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September 28, 2009 

Time Donkey
Creator: Blurst Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free 
The joy of Blurst’s games (like Off-Road Velociraptor Safari and Jetpack Brontosaurus) isn’t their staying power. It’s that, like a good bit of stand-up improv, they’re a great entertainment for one moment in time. Or, in the case of Time Donkey, a game in which your donkey searches out tacos, for one 30-second span played over and over. Spawn a donkey, chomp tacos, and then hit “R” to travel back to the start point. An echo of the original pack animal will repeat your last movements. Whether you want to or not, after 30 seconds, you’ll spawn a new animal. By riding, stacking, and jumping on the eventual symphony of echoes, you’ll reach previously inaccessible collectibles. As with many Blurst games, the controls are basic but a bit wonky; if you have an Xbox 360 pad, use it for better movement. Learning to place donkeys just so in order to maximize taco combos may take more practice than it seems to deserve, but give in to the goofy stoner premise, and Time Donkey satisfies like Taco Bell at 3 a.m.… B+

Time Fcuk
Creator: Edmund McMillen
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Indie games have done the overlapping-time thing (see entry above), so Time Fcuk takes the concept to the next logical level by creating a world with overlapping space. You’re greeted at the outset by yourself from 20 minutes in the future. Your future self is a rude sort, shoving you into a bottomless box where the normal rules of physics cease to apply. In each level, you shift back and forth between 2-D universes layered atop each other, and as if that weren’t enough, Time Fcuk introduces further complications at an aggressive rate. What really sets the game apart from forbears like Braid, though, is a muted visual and aural palette that lends it an eerie, oppressive feel. And then there are the frequent text messages from past and future selves, which range from desperate to deranged. When you notice that the world map loops back on itself, you’ll be right to suspect that something is amiss, but Time Fcuk does have a proper ending—kind of… A

Creator: Adam Atomic & Danny B
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Imagine Mirror’s Edge as a 2-D NES game with your control stick stuck, forcing you always to dash to the right over city rooftops. That’s Canabalt. There’s little margin for error—let a single stray office chair or anything else trip you up, and you probably won’t be able to properly time your next jump. The widescreen, black-and-white presentation gives Canabalt a striking cinematic quality, and since it only allows you to decide when to jump, and makes you surrender all other control, you’re forced to be completely in the moment and just react to the unfolding rooftops ahead of you, trying to lengthen the survival time before you inevitably splatter against some unyielding surface. It helps that every time you embark on your daring escape again, Canabalt randomly generates obstacles and events like plane crashes, forcing you to truly pay attention every precious millisecond… A-

Salmon Rush
Creator: AlphaSprite
Platform: iPhone/iPod Touch
Price: $0.99
Salmon Rush could easily double as Environmental Protection Agency propaganda. The mission is to help a small group of salmon navigate upstream to spawn; you must finish this vertical scroller with at least one male and one female fish. (You start with five of each.) Tilt the iPhone to slowly drift the entire group; touch the water around a fish to create a ripple, pushing it out of the way; press down on an individual fish to snatch it out of the water and drop it wherever you want. Along the way, bears and fishermen attempt to snatch salmon away, and rocks/trees/nuclear waste cause the salmon to temporarily bunch up, making for easier targets. The control scheme and prevalence of obstacles (especially in later levels, even the one labeled “endless”) makes for some enjoyable screen-mashing, though it suffers from the major flaw of most iPhone games: When your fingers are on the glass, it’s hard to see what’s happening behind them. Salmon Rush is particularly bad in this respect, since for whatever reason, each fish in the school seems to have its own rate of drift, and a lot of time is spent getting the group back together. Still, few iPhone offerings out there require so much dexterity, and it’s refreshing to find a game this active… B-

Silent Conversation
Creator: Gregory Weir
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Gregory Weir’s clever (I Fell In Love With) The Majesty Of Colors told an interactive story; Silent Conversation lets you interact with stories, by steering a cursor along a piece of text—a poem, or short story—and turning it into a level in a platformer. Along the way, you can try to enjoy the text. Thing is, the words don’t matter. Aside from the very literal graphical treatments—when William Carlos Williams mentions a “red wheel barrow,” guess what color Weir gives the text?—the words make up one long line, and it’s easiest to ignore them and focus on the movement. Yet the path through each level is mostly flat, each text is either tiny or too long, and tricky jumps are so rare that they’re just interruptions. The best piece of gameplay comes in the excerpt from Alice In Wonderland, though it’s tough to read while you’re playing it. And e.e. cummings’ “Buffalo Bill’s” has the most engaging layout, but only because it follows the formatting of the actual poem. Too bad cummings couldn’t have designed the rest of the game: The core idea has legs, but Weir uses it too timidly… D

