Sawbuck Gamer

The Best Of Sawbuck Gamer April 2012

The Best Of Sawbuck Gamer: April 2012

Selections from our daily roundup of free and cheap games.

By Anthony John Agnello, Noah Cruickshank, Ellie Gibson, Steve Heisler, Gus Mastrapa, Tasha Robinson, John Teti, and Todd VanDerWerff • May 1, 2012

Sawbuck Gamer: Angry Bees

Honeybees aren’t much for revolution. They’ve been living under a monarchy system, dutifully serving their queens, for countless millennia. They even have elaborate succession rules. But the angry bees in Angry Bees say, “Workers of the hive, unite!” In this castle-defense game, you play as the hive leader, who is for some reason a king bee. (Perhaps this is the cause of the proletarian rage.) You defend your precious honey stores from the seething masses with a predictable array of weapons, including a handgun, an Uzi, and a laser gun, all of which are aimed and fired with the mouse.

While the attack waves are filled out with your standard drones, there are plenty of specialists among their numbers, too—like a swollen suicide bomber, who can take out a chunk of the honey cache when he blows, and semi-transparent camouflaged bees. These camo attackers are deceptive. They seem harmless in early stages but prove dangerous later on, when the screen is filled with buzzing assailants and the less prominent characters can evade your darting gaze.

There are also—of course, of course—“zom-bees.” Let’s move on.

Given that Angry Bees follows such a familiar pattern—earn cash by completing a level, purchase improved weapons, repeat—it could stand to build more quickly than it does. The upgrade-’n’-fight cycle is hardly novel anymore (if it ever was), so a game that follows that model should have some surprises in store. Angry Bees does have surprises, but it’s stingy about dishing them out. Each level introduces only slight variations on the last one, and every time it feels like Angry Bees is getting to the really good stuff, it slows down again. The result is a pleasant, pretty diversion peppered with tantalizing fits of cleverness. —John Teti

The Republia Times

The Republia Times can seem almost insultingly simple, but that’s a part of its charm. Within its “working on a Macintosh during computer lab in an underfunded public school in the early ’90s” aesthetic, the game attempts to say something surprisingly serious about the banality of most journalism and how the media is usually in the pocket of the ruling class—whatever that ruling class might be.

Players fill in as the editor-in-chief of a newspaper in what appears to be a despotic regime, where said newspaper is mostly meant to prop up the government as it wages a civil war against rebels aiming to overthrow it. The articles stream down the left side of the screen, and players are given three options for the size of articles to place, from large centerpieces to one-column sidebars. The player’s government handlers are keeping the player’s family as collateral, just in case, so the player is always encouraged to place articles that won’t threaten the government’s standing with the people. This means a steady diet of entertainment, sports, and weather news, along with a carefully chosen tidbit of actual news that reflects well on the rulers. Everything goes to press at 6 p.m., so the editor can’t waste too much time waiting for just the right collection of stories. Gradually, someone else breaks into the newswire, and it becomes clear that all is not as it seems.

The game is rudimentary and ridiculously simple—it will be very hard to “lose” this game, even though the government sets certain easy-to-reach goals for the harried editor. The newspaper’s front page is only three squares wide by five squares tall, which leaves unsightly gaps, no matter the size of articles chosen, and there aren’t a lot of customization options. Yet there’s something mesmerizing about the game all the same. The game has precisely one point to make—you’ve probably guessed it already—and it makes it as obviously as possible. But the point still stands, once it’s made, and even without it, there’s a weirdly addictive little simulator of one editor carefully crafting the tides of public opinion. Just playing the game makes it easier to imagine some frazzled person rushing from the ticker to the mock-up boards to the presses, trying to get everything in under the wire. 

The Republia Times aims, at first, to echo the dying days of the old Soviet bloc, but what it really succeeds in evoking is another relic from the ’80s: the daily newspaper, held together with stories that don’t even pretend to the level of newsworthiness but are there to sell papers anyway. And on that level, the game is almost a perverse love letter. —Todd VanDerWerff

Tripod Attack

Plenty of video games ask players to kill human opponents, sometimes one-on-one, sometimes in vast hordes. But there’s something extra-disturbing about Tripod Attack, which has players mowing down human soldiers en masse. Maybe it’s because the humans are so hopelessly outclassed that it’s easy to respect their bravery; after all, they’re taking on a gigantic, heavily armed and armored alien tripod (that’s you!) with nothing but their piddly handguns. And given that your heat ray makes short work of tanks, helicopters, and other heavy gear, fragile little humans don’t stand much of a chance. It’s also disturbing how they go down in wet sprays of blood. Tripod Attack isn’t for the squeamish, or the empathetic.

