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Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 84: 8-Bit Halloween

It's been awhile since I've done a Free and Worth Every Penny installment, but Halloween seemed an excellent time to resurrect this feature (see what I did there?  ...sorry), and I can't think of a better way to do it than with my favorite type of freeware:  a retro-themed, hard-as-nails side scrolling platformer.  Welcome to...

This is as straightforward as they come, folks.  You're intrepid hero Jackie Gun.  (Yes.)  It's Halloween, and you're trapped in a graveyard with a bunch of ghouls, ghosts, spirits, specters, and so on.  Help five trapped friendly Caspers escape from their imprisonment, and you'll be free to leave.  Go.

If you don't feel like reading, the trailer is going to tell you 90% of what you need to know.  Take a look.

Yes, that is Vampire Killer from the Castlevania series playing in the background.  It also plays in the game, constantly.  Ordinarily, I might rankle a bit at having music ripped from a commercial series plopped into a freeware title, but being as this is a clearly themed homage and Vampire Killer is some of the best videogame music of all time, I'm gonna let it slide.  If it bothers you, you won't miss much by turning the volume down.

The gameplay is extremely barebones (heh.  bare bones.  on Hallow-- sorry again), giving you no more options than you'd expect if you were playing this on the Gameboy it's built to resemble.  You can run, jump, and shoot.  That's it.  No items to collect, just coins for score and the extremely rare health pickup.  No areas to unlock.  Just one big map, a whole lot of enemies, and you.

There are some secret areas, though, which is a nice touch.

For all its simplicity, it's pretty brutal.  You can take five hits before you're done for, that's all.  No continues, no checkpoints.  You clear this puppy in one try or you start from scratch.  And you'll only find one of those precious health pickups when you free one of the five hidden spirits, so don't count on them to save you.  Luckily, the game controls well and enemies telegraph their attacks and move in patterns, so it really is just a matter of learning what to expect and then executing well.

Still, you'll see the Game Over screen a lot.  It isn't a terribly long game - it's all one interconnected map, no branching paths or doors - so that's a frustration I can deal with, but I certainly would have appreciated a checkpoint after saving each spirit, or at least an Easy Mode with that option.  What can I say, I'm getting soft in my old age.

This is not a game trying to hide its influences.

There are a couple of minor gameplay problems that need mentioning.  Hit boxes are a little bigger than you think they are at first, leading to some initial frustration as you learn how much room you need to give enemies.  You need to press X every time you want to fire, which led to me getting out Pinnacle Game Profiler and setting up a rapid fire profile pretty quickly.

For all the minor kvetching I'm doing, though, I had a good time with 8-Bit Halloween.  Lionsoft has put together a tight, fun little side scroller with pleasing Gameboy-inspired visuals, classic music, and well-worn but reliable mechanics.  Just the thing to burn through on a late night as the last trick-or-treaters ring your doorbell.  Happy Halloween, everybody!

8-Bit Halloween is...

  • a game that wears its influences proudly on its sleeve.  And steals its music outright.
  • still creative enough in other ways, with challenging level design and an amusingly silly, intentionally throwaway conceit.
  • maybe a little too happy to kill you, but that's kind of in the spirit of the holiday, isn't it?
  • probably largely forgettable, but worth a spin if you want a little retro Halloween gaming.

Windows only, under 5MB, download it right here.

BONUS FOR READING THIS FAR!  This is not free, but man is it close and it's totally worth every penny.  The Humble Indie Bundle is doing something new:  you can get in on the alpha (and all subsequent versions) of the incredible-looking top-down shooter Voxeltron by paying any amount you want!  You should do this.  Because it's great.

"Free And Worth Every Penny" is a column I collaborate on with Mike Bellmore at Colony of Gamers.  This piece also appears there.  If you're done with this one and want more, feel free to browse the archives.


That Didn't Take Long.

So, it turns out the game I wanted to write about was waiting literally right around the corner.  Which is not to say that I haven't played a lot of good indie titles in the last couple of months - I have, and a few of them I'm hoping to record a podcast about real soon.  But they're also getting a lot of coverage elsewhere; this one, I didn't hear about anywhere until I was watching the trailer and then buying and playing the game.

