Let it not be said that I'm easy to anger or quick to give up on something. If I was like that then I probably would've quit doing these recaps after about 3 months having played enough shitty massagers to drive me off a cliff. I stuck with it though and I did these over at Negative Gamer for over 7 months. Now though I've left that site and brought my recaps over here to share my pain with everyone here. The Indie Games section of Xbox Live is rarely the most enticing section of the marketplace but trust me, there are some phenomenal games in there. I've done a list of 10 great games on there before, but I'll be doing another list this week to bring attention to some other gems on here. Before we get started though let me clarify how this gets done.
1) I play trials, not full versions. I don't have the money to play the full versions of everything.
2) I judge games, not apps. If I feel a game is not a game then it'll go in a little footnote at the bottom of the recap.
3) This goes up every Monday, sometimes early morning and sometimes late evening, but always Monday.
4) Developers that just heap endless shit on the service go on the blacklist. 3 strikes and you're games go out of the recap, but produce one worthwhile game and you're back in. Decent ideas that don't work won't earn a strike, but cynical no-effort cash-ins that try to exploit the service will.
Right, starting next week I'll be including chart data in here as well to chronicle the success (or otherwise) of the games featured. For now though I'll just say we have 17 games to get though, let's get started.
Claymation is becoming something of a fascination in the indie gaming world I've noticed. Over the last few months I've seen a few games going with the cute placticine look that Platypus uses and I can see why. The game looks downright beautiful with vibrant colours everywhere only made nicer with the claymation look being applied to everything. The score counter morphs as enemies are destroyed, enemies grow more and more deformed as they lose health and the scenery is dented in places to add to that handmade look. Graphics are naturally nothing without a game though so I'm happy to report that Platypus qualifies as one of the best XNA shooters I've played. Enemies get gradually harder to defeat as levels progress thanks to new and upgraded enemies being introduced and the number of enemies on screen is balanced enough to ensure that there's always a challenge, yet death never feels unfair. For people who grew up on the likes of R-Type and Xevious this is very much the same kind of shooter, and well worth the money.
Life is a weird artsy cross between Go and an evolution simulator. The basic idea is to place cells (sun and moon symbols) on a board so that they will produce new cells when you press a button to move to the next generation. A cell with only one connecting cell will die, cells with 2-3 connecting cells will survive, 3 will produce new cells and 4+ will kill the cell. It's a weirdly compelling balancing act but things become impossible to maintain as the board fills up. No doubt this is some kind of artistic statement but it makes long term play pointless when after about 2 minutes you can get into a situation where your cells are unable to reproduce. There's also no real point to having 2 types of cell in the game when they don't interact with each other. It's a decent concept to have this kind of evolution sim, but it's just not nearly fun or deep enough to really work.
The Impossible Game
Declairing your game to be impossible is something I can see as a decent marketing strategy. Hardened/stupid gamers will take your titling as a challengeand that'll get some easy sales. However it's important to clarify good and bad kinds of hard. Good hard means a player can get through the game on a single try if they're brilliant. Super Mario Bros is an example of good hard. Bad hard forces the player into memorisation not to make life easier, but to clear the game completely. Add in unresponsive controls and you have fake hard, which is where this falls. From screenshots you may thing it to be a platformer but there's only a jump button to use as obstacles come flying at you, forcing you to combat the SINGLE UNRESPONSIVE JUMP BUTTON and combine it with split second reactions. This is fake hard at it's worst.
Out of empathy I'll ignore the unpronouncable name for now and call this one like it is. It's Chu Chu Rocket. With ants. Nothing more, nothing less. Placing arrows with the right stick is good and precise and no doubt fans of Chu Chu Rocket will have fun with it. The sheer rip-off factor makes me want to kill it, but right now this is the only real way of playing Chu Chu Rocket online. For including a critical feature alone, this deserves a bit of charity. Get some friends to buy it and I reckon this could get quite a bit of playtime.
I played a game on XNA's ancestor Net Yaroze that tried this exact same idea, a match 3 game where blocks are bouncy and don't fall into a strict grid. It's a nice idea on paper but translates to an unplayable mess once you actually try it. The blocks in Balloon Blocks bounce all over the place, making any kind of precision play (essential in any match 3 game) impossible along with forward planning as there's not much you can do to predict where a block will drop. Blocks also drop way too fast, often landing on the pile before you even realise they've appeared on screen. So like I said, nice idea on paper but it adds up to a terrible game.
An unresponsive menu saw me accidentally exiting this game while trying to access the options menu. Not a good start for any game really. The game itself is a puzzle platformer based around manipulating gravity to move boxes, soften long falls and make enemies easier to avoid. The trial doesn't do a great job of showing any real compelling use of the gravity bending gameplay, instead it just shows off some very strange controls. Right trigger is used to jump, which works well enough but why not use the A button like everyone else as it's not used for anything else. The whole idea works well enough, I just can't see enough of a compelling game built around it to make it worthwhile.
