Half the fun of Parameters—the addictive new game from Japanese browser game genius Yoshio Ishii—is figuring out how to play. The instructions that pop up when the game begins mention going on missions and defeating monsters, stuff that will sound familiar to any gamer, but then the player is confronted with a blank space that looks more like an Excel spreadsheet than a game. There are locked squares and open squares, all marked with “0%.” There are other, yellow squares, marked with numbers. Up top, there are bars indicating “Recovery,” “Attack,” and “Defense,” which seem straightforward enough. It’s all familiar, certainly, but it also doesn’t look quite right.
The first playthrough of Parameters, then, is all about figuring which gaming mechanics go where. Clicking on a square creates showers of green numbers, yellow cash amounts, and multi-colored letters. As progress is made, new options open up, and secret spaces appear. The game captures that sense of figuring something out, of suddenly knowing how to do something you didn’t know before and thereby making something that would be difficult extremely easy. That it does this in a one-screen environment—which resembles what would have popped up when hitting the “boss key” on a computer game in the ’80s—is even more impressive.
Parameters is surprisingly deep. The game’s mechanics, which boil down decades of complex design into simple mouse clicks, are surprisingly soothing, the chase after those little showers of numbers a just-difficult-enough challenge to feel satisfying without feeling like a challenge. Few will find all of the secrets the first time through, when the goal is simply to kill all the monsters. It’s when the game ends and tells you how long it took you to finish the labyrinth that the real fun begins. The compulsion to go back again and again, to do just a little bit better, is difficult to resist.
Parameters is one of the rare browser games that could stand proudly alongside far more complicated outings as one of the best of the year. The game plays off nostalgia for games of old, asking you to fill in the details on your own, until all those little squares become something different and more sinister than blank boxes flickering on a screen.
It’s 3 a.m. on a Saturday. A hard-working browser-game developer can’t sleep. Eating that giant Ellio’s pizza didn’t help, and watching an archive of animated Taiwanese news broadcasts wasn’t the most restful thing, either. Finally, a syndicated rerun of Perfect Strangers comes on the TV. Sleep comes at last, and thus begins the most beautiful dream.
That’s probably not the exact scenario that inspired Jason Oda to create Nothing’s Gonna Stop Me Now, but his game most certainly is that beautiful dream. It’s a trippy rainbow soup of the late-’80s sitcom Perfect Strangers and simple game design. You play as Balki, the stupid, sweet cousin of Larry, collecting stars as you race towards a dream that you put into writing when the game begins. The path takes you through creepy bombed-out city streets and suburbs on a journey that’s as long as David Pomeranz’s Perfect Strangers theme song.
It’s terribly addictive for a game that only lasts for a minute. Your dream only comes true if you collect every star, but they’re cunningly placed, so it takes a few replays to perfect the course—just enough for the song to worm its way into your head. Getting over 90 percent of the stars gets you a scene of Larry and Balki dancing the Dance of Joy, but that’s no consolation: Only by collecting every star can you truly achieve your dream, and that’s going to take a while. Good thing the image of Larry’s uncanny, computer-animated harmonica solo at the beginning is so funny.
The multiplayer experience tends to bring out our competitive spirit. Old friends will flip their personalities in the throes of an intense game of Monopoly. Mild-mannered strangers will scream vulgarities throughout sessions of Call Of Duty. If you really want to test the personal boundaries of your friends and family, pull out the iPad sometime and load up a game of Bloop.
The game takes two to four players, each of whom is assigned a color: Player One taps the orange blocks, Player Two taps the blue, and so on. That’s about it. The rest of the rules are up to the players. Are two hands allowed? All five fingers? What’s the policy on shoving, blocking the screen, smack-talk, and hair-pulling? Maybe the house rule is both hands tied behind your back, tapping squares with your nose—sure, you might concuss yourselves, but at least it would be fun.
