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Free But Worth Your Pennies: Proun

As I'm sure you noticed by the title of the article, I am abusing my column's purview a little bit this week, and writing about a game that is not strictly freeware.  You can download it for free, and at the very least you should absolutely do that, because it's brilliant.  But it's technically a "pay what you want" affair, which means developer Joost van Dongen is hoping you'll like it enough to cough up a few dollars, and if you do he'll give you a little extra content as part of the bargain.  I'm hoping you will, too, and I'm here to tell you why.  So what am I asking you to buy?

...Not a terribly evocative name, I'll grant you, so some preliminary explanations are in order.  Proun is, first and foremost, a racing game.  It is also a pattern recognition game, but the primary objective is getting to the finish line as fast as possible, preferably before your opponents.

You may notice it looks a little different from most racing games.

The method by which you accomplish that, though, is likely a bit of a departure from most racing games you've played.  Gone are collisions with other racers.  Gone are drifting and tight cornering.  You are locked solidly to a predetermined course, and the only task before you is to avoid the obstacles in your way as you speed down the track.

It will still be some of the most difficult racing you've ever done.

Before I talk more about the mechanics, though, I want to gush for a moment over how absolutely stunning Proun is.  Frequent readers of the column know that I'm a sucker for simple, clean, stylized art, and I think Joost's work here is nothing short of marvelous.  The world of Proun is built from entirely abstract structures that never stop being fun and playful while they ruin your perfect run and draw strings of obscenities from you as you hit restart yet another goddamned time.  Everything looks elegant, clean and graceful, as though Joost had taken the aesthetic of Mirror's Edge, stripped it down to its even more bare elements, and crafted a racing game from the pieces.  The little touches and bits of polish aren't skimped on, either, with the way it can handle a near-infinite number of transparent ghost racers for you to compete against on future runs, or the way your racing ball "de-rezzes" a bit when it gets too close to an obstacle.

And the music!  Oh man, the music.  Tell you what, let me just show you some video, because you need to see this thing in motion before I talk about how it plays.

Right, so, the mechanics.  As I'm sure you gleaned from the video, you're locked to a cylindrical track that never branches off - it simply runs straight from the start to the end, with you and your opponents along for the ride.  The landscape / obstacles (one and the same, really) sit attached to the track, forcing you to constantly swing around it to avoid them as you hurtle onwards.  The less you swerve, the faster you go, so keeping to a straight racing line benefits your time... but the faster you go, the harder it is to see what's coming and avoid it.

As I said in the introduction, it does become a bit of a pattern recognition game, especially as you reach the higher speed levels of the game (there are four, starting at "Fast" and going up to "Speed of Light"), but the patterns are consistent, recognizable and fun.  Sometimes, making tight 360 degree rotations around the cylinder will get you past a set of obstacles;  sometimes a tight slalom is required.  Since you can't collide with your opponents, your only real enemy is the track, and beating the track yields immense satisfaction.

Oh yeah, also, split screen local multiplayer.

If I have to knock the game for anything, it's only the things I wish it had that it doesn't.  I'm not sure how online multiplayer would work out in a game requiring such twitchy reflexes, but I do wish it had it.  And Mr. van Dongen's website and highscore servers have been a bit crushed by the game's popularity, requiring him to issue a patch for it temporarily taking out the highscore functionality (and the website linked for the game is a temporary one, being down).

Still, what's here is fantastic, and I haven't even gotten around to trying the user-made levels.  According to the between-level info screen, this project represents six years of Joost's spare time, and he's selling it for whatever people think it's worth.  Including nothing, but really, it's worth a fair chunk more than that.  But don't take my word for it.  Go find out for yourself.

Alec Meer over on RockPaperShotgun has this to say, and I don't think I could put it much better, so rather than the standard bullet list here I'll let him sum up:

It’s (very) short and simple and pretty much only does the one thing, but it makes me want to use silly superlatives such as ‘life-affirming.’ I’ve felt like I’ve been in a bit of a games black hole this last couple of weeks, because I’ve only played the so-so likes of Dungeon Siege 3, Alice 2 and Duke Nukem 4. They’ve all got something to recommend them (and, to varying degrees, the opposite), but they didn’t exactly fill me with THE WONDER OF VIDEOGAMES. Proun does.

Proun is Windows-only and carries a hefty (compared to most things we write about here) 330MB footprint, but it's worth every byte and every penny you choose to give it.  Go race.

