting” than anything else. Conceived by indie band The Polyphonic Spree as an interactive music video for its latest single, Bullseye follows a shining yellow ball named “You-Me” as it tumbles through a Dr. Seuss world. You rarely have control of You-Me’s movements; instead, you touch flowers, trees, and mountains to make them bloom and grow. At certain points, controlling the scenery is a lot of fun (especially the beginning, where tapping on stars makes them chime like wine glasses), but there isn’t not a lot of variety in your options. If the game outlasted the song “Bullseye”—which is great, by the way—it would get old pretty fast. Thankfully, the game ends when the song does, but like many “normal” music videos, Bullseye doesn’t live up to repeat viewings… B-



Concerned Joe

Creators: Xelu, Omar Shehata, Jesse Valentine, Johnny Utah
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
As browser-game innovations go, “keep moving or you die” is a pretty thin one. Yes, if your generic green blob character stands still in this “push crates, make precise jumps, and avoid traps” familiar-thon, your health will drain. But this gimmick isn’t the main selling point for Concerned Joe. That would be the other gimmick, Joe himself. Joe is the designer of the torture-world you inhabit, a chortling frat-dude who entertains himself by watching and commenting on your failures in his little obstacle course. A malevolent creator is a pretty shopworn trope in the indie world, too, but usually it’s an angry mother type, because working out mommy issues in a game is cheaper than getting therapy. There are no Oedipal issues with flighty, impulsive Joe. Hearing him comment on your actions as you play is like having your stoner college buddy (or maybe Taco from The League) watching the game over your shoulder. Since everything is more amusing when viewed through the eyes of a stoner college buddy, Concerned Joe is more fun than it ought to be. B

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