After about a minute, the game tallies up all the squares touched and announces its winner. This is almost always immediately followed by one of the participants insisting on another round, which is only a couple of taps away. The minimalist presentation and relative simplicity of Bloop encourages experimentation and demonstrates that sometimes there is more fun to be had off the screen than on.
One of the highest compliments you can pay a game is that it creates a sense of place, that its special blend of spices manages to effect a tangible world in your mind’s eye. In Castle Of The Insect King, the 12th installment of Alec Stamos’ ongoing sci-fi pulp adventure Tales Of The Renegade Sector, that ineffable chemistry emerges from a Radiohead-gone-chiptune soundtrack and the fog-shrouded planet that your space captain explores in his search for treasure. Insect King takes you someplace far from your seat for an hour and plops you back down wanting more.
It feels like you’re covering a lot of ground in this episode—through mountains, ruined castles, and rotting swamps—when in actuality it’s only a few short screens. The difficulty of surviving myriad killer-bug attacks adds to that sense of scale. At first. you have a pistol that shoots straight but requires ammo; exploration yields up a shotgun with infinite ammunition, except the gun needs time to recharge whenever you fire it.
These limitations dictate how you move around the mysterious planet from moment to moment, creating a tense dance that can further ground you to the place. Some mystery is always essential in creating a sense of place—it allows for discovery, which makes the experience personal. Like the player, Captain McCallery isn’t especially fazed by parasitic spiders; he just wants more adventure. By the end of Insect King, you may be simpatico with the man.
Does the world really need another iPad game about running through an endless landscape while avoiding things and collecting stuff? No, of course not. But nor does the world need more Scandinavian crime thrillers or hot dog-stuffed pizza crusts. Ski Safari is just as superfluous, and just as hard to put down.
The game stars a cute little skier called Sven. He is awfully jolly for someone trying to outrun a massive avalanche. Tapping the screen makes Sven jump, while tapping and holding makes him perform a back flip. As he zooms up and down the snowy slopes, Sven can catch a ride with penguins, Yetis, runaway snowmobiles, and the like. There are coins to collect and boulders to avoid, along with the obligatory, ever-increasing list of side objectives to complete for a score-multiplying bonus.
Every collision and fumbled landing brings the avalanche closer. It inevitably engulfs poor Sven and his adorable bobble hat, cutting off his oxygen supply and creating a build-up of carbon dioxide which poisons his respiratory system even as he struggles to gulp down one final desperate breath. But who cares, time for one more go! And one more and one more and oh dear the sky has changed color. Yes, Ski Safari is that kind of game. It’s also the kind of game it’s easy to abandon after a week, and hard to remember after a month. In the meantime, it provides a few hours of penguin-riding, self-asphyxiating fun.
Plink hopes to be the online equivalent of an informal jam session. You walk into a website. There are some other great players there. You sit down with your instrument of choice. You start to play, and they join in. Or they’re already playing, and you join. Whatever happens, the idea is that there’s more fun when people are making music together.
Plink is very simple. After you log in enter a username, you’re deposited on what appears to be a blank musical staff. You press—or hold down—the left button on your mouse. Tones sound, depending on where your little dot is on the staff. Move the dot up and down to change the tone. If the mouse button is held down, it produces a continuous loop of tones, veering from highs to lows. If you click to play, you can attempt to produce your own tunes, instead of a long collection of synthetic beeps and boops. Get bored with the current sound you’re making? Head over to the left to select a new “instrument,” all of which seem carefully chosen to simulate the sounds of a 1980s Casio keyboard.
The real fun comes when at least one but ideally two or more other players are hanging out with you. The various tones have been carefully chosen so that they’ll all sound harmonious with each other, and as your fellow players begin to lay in their own notes, anywhere you join in will sound fine. Plink accommodates all types, from those who want to lay out a solid bass riff to those making melody to those who just want to contribute a flourish here or there.
Much of the pleasure of the internet is in collaboration with others, and much of it still lies in anonymity. It’s doubtful that anything created in Plink will ever rise to the level of great music, but it’s a vastly enjoyable way to exercise some creative juices in between other tasks. It’s soothing, the way those long strings of tones eventually add up to a whole greater than the parts, and just hanging out with strangers, trying to create something that sounds like music is a lot of fun.