"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.


Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 81: The Wager

As an unapologetic fan of the first three Pirates of the Caribbean films, I was a little disappointed - though not particularly surprised, I suppose - to hear that On Stranger Tides is apparently one of the weaker of the four films, and not worth rushing out to see for its opening this weekend.  Still, seeing as the world does not appear to have ended, we all need something to do, so let me suggest that you discard one nautical adventure for another.  This one won't take as long as seeing Johnny Depp yearn to be in a better film, and will cost you considerably less.

Originally submitted as an entry in Ludum Dare 19 (theme: discovery), The Wager is a randomly generated exercise in risk and reward, placing you on a Sid Meier's Pirates!-esque ocean map and challenging you to rip as much profit from it as possible in a limited timeframe.  As per the title, your arch-nemesis Sir Lester Marwood has entered into a gentleman's wager with you:  each of you has a year to explore as far as you can, hopefully bringing back holds full of loot and valuable information to sell.  Whichever of you manages to bring back more than the other will get the spoils of both.  The game is on.  Set sail!

This island could hold plunder, or peril.... is it worth the time to explore it?

A bit similar to Strange Adventures in Infinite Space and other randomized, short-form map exploration games, The Wager populates its map with islands full of treasure and trouble for you to discover, and lets you choose where you'll invest your limited time.  The actual core gameplay mechanic couldn't be simpler:  when you come across a new island, you are given a prompt telling you how long it would take you to explore it.  If you choose Yes, that number of days are counted off and you gain the benefits (and potential consequences) of your exploration.  If you choose No, you keep sailing.  Repeat until out of time.

Of course, that alone would quickly comprise a recipe for tedium even in a very short game, so a few other subtle choices and constraints are presented to keep you on your toes.  A diminishing "supplies" meter and an increasing "disease" meter limit how long you can remain at sea without visiting a port.  You can pay to upgrade your ship and mitigate these concerns, of course, but then that's money you won't have in the final scoring.  Returning to your main port will also let you sell information about the islands you've visited, which will cause them to be colonized and turn into ports themselves which you can use on subsequent sailings.  Whether you choose to spend your precious time and early earnings on investments in hopes of maximizing your future profits (or stockpile right from the start and hope for the best) will impact your bottom line... and at the end of the year, that's all that will matter.

Coal! Nice. Don't know about that offer, though....

There's no question that in large part The Wager gets by on quirky charm rather than deep gameplay, but it has a lot of that charm to spread around.  Random events like the one depicted in the screenshot above throw some tricky wrenches into the works mid-game, and are fun to read even if they really boil down to a 50/50 chance of helping or hurting you.  (Just wait until you meet Mr. Crackers, the Wonder Parrot.)  The dastardly Sir Lester Marwood regularly sends you correspondence evaluating your progress, and his snide tone greatly increases the satisfaction of soundly thrashing him.  Oh, and the music is great, perfectly fitting the "adventure on the high seas" theme and routinely calling the Monkey Island games to mind.

Considering that the game was originally developed in 72 hours (the limitation on all Ludum Dare entries - from their site you can download the LD version or an expanded one, which is the one I played), I'm really impressed with what Peter Silk and Kieran Walsh of Surprised Man put together here.  It's straightforward, it's funny, it has 3 difficulty settings to pit yourself against, and it doesn't overstay its welcome.  Bravo, gents.  More like this, please.

The Wager is...

  • charming and clever without being complicated.
  • clearly inspired by games like Sid Meier's Pirates! and Monkey Island, which is worth a lot of points with me all by itself.
  • not much more than a diversion, but a very pleasant one.
  • the most piratey fun you can have this weekend for free.

Windows only, about 15MB.  Pour yourself a glass of rum and take it for a spin.

"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.


Free and Worth Every Penny - Issue 79: Tottenham

The Free and Worth Every Penny column is no stranger to games designed with an intentionally "retro" aesthetic.  Some of the best titles I've written up for this feature have looked like classic SNES, Nintendo, or even Gameboy games.  But I'm not sure I've done one yet that looks like it could be at home on the Atari 2600.  What a pleasant surprise that one of the simplest visual experiences I've had in years earns its place so confidently among the others.  Welcome to Tottenham.

