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September 14, 2009

Spider: The Secret Of Bryce Manor
Creator: Tiger Style Games
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $2.99
To beat Spider: The Secret Of Bryce Manor, you have to think like a spider: Your life revolves around catching bugs by spinning the best traps you can make. Eating gives you the fluid you need to weave, which you accomplish by zipping a finger from one surface to the next—but waste it on bad webs, and you’ll slowly run out. This procedure works elegantly on the iPhone, though a PC gamer might prefer a mouse and a bigger screen. But at least you have time to plan your moves. You’re the deadliest thing in this world and nothing can hurt you, which gives you a chance to think like a human: Your spider is wandering through an abandoned house, and clues in the shadows spin a drama about the folks who used to live here. The spider doesn’t care about the secrets it’s finding, like the wedding ring dropped down a drain, or the rival brothers who drop up in portraits or trophies. Puzzling out what happened is strictly your pleasure as the player, which creates a marriage of foreground game and background story not unlike Portal’s. Play for the mechanic, but stay for the spider’s-eye view of a family gone to seed… A-

Creator: Bryan Mitchell
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $0.99 (during introductory sale)
Geared delivers 80 puzzles in which players drive a blue gear by using a proffered set of cogs to chain it to a yellow gear. While yellow and blue gears may only barely be visible, your cogs must stay strictly within the onscreen area. Difficulty ramps up slowly. The first 30 puzzles are simple, but soon you need to drive several target cogs with only a few gears, and shaded screen areas may block gear placement. At the beginning of the curve, Geared is cute and distracting, while at the end, it finally becomes challenging. Throughout, the touch interface works well, though the smallest discs may be obscured by your finger, and are consequently difficult to place with precision. That's an issue in the last dozen levels, which require real accuracy, but it isn’t problematic enough to overcome Geared’s simple, friendly appeal… B+

Creator: Jamezilla
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: $1 (80 Microsoft points)
Microsoft chose the right time to rechristen the Community Games portion of its Xbox Live Marketplace. While the new name, “Xbox Live Indie Games,” is undeniably cynical, it also reflects an honest glimmer of excitement around cheap user-created titles for the 360. Exemplifying that spirit is I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1, a spoof of the Computer Science 101 turkeys that have plagued the Community Games section from its inception. The crude art and outsize enthusiasm capture that school-project vibe, yet Z0MBIES works both as a gag and as a game. Using only the 360 controller’s analog sticks, you mow down waves of zombies, ghouls, and (for whatever reason) perky green blobs. The onslaught builds slowly enough that 15-minute play sessions are the norm. That gives you time to enjoy the hilarious soundtrack—a sort of alt-rock re-imagining of the theme to It’s Garry Shandling’s ShowB+

Deadline A Go
Creator: Zenryokutei
Platform: Xbox 360
Price: $5 (400 Microsoft points)
The Xbox Live Indie Games relaunch also brought an influx of raw, untranslated Japanese games for adventurous or bilingual players. Thanks to an unusual premise, Deadline A Go is one of the most notable. You arrange programmers, designers, and other staff in a game-development office, positioning them where they’ll best be able to thwart the bugs that are about to march through their workspace. The self-referential tack works better for Z0MBIES than it does for Deadline, as the latter doesn’t take its conceit far enough. Once the programmer starts spawning fire demons, it’s clear that Deadline is content to paste offbeat iconography on a standard tower-defense template. That aesthetic twist isn’t enough to overcome a humdrum execution… C-

Race For The Galaxy
Creators: Tom Lehmann (original board game), Genie Game Server (online adaptation)
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Surfing the new wave of strategy-minded board games isn’t cheap. Unlike the Milton Bradley standards available at Target and Wal-Mart for a song, recent releases must be copped at specialty shops or online, and will usually set you back as much as a premium videogame. And unless you have a good gaming shop in your area, it can be hard to find like-minded dorks to play these games with. That’s why online versions of many popular tabletop games like Race For The Galaxy have popped up. Genie Game Server’s browser-based version is fan-made and bare-bones, but with actual scans of the cards, permission from the people who made the game, game-changing tweaks from the first Gathering Storm expansion, and a polite community, it’ll do in a pinch. If only you didn’t have to hit F5 over and over again to see whether your opponents have taken their turns… B-

Tigris & Euphrates
Creators: Reiner Knizia (original board game), BoardGameGeek (online adaptation)
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The web-based version of Reiner Knizia’s masterful board game Tigris & Euphrates is hosted at the online mecca for all things tabletop, BoardGameGeek.com. The flavor here is incredibly light. Up to four players jockey for control of settlements, farms, temples, and markets by placing tiles that extend their leaders’ influence. The goal isn’t simply to rack up points, but to have the most even spread of points across the four different categories. There’s way more depth to this modest game than there appears at first blush. The big upside to this online version is that it allows for asynchronous play. E-mail notifications let you know when it’s your turn to move, so you won’t be chained to your browser. The downside is that drawn-out play means that it’s more common for games to stall when a weak link forgets to take a turn. Both board games reviewed here require a basic knowledge of game rules. Brush up at BoardGameGeek and buy the cardboard version if you like the freebie… B+