That said, it’s a terrific browser game. Pounding, foreboding music sets the tone for an epic confrontation between mankind and your John Christopher/War Of The Worlds-esque tripod, a slow-moving monstrosity that slinks across the side-scrolling screen with brutal implacability. It’s up to you to make sure its unrelenting advance isn’t halted by the increasing waves of human resistance, which send new, heavier weapons with each level—weapons that explode beautifully, leaving well-rendered burnt-out husks and detritus all over the battlefield. It’s a little unfair that you can go back and replay earlier levels to earn weapons, armor, and shield upgrades—humanity doesn’t have that option, and by the end of the game, even their best technology seems outmoded compared to yours. Still, while Tripod Attack is simple—select target, fire heat ray, repeat—there’s a methodology to prioritizing targets, particularly when it comes to taking out kamikaze fuel trucks before they reach you, shooting missiles out of the air, and especially taking out that horrible shield-destroying boss on the final level. Turns out fragile humanity does have a few worthy tricks up its sleeve. Maybe we could all just respect each other’s technological accomplishments and species differences, and learn to get along? —Tasha Robinson

NoNoSparks: Genesis

If we truly remembered how hard puzzles were, we’d never start new ones. Puzzles are fun and so very conquerable in hindsight. “Of course that piece went between the two flower pieces,” you tell yourself after 17 excruciating hours of fruitlessly smashing two flimsy pieces of cardboard together.

NoNoSparks: Genesis invokes the same puzzle faux-superiority. As a God-like figure, you create life by solving number/pattern puzzles. The screen is divided into a grid, and you can place a block or an X inside every empty square. Numbers running along the sides provide clues to the proper configuration, and through Sudoku-style deduction, you’re able to figure out what goes where. Upon solving, it’s revealed that the blocks have actually formed a picture—a cloud, or some sand—revealing a paint-by-numbers layer to the game.

As the puzzles grow larger, the clues grow more complicated. The numbers are the primary guideposts, but is that pattern in the upper right corner the top of a tree? The arm of an octopus? And when you finally see the solution, you convince yourself that of course that was the wing of a bird, and you’ll see everything more clearly next time. Such is the headspace of NoNoSparks, a game that involves second-guessing yourself a lot. Hindsight will never be more than 20-20. —Steve Heisler

Pongs

Pong is where gaming starts, a Garden of Eden where Adam and Eve are represented by blank lines racing up and down the sides of the screen. There have been numerous variations on the game in the decades since its initial publication, but by and large, the tennis simulator (and those terms are used very loosely) has been put out to pasture.

Pippin Barr’s Pongs attempts to revitalize the game as bite-sized entertainment in the browser-based game era, and it’s surprising how successful it is. Barr’s game begins with a simple screen asking the player to choose any one of 36 different variations on the basic game, with no real suggestion of what each variation will be. Sure, it might be easy to guess what the player thinks “Edutainment Pong” might look like, but there are others that offer little in the way of clues. “Siamese Pong”? “Unfair Pong”? “Pong For Two”? The mind boggles.

The game is at its best when it’s unexpectedly hilarious. There’s not a lot of replay value in Pongs because, well, it’s Pong, and because half the gags are about what happens when you pick a particularly daft-sounding version of the game. (“Edutainment Pong” does, indeed, intersperse the bouncing back and forth of the little ball with basic trivia questions.) But as a way to spice up an old experience with lots of fun gags and unexpected turns, it’s good for a half-hour playthrough. It certainly helps that the old game is just as functional as it ever was, and that keyboard controls make it possible for either one or two players to play both paddles fairly easily. And somewhat sneakily, Pongs functions as a treatise on gaming’s history: Here’s where we started, but maybe everything that’s come after is just putting a new layer on top of Pong. There are worse ways to grow a medium. —Todd VanDerWerff

Beat Sneak Bandit

You can play some iPhone games out of the corner of your eye, only paying half attention. Beat Sneak Bandit is not one of those games. The goal is to guide the titular hero through a daring heist. You move your dapper larcenist along by tapping the screen in time to the acid jazz soundtrack. Hit the wrong beat, and the bandit is immobilized, making him easy prey for sluggish guards or security cameras. The only way for Bandit to be beatable—and fun—is with earphones in and the volume turned up.