I should be up front before I start talking about it: I have a thing for rhythm games.  I'm not particularly good at rhythm games, especially Dance Dance Revolution-style ones (which will be ironic in a minute), but I find them fascinating and deeply satisfying to play, even on the low and medium difficulty settings that I usually end up stuck at.

Sequence is a rhythm-based jRPG.  You can view the trailer at the linked Steam page, but I'll embed it here as well for your convenience.

You'll notice watching the trailer that the developer trades on their sense of humor a bit, and that definitely comes through in the game's writing (a blessing in my book, because if there's anything I don't want to do it's play a taking-itself-too-seriously jRPG).  But it's the game's mechanics that set it apart from anything I've played recently, so that's primarily what I want to talk about.

As you can gather from the video, this is "Rhythm RPG" the way Puzzle Quest is "Puzzle RPG", in that they've taken an existing tried-and-true gameplay genre (DDR-formula pattern matching) and tossed an RPG layer on top of it.  Honestly, for $5 I probably would have been pretty happy with that, especially given that the music is catchy and the story at least marginally compelling.  But the battle system they've devised hooked me enough to pull several hours from my schedule in the last 24 that I really didn't have to give it, and it deserves explanation.

You don't play this DDR clone on one note track, you play it on three.  One is your defensive shield; miss a note here, and you'll take damage.  Another is your mana generator; there's no penalty for missing notes on this panel, but every note you hit generates a bit of mana, used to fire off spells.  The third is for successfully casting those spells; every time you want to attack (or heal, or use any of the other abilities you gain throughout the game) you'll need to succeed at a note sequence.  Mess it up, and the spell fails, wasting the mana for it and making it inaccessible until it recharges.

This fairly simple division of the combat into three unique tasks means you're always splitting your time as a strategic resource, trying to figure out which panel is going to give you the greatest reward.  You don't want to ignore the defensive panel or you'll start taking heavy damage, but if those notes come while you're trying to pull off a spell in the casting panel, that's a tradeoff you might make.  You'll spend your downtime in the mana generator building up your reserves, but ending a battle faster increases your XP multiplier at the end so you don't want to burn too much time there.  It's constantly engaging without (so far, a few hours in) ever becoming too frantic to handle, and it's based on solid rhythm game mechanics that I already enjoyed anyway - combined, it's a huge win.

The story's alright.  I can't say I'm exactly engrossed in it, but the writing has moments of genuine wit, the voice acting is pretty decent, and the character art has some personality, in a "this is an anime-styled jRPG" sort of way.  The whole thing is aesthetically pleasing, really, through visuals and music both.  The RPG mechanics outside of combat are what you'd expect: level up through battling to increase stats; craft items, weapons and armor using drops from your enemies; grind your way through a level to get the necessary ingredients to proceed; repeat.  So much so boring if the combat itself wasn't fun to do, but I had enough fun grinding through battles last night to completely lose track of time, so I'm not knocking it for that.

And it's $5.  Five dollars.  Less than that if you get it while it's on special on Steam.  It's crazy - literally insane - to think that Duke Nukem Forever released at ten times the cost of this game (though of course you'll be able to find that one in cereal boxes soon enough).  Go check it out.  Sadly there's no demo at this point, but again.  Guys.  Five bucks.  I love you, indie developers.


Blowing off the Cobwebs

I've let this place get a bit dusty, haven't I.  Sorry about that.

Life got a little crazy over the last couple of months - well, crazier than usual, it's been a crazy year - and I just haven't felt much like writing about games.  I've still played a few, and managed to knock out a couple of podcast episodes over at Immortal Machines, including an interview with the writer of Bastion that I'm really proud of.  (Bastion is utterly fantastic, by the way, and if you haven't played it, you should.  It will undoubtedly end up in my list of the year's favorite games.)  More of that's on the way, I hope - I'm working my way through the last part of Deus Ex: Human Revolution, and want to record an episode all about that; also, there's been a weird surge of indie tower defense variants that I want to do an IndieCast about.

But there hasn't been much writing, and I do feel bad about that.  Like exercise, it's a habit that can be hard to restart once you've let it lapse, and it seems to get harder the longer you let it go.

There's a lot of big AAA titles right around the corner, of course - Battlefield 3, Skyrim, the PC version of Arkham City, the PC version of LA Noire - and I may wind up having something to say about those.  Torchlight II continues to torture us with its lack of a release date, but they seem pretty adamant that it'll be out this year, so by definition it must be coming soon.  It's been a very good year to love games, both small- and large-scale.