Butterfly Fantasy
Creator: GarbuzGames
Platform: Browser 
Price: Free
Imagery is everything in Butterfly Fantasy. Each level lays out two pictures side by side, and players must find all the differences to advance. It’s a simple but frustrating mechanic, with differences ranging from the super-obvious like hair color to subtle variations in the length of a bit of ooze. The rewards come from the haunting, strange images, which tell the story of a man trapped in a subterranean prison by grotesque monsters. With no explanation besides the pictures, players are left to contemplate what’s actually going on. Eerie background music adds to the effect, but the soundtrack is short, and when you’re spending too much time hunting for an answer, the music gets grating. A hint mode helps by outlining the general area of a difference in sparkling light, and when in doubt, you can click around randomly, and lose nothing but irrelevant points… B-

Wonder Bounce
Creator: Darthlupi
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Never has a terrifying out-of-body experience been so adorable. Darthlupi’s Wonder Bounce puts you in the ghostly shoes of “Ishmoo the sweeper,” who stumbles on a sacred book that casts his soul “to the land of the damned to train in the art of wonder bounce.” That's all a fancy way of saying that you play a spooky janitor who must hop on wave after wave of lost souls to prevent them from commandeering your vacant body at the bottom of the screen. The game’s simple charm is effortlessly nailed via blocky 8-bit graphics and rudimentary music in levels that easily could have been in Bubble Bobble. Anything fancier would overshadow Wonder Bounce's straightforward, existentialist hook. Plus, it seems to make some sort of statement against religion, or at least literacy… A-

Labyrinth Hero
Creator: Skipmore
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The Legend Of Zelda was supposedly inspired by Shigeru Miyamoto’s boyhood excursions into caves and forests outside Kyoto. While Zelda went on to legendary status, its dungeon-crawling was always a bit formulaic, and Labyrinth Hero focuses solely on improving the conceits of one of its obvious influences, by letting you see everywhere on the map from an overhead perspective. True, Hero’s 10 dungeons all follow the same pattern (every floor has two enemies, a treasure chest, a switch, and a hidden staircase to delve deeper), but it rejuvenates these conventions by limiting your view to what you can see immediately around you with a conveniently aimed spotlight. To make the exploration all the more strategic, your nameless character moves almost irritatingly slowly until the floor’s enemies have been vanquished. No need for any of those fancy boomerangs, hookshots, or ocarinas here… A

A Doodle Flight
Creator: j2sighte (Jerry Lee)
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $0.99
Like Wii games, the recent flurry of iPhone games for the 3.0 software have all tried to capitalize on the system's advantages, and A Doodle Fight is a textbook example. Customization at the push of a virtual button? Check: A Doodle Flight allows gamers to design their own plane, New Yorker magazine cover-style, using an intuitive built-in illustrator program. Seamless accelerometer integration? Check: Duck and weave the iPhone to navigate the vessel away from clouds, suns, and other hand-drawn meanies. (The game also has the option to automatically set the tilt for controls—hold the iPhone where you want “neutral” to be, and hit “set”; that's it.) Freedom from button-mashing? Checkmate: The ship fires on its own, so players are free to tackle the cartoonish world, with pencil sidearms and giant bird-bombs in tow. A Doodle Fight doesn’t redefine the scrolling-shooter game, but its handmade aesthetic and ease of play paint a nice picture… B

Cartoon Wars
Creator: BLUE
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $0.99
Effectively melding active and passive strategy, Cartoon Wars has players defending their castle against a blitz of colorful yet horrifying enemies—bloody mummies and punchy yellow genies, to name a few. There are two tactics at your disposal: gore incoming hordes with a ballista located at the top of your castle, which requires you to set the proper firing angle through trial and error, or send out your own foot soldiers. In the early part of the game, Cartoon Wars is a thrill—the tug-of-war between immediate defense and long-term planning make for a rewarding strategy game. But after, say, level three—when the ballista is way too powerful and the super-units become available—Cartoon Wars becomes more about staying your hand so the enemy has a fighting chance. That’s on the easy setting; anything higher, and the initial enemies are so damn powerful that it’s almost impossible to progress past level one. It’s a game that asks players to balance two types of play, but it could use some balance itself… C+

Guardian Rock
Creator: Stefan Åhlin
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The problem with Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom is that the story was told from the archaeologist-adventurer’s point of view, not the temple’s. Similarly, the problem with the puzzle-strategy game Lemmings is that you’re supposed to protect the vulnerable creatures, not kill them. Stefan Åhlin’s Guardian Rock finds addictive success by solving both of these problems. It lets you control an angry block of stone (like Mario’s Thwomps) that must eradicate the invading fedora-wearing explorers from your temple. It isn’t as easy as it might sound: Chess-like strategy and patience must be employed, as the temple’s traps can harm your blocks in addition to the marauding archaeologists. Since you move like a rook, you must plan ahead for your next three moves at a bare minimum. There are 48 levels for the free version (converts can pay to play more), and the difficulty amps up quickly, as does the satisfaction with moving onto the temple’s next room and set of challenges. A