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Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 55: Solipskier

Speed and elegance are two of the most addictive qualities a game can have, for me;  largely, I think, because those are qualities I know to be lacking in myself.  I'm not a nimble person - I'm nonathletic, I'm a little overweight, etc - and while I possess some verbal grace, physical grace is not a trait I'm burdened with.  So when a game allows me to take the role of a character who exhibits these characteristics with ease and style, I get hooked pretty easily.  All of which is to say, as of this last weekend I had the 7th highest global score at this week's Free and Worth Every Penny installment, with over 60 million points.  Yeah.  Little bit hooked.

A slick combination of ideas from Canabalt and Line Rider, Solipskier challenges you to keep a tiny skier alive as long as possible, hitting targets, avoiding obstacles, and pulling off sweet tricks to rack up points as you go.  You don't control the skier himself, though - you draw the world on which he will ski.  As you paint the ground in front of him, he zips along from left to right, speeding down or climbing up hills as you make them, leaping off ramps you create, and plummeting to his doom should you fail to catch him when he comes back down.

It's an extremely simple premise, but the solid execution makes it a completely addicting experience.  The scoring mechanic is straightforward:  you earn more points the longer your skier stays alive, and earning multiplier bonuses scores those points much faster.  Multiplier bonuses can be earned by hitting randomized gates, traveling through "tunnels" (rapid gate sequences), and pulling off mid-air tricks.  Hit a gate in mid-air, and it's an extra bonus.  Jump so high over a gate that you're off the screen, and it's an extra bonus.  Basically, the game rewards you for doing stuff that feels awesome, which is a fine design principle in my book.

Ski like the wind, little skier man.

Of course, it wouldn't be much of a game if reward didn't carry risk.  The higher your multiplier, the faster you go, up to truly insane speeds.  Two types of obstacles pose the constant threat of failure:  blocked gates, which will instantly kill your skier if he runs into them;  and "jumps", areas of the track where you won't be able to draw ground, so you must make sure to get your skier safely in the air with enough speed to clear the jump before coming up on one.  The game does a great job of giving you advance warnings for both beneficial and harmful elements, by popping up distance indicators on the right-hand side of the screen, but when you're going 90kmh it's hard to react in time.

Aesthetically, Solipskier is a delight, with a simple but effective visual style that pulls your attention right where it needs to be at every moment and gives you lots of visual feedback when you're doing well.  The music is a great touch - when you start, you'll be accompanied by a fast, energetic soundtrack to get your heart racing, but go fast enough, and your skier's headphones will blow off, leaving you with only the rush of the wind (and allowing you to concentrate just a little bit more).  Gentle classical piano music serves as a eulogy after each death, and then it's back to try again.

If you want to see it in action, here's someone having a very good run.

We've seen a lot of these distance-based randomized games hit the web in the last year, with titles like Canabalt and Robot Unicorn Attack taking the lion's share of the attention, but Solipskier may just be my favorite of all the ones I've played.  The control scheme takes a little getting used to, but once you do, controlling your skier becomes an almost effortless dance of deciding what you want him to do and willing those actions into being.  Just use a gentle hand and have a little patience, and you'll be leaping through gates perfectly in no time.  Then the only trouble will be making yourself stop.

Solipskier is...

  • a very stylish and polished presentation of a simple concept.
  • extremely pleasant to look at and listen to.
  • one of the best-controlling webgames I've played in a long time.
  • occupying far too much of my free time.  And some of my not free time.

Should you enjoy the game as much as I do and have an iPhone / iPad, it's available in the App Store for $2.99, which is where I marked my 60 million point high score.  Either way, though, it's totally free on the web, so go play!

EDIT:  Turns out, if you're using Internet Explorer, that second link will also take you straight to the Apple iTunes Store instead of to the game.  Apparently the developers are redirecting all IE users there, rather than letting them play the game on their site.  Which is pretty awful.

The game is still great, and if you'd like to play it in IE, this link to Kongregate should work fine, but shame on them for pulling a trick like that without disclosing what they're doing.

"Free And Worth Every Penny" is a column I collaborate on with Mike Bellmore at Colony of Gamers.  This piece also appears there.

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