You know what I've actually been playing this week, though?  Mage Gauntlet on my iPhone.

I don't talk much about iPhone games on here, maybe because I feel like they get covered pretty well by the internet at large already; between TouchArcade, SlideToPlay and following the right folks on Twitter it's hard to miss a good release (and there are so many that I could never keep up).  In fact, even with Mage Gauntlet, rather than try to review it I'll just point you to the review over on STP, because it says pretty much everything I would.  It's a game that'll hit a really sweet spot for anyone with fond memories of 16-bit action RPG's, but I think it's worth checking out for anyone with an iDevice.  I will leave this trailer here for you to check out, because everybody loves trailers.

So if you've got an iPhone, iPad or other iThing, I can't recommend that enough.  Check it out; it's on sale through Sunday.  The other games by Rocketcat - Hook Champ, Super QuickHook and Hook Worlds - are also great fun, though in a totally different vein.

I could write a huge post about all the iPhone games I think are genuinely great, and how as a platform I think the iPhone really is leaving Nintendo and Sony both in the dust, much as I love my 3DS and its predecessors.  At some point perhaps I'll do that.  For tonight I just wanted to get the site out of mothballs and post something.  Hopefully I'll have more offbeat freeware and indie stuff to talk about soon.  Have a good weekend, everyone.


Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 83: Flee Buster

Don’t stop running.  Don’t look back.  That ship is behind you, it’s always behind you and it’s always getting closer.  If you stop, you’re done for.  I don’t know what they do to people in those ships but I know I don’t want to be in one.  Don’t stop running.  Keep moving.  <switch.>  Take those turns tighter, you’re slowing down every time you go around a corner!  How many creatures are chasing me?  It was four, but I think it’s five now.  Can’t spare the time to check;  if one of them catches me it won’t matter.  Don’t hit the spikes.  Don’t slow down.  Keep moving.  <switch.>  The last jump was impossible, yet here I am on the other side of it.  Don’t look down don’t look down don’t look down!  Gotta keep moving up.  The exit is somewhere up there and the fire below me isn’t going to put itself out.  Just thirty or forty more impossible jumps to go.  Easy, right?  Keep moving!

Another Ludum Dare competition (the 48 hour game dev marathon from which we’ve pulled several of our previous featured games) is in the voting stage, this time with the theme of “Escape.”  It was initially my intention to do a round-up of some favorites for you to check out this week, but then I realized that there are almost six hundred entries to this round of Ludum Dare(!), and I spent all morning Sunday playing Flee Buster.  As soon as I’m done writing this, I’ll probably be going back to play it some more.  [Edit: Actually I just kept playing it while I was writing.]  So I guess I’d better just tell you about that one, and call it a success.

ChevyRay’s take on “Escape” is a pulse-pounding tale of three very different characters in terrible peril.  In the first, a man flees from the tractor beam of a giant spaceship, running and jumping through traditional platforming levels as fast as he can.  The second switches to a top-down maze of tight corridors where a tiny ship must navigate around deadly spikes and evade an ever-increasing number of pursuers.  The last mimics the final level of a Metroid game (or, if you prefer your game references a bit more casual, Doodle Jump, I suppose), as a nimble frog leaps higher and higher out of the grasp of a rising flame.

These guys really need your help.

On their own, any one of these three would be a suitable diversion, but probably nothing terribly special.  They’re solidly designed levels with the same sort of muscle memory appeal that games like Super Meat Boy and VVVVVV have - you can feel yourself getting better at them each time you fail and try again - but it wouldn’t be nearly so compelling without the hook.  Flee Buster’s hook is that you only control each of these characters for a few seconds at a time.

In addition to the time pressure of being chased and needing to constantly press forward while avoiding each level’s hazards, a tiny bar at the bottom of the screen measures the time you’ll have to control each scenario.  When it runs out, you’re thrust immediately into the next one, no matter what’s going on at the time.  (It will, mercifully, let you land if you’re mid-jump when it runs out.)  This means that at any given time you’re not just thinking about the character you’re controlling;  you’re thinking about the one you’re about to control.  And you’re thinking about leaving the one you’re controlling in a safe position so that once you’re done controlling the third character and you come back to this one, you’ll be ready to proceed.  It’s a maddening, slightly insane loop, and it’s great.  The need to think contextually about three characters while reacting to the immediate circumstances of one adds just enough complexity that the game feels a bit cerebral as well as reflex-driven, making success that much more satisfying.

