Sept. 19, 2011

Jetpack joyrides and Antiques Roadshow

Jetpack Joyride
Creator: Halfbrick Studios
Platforms: iPhone/iPad (Universal Binary)
Reviewed on: iPhone, iPad
Price: $0.99
The working title of this game was Machine Gun Jetpack, which was funny as a lark, but then it became Jetpack Joyride, which does more to capture the spirit of the game. Joyride is indeed the iOS equivalent of doing donuts in the parking lot. Each playthrough of the game begins with your hero, Barry Steakfries, smashing through the wall of a science-y facility with the toy he just stole—a brand-new jetpack. The main object is simply to live the dream as long as possible, rocketing through an endless obstacle course of electricity beams, missiles, and lasers while picking up coins and high-fiving the occasional panicked scientist. The course changes every time you play, and Joyride enlivens the journey with an ever-changing slate of secondary objectives, too. The game might dare you to have a near-miss with an oncoming missile, or to log as much time as possible in one of the game’s special vehicles, like the Profit Bird or the Crazy Freaking Transporter. All of this madness is controlled with a single “button,” by tapping on the screen. Halfbrick has taken note of practically every big idea to hit indie gaming in the past two years—it pays respectful yet giddy homage to Canabalt, Angry Birds, Tiny Wings, and others. The result is an exhaustingly fun game, one that feels like the culmination of this early era in phone gaming. It’s hard to imagine that Joyride can be topped by anything like itself; what comes next will have to be different. In the meantime, Halfbrick plans to accent its masterpiece with periodic updates, so the ride doesn’t have to end yet… A



BioGems

Creator: MochiGames
Platform: Browser
Price: Free 
When hostile aliens land on Bioplanet Prime, who could possibly fight them off better than an evolved cartoon cat or dog in a spacesuit? And what better way to fight them than a standard match-three game? BioGems is a familiar Bejeweled descendant where each color gem to be matched has a different power—offense, defense, healing, counterattacks, special-attack fuel, etc.—and you alternate timed turns with an opponent, which suggests a little strategy in terms of blocking moves as well as selecting them. A choice of two initial characters with different stats, plus an unlockable third character, a selection of upgrades, and the ability to earn extra turns and stack special abilities all flesh out the game a little further. Beyond that, the appeal is in the bright neon design, the cute animations (particularly on the special attacks), and the sense of story progress. The game relies heavily on luck of the draw, though that only becomes truly frustrating in the extended final boss battle. But overall, BioGems is a pleasant, casual time for players who just want a few minutes of nicely designed, visually shiny diversion… B



Baby Monkey (Going Backwards On A Pig)

Creator: Kihon Games
Platform: iPhone
Price: $0.99
Yes, it’s “inspired by” the popular YouTube video, and yes, it has the song from that video as its soundtrack, but Baby Monkey (Going Backwards On A Pig) is more than just Internet in-jokes. The game is simple but surprisingly addictive. Monkey jumps on pig. Pig takes off running. One button lets the monkey leap from the pig’s back to snare bananas or avoid obstacles. The other launches the pig, allowing it to jump over cliffs and holes. Time your jumps just right, and the monkey can grab bananas at the top of the screen or avoid taller obstacles. There isn’t much more to it than that, but the game constantly offers new challenges, and the fact that no playthrough is the same as any other keeps things fresh and interesting. Not bad for a game whose entire mission statement seemed to consist of “What’s cute and popular on the Internet?”… B



Swords & Potions

Creator: Edgebee
Platform: Browser
Price: Free (with optional micro-transactions)
It’s no coincidence that the S with a sword through it in Swords & Potions’ logo looks like a dollar sign. This simple shop-sim from the makers of Critter Forge and Sorcery Quest takes “optional” payments to laughable new levels. The game is repetitive and mildly addictive: You hire two workers, buy resources, research “recipes” for items like weapons and potions, tell your workers what to make, then sell their products. Your customers always want specific items, which half the time you won’t be able to make yet, so the game tends to be too luck-based in terms of whether you can make a given day profitable. Leveling up your workers and shop to produce more items becomes a tedious grind, especially since you can initially only play seven in-game “days” in a row before you have to step away to let them refresh. Fortunately, micropayments will let you buy more days, more recipes, new types of resources, a multitude of shop improvements, skill points, unlockable game options that otherwise take forever to earn, and so on. Not all the payments are so micro: “Starter kits” run up to about $20 and let you instantly skip far, far ahead in the game. Twenty bucks for the full version of this game wouldn’t be outrageous, but the endless series of cash-only unlockables and cash-demanding limitations even after that point essentially make this Give The Developer Money To Progress: The GameD