When the notorious Duke Clockface steals all the clocks in the world, the Bandit breaks into his mansion to get them back. Each level consists of a different set of rooms with clocks in various places. Walls, trapdoors, and staircases separate the rooms, and the environment moves in relationship to the score. The Bandit can only move one step forward at a time, so figuring out the right set of moves to nab all the clocks takes some effort. The puzzles aren’t too difficult, though, and if you get stuck, there’s an option to move on (there are also bonus levels for players who want more of a challenge). 

A game like this is only as good as its music, and Beat Sneak Bandit’s soundtrack is extremely catchy. Players might want to dance along if they weren’t so intent on tapping the screen at the right moment. The art style looks like something out of Sly Cooper, with portraits and suits of armor in the periphery moving along to the beat. The overall effect is a winsome game that’s as pleasing on the ear as it is to the eye. —Noah Cruickshank

noitcelfeR

Yep, that spells “reflection” backward, and it’s a fitting title for a frantic platformer that involves the reliability of mirror images. The object of each level is to get your guy from one end to the other. At first all you have to do is jump over a few spikes or bash a few enemies on the head. You have a reflection, but it shows the same scene. As you progress, the discrepancy between the top and bottom worlds grows. Invisible blocks are visible in the reflection, but not up top. Then enemies hide in the mirror world, then spikes. Before long, the majority of a level is split between “reality” and its reflection.

Success at noitcelfeR involves quickly glancing between the two worlds, and often navigating your character halfway in one and halfway in the other. And there’s little time to play “spot the differences,” either: Enemies are relentless and often only visible in one of the two worlds. Your eyes have to be faster than your fingers, and your mind needs to piece together complex structures from both the reflection and the reality—obstacles that require simultaneous mastery of regular and upside-down running. Fittingly, your character is a minuscule dot on the landscape, leaving room for a complicated world to sprout up, even if the little person can only see half of it. —Steve Heisler

Clockwork

Imagine a puzzle game designed by a Swedish furniture company, and you’d get Clockwork. Each level places a small glowing gear in the middle of a set of shapes, all of which can be moved along particular paths. The trick is to create an opening for the gear so it can escape. The beauty of the game is how little it needs to create puzzles that are both visually elegant and difficult to solve.

Clockwork’s toolset is austere. It uses mechanisms made only of rectangles and curved pieces to cage in the gear, but these two shapes are enough to create a variety of ingenious traps. By rotating the curves and sliding the rectangles—often making them work against each other, jamming up the works—you clear a path through which the gear can blast out of its timekeeping prison. Many levels look similar to each other, but one added shape at a critical point in the mechanism can completely change the steps needed to complete the puzzle. 

It’s easy to talk about a game’s design without ever mentioning its visual effect, aside from how “real” something looks. Clockwork shows why players should pay attention to design. The movement of the puzzles is hypnotic, turning each level into more than just a problem to be solved, but an experience to draw you in. Clockwork’s ability to enchant is a perfect reminder of how an internet program that’s visually simple can have just as strong an effect as a highly detailed console game. —Noah Cruickshank

Sawbuck Gamer: Dreams Of A Geisha

Meet Ichisumi. Like all geishas, she is blessed with beauty, poise, and grace. Like all geishas, she has devoted her life to the ancient Japanese arts of music, dance, and poetry. And like all geishas, she dreams of swapping one thing with another thing so three of the things match up and they disappear in a cloud of sparkles. 

Dreams Of A Geisha is a classic match-three puzzler. You have to line up tiles that feature lotus blossoms, bowls of rice, bonsai trees, and every other Japanese cliche you can think of. The backgrounds are filled with cherry trees and pagodas. Ichisumi pops up now and again, taking a break from the endless pursuit of aesthetic perfection to explain that the Shuffle power-up is ready to use.