Fracuum is a game of right angles in the best possible way. Orthogonal games are good because they’re easy to understand. Tetris makes sense because all the little shapes with right angles fit together so nicely. Pac-Man makes sense because all the paths the yellow glutton has to follow are simple and sharp. Fracuum uses its hard angles to build a taxing descent into microscopic realms.
You are a white square that enters a series of mazes that are recursively nested within each other—like when a TV camera is pointed at a screen displaying its own feed, and suddenly there’s TV screens within TV screens to infinity. You traverse this nesting doll of parallelograms with the goal of making it to the center. Standing in the way of your heroic white square, though, are mean multicolored squares that shoot at you. Different enemies shoot in different patterns, so your passage becomes a sort of rhythm game as well.
Getting to the center of Fracuum requires a bit of tricky thinking. Since each new arena zooms into a full-screen view when you enter it, your previous trail becomes obscured. Halfway through the game, you can follow a path that’ll take you close enough to the center that you can see the “Game Over” message, but that’s just a tantalizing glimpse. You still have to backtrack out to find the proper way down. By then though, your life bar may be depleted, so the path-finding challenge is augmented by the stress of survival.
So while the geishas dreamed of sorting random objects into groups of three, what were feudal Japan’s most deadly, feared, and fearless warriors doing? Why, dodging giant bouncing coconuts and lethal grapefruit, of course. That’s the idea behind 8bit Ninja. As the name suggests, it’s a tribute to the olden days of gaming, a time when sophisticated next-gen mechanics meant being able to go left as well as right.
Your mission is to avoid getting hit by various oversized fruits. They rain down continuously, along with collectable coins and fun power-ups, such as a spinning ninja star which turns your enemies into instant salad. It’s pretty simple stuff, but the responsive controls, retro visuals, and cute sound effects enhance the experience.
There’s a basic character-upgrade system to keep you playing once the novelty has worn off. As your ninja earns experience points and levels up, his or her special ability lasts longer and can be used more frequently. In addition, you can use the coins you collect to unlock and upgrade new powers. New ninja characters, arenas, and certain power-ups are purchased using dragon eggs. These are much rarer than coins, but if you’re in a hurry you can bag some eggs by—surprise!—coughing up real life money. You don’t need to spend a penny, though, to enjoy 8bit Ninja. The standalone game is engrossing both as a quick arcade fix and as a longer grind. Also, you can go left as well as right.
How far would you go to demystify your favorite band? Dave is such a big fan of “Davement” that he travels back in time and tries to become an even better musician than the group itself. Now that’s fandom!
Inspiration Dave takes place in the past, and follows Dave as he collects musical notes, hoping inspiration will strike him once he’s found enough. Each level has about 20 notes and the usual complement of platforms and death spikes. The visuals, fittingly, are reminiscent of old Atari titles, blocky and rough. At times, they contain a lot of what looks like Microsoft Paint artwork. And Dave occasionally has to pop anti-anxiety medication, or else the entire world goes dark.
A man must overcome his own anxiety to write a song greater than Pavement? Sure, Dave goes to the past, but Inspiration Dave is driven by this very modern construct. Unfortunately, that’s about as far into 2012 as the game gets. It plays like older titles: The controls are patchy, which means an ill-timed jump can screw up an entire level’s worth of play. But Inspiration Dave allows its levels to grow vertically as well as horizontally, opening the game up substantially and allowing a few notes to remain hidden, eluding Dave so that Pavement—I mean, “Davement”—can remain the best.
Billed as a sequel to The Company Of Myself, Fixation is a mystery-tinged puzzle game that gradually reveals its true nature as you play. You begin with “Chapter One: The House.” You’re a woman in a pink pantsuit, chatting with your friends about things that seem inconsequential. As you move through the rooms of the house, oddities crop up. A fallen dresser turns into a platform. A light switch opens a wall. A puff of smoke from your perpetually lit cigarette blocks a laser. (Yeah, your house has lasers in it—way to go!) Soon, you’re no longer in a house but in a dark cave, being trailed by a stranger.