Infestor

Creator: Woblyware
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Infestor is the browser game you’d expect Peter Molyneux to design over a lazy holiday weekend: weird, ambitious, and off-target. Rival factions are depleting Earth of its resources, and a blobby biological weapon—The Infestor—has been released to set things right. The ball of slime’s name is apparently intended to describe its solitary power: to inhabit the bodies of humans and use their abilities before detonating the corporeal vehicles into a sticky mist. But that’s hardly infesting. The blob is more of an “inhabitor” or “possessor.” Semantics, sure, but this imprecision typifies the entire project. Ideally, each person encountered would offer The Infestor some curious capability, but it doesn’t take long to realize people are little more than power-ups. The engineer moves boxes, the civilian reaches high places, the overseer opens doors, and the creative world—pretty as it is—devolves into a series of “find the key” puzzles. Infestor is plenty polished (so in that way, it’s unlike a Molyneux game), but behind the good looks and precise controls, there’s only thoughtless green goop… C



Hollow

Creator: Connor Ullmann
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Hollow’s hero, a bulgy-eyed cotton man, yearns to shuffle off this mortal coil. Other than jumping, he has one ability: to lunge forward at high speed, straight into whatever cannot be seen beyond the screen’s edge. Though it’s vital to success, the diving maneuver is often stopped abruptly by a wall, a pit, or a deadly bad guy. All kill him with a single blow. And yet the would-be menacing world feels so safe and warm. A peppy blip tune hums as you hike through Hollow’s linty, cavernous world. Harmless bugs plop on the wet floor, and embers burn in the distance like night lights. Even the villains—which look like jellyfish, snakes, and Metroids—have a certain squishiness. When our hero is killed, they suck him up into their gelatin bellies, and he floats in a utero state. In death, the dude is blissed out… B



Frantic Frigates

Creator: Simon Lachance
Platforms: Browser, iPhone
Reviewed on: Browser, iPhone
Price: Browser—Free; iPhone—$2.99
Frantic Frigates’ control scheme makes it a wildly different experience from platform to platform. You control a small ship that sails around wildly autofiring at the nearest target—attacking sharks, enemy ships, treasure chests—and collecting gold to buy upgrades. But rather than controlling the ship itself, you use the cursor to indicate where it should go next. This is nearly impossible on a touchscreen, since your fingers tend to cover your ship and the cannon fire it’s trying to dodge. It’s a little clunky but manageable on a laptop touchpad, much smoother with a mouse, and downright liquid via the iPhone’s tilt controls. And on any platform, it’s a well-executed game, with bright, cartoony design, challenging bosses, and a structure that lets you increase your starting game-cash between play sessions in order to buy upgrades earlier and get a little farther each time. Individual games tend to be so short that even at the highest levels of starting cash, you won’t have time to earn enough to fully upgrade your ship, but the need to prioritize choices just makes the game more customizable and exciting… A-



Feed Us

Creator: Pyrozen
Platform: Browser
Price: Free 
As “direct your sea-based life-form to eat screaming people” games go, Feed Us comes in a distinctly draggy third after Miami Shark and Moby Dick: The Videogame. You control a piranha as it attempts to skeletonize a series of slack-jawed tourist types, which involves smashing their ships or leaping through the air to knock them into the water, where they can be messily devoured. Their blood becomes currency that you can trade for physical upgrades, and use to move on to the next target-rich level. Problem is that your piranha (and once you’ve upgraded, its school of followers) tends to be laggardly about following orders, and will regularly disappear offscreen or stupidly swim straight into a shark’s mouth when you’re trying to dodge. Eating people involves jerking your cursor back and forth over them, which only intermittently works, and will sometimes make your piranha swim away randomly. (And why don’t your victims drown while they’re underwater waiting to be eaten?) It’s a fun, mean idea with an amusingly gross design, but the awkward ragdoll physics and control problems really need improvement. And why can’t you eat that damn shark once you’re a huge, razor-finned bad-ass with a posse on your tail?… C-



DrawRace 2

Creator: Red Lynx
Platforms: iPhone, iPad (“HD” version)
Played on: iPad
Price: iPhone—$0.99; iPad—$2.99
DrawRace 2 initially feels like the sort of insubstantial fluff that people point to when attempting to prove precisely why iPad and iPhone games are inferior to those that use more complex tools to play. All you really do is draw a couple of circles, and then a little car follows the path you made for it. Press a boost button if it looks like the other cars are pulling ahead. It’s simplicity that, on the surface, almost tips into stupidity. In practice, though, RedLynx’s racer is a wonderfully taxing game of precision. While the path for a racer is just a drawn circle, the speed with which you draw the path determines the speed of your car, meaning that difficult corners have to be considered ahead of time. There are different weather conditions, a variety of vehicle types, and three heats for each of the game’s 60 races. Each heat introduces a new competing car, and by the time there are four on the course (including yours), each 30-second race turns into a frustrating but satisfying attempt to persevere… A-