Creator: Martin Sebastián Wain
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Written for the Ludum Dare 15 competition, whose theme was “caverns,” Caverns creates an ecosystem in an Atari 2600-style underground world. Players “paint” new blocks of terrain, and each type spawns different creatures—the black droplets that rise out of the tar pits, or the water creatures that mix with seeds to make trees. Different combinations of life forms and terrains make even more creatures, but they die quickly—maybe too quickly—so the challenge is to get as many creatures as possible in the mix and intermingling at once. Or you can just leave it alone for an hour and come back to see what happened. For such a simple system, it’s elegant, addictive, and almost moving… B

Creator: Paul Greasley, Compound
Platform: PC
Price: Free
Edmund is a terse psycho-thriller with atmosphere, poor platforming, and one hot-button plot point: The protagonist is a disturbed man who commits lurid rapes in the game. Nothing suggests you should enjoy controlling the character, so making him a rapist isn’t necessarily exploitative. But it poses the question of whether this act can or should ever be accepted in this medium. Most people wouldn’t ban Watchmen because of the Comedian’s rape attempt, but in watching the movie, you don’t initiate the attack. Does the line of taste stop when you control what happens? When Greasley gives us two positions to choose from, is that a little much? Edmund is better at provoking arguments than delivering a game, but there’s a germ of a noir here, and a clue to how games could tackle such troubling material… C-

Galaxy Gems
Creator: Terry Patton
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Beating Galaxy Gems is a test of endurance rather than one of skill. The Bejeweled-style game is based on matching sets of three cubes to provide fuel to a rocket sitting on the side of the screen. Fill the gauge, and the rocket takes off to the next level in its spiraling journey toward the center of the galaxy. The main twist on the match-three template is that you can move gems on the diagonal, requiring players to look at the board in new ways. Detonations produced by matches of four or more keep the board fresh, and levels are often arranged so that a single move can produce all the points you need to advance. The result is, you never have to restart, and since the game saves your progress even when you close the browser, you can keep moving through the dizzying number of levels at your own pace. But there isn’t much point. Each level has slight variations in the size of the board and number of colors, but you won’t see anything at level 111 that you haven’t already experienced by level six… C

Upgrade Complete
Creator: Armor Games
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
The gag around Upgrade Complete is that not a single element is given away for free. Players have to generate and spend in-game currency just to access the game’s menu. Buttons, sound, the ability to save, and even the copyright disclaimer will cost you, too. When you unlock the actual game, the graphics are crappy, and the spaceship you’re meant to pilot handles like a Yugo with four flats. All this, of course, can be fixed for a price. Somehow, that joke doesn’t wear out its welcome. Maybe that’s because the meat of the game is spent on building and upgrading your spaceship—dragging and dropping new pieces onto the hull one expensive bit at time. You’re pretty much free to build the ship however you like, which goes a long way to bringing players in on the gag. Like Achievement Unlocked before it, Upgrade Complete is a riff on game tropes. There isn’t as much wit or design chops on display here, but the ability to craft your own fighter and point it at enemy aliens goes a long way… C+

Vox Populi, Vox Dei (A Werewolf Thriller)
Creator: Weresoft
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Vox Populi, Vox Dei (A Werewolf Thriller) is brimming with vagaries: Who is this blue ninja you’re controlling? Why does he bark whenever he jumps? Why is earth overrun with werewolves? While answers to these questions would be nice, they ultimately don’t matter, because what’s clear is this: You go from screen to screen in this blocky, gray world hunting down werewolves by leaping on them, tearing their flesh apart, and painting the screen red with their runny blood. A simple concept turned frustratingly challenging at times, and always gory, A Werewolf Thriller requires you to navigate transporters and leap over gates without getting spotted by the patrolling furry oafs who have stolen your sweetheart. They may not be intelligent, but there are enough of them on every screen to allow no room for sloppiness on your part. Too bad that challenge often lapses into irritating cheapness, reducing strategy to trial and error… B

Let’s Jump!
Creator: Hideous
Platform: Browser
Price: Free
Let’s Jump! should be called Let’s Shoot Birds While Falling To Our Death! because that’s all it really is. Not to be reductive, but if you survive the onslaught of eagles, seagulls, bees, and pterodactyls that come at you from every direction after you leap out of an airplane without a parachute, your reward is that you get to stain the tarmac 9,000 meters below. To do that, you’ll have to use the momentum from your gunfire—no self-respecting suicidal skydiver leaps without a firearm, after all—to evade your winged enemies while also quickly reducing them into a fine crimson mist high above the earth’s surface. The 8-bit graphics fall into step with the cheesy ’80s-movie-montage soundtrack, and the whole game lasts as long as the flavor on a stick of gum, but that doesn’t matter. This is simple, pure fun, and nothing more, like a WarioWare mini-game played to completion. B+