Sawbuck Gamer

The Best Of Sawbuck Gamer: July 2012

The Best Of Sawbuck Gamer: July 2012

Selections from our daily reviews of free and cheap games.

By Matt Gerardi, Steve Heisler, Matt Kodner, John Teti, and Drew Toal • August 1, 2012

Hot Air Jr.

Some people find airplane flight scary because of the potential that something could go wrong. But there’s something freaky about a hot-air balloon even when it’s working perfectly. Part of it is the proportions—the tiny basket seems so precarious attached to the huge balloon. And part of it is the seemingly inexorable motion—the sense that once you heat that huge mass of air, you won’t be able to stop it for a while.

I’m sure that licensed balloon professionals could tell me that my trepidation stems from simplistic misunderstandings of these fine flying machines, but Hot Air Jr. does nothing to rehabilitate the balloon’s image. The object is to guide a balloon and its teeny passenger through skies that are rife with razor-sharp foes. You play not as the balloon but as an untethered fan that generates air currents on demand, buffeting the hot-air hero in the general direction of victory.

This is not a game of agility. The balloon is a lumbering beast, and immediate course corrections are nigh-impossible. I experienced plenty of “oh, noooooo” moments where I could see my doom coming but even my most furious gusts did nothing to avert another deflating failure. Those moments can be both funny and frustrating. The controls are well-designed and the learning curve is manageable, so while the game starts out tough and only gets trickier, the difficulty is more of steady headwind than a hurricane.

In typical Nitrome style, Hot Air Jr. is like a Whitman’s Sampler of game-design ideas; each level presents a new concept that may or may not build on previous levels. Ghost spikes emerge to form a path through the clouds in one skyscape, and angry swords unleash pincer tactics in another. The developers at Nitrome make games with a certain “Sure, let’s try this!” bliss. That’s not to say that they’re sloppy, because each stage is carefully fine-tuned. Hot Air Jr. is capricious in an exacting way.

Photos Of Spiderman

Throughout comics, TV shows, and movie appearances alike, J. Jonah Jameson has rarely changed. He is and will always be the cigar-chomping tabloid editor hell-bent on smearing Spider-Man. JJJ’s character is taken to a pixelated extreme when he opens the new parody Photos Of Spiderman [sic] by shouting, “Get Me Photos! Get Me Photos!” ad nauseam. The only way to progress is to snap a candid shot of a small Spider-Man icon, which happens to be politely waving to you in the corner. You’ve got your picture, and the game starts.

The joke lands and the gags keep coming. You simply have to locate Spidey among a packed crowd of civilians and Spider-Man look-alikes. In later levels, it often becomes an intense race against the clock to find him, but the stakes remain hilariously low. While civilians idly wave, villains occasionally appear—and pose zero threat. If you care to, you can photograph the villain for a single-point bonus. Photos is adamant about maintaining the mundanity of its premise.

The game’s unpretentious humor and sharp eye for detail elevate it beyond its Where’s Waldo trappings. When you reach your limit and fail your assignment, JJJ reappears. His fist is still banging down on the table, cigar still in mouth, and he’s as pissed-off as he was before you got him his precious photos. He shouts, “You’re Fired! You’re Fired!” ad nauseam. J. Jonah Jameson. J. Jonah Jameson never changes.

Behind Mini Mix Mayhem’s chunky pixel art and primitive micro-challenges is a devious game of real-world resource management, and the currencies at play are your own fingers and attention. It’s made up of about 20 simple, brief tasks—holding on to a rope as a stick man dangles above a pool of lava, shaking your device to destroy a castle, timing your taps to help some jerk juggle a soccer ball–that are pumped out seemingly at random. The catch is you’ll be asked to play up to four at once.

It’s a high score chase: Keep succeeding and the games start coming out faster, but unlike Nintendo’s WarioWare games, Mayhem’s obvious inspiration, the micro-games are designed to fit together in just the right ways to drive you crazy. Each chips away at the most precious of those resources, your attention, in a different way. Any activities that require timing, like that juggling soccer scumbag, are the greatest threat as they constantly pull your eyes from simpler tasks.

