In the late-’90s comic book series Preacher, God abdicates his heavenly throne, leading to all kinds of weirdness going down here on Earth. He eventually gets his occupational comeuppance, just like you would if you rolled into the office three hours late, wearing the same stained T-shirt from the day before, reeking of Maker’s Mark and bad decisions.
Apparently, He is at it again in this simple creation game by Andrew Stewart. As the deity’s temp, you use your magic god-finger to bring something from nothing, making mountains and lakes and rain. These lead to grass, trees, and life. You mark time as the sun and moon cycle through the sky, but its passage really has no meaning here. Pull your finger across the screen laterally and the wind shifts. Swipe again, and more rain falls.
What they don’t tell you in god school is that creating life isn’t very straightforward. There are no clear blueprints for Chia-life. This is to the game’s benefit. It’s a pleasure just to figure out the rules (if any) of being god. Still, I always pictured being omnipotent as something less impotent. I didn’t get much further than birds and a few fish—certainly nothing advanced enough to be worthy of stone tablets filled with commandments. And no matter how much rain I brought down, no biblical floods appeared. It’s enough to make one lose faith altogether.
The real estate agent who listed this so-called Super House Of Dead Ninjas has some explaining to do. First of all, it’s more of a tower than a house. Secondly, while there are indeed ninjas, the “house” also plays host to a wide variety of other creatures, including psychotic chimpanzees, a giant poison-vomiting beast, and advice-dispensing ghosts with Steve Martin-esque swords stuck through their heads. But worst of all, the ninjas aren’t even dead! If you expect me to slaughter all these ninjas myself, at least advertise the place as a fixer-upper. What about all the blood? Who’s going to respackle the walls once they’re riddled with shuriken holes? When you use the word “super,” I’m obviously going to assume maintenance is included.
Shady real estate practices aside, Super House has your heroic (and perfectly alive) ninja dropping in unannounced to work his way down 350 floors of evil by stabbing, slicing, and decapitating whatever happens to be in his way. Power-ups appear sporadically, as power-ups do, the most important of which are little alarm clocks. See, apparently this house also has a weird feature where if you go for 30 seconds without picking up an alarm clock, a scythe-wielding demon arrives to kill you. The constant time pressure and twitchy run-jump-kill action make the whole affair feel like Speed Run: The Game, but it’s fun to get into a groove while on-screen prompts compliment your awesome moves. Super House Of Dead Ninjas is a quick and satisfying coffee break bloodbath. And if you decide it’s not your style, you can always sublet.
TV’s MacGyver was arguably the late 20th century’s greatest champion of science and DIY engineering. He once turned some candlesticks, microphone cord, and a rubber mat into a defibrillator, and another time built a bomb out of a sleeping bag, vodka, and a tank of oxygen. My favorite moment was when he popped out of a coffin riding a jet ski.
In McPixel, MacGyver’s bomb-diffusing video game counterpart is put through a series of 20-second emergencies. In each scenario, McPixel must quickly defuse the bomb, otherwise everything explodes in a hellish, pixelated firestorm.
Unfortunately for everyone within the blast radius, figuring out a successful chain of actions is achieved through trial and error, not through rational problem solving. One level, for instance, involves a pool, a boom box, a bikini-clad pixel woman, and a lecherous old geezer. You have 20 seconds to stop them all from blowing up. (Hint: it’s not by kicking them in the groin.) You keep replaying levels until McPixel stumbles on the solution.
Although the “try, fail, die, try again, die again, push every spot on the screen to see what works” formula gets repetitive, there is definitely enough wacky, Sierra adventure game-style cleverness to keep you entertained through at least half of the 100 or so levels. Getting it wrong is just as fun as seeing McPixel save the day.