Remember Wetrix? That weird water collecting puzzler on the N64 that I could never really get the hang of? Well City Rain is something of a tribute to that, right down to the 4:3 screen ratio. Apparantly widescreen is for pussies. I say it's like Wetrix, it's more like Sim City, but played with the same falling blocks style. The aim is to build facilities like homes, factories and emergency services on the play area in order to keep the citizens of the city happy and complete the objectives given to you. These are things like raise enough money to build a fire department or replace the city's power stations with cleaner alternatives (ripped from the headlines much?) in order to prevent the city getting stomped on by the Enviroment Agency. Slightly heavy handed message aside, this is actually a really enjoyable take on the city building genre. Falling blocks can always changed to something that fits your plan more so the usual problem of random blocks screwing up your plan is eliminated and the tutorial is short and effective enough to make the complex control diagram less threatening. It doesn't hurt that the game is also pretty damn good looking.
Avatar Casino Slots #1
It's just a slot machine with avatars crowbarred in and Xbox Live play for some baffling reason. There's no reason for this.
Jump or duck under lasers. There's no animation, no original backgrounds and everything involved is straight out of the stock XNA font pile. Worthless.
Button Holding Extravaganza Party
It's meant as a party game, but anyone who's idea of a decent party game is holding down buttons while hoping no-one else is holding down the same button must throw some pretty damn boring parties. Just ignore this, there's nothing even vaguely entertaining about it.
A puzzle game based around music is an idea that's worked before. However this is a Japanese XNA game, and Japanese XNA games (puzzle games especially) have a nasty habit of being damn near impossible to understand. This unfortunately is no different. You control 2 cursors on screen and use the triggers to grab coloured blocks as they rise up the play area, then you can move them around to gather more blocks before shooting them down, hopefully hitting the correct coloured bar in order to play more of the song. It takes a while to get a handle on what exactly is happening but you've got the idea it can be extremely satisfying. Struggling through those early efforts though makes this hard to recommend.
Words in a Word
I love word games, this is no real secret. I'm a big Scrabble fan, love Bookworm Adventures and generally just enjoy the hell out of anything that involves finding words at speed. That's the sole idea behind this, you're given 6 semi-random letters (there's at least 1 six letter word in every arrangement), a time limit and told to find as many words as you can. A handy chart keeps track of the words you've got and also shows how many possible words there are broken down into how many letters are in each one. Then when time is up the chart fills in with all the words you missed, allowing you to kick yourself when you realise how obvious some of the higher scoring words were. Competitive multiplayer over Live is also in there but that's only really going to get used if you can convince friends to get the game as well. If you're a wordphobic then ignore it, but for everyone else this is a prime slice of vocabulary action.
Or Pac-Man meets Dots and Boxes. Basically you walk your little Indiana Jones ripoff round a tomb avoiding enemy mummies and try to surround squares to find relics for points, a key to exit the level and the level exit itself. Like so many painfully simple ideas there's nothing fundamentally wrong with the game, just there's no actual fun in here either.
In the 80s there was a toy called a Simon, it was a memory game where big buttons flashed out a sequence which then had to be repeated. The sequence got 1 part longer each time until a human brain could no longer keep up. Buttons is a Simon clone and let this be known, there's a special pit of hell for every developer who tries to dress up a Simon clone.
The original Matrix was something of a flawed masterpiece. Grid building Tetris style worked well enough but was let down by some seriously unpredictable block falling. A small update that added colours to the mix improved things and now a proper sequel seeks to right the wrongs that ruined the initially good idea. I mentioned earlier that Japanese XNA puzzlers are often horribly explained but Matrix 2 manages to break with tradition and explain itself pretty well thanks to the diagrams that fully explain how blocks fall and intersect. The game itself has also changed, rather than creating perfect unbroken grids the idea now is to form an outline that spans across the entire play area. This is a much more manageable idea and awarding extra points for forming outlines that touch the game over line is a beautiful piece of risk reward gameplay that will truly tax even the most experienced high score chaser. This is a sequel that has truly realised the potential that the first game showed and I couldn't be happier.
This proclaims itself to be a fast paced strategy game, but I'd like to know where the strategy is. All I did during my play time was ferry minerals from where I'd placed my mining bots (on every one of the 8 planets in the play area) to the space station in the middle to sell them. There doesn't seem to be any real strategy other than get minerals to the station faster than other players and occasionally upgrade your own bots. So basically it's not a strategy game, and it's incredibly boring.
ARC Ninja Edition
I covered the full version of Anti Gravity Racing Championship a few weeks ago and while the basic idea was good and the graphics were pretty, the handling of the ships were far too twitchy and loose for the game to really be fun and it held the Ridge Racer contact system where you always come off worse in contact with CPU ships. This disguised Lite version fixes none of those problems and is basically just a stripped down taster version. The good points are still there but I'd say ignore this though and check out the trial version of the proper ARC though.
This week I award Game of the Week honours to City Rain, it's close between that and Platypus but I found the city planning puzzler to be insanely entertaining and deeper than Platypus' pure score attack shooting. Platypus is still a brilliant game though, don't get me wrong.
If the recaps have awakened some kind of spark inside you then why not make a game of your own. Have a look at XNA Creator's Club
for the info or take a simpler route and check out Kodu Game Lab
Want to know some devs to avoid? Check out the Blacklist
. Looking for a review? Have a look at the roundup archive
Also, if you fancy making me a slightly less rubbish header image I'd be greatful. I'll buy you a cheap Steam game or something.