Bla Bla

Creator: Vincent Morisset
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Don't be fooled by its prominent placement at the National Film Board Of Canada website, or its description as “A Film For Computer.” Bla Bla isn’t pretentious. It’s a charming set of simple games, divided into chapters, using similar aesthetics. Click on the screen, and something entertaining will happen. Click on the right things, and the chapter progresses. The joy of Bla Bla comes from seeing just what happens, like when a click creates multiple little men, who wander over to one another and start talking or hugging. Bla Bla doesn’t do much, but it helps create the joy of discovery by playing it, and that's more than enough… A-



Symon

Creator: Gambit
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Occasional connected piano chords that foist pathos on the player. A human-sized frog, on crutches. “I'm sorry, Frog. I was little then. I didn’t mean it.” Regret, pain, and loss. This is all par for the course with “arty” indie games, and given Symon’s appearance, it’s appropriate. But there’s more going on here. Symon’s use of “dream logic” to create its random adventure-game components actually works well on a conceptual level—most games have that floating, exploratory feeling. But the problem with randomly generated adventures is that when completed, they’re unsatisfying—and there's a decent chance they'll seem impossible to finish. As a set of ideas, Symon is impossible to trump, but the practical form reveals the limitations of an otherwise brilliant concept… B-



Line Of Fire

Creator: Lazy Nation
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
Bored people in classrooms have been making Line Of Fire forever. Kent Dorfman essentially draws this plane-shooting game during that scene in Animal House when Donald Sutherland is bitching about how people find Milton boring, but that doesn’t excuse them from learning the material. The difference between the fleets of notebook doodles made by bleary-eyed students and Lazy Nation’s game is that you can actually play the latter. You captain the slowest-moving combat jet in history through the looseleaf skies over Domingo Island and beyond, blowing up everything as you go. The rules are familiar: Collect floating upgrades to improve weapon effectiveness, don’t get hit, blow up as much as possible. What isn’t standard is the quality of the stick-figure drawings and the animation of explosions. Line Of Fire looks and sounds like the addled fantasy taking place in the minds of people who doodle silly firefights. Extra credit is given for the terrible Arnold Schwarzenegger impersonator who provides the voice of the commanding officer… B+



Titan Lunch Retaliation

Creator: Berserk Studio
Platforms: Browser
Price: Free
A clean premise goes a long way: If a bird steals a man’s shank of meat, you’d best believe he’s going to sprint down a mountain and climb through the air stabbing monsters to get back what’s rightfully his. Titan Lunch Retaliation has a good set up, it’s true, but beyond the base-level satisfaction that comes from squishing a giant flying eyeball, it doesn’t offer much. Titan is a one-button game: Starting at the top of a hill, you launch yourself into the air by timing a press of the spacebar, which determines the height of your leap. The meat-chasing hero, a little amalgamation of warrior stereotypes (defining characteristics: Indian-chief headdress, loincloth, Spartan helmet, sweeping cape, rage) uses a grappling hook and sword to stab enemies in midair, thus keeping him airborne. Points are earned for each kill, equating to cash when you plummet back to the ground. Cash is used to buy upgrades, like a longer grappling hook. There’s no real escalation in challenge, though, so the whole game is about going through the motions. The premise is about hunting for a decent meal, but these are empty calories… B-



Antiques Roadshow: Discovering America’s Hidden Treasures

Creator: Namco Bandai
Platform: iPad
Price: $4.99
Antiques Roadshow is a prim public-television show where Joe and Judy America bring their trinkets to a convention hall so well-heeled appraisers can tell them that their dusty old vase is in fact a valuable treasure. That’s a strange premise for an iPad game, but the great thing about Antiques Roadshow: Discovering America’s Hidden Treasures is that it’s even stranger than it needs to be. You play as Julia, a history teacher inspired by an episode of Roadshow to seek a job at the local antique store. She gets the gig, yet the shop’s proprietor immediately sends her away, ordering her to pilfer whatever treasures she can find from quaint nooks across the country. The first mission sees Julia looting a rustic farmhouse, at one point using a sledgehammer to smash the padlock on a storage shed. In another mission, she plunders a grave. Each locale is a bog-standard hidden-object challenge in which you must find certain antiques in the cluttered scene and tap on them to fill your treasure chest. After you’ve completely cleaned out a joint, a series of mini-games ensue, with the aim of making your items more salable. You might, for instance, drip glue onto some ancient Chinese glassware (read: smear your finger across the screen for a while) to conceal a crack—a dubious practice by any Roadshow appraiser’s standards. Julia tops off her larceny and fraud with a bit of cronyism: Her cousin is a production assistant on the Roadshow program, a connection she exploits to appear on the show every week and publicize her most valuable finds, which, by the way, are for sale. As a find-the-objects exercise, Hidden Treasures is ordinary, but as a bizarre example of a stuffy brand going way off message, the game is an unintentional delight. C-

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