There has been some effort to put a spin on the formula: The board can be rotated, and there are four almost slightly different play modes. But this game isn’t going to revolutionize the genre, or even hold a small peaceful demonstration about it on a Wednesday afternoon. What makes Dreams Of A Geisha worthy of note is the presentation. It’s polished and pretty, and it features some lovely plinky-plonky music. This makes for a gentle, absorbing experience and, if you opt for the countdown-free Relaxed mode, a rather soothing one. In fact, it’s so relaxing, it could send you to sleep, if you weren’t still stewing over the inane premise. —Ellie Gibson

Plants Vs. Zombies proved that the undead make for good casual-game fodder. Containment: The Zombie Puzzler aims to underline that notion by casting a traditional color-matcher with hordes of creeps and four different flavors of survivor. Play is as straightforward as a chainsaw in the gut. Players select and swap their color-coded, fully alive people until they surround a batch of undead enemies. The more moves it takes to create a cordon, the more chance there is that a zombie will bite and infect one of the good guys. So speed and efficiency are key for survival. 

Containment’s campaign unfolds in a gauntlet run through an infested burg. Like a helicopter viewing the carnage from above, the player’s perspective sweeps from one puzzle to the next, down alleys, through parks, and into graveyards. This conceit goes a long way to ensuring that the game surprises. The periphery is strewn with useful detritus like propane tanks, which can blow open a path to escape. Containment doesn’t get terribly tricky until its third act, where the infection spreads quickly and there’s very little room for error. The story is told somewhat cleverly in the dramatic swooping camera pans between every level. Text floats in the air and among the wreckage, a chronicle of harried humans on the run. The conceit wears a little thin when the narrator falls into a predictable rhythm, but the overall effect is potent. Containment feels elevated by the effort. —Gus Mastrapa

Surprise Bullfight

Surprise Bullfight is what Terry Gilliam would make if he spent an entire Saturday locked up with a Commodore 64 and a ton of Ernest Hemingway books. The latest game from idiosyncratic indie auteur Mark Essen is fantastical, off-putting, unsightly, mesmerizing, and far too romantic about bull fighting. Your goal is to get the highest score possible, but as a gnome of the forest, the only way to rack up points is by collecting woodland critters, scooping bovine scat, and stabbing bulls to death for their hearts. The hearts sustain the last of the forest giants, a writhing obese man hooked up to an always-decreasing meter that measures his life. The first bulls you meet are plodding, so your swift dwarven matador can swing around them easily. But the bulls learn, requiring you to become more dextrous and canny. Bullfight doesn’t have the lithe feel of classic high-score games like Pac-Man that make them so wonderfully addictive. Its weirdness is a merit on its own, though. —Anthony John Agnello

Axon screenshot

Apparently, the very first game you play in life takes place within your very skull. As the brain in a fetus develops, neurons—the cells of the brain—compete against each other by extending out to nutritious protein targets within the pre-infant gray matter. Neurons that win the race get to stick around, and according to the Wellcome Collection’s Axon game, the neurons that don’t make strong connections either “retract or commit cell suicide.” Those are the stakes in this nerve-growth simulator, in which you click to build your axon (the nerve-fiber part of a neuron) from protein to protein. In your quest to construct the greatest brain cell of them all, you get certain helper proteins, like one that rapidly increases your rate of growth and another that “freezes” nearby rival neurons. Yes, this brain is teeming with evil, presumably jerky neurons, and you must outrace them, lest they settle in permanently to someday fuel dickish impulses like, “I don’t need earphones to play music on the bus!” or “Hey, online-gaming voice chat! A perfect place to share my unpopular views on gender and race.”

If you dally for anything longer than a second or so, your ability to grow withers, and your nervous journey comes to an end. That means that the action of the game is pretty much a click-click-click affair. It seems there’s not a lot of deep thought involved in being an axon. (Well, there is and there isn’t.) The true fun of the game comes after it’s over, and you’re told what kind of nerve cell you just created, like a “stellate neuron” or a “corticopontine mossy fiber.” This little trophy even includes a link to relevant Wikipedia pages, and reading these entries with Axon’s eerie synth soundtrack in the background hits home the daunting complexity and strangeness of our own brains. I mean, just look at this thing. —John Teti

Innkeeper

One of the strange facets of gaming is the way people flock to play games simulating repetitive, tedious jobs they wouldn’t want in real life. Probably none of the people playing Innkeeper are dying to manage a run-down hotel staffed entirely by their relatives, and catering to an endless stream of cranky, griping tourists. But Innkeeper is an enjoyable little sim, largely because of the quest-driven play and the touches of local culture. Browser-game vets have likely been through this routine many times before—build amenities, serve customers, amass money, upgrade, rinse, repeat—but how many games like this dole out a steady supply of information about aswangs, the highly variable Philippine version of vampires?