Quite different from the side-scrolling action or Metroidvania-styled adventures referenced above, Tottenham is a bare bones arcade game - a little bit Qix, a little bit Asteroids...  maybe even a little bit Yars' Revenge, for anyone who gets that reference.  Taking a simple concept and combining clever, varied level design with the need for careful planning and twitchy reflexes in equal measure, Theta Games has produced a unique pleasure:  a genuinely new game that feels like it should be old.

Pretty, isn't it?  Now blow it up.

The simple concept is this:  you need to connect point A to point B.  Every level has a green square where you begin, and a red square where you must end.  In between...  well, in between there could be a lot of things.  Most of the levels contain a maze of black and colored lines and squares that you'll need to clear a path through ("I was inspired by the mosaics of Sir Eduardo Paolozzi (installed at the Tottenham Court Road London Underground station) to make this game," says the designer).  Some of the levels will also have enemies, that may move at random or may chase you.  The final level...  well, I'm not going to spoil that for you.  It's something different.

The catch is this:  you can only make your way through the level by causing explosions, and you're terribly fragile.  Every projectile you fire, if it hits something solid, will fling debris in all directions, including back at you.  You need to not only be outside the blast radius when one of your shots hits, but also out of the trajectory of any shrapnel that may come your way.  And since this debris itself, once settled, becomes the new layout of the level, you could end up trapping yourself in a corner if you aren't careful, or blocking a previously clear part of the path from green to red you need to create.  It's a great mechanic - slightly random but never feeling unfair - and, when combined with enemies you need to avoid and eliminate, leads to some wonderfully frantic moments in an otherwise peaceful game.

Boom.  One step closer.

The visual aesthetic is a matter of taste, obviously, but I love the simple beauty of the levels, especially after looking at the inspirations that led to them, and the fact that the player deforms the level as they play lends the whole thing a sort of procedural art feel that I more often associate with music games.  Speaking of music, the soundtrack is pleasant, if repetitive, and the game is short enough (under 30 minutes, for me) that I never wanted to turn it off.  Controls are as straightforward and tight as they can be, and would indeed work on an Atari 2600 joystick:  arrows to move, spacebar to fire.  I played through the game once using the keyboard, and once with a gamepad after mapping the keys, and found it equally enjoyable either way.

I don't have much of anything negative to say about Tottenham, honestly, other than that I wish there were more of it.  I would happily have played through another 20 levels of this, and if Theta Games wanted to make more and charge some reasonable amount for them, they'd have my money.  It scratched an itch not many games scratch these days, unless you're playing something like Space Invaders on an emulator, and did so thoughtfully and with style.  Recommended without hesitation.

Tottenham is...

  • a throwback title that recalls a simplicity of play few games capture well.
  • comfortable in its own skin, never branching too far from a small, simple set of mechanics.
  • inspired by endangered London Underground artwork, and honestly, how cool is that?
  • a game I expect I'll go back to many times, and suspect some of you will too.

This tiny 5MB download is sadly Windows only, but should run great on just about any machine (or, I imagine, in WINE or on an Intel Mac running Parallels / Windows).  Don't wait:  go get it now.

"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.


Free and Worth Every Penny After Hours: Sky Island

Last week, Mike and I discovered that we had both been looking at the same game with an eye towards writing it up for this feature.  Naturally, it only made sense to tag-team it, so we hopped on Skype late at night, and Free and Worth Every Penny After Hours was born.  This will be an occasional variant on our standard format;  we talked, we wrote down what we said, you get to read it.  We hope it's informative, or at least amusing.

Eric:  ...We are now theoretically recording words.   I’m going to verify that.
Mike:  Okay.
Eric:  You can never really trust these things.
Mike:  Computers are not trustworthy.
Eric:  No.  They are built to deceive us.

Eric:  We are in fact recording, or so says the file.
Mike:  Alright.  Rad.  So.
Eric:  So.
Mike:  You like video games, right?
Eric:  I like video games.
Mike:  Do you like to play them?
Eric:  I do.  I like to play free video games.
Mike:  Do you like to play free video games that are called Sky Island?
Eric:  Well, I only know of the one.
Mike:  The one.  But have you played it?
Eric:  I have!  Well, I haven’t played all of it.  I’ve played through level seven.
Mike:  I don’t know what level I’m on, but I got stuck.  I eventually figured it out.  This game is kind of a mind-fuck, would you say?
Eric:  I would say that it’s a little weird.  I’m a bit frustrated right now.  I’m playing it while we’re talking…
Mike:  As am I.
Eric: there will be moments where this conversation either stops or makes no sense or who knows.  I don’t at all like the combat mechanic.  In fact, I think it’s really terrible.
Mike:  And by combat mechanic you mean the "getting the dudes over the little moon icon"?
Eric:  Right.  Right.  So we should probably talk a little bit about the mechanics of the game first.