A few minutes into Mini Mix Mayhem’s hard mode—the only alternative, easy mode, is so easy it’s pointless—it becomes a frantic multitasking exercise with your iDevice flailing around as it’s entangled in a web of busy fingers. A typical game doesn’t last more than six or seven minutes, but a “game over” is bittersweet: It means an end to your run, but at least you’ve escaped the game’s maniacal, stress-inducing grasp with your fingers intact.

First Person Tutor

Who’s the villain in First Person Tutor? The most obvious candidate is Dr. Nathaniel Paynuss, the lazy, bitter professor who trolls Facebook for stray mentions of himself and then exacts vengeance on those who cross him. Everybody hates Prof. Paynuss—“he smells like the orifice he rhymes with,” says one Facebook update—and so everybody get an F-minus.

Yet the students don’t cover themselves in glory, either. Their essays are riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. As Paynuss’ teaching assistant, it’s your job to find those mistakes and mark the grades down accordingly, torpedoing GPAs with a few swishes of your red pen. This angry tedium constitutes the entire game. It’s hard to have sympathy for these kids, though. While everyone mispells a word from time to time, there remains the fact that these essays are glorified fourth-grade book reports, exploring subjects like the “Jigglypuff” monster from Pokémon. Somehow, after writing such pap, these inbred simpletons of privilege have the temerity to whine on Facebook about the derelictions of their professor?

In the end, perhaps you’re the true villain. You can make excuses for the things you do in the name of Paynuss—you have student loans to pay off, after all—but the reality is that you’re a tool of spite. As the game advances and the time to grade each paper grows shorter, it’s not practical to attempt even a cursory reading anymore—instead, you have to just skim for mistakes. So in your hands, the words lose their final vestige of meaning, and academia completes its slide into petty warfare. Of course, maybe you won’t try to finish the game. Maybe you’ll take a stand, put down your red pen, and declare that “just following orders” is no excuse for sacrificing your dignity. If so, you’re a better person than I. Forgive me, readers, for I have graded.


Starting a game of Chunkadelic is like putting money into a jukebox that has all the labels scratched off. There is a general idea of what song you’re about to get, but you can’t be entirely sure until the disc starts spinning. Chevy Ray and Noel Berry’s retro procession weaves in and out of nine simple games, remade with a bright schizophrenic aesthetic. Shown a batch of nine thumbnails just once, you pick one as your starting point, playing through classics that range from a straightforward take on Asteroids to a frustrating riff on Super Mario.

It’s manic from the get-go, giving no instructions other the implied use of the arrow keys. Whether you win or not, you are thrust onward into the next game, chosen at random. There are no re-dos or second chances.

However, getting through a stage does have its rewards. Chunkadelic subtly bleeds the games into each other as you play. The neon-colored Duck Hunt ducks might fly to-and-fro during a frantic Mega-Man boss battle. The game could use more free-associative touches like this, but given its completion in just two days at Vancouver’s Full Indie Game Jam last month, Chunkadelic is still a compelling little blip with a difficulty that invites multiple playthroughs.

Agent Turnright

In 2004, UPS announced a new policy under which its drivers’ delivery routes were rerouted to minimize left turns. The adjustment saves the company about 3 million gallons of gas each year. (You might have seen the Mythbusters crew testing the right-turn-only theory in 2010.) Agent Turnright takes an approach designed for lumbering delivery vans and applies it to a little secret-agent/ninja guy. It kind of works!

Agent Turnright is actually a collage of a few different single-button mini-game ideas, only one of which restricts your mini-spy to right turns. But the adventures in clockwise espionage are the most (only) interesting entries in the collection. Caught in an enemy base, you must guide your avatar around traps and out the door, using only mouse clicks to divert his endless sprint 90 degrees at a time. Turnright elaborates on the basic “don’t run into the walls” challenge with added wrinkles in later rooms, like an invisibility cloak that’s necessary to pick up before you can walk past a trigger-happy guard.

Turnright doesn’t get much of a chance to develop its titular concept before the whole affair is over, though, which is a shame. The other games in the mix include shootouts, a couple car chases, and some “shoot down the huge attack helicopter”-style boss fights. They provide a serviceable distraction but lack the germ of an idea that drives the right-turn levels. Turnright’s one other clever touch is that it counts your clicks, so after the first time through the game, there’s an incentive to go back and see where you might improve your efficiency. The UPS bean-counters would be proud.