Before the deluge of annual war shooters and sports simulators, one of the tent posts of distilled game design (move left and right; shoot up at enemies) was Space Invaders. But there was a spookiness to its simplicity. The title—with its implications of invaders, specifically from space—provides a sense of dread, coupled with the stark, monochromatic presentation. If only there were a kinder, gentler, friendlier version for everyone to enjoy…
SunFlowers fills that void with panache. Space Invaders in reverse, players control the sun, shooting clouds to rain onto flowers, keeping them alive. It’s bright! It’s cheerful! It goes on forever until you’ve accidentally burnt your happy flowers or (not in the game) your dinner patiently sitting/burning in the oven.
Space Invaders refuses to personify the hundreds of aliens you murder, whereas SunFlowers is quick to dole out an identity to the flowers you save. You “collect” hundreds of breeds of happy cartoon flowers as if they were Pokémon or Pogs, adding tips to your smile jar. There’s no longer a reason to fear the sky.
“Dear Knight, Please save my 10 daughters! The evil guy took them to his tower. Kill him. —The King.” That hastily scrawled call to arms isn’t exactly The Hobbit’s, “Do you not wish to share in a grand adventure?”, but it’ll suffice to get your barely equipped, scruffy knight off his pot-metal-armored ass and onto a makeshift rocket in Juicy Beast’s Knightmare Tower.
The game is a typical launch-and-upgrade routine, in the spirit of Hedgehog Launch or Burrito Bison Revenge, a previous, similarly bright-and-cartoony Juicy Beast game. Here, progress is strictly vertical. You launch straight up, then try to avoid falling back down the tower and into a lava pit. Progress is made by hacking away at monsters around you, collecting upward momentum with every successful slice. (The physics don’t make sense, but question why killing monsters briefly reverses gravity, and soon you’ll be wondering why cute, scowling blobs carry baggies of gold inside flying soap bubbles—and that way lies madness.)
Knightmare Tower is mechanically simple, but requires a deft hand as the monsters get tougher and more numerous, mounting their own varied and timed attacks. Like Burrito Bison, the game spices up the action with a load of “quest” goals, which keeps the gameplay from feeling too grind-y as you earn cash and upgrade your armory and accessories. A tough boss and a survival mode maintains the game’s freshness. In spite of the name, this isn’t really a nightmare—it’s an absorbing idyll to pick up the rhythm of the knight.
In the hierarchy of manly occupations, it goes: Navy SEAL, cigarette spokes-cowboy, Don Draper look-alike, velociraptor wrangler, lumberjack.
The latter is the focus of Jack Lumber, a testosterone-fueled chop-’em-up. You take on the role of the titular character, a flannel-clad, “Axe first, ask questions later” woodsman, out for revenge after an evil tree flattens his dear old grandmother. Your goal is to chop apart as many logs as possible, making use of the same finger-blistering action as the popular Fruit Ninja series. Each level features a variety of logs, which fly onto the screen in slow motion to then split down the middle as quickly as possible before time, and gravity, kick in.
Jack Lumber, however, is more than just a mindless wood-splitting experience, requiring dexterity and strategy. The game ramps up the difficulty with logs that can only be cut in one direction, logs that require multiple slices, and special fire and ice logs. The result is frenetic, sap-spattered action across 25 different levels as you prepare for the climactic showdown with the dirty son-of-a-birch who killed your beloved granny.
You’ll also unlock cutesy cartoon animal characters, purchase various maple syrups (which provide special abilities), and receive letters from an irate park ranger and an amorous, axe-wielding Lumber Jill. Toss in a distinct animated style, and the end result is both a tree hugger’s worst nightmare and an addictive lumber-chopping homage to that most manly of professions.
Since talking with Mark Of The Ninja developer Nels Anderson, games that champion sneaking over shooting have been very much on my mind. His game, full of smoke bombs, grappling hooks, shadows, and Germans is polished and relatively sophisticated.
Lim has neither ninjas nor Germans, but boils covert stealth movement down to its elemental parts. You play a square—literally, a square—that must circumvent spaces filled with different color squares. You can project whatever ethnic or nationalistic spin you like on it, but if you don’t engage your stealth mode, you’ll quickly be found out and mercilessly bludgeoned by the hostile foreign blocks. The longer you keep your stealth mode activated, the more your block-person shakes and the more inhibited your movement.