I hope you like this screen.  You'll see it a lot.

Of course, success will be hard to come by, should you come by it at all.  Flee Buster is tough, and will sometimes punish you in ways that feel unfair.  A single mistake with any one character means game over for all three, and while the game is short by design it does mean that you’re pretty much going for a perfect run, and only that, right from the start.  There are tokens strewn along the path in all three levels, which serve as a scoring mechanism, but I can’t imagine any but the most dedicated will want to replay the game to get them all after completing it with less than 100%.  There’s also a noticeable disparity in the amount of player agency in the three scenarios:  the top-down ship level has enemies you can “trick” a bit, and power-ups to pick up that buy you extra time, while the side scrolling and vertical jumping levels rely solely on perfect platforming.  That's not really a complaint - they’re designed to be different - but it would have been nice to see more depth in the precision platforming sections.

Still, for a free game designed over the course of 48 hours, those are absolutely negligible issues.  Flee Buster is a tight, addictive experience that requires nothing but your web browser and some free time (though I did end up using a gamepad, as my skills with the arrow keys aren’t what they used to be), and you should definitely check it out.  The aesthetics are effective but very simple;  this one’s all about the gameplay.  Congratulations to ChevyRay for knocking out a very solid little game with a clever concept in almost no time at all;  I wish him luck in the competition!

Flee Buster is...

  • a tightly controlled, clever mix of several classic gameplay styles.
  • extremely unforgiving, but fast and short enough that it usually doesn’t feel punishing.
  • stressful;  it develops a surprising amount of tension in a very short period of time.
  • a game I will probably never 100%, but I will beat it.  So help me, I will.

Maybe you will too.  Flee Buster works everywhere Flash does, so head on over to ChevyRay’s website and find out!

"Free And Worth Every Penny" is a column I collaborate on with Mike Bellmore at Colony of Gamers.  This piece also appears there.  If you're done with this one and want more, feel free to browse the archives.


Indie RPG Alert. Cheap, Good Fun.

I tossed up links to this stuff on Facebook, Twitter, Google+, etc etc, but it certainly merits a mention here as well:  last week saw the release of some really great Indie RPG's, for prices that can only reasonably be called stupidly low.

Dungeons of Dredmor is a game I've been looking forward to for months, after interviewing the developers on the Immortal Machines podcast back in February.  David and Nicholas from Gaslamp Games were hilarious to talk to, and it was clear that they wanted their quirky sense of humor to be front and center in their game.  I'm pleased to say that from my first few hours with the game they certainly succeeded;  Dredmor plays like a combination of Nethack, Quest for Glory and Monty Python, and that's a pretty brilliant blend.  It's remarkably user-friendly for a roguelike, but it'll still kill you at the drop of a hat.  Oh, and it's less than five dollars.  So there's that.

Here's the trailer.  Give it a look, and if you like it, your money will be well spent.

The other two started life as releases on XBox Live Indie Games, but just showed up on Steam for even less money than Dredmor: Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World.  Very much also in the "comedy RPG" genre, they play like classic Final Fantasy styled 16 bit RPG's, only funnier.  I haven't spent much time yet with Cthulhu Saves the World, but here's the story pitch:  the mighty Cthulhu awakens after eons of slumber, ready to rain madness and terror upon the Earth.  Then a wizard curses him and steals all his powers, and the only way he can get them back is to become a hero.  If he wants to destroy the world, he needs to save it first.

That kind of sells itself, doesn't it?

Breath of Death VII and Cthulhu Saves the World can be had together in a bundle pack for under three dollars!  If you're even remotely interested there's pretty much no reason not to do this.

The best news is, to listen to the blogs and Twitter feeds of the developers, they're having huge success on Steam with these absurdly low prices.  They've consistently been near the top of the best sellers list since release, and it seems like the whole thing has exceeded their expectations.  I wish them the best; this is precisely why I love the indie scene so much.

I'll leave you with the very amusing trailer for Cthulhu Saves the World - if you want to see the Breath of Death VII trailer too, it's here.