Innkeeper players start out with a one-story inn on a Philippine island, with one type of guest (Natives), one simple type of room, and three employees. Completing objectives—like drawing certain guests or acquiring a good star rating—unlocks more options, driving higher profits. Meanwhile, as days go by, two simple storylines unfold. One involves scientific study of aswangs, and the other featuring a boasting hotelier ready to put you out of business. 

Innkeeper is a cute game with a few odd features. The amenities are varied (computer room, flower garden, convention center), and each of them has three options to choose between (the convention center can host shows from “Cirque De Lune,” “Nickelfield,” or “Whitney Spears,” for instance) but the options seem to have no effect, and upgrading the amenities doesn’t change their appearance. Assigning your family members to jobs will improve their skills in the most relevant area so quickly that there’s no point in ever checking the staffing menus again. (Sorry, uncle, but you just became a janitor for life.) And your customers tend to say weird, random things. But despite the quirks, the game is satisfyingly nuanced, with plenty of options, rapid progress, and a healthy sense of humor—particularly when it comes to attracting Hipster customers. Real-life business-world drudgery was never this easy, or this adorable. —Tasha Robinson

Do You Know Flash Games?

For all those browser-game addicts who love Who Wants To Be A Millionaire but don’t want to risk winning all that money and the headaches that come along with it, Do You Know Flash Games? might be an acceptable substitute. It’s a Flash-game-specific trivia game with a Millionaire skin, and it follows the Millionaire pattern—stupidly easy questions (“Who is your enemy in Dino Panic? A: Rhinoceros B: Dinosaur C: Octopus D: Spider”) give way to increasingly difficult ones. Each question comes with a screenshot of the game, which adds a playful dimension: In the early, easy questions, the right answer is often visible and obvious in the screenshot, whereas in the later ones, anything onscreen is probably deliberately misleading. 

The play of Do You Know Flash Games? is entirely basic—click on the right answer, or use one-shot help options like “skip question” or “see how other players answered”—and try not to get any questions wrong. And it does have the disadvantage of not actually making players into millionaires if they win. (Then again, the title of the game makes no such promises.) But for browser-game players who’ve already spent way too much time building defensive towers, collecting stars, fleeing zombies, flinging penguins, and so forth, Do You Know Flash Games? is an enjoyable challenge and a mild validation. You haven’t just been wasting time, you’ve been amassing trivia. And in case you haven’t learned enough trivia (or wasted enough time), each question links to the game it references. The game isn’t just a knowledge-validator, it’s a knowledge-creator, and a portal to knowing even more Flash games. —Tasha Robinson

For more free and cheap games, peruse our Sawbuck Gamer archive. We publish a new Sawbuck review every weekday, so check in on Gameological regularly, compulsively, as if your continued existence depended on it.

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  • Aaron Riccio

    I demand new content. New content! I’ve already beaten all of the ones on this list that were free!

    • LimeadeYouth

      Spoken like a true socialist on May Day!

      Speaking of which, how is Republica on a “best of” list?

      • Maudib

         Not enough games to choose from in April.

        • LetoII

          Hey it’s another Dune screen name!

        • Maudib

           I’m the homsar to Muad’dib.  I huff cinnamon and and fight hobos to keep humanity on the yellow brick road.

      • Raging Bear

        Because “Butt Within Spec!”

      • Aaron Riccio

        Also, apparently a successful stealth firstie, if you count my use of the word “one.” 

    • http://twitter.com/mcclure111 mcc

      You should play the Ludum Dare games.

      http://www.ludumdare.com/compo/ludum-dare-23/?action=preview

      Weekend before last a bunch of people got together and made about 1,100 games over the course of the weekend. MORE CONTENT THAN YOU COULD EVER ACTUALLY PLAY!