At least, this was my predictable white male’s interpretation of the game—before I learned that Lim tackles gender roles, and how people/squares must change themselves in order to progress unbothered through levels/life toward a sense of belonging and happiness. The two options seem to be, 1) getting violently set upon for being different, or, 2) camouflaging yourself until the screen shakes so much it looks like you’ll explode. It’s a lose-lose situation, one that Lim eloquently conveys in its stealth.
If there’s a lesson to be learned from countless depictions of the zombie apocalypse over the last half-decade, it’s that the undead would turn daily existence into a soul-crushing struggle to fend off hostile forces—enduring the whims of weather and avoiding the random chance of disease. In other words, it’d look a lot like life on the frontier in America 200 years ago.
That’s the subtext of Organ Trail—a parody/homage of the PC/Apple II game Oregon Trail that became ubiquitous in grade school classrooms in the ‘80s despite its spurious educational value. (Seriously, what exactly was Oregon Trail trying to teach us? The exchange rate of wagon tongues to bullets?)
Beside the fact that it trades horse-driven transportation for the symbolic horsepower underneath the hood of a station wagon, and the fact that you’re shooting zombies instead of wildlife, the developers have changed little from the original to fit the zomb-ocalypse theme. Sure, things get a bit more Donner Party-like in Organ Trail—you have the option to harvest corpses for meat or shoot members of your party who’ve been infected by zombies—but at its core, this remake is another cross-country travelogue. You and a small team must manage resources, repair your vehicle, and react to a series of tiny crises. The immortal words “You have died of dysentery!” have returned, sure to please fans of inflammatory intestine sickness. Only this time, dysentery might be preferable to the alternative.
As madness goes, this bout’s not half-bad. It’s quiet, it’s dark, and the complexities of the world have been compressed into clear, punchy text. Crazy, sure, but the kind of crazy one could get used to.
But the rest of Psychiatric Evaluation won’t give you that chance. The game starts as a text adventure, the sort of prose-only antique that was so popular in the late ’70s. Talk to a doctor—and all you can do at the beginning is talk to a doctor, unless you obsess yourself with the Rickroll command—and your “sanity” improves. The graphics and music improve alongside your ailing mind. A few more sessions with the doc, and the world transforms from silent text into bright graphics and foreboding, synth-y music. It still looks old, but now you can see.
And with sight comes the ability to traverse the tiny asylum, letting you search for an exit. But not all paths are open to those of sound mind. Talking to fellow patients lowers your sanity, and finding your way out requires frequent relapses and rehabilitations.
The game likens lifting the fog of the mind to the improvement of its technology, but the design doesn’t hold up its end of the metaphor. Some nonsensical actions are only available when you’re sane, while recalling your memories can only be done when you’re completely out of your mind. That is, unless we’re all a little bit crazy, and Psychiatric Evaluation is the only sane one left…
You can do this. You’ve already outrun the fireballs and dodged the creeping spiked roots, dropped down the pit of thorns just inches ahead of the gushing fount of lava, and hopscotched across the heads of your enemies after ziplining through the raining flames, only to bash your face into another fanged tree root. You’ve done this whole thing 10 times in the past five minutes. You can no longer tell the difference between your cries of frustration and your cackling laughter. Without a moment’s hesitation, you begin your run again, instinctively dodging that first explosion and the strange chuckling emerges from within you once more. Is this madness, or is it merely Rayman?
Less than one year after Rayman Origins proved to be the best Super Mario game in years, Rayman: Jungle Run looks to do the same for Sonic The Hedgehog’s stale sprinting standards. There’s a frantic sense of immediacy to Jungle Run’s precision-platforming that will leave players wondering how the heck Sega hasn’t milked this idea to death for their blue mascot already. Just as vibrant, joyous, inventive, and challenging as Origins, this mobile offering is less of a bite-sized morsel and more of a Sunday brunch, especially if one too many mimosas causes you to see wood nymphs and hear choirs of crooning lums.