All this has happened before: A space cadet crashes on a mysterious planet, armed with only a gun, unaware that new and terrifying powers/enemies await them. Metroid set the stage not only for a long-running game series, but also a series of clones (e.g., K.O.L.M.) that borrow from the space noir themes of the original. It’s a classic video game trope nowadays, the Metroid-like title.

Astronot is, at first, like a slimmed-down Metroid port for the iOS. You’re a garbage-ship worker who crash-lands on a foreign surface where you must plunge the depths to survive. You collect items that boost your jump ability and your gunfire. “Yada yada, give me the wave beam and call it a day,” you might think.

But as Astronot continues, its world morphs into something more open and rich. This is despite its spartan feel—for starters, there’s no map, so you’re forced to track progress entirely in your head (or, for the brave, not at all, wandering aimlessly). Enemies are two to three times your size, and the different worlds, each with its own 8-bit score, are full of pitfalls hidden behind the stark graphics. Astronot is the rare work that is blatantly inspired by another game yet finds depth by stripping its inspiration down for parts.

Tiny Wings

In the 1991 Berkeley Breathed book A Wish For Wings That Work, a penguin named Opus deals with depression fueled by his inability to fly. He feels somehow inadequate, less of a bird. He asks Santa for a good pair of flying wings, but Father Christmas crashes into a lake en route. Although he can’t fly, Opus is a terrific swimmer. He rescues that old bearded drunk in no time, and simultaneously discovers his own worth. Santa works in mysterious ways.

The hero of Andreas Illiger’s breakout 2011 game Tiny Wings is similarly challenged. Rather than just mope around about it, though, this bird slides along colorful slopes, building momentum and launching itself into the sky (if only for a short time), racing the sun. It’s aspirational. A simple, beautiful game.

There was loose talk in recent days of a true sequel, but Tiny Wings was instead given a free update. The new version introduces “flight school,” where baby birds race each other toward their mother’s nest and a reward of fish. Fifteen new levels, night flying, and some other minor tweaks expand on the original game, but basically it’s the same experience. Racing other birds—instead of the sun’s inexorable advance—sounds more exciting than it is. The nature of Tiny Wings propulsion is spending half your time on the ground, and half in the air. You don’t even see your competitors most of the time; either you’re catapulting yourself over them or vice versa. But why mess with success? Instead of wishing for a completely new game, maybe we should just learn to (re)appreciate the one we have.

Cubic Love

The Rayman series is known for levels that require you to sprint the entire time, from start to finish. Spikes raise and lower at specific intervals; puffs of smoke and fire billow out at predetermined times. So if you slow down, even for a second, you might miss your window and be forced to start all over. The frantic nature of these levels means you essentially abandon any hope of coherent thought while you play, and you operate on a completely instinctive level. Agility outweighs all else.

Cubic Love is like a stripped-down version of those Rayman levels, set to a homespun Etsy backdrop. You’re a box with a heart on it, and you are only able to jump (by clicking on the screen). That’s it—no powers, no nonsense. You collect coins and avoid spiky blocks as the screen flies by. You have to jump, or not, based on split-seconds of information.

Success rests on your ability to instantly sense the best action to take at any given moment, even if that action is to do nothing. Sometimes the blocks stack high, and you must choose either the low path or the high one, not knowing which one leads to more coins or a bed of spikes. Unlike Rayman, though, the levels are randomly generated, meaning perfection can’t be practiced.

ir/rational redux

Basic philosophical logic, the type you might encounter in an entry-level Western philosophy course, can seem more obtuse than sophisticated. The rigorous, step-by-step justifications—IF this THEN that, THEREFORE the other thing—have a certain childish ring to them. It’s like that brilliant Louis C.K. routine where his kid’s one repeated question of “Why?” eventually finds him angrily explaining the metaphysical underpinnings of being.

The Philosophy 101 logic puzzles in ir/rational redux capture this mind-bending mix of high-minded intellectual acumen and “isn’t that obvious?” simplicity. You’re trapped in a featureless room with a “perfect” machine that can read your mind—the type of contraption that often features in philosophers’ thought experiments. The machine feeds you certain questions and propositions for you to reason out with deliberate arguments. At one point, for instance, you have to prove, given a set of assumptions, whether it is rational for you to attempt escape from your prison.