      I’ve only gotten to play a few of the LD23 games, but the games I recommend from this so far (just punch them in the search box):

      Fracuum (by the guy who programmed Closure)
      Ra Ra (by the Fat Wizard / Runman / Give Up Robot guy)
      Super Mario Summary

      My game, which you may or may not be able to make any sense of at all, was called “Breathe”. :)

      • Aaron Riccio

        I’ve heard about the Ludlum Dare games before (just as I’ve heard about the Interactive Fiction contests) — maybe this will be just the kick I’ve needed to actually try some of them out. Then again, I contributed to that for-charity Mojam Bundle, and wasn’t really all that impressed, so I’ll stick to the recommendations you’ve made so far and then maybe try swimming a little further into the unknown.

        • http://twitter.com/mcclure111 mcc

          If you wait maybe another 2 weeks or so, the judging will be done and then you’ll have a list of the community-voted 25 best. Usually the stuff that floats to the top actually is quite impressive.

  • jarviscockblocker

    noitcelfeR is great, but what’s up with no death animations in recent games? I think it was the same with Shift. I want my character to get impaled on spikes and eaten by demons dammit!

    • Aaron Riccio

      Not every indie game has the budget of Dead Space.

      • jarviscockblocker

        I’m sure some of them have the budget of N or Spelunky.

        • Aaron Riccio

          Your point is solid, but I cannot resist pointing out that [insert "yo' momma has the budget of" here].

  • Colonel Mustard

    NoNoSparks: Genesis was all kinds of fun, and I wound up playing it way too much at work, even infecting an office-mate with the bug.  Fortunately, my boss’ only comment upon catching me playing it was “Ugh. That looks frustrating.”

    • bwheeeler

      If you like NoNoSparks and have a DS or 3DS, you’ve got to buy Picross 3D. It’s the most addicting game I’ve ever played, and that’s not hyperbole. It’s really great.

      • Justin Leeper

        May want to start with the still-2D Picross DS first, as the learning curve for Picross 3D is a little steep.
        I personally love/played/completed every Picross game Nintendo has put out — including Japanese-only versions for Game Boy and SNES.
        On iOS, I recommend the somewhat similar but differently-awesome PathPix.

        • LimeadeYouth

          I didn’t think 3D was that much harder than regular picross, partially because the puzzles are a quite smaller. The main thing is just being detail oriented and following through a chain of logic instead of skipping around.

  • DebraPMeredith
  • http://www.facebook.com/james.slone James Slone

    Real nerds always think of John Christopher’s Tripod trilogy when they hear the word “tripod.” Screw that HG Wells bullshit. Good job!

    • LetoII

      All these years I thought I was the only one! To the White Mountains!!

      • http://twitter.com/jleehenderson Jeremy Henderson

        Am I the only one who discovered those books through the comic strip adaptation in Boy’s Life magazine?

    • IsaacYankemDDS

      I kind of thought I was the only one who still thought about those books.  Someone should make a movie of those.  Deadly alien invasion + brainwashing +unexpected sports-movie interlude + kids as the armed resistance + awesome three-legged aliens…

      Well, there’s way more than that, but you’ve already got the ingredients of the greatest movie ever.

    • Colliewest

       Can’t promise it’s aged well but I liked the TV series when I was a kid. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIlHoHiL4xE

  • http://www.facebook.com/justinpsharp Justin Sharp

    BUTT WITHIN SPEC!

  • http://sarapen.ca/ Sarapen

    Innkeeper is fun. It’s got that “one more turn” clickability that addictive games have in spades. I’ve managed to get everything but the Kill 15 Guests achievement and the final goal to go 4 days with all guests giving you at least 4 stars. There’s always some jerk giving me 3.5. What does it take to make these people happy?

    The quests and the stories makes the game more than an open-ended SimTower update though, since you have actual goals to shoot for. The ending where the main character turns out to be Bruce Willis is kind of odd, though. The mom is also odd for naming her son Skeletor. Okay, that was actually me.

    • LimeadeYouth

      Just make sure you have 10 amenities and all decked out Deku rooms (it’s expensive; be aggressive with your marketing money as that will always pay off) and with good filtering you’ll get there. I beat everything, including the killing guests which is stupid but cute, in 112 days.

      • http://sarapen.ca/ Sarapen

        Awesome, will do.

  • Damian Tatum

    Please keep this feature going forever.