Saturday, June 14, 2008

Music Bounce

Music Bounce is a very interesting game which is also very impossible to describe. Seriously, when you read the instructions, it sounds like the most confusing game ever, but once you actually sit down and start playing you see it's pretty straightforward and intuitive. So I recommend that, if the following attempt at a description confuses you, just try playing it for a minute and you'll see what I'm talking about.

All right. So you have a playing field with some bricks on it. A series of gates is located along the left edge of the field. Clicking a gate will release a ball, which travels diagonally. The ball will then proceed through the playing field; if the ball hits a brick, the ball bounces off and the brick is destroyed, but only if the ball hits the brick from the top or bottom -- if a ball hits a brick from the side, the ball is destroyed instead. You can release more than one ball from the gates; the precise total is determined by the level. (You cannot, however, ever release more than one ball from a single gate, which often means you need to plan carefully.) Some bricks require two hits to destroy, and the object, as I'm sure you can guess, is to destroy all of the bricks with your given allotment of balls.

So far, the game I've described is relatively simple and, I suspect, not terribly interesting. What adds the additional layer of complexity is that everything in Music Bounce is cyclic. The time in of the game is measured in beats, and every eight beats, previously destroyed bricks reappear and another ball is released from your selected gates. This means that your balls soon settle into a rhythm (as long as you're not changing things), but it also adds another layer of order. Obviously, even if everything were static, the order in which you choose to release the balls is important; but now, not only do you have to initially release your balls in the correct order, but you also have to carefully choose what beats your balls are released on, which leads to some surprisingly tricky situations.

A lot of the levels in Music Bounce are clever. Unfortunately, not all of them are -- in some levels you just kind of mess around until you manage to get all of the bricks eliminated somehow. Perhaps not surprisingly, the latter levels also tend to be more difficult than the former, since a clever solution is often easier to figure out than a brute-force solution. This sadly means that you'll spend a lot of time being frustrated. The size and speed of the game mean that tracking the path of a single ball is difficult, so when you're trying to figure out exactly why a particular brick is or isn't getting destroyed, you'll often have to watch very carefully over the course of several cycles. And because the ordering is so sensitive, you can often unexpectedly screw up your whole setup when trying to make small changes (which can sometimes be pretty helpful, of course!).

As for the presentation, the graphics are pretty simple. For a game whose name makes it sound like it depends heavily on sound, the sound effects are definitely mixed; sometimes (especially on some of the more ordered levels) the sounds combine to make a pleasing melody (assuming you're hitting things in the proper order), but on some of the less well-organized levels, the sounds just come out as a seemingly-random assortment of percussion.

This perhaps makes my opinion of the game sound a little more negative than it is. There are a lot of clever puzzles that you will have fun with, but just be warned you'll have to slog through some less interesting ones as well. Level 50 is also exceedingly clever, although (to my shame) I had to look up a solution, as I was utterly stumped. I hate doing this, especially when it's the kind of solution that triggers the "Why didn't I think of that?!" feeling, but I do have to admire the extreme neatness of the solution. Overall, the underlying idea of Music Bounce is an interesting concept, and one I am glad to see brought into this simple but pleasing game.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Desktop Tower Defense 1.5

(Note: DTD was yet another game that I played and enjoyed before coming to Kongregate. I suppose, technically speaking, I haven't yet finished it, since I haven't yet earned the Impossible badge, but it's so impossible that I doubt I'm going to any time soon. Anyway, I've certainly played it enough that I feel entirely comfortable reviewing it.)

As of this writing, DTD is currently #2 on Kongregate's highest rated list, and unlike Sonny, I believe it is entirely deserving of that position (if not higher). DTD is the perfect example of what a Flash game should be: easy to learn, but hard to master. The interface is straightforward and easily grasped; the game offers a wide range of difficulty to keep you challenged even as your skill level increases; and the underlying concept is quite a lot of fun.

So, apparently, tower defense games have been around in one form or another for quite some time, although I lived blissfully unaware of that fact until I encountered DTD. (After playing the heck out of DTD, I sampled some other examples of the genre, but none of them was quite as good...but I'm getting ahead of myself.) The basic concept of a tower defense game is very simple: a horde of enemies (called "creeps" in DTD) steadily marches onto your screen, usually with the objective of safely crossing it. You build a variety of defensive systems (the titular towers) in an effort to destroy them before they successfully cross. Some towers will just damage the enemies, but there is of course a wide range of possible effects; some towers do area damage, some will slow or stun enemies, and so forth. Every creep destroyed earns you money, which you can use to upgrade existing towers or build new towers (you can also sell obsolete or misplaced towers); each creep that successfully crosses costs you a life, and should you run out of lives, well, I'll bet you can guess what happens. The creeps also come in a variety of forms: some are faster, some are stronger, some are different colors; you get the idea.

This description, so far, applies to a host of tower defense games. Now, in most tower defense games, the creeps move along a fixed path. This means that there exists an optimal point (or set of optimal points) for you to place your towers alongside this fixed path, and the game reduces to finding these points and then placing as much firepower there as quickly as possible. The big innovation that Desktop Tower Defense introduces is that you create the path -- the creeps begin moving across an empty desk, but as you place towers on the desk, the creeps are forced to move around them. Thus, you can create your own maze and optimize it as you want, and you can even change the maze as it's being built. (Of course, you are never allowed to completely block