The conclusions you have to reach are sometimes obvious, but the challenge of the game is figuring out how to reach them. While the game does take a brief, stupid side turn into the politics of video game censorship, most of the puzzles are amusingly high-minded. The game’s brevity means that the fun is over before a truly tough challenge can get underway. I’d ask why creator Tom Jubert ended the game so soon, but if we start going down that road, we could be here all day.


Back in the days before you kids had your smartphones and 4chan and whatever, we played games on our graphing calculators. One of my favorites of this archaic platform—arguably the main reason I failed high school physics—was Turbo Breakout. Simply a version of the classic block-breaking, Arkanoid-style game, Turbo Breakout adheres to a simple, addicting formula—repelling a ball with a moveable platform and angling your shots to destroy floating block patterns.

Leaks is a variation on Breakout, and it adds a few things to the dependable model, notably some outstanding throwback music. The playing field is wide, so you have to scroll sideways and track the ball over a large area as you speed toward each level’s finish line. There is an option to have the ball burn straight through bricks, rather than bounce off of them, but if you pop a hole in the upper layer, water comes pouring out, slowly flooding the field of play. It feels like a cautionary tale, a warning against sitting around playing games instead of doing something to combat global warming. Because much like man-made climate change, Leaks adds some chaotic elements to a traditionally ordered system. Or maybe I’m overthinking this whole thing.

Squids Wild West

Like Shining Force (plus squids), Squids Wild West is a strategy game that teams you with a diverse party of squid fighters. One shoots from far away; one moves great distances and is good for exploring. Deliberate thought is needed to use the best squid for each job, whether it’s clearing out enemy crabs or trying to reach refuge behind a waterfall. On the other hand, Squids Wild West is also like Angry Birds or Cut The Rope, in that you sometimes blindly fling allies into the open and hope for the best. Painstaking planning meets random chance.

The result, a sort of middle ground between order and chaos, is less frustrating than it might sound. When tossing a fat squid into the middle of a group of enemies—with the ability to pound the ground and devastate nearby foes—you might knock the bad guy you’re aiming for, ricocheting it against others like a well-aimed pool ball. Or, you might knock it somewhere else entirely, perhaps against a spiky ball or an exploding lobster. The anticipation of what might happen is as thrilling as a well-executed move.

The Wild West backdrop isn’t overdone. It merely provides a bit of color to your customizable squid party, which includes characters like a Calamity Jane figure who wields candy canes like six-shooters. And much like the Wild West itself, Squids Wild West tries to maintain some semblance of order, only to have that order fall away for something more exciting.

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97 Responses to “The Best Of Sawbuck Gamer: July 2012”

  1. Andrew ferguson says:

    “…these essays are glorified fourth-grade book reports, exploring subjects like the ‘Jigglypuff’ monster from Pokémon.”

    It’s at times like these that I step back from my dissertation for a moment and realize how much I love what I do, before returning to the grind of actually writing the chapter on Pokémon.

  2. Aurora Boreanaz says:

    I really enjoy logic puzzles, so ir/rational redux was a lot of fun.  In my opinion, logic and critical thinking are things sorely missing from public education.  There are a lot of scams and hoaxes that one is far less likely to fall for with an application of simple logic.

    “Wait, if this product/service is so great, what are the odds that nobody else I know has heard of it?  Is it truly new and revolutionary, or a tired old cliche that everybody over 25 knows about and hates anything to do with?  (Amway)”

    • Electric Dragon says:

      First let me assure you we’re not one of those pyramid schemes you’ve been hearing about! No, sir: our model is the trapezoid!

    • The_Misanthrope says:

      I would have assumed that Amway (or Vitalife or any other selling scheme) would have exploited the whole social networking/Facebook angle a while ago to appeal to all the young folks/fucks.

  3. Basement Boy says:

    Yay, the bosses will be away for the next 4 days! Thanks for these worktime-wasting ideas!

  4. Jason Eddy says:

    Yeah, I still fire up first person tutor every once in a while. Great way to kill 5-10 minutes. I think my favorite is the one about the Krampus.