Fixation is like the anti-film noir: The damsel is definitely not in distress, and the “shady” characters are eager to talk to you, at length, about their boyfriend troubles. At first, the chatter can be off-putting, since the last thing you need while solving a puzzle is all that distracting noise. In the cave, for example, you have to blow smoke rings in a certain pattern to create a path forward. But the path isn’t just for you; it’s for the guy tailing you as well. Ostensibly, his company is unwanted, but you have to keep him around. Because he wants to talk to you. A lot.
Puzzles can be twitchy, as they require that you move around with the arrow keys while shooting smoke using the mouse, and the combination of these two input methods can induce cognitive gridlock. Thankfully, the promise of discovering the next new strangeness as you move from room to room is enough of a driving force to ignore any wrist/mind pains.
Fusing monster collection with online multiplayer for maximum addiction potential, Terra Monsters is a work in progress with a lot of potential. Players take on the role of a talented young monster rancher, exploring the sprawling world of Terrarium while helping quest-givers with any number of pressing tasks, which range from thwarting vicious monsters to making blueberry muffins.
The world is populated with a variety of cute, fierce, or just ridiculous-looking critters that you can capture and send into battle. You’ll want to have a diverse stable of fighters to be ready for any challenge. That means putting some cash into the game, as you only get six monster slots for free. Money can also be used to buy more powerful items, customize the look of your monsters, and buy a helper to keep your monsters happy and growing, but expanding your ranch is the only expense that frugal players will really want to bother with.
The game offers a huge amount of content, with entertaining quests and NPCs that make fun of Lost, Jersey Shore, and internet memes. The fact that you can return to your ranch from anywhere with just a click keeps the game moving, since you’ll want to come home frequently to let your monsters rest and switch around the lineup for different battles.
The game has some technical weaknesses. The world’s barriers are poorly defined, so it often seems like you’re hitting an invisible wall until you click the right spot to advance. Enemies seem to pick their abilities at random, often uselessly activating their power-ups over and over again while you kill them. Occasional server overloads can cause battle screens to move slowly or go black.
While you can see other players moving around and challenge them to duels, a lot of the multiplayer ideas, like trading goods and joining guilds, are still in the works. When those are up and running, expect Terra Monsters to be even more devastating to your productivity.
My first impression of Pirateers! was that it is to Sid Meier’s Pirates!—long the gold standard for open-world, high-seas mayhem—what “McDowell’s” is to McDonald’s in Coming To America. That is, it’s a barely concealed knockoff, shamelessly trading on a more widely known brand. “They got the Golden Arches, mine is the Golden Arcs.” This sense of cheap imitation isn’t dispelled by numerous typos in the game’s opening sequence. It’s possible that this is just an added bit of realism reflecting a pirate’s lack of formal education. Either that or I’m just being a dick.
Pirateers! begins with the story of a fabled artifact known as the Neptune’s Eye. It’s said that the Eye is the key to incomprehensible wealth, but it has been lost to the ages. While you quest for the Eye, many secondary missions present themselves. You can raid merchants, attack (or defend) fellow pirates, and trade broadsides with the Navy, collecting valuable artifacts and gold along the way. These can be used to upgrade your ship’s armor, weapons, and speed.
The controls are simple, a bare-bones piracy. You steer and fire your cannons. You don’t even have to worry about feeding your parrot. When your ship is destroyed, you’re returned to the main menu, where you can upgrade and set sail once again. The game doesn’t do much to exorcise Sid Meier, but it’s an easy kind of fun in its own right, and your ship will sink many times before you can gather the pieces of Neptune’s Eye. Is it worth all the trouble, though, of so many defeats? LIke Howard said in The Treasure Of The Sierra Madre, “Gold itself ain’t good for nothing except making jewelry with and gold teeth.”