EricSky Island is kind of like a poor man’s Fez.
Mike:  I’ve seen some screenshots of Fez, so I feel like I know what it’s all about.  But, what’s Fez all about?
Eric:  Well, Fez and Sky Island are both two dimensional puzzle platformers where you control a little dude who’s running and jumping left and right, up and down on a bunch of...  well, platforms.  And your running and jumping interaction with the world is entirely in 2D.  Where the puzzle element comes in – in Sky Island this is done by clicking and dragging the mouse and in Fez, I dunno, cause I haven’t played Fez – essentially you can freeze time and rotate the world.
Mike:  So this game operates on 4 planes, do you know if Fez does or is it more than that?
Eric:  I think Fez is thirteen dimensional?  I don’t know.

Eric:  This is actually a little funny, and a little weird, and I don’t know how I feel about it.  I heard about Sky Island over on the Indie Games Blog at;  they wrote it up as one of their browser game picks – spoilers, we get some of our ideas from other blogs.
Mike:  Spoilers, I get all of my ideas from other blogs.
Eric:  But the creator of Fez actually showed up in the comment thread on and kind of crapped all over Sky Island.
Mike:  Nooo.
Eric:  And I don’t know how I feel about that.
Mike:  I don’t feel good about that at all!
Eric:  I don’t want to overstate it.  He said, "This thing plays nothing like Fez and falls into all the traps we took very painstaking efforts to avoid.  So, you know, don’t think that this is Fez."  Which, alright, sure I guess.  But I didn't think this was Fez.  I thought this was Sky Island.
Mike:  I was operating under the same assumption.
Eric:  That’s the name that they put on the game.

Eric:  We should probably talk about what the game is though, as opposed to what it is not.
Mike:  Yeah.  One of my friends who doesn’t have the largest vocabulary, when I showed this to him, he said it was like Mario but gay.
Eric:  .....?
Mike:  And then when I told him to mess around with the mouse he went, "Whoa my god."  So there’s nothing new here as far as platforming goes.  You jump on things, you jump over things, you collect things, but being able to move around in space and reorient yourself in space is a lot of fun.
Eric:  It’s legitimately difficult too.  You definitely need to think in a way that you might not have while playing other similar platform puzzle games.  Where I don’t know where I come down is whether or not the game is challenging because of its design, or just because of some of the weird quirks of its execution.

Mike:  I guess this is a good time to bring up the combat again.  To kill a bad guy, what you have to do, you have to rotate the platform he’s own so that he ends up facing the camera on top of an icon on the platform.  Actually being able to do that is kind of a feat.  It’s a bit of a pain in the ass.  I think that I just now figured out how to do it, like, I can do it without randomly spinning the world around for five minutes, but...
Eric:  It’s a simple idea, but doing it should be simpler.
Mike:  Yeah, I don’t think I should have to spin around for five minutes before I get the hang of killing one dude.
Eric:  I like the concept behind taking this 2D world and spinning it into 3D and showing me the different sides, but I kind of hate the way the logic of the game positions me when I do it.  Because it always assumes, if you can picture – and to someone reading this, this might make no sense, but once you play the game you’ll know what I’m talking about – If you picture looking at a table, but you’re only looking at that table from the side so you only see it as a platform...  the game always assumes that your character is on the closest edge of the table.
Mike:  Oh yes!  This is an important thing to mention!
Eric:  No matter which way you’re spinning the world, your character will always end up on the closest edge of the table, and depending on where things are positioned elsewhere in the world, that completely changes where you’ll end up when you’re done spinning.  So you need to spend, in my opinion, a little too much time tweaking your angle and spinning around to find which side of this 3D object you need to be at the "front" of when you’re done spinning.
Mike:  Now at the same time, there are some neat moments.  You know those little blasty cannon guys you need to avoid at some points?  I guess the best way to put it is, you can avoid this trap without actually moving your character.
Eric:  Right, because you just spin the world until you’re on the other side of it.
Mike:  Yeah.  It’s kind of disorienting;  it’s kind of cool.  Like, the first time I did it, I didn’t know exactly what I was doing, but, once again, once you get the hang of it, it’s a neat way to traverse a 3 dimensional world.
Eric:  For sure.
Mike:  Although it might have helped if they explained it better, or implemented it better.

Eric:  Another thing I liked a lot was the ability to spin the world while you’re in mid air.  Which essentially means that in addition to always figuring out which side of an object you need to be on, you can also end up essentially jumping off a platform and then spinning the world such that a different platform ends up under you.  Which is kind of infuriating, when you’re just randomly spinning saying, "What, what do I need to do?   I don’t understand.  This is pissing me off."  But also really satisfying when you figure it out or luck into it or whichever way it happens to go.
Mike:  I think a lot of lucking happens.  But it’s funny, the first time I played it, a lot of lucking -- well, it was all lucking.
Eric:  It’s a technical term, lucking.
Mike:  Lucking, yeah.  The next time around though, I dunno, it was like it had sort of settled in my brain a little bit.  The stuff that was at first like "bluuuuh" was a little more intuitive this time around.
Eric:  You know, while we’ve been talking, I’ve made it to level 9, so I’m getting the hang of it a little more.  I’m having fun with it.  I’ve probably put all of 40 minutes into it at this point, and who knows if I make it through the full set of levels.  I’ve got another six to go.  But, it’s different.   It’s interesting.  It’s visually pleasing.
Mike:  Yeah, Sky Island, I think we talked about it enough.  Did we not mention anything?
Eric:  I don’t think so.  I think it’s a pretty neat little game.  It looks nice.  It’s kinda working my brain in a new way and I always appreciate that.  And it’s free and, if you have Flash, you can play it so, you know, you should.
Mike:  Right on.  I agree.
EricSky Island by Neutronized.  Go do it.
Mike:  Go play it.
Eric:  Alright.
Mike:  Cool.

"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.


HOARD is Out, Give it a Shot.

Just a quick note, since I know Free and Worth Every Penny has been on hiatus for awhile (Mike and I collaborated on something last week, that'll be written up and posted soon) to say that the indie action strategy game HOARD by Big Sandwich Games is now out on Steam, and after playing around with the tutorial and a couple of single player maps, I really recommend giving it a look.

HOARD got a fair amount of podcast buzz when it came out on PSN late last year, but not having a PS3 I didn't get the chance to check it out.  I remember hearing about it on the Gamers With Jobs Conference Call and thinking that it sounded like a lot of fun, though, so when it showed up for pre-order on Steam at under $10, I jumped on it.  I'm glad that I did.

The gameplay is fairly simple, which means it's quick to learn and easy to jump in and start playing.  You control a dragon on a fantasy-themed map that looks very much like an animated board game (which wins it some points with me right out of the gate).  As a dragon, your goal is straightforward: you want gold.  You want all the gold.  How you get it is up to you.  Towns and other structures on the map can be destroyed, and their wealth collected.  These towns also send out carts you can raid, though, and if you let the towns live long enough to upgrade, they'll send out higher-valued carts.  You can even convince the towns to pay you tribute, by doing enough damage to them without destroying them.  Castles can be sacked, and princesses kidnapped and held for ransom.  You're up against the clock, which means deciding how to invest your time will determine your success or failure.

You're also up against the other players - one to three other dragons vying for the same resources as you.  Spend time trying to inspire fealty in a town, and another dragon may come along and destroy it, ruining your efforts.  Fail to snatch up a princess making her way across the map, and you can bet someone else will get to her first.  The map itself will fight back, too, sending knights to try to rescue their damsels in distress, robbers to try to steal from your hoard, and other nuisances dragons must deal with as a matter of course.

None of it on its own is terribly complex, but put it all together in a fast playing game (a round might take 15 or 20 minutes, not long at all given how much is going on) and you have a compelling system that forces you to make quick, fun decisions routinely while you play.  I haven't jumped into multiplayer with other humans yet, but I'm looking forward to it; both cooperative and PvP modes are offered.

Here's a rather frenetic trailer, if you'd like to see it in motion:

For $8.99, the current asking price, I think it's not a bad deal.  Best of all, there's a demo you can download and decide for yourself.

Go!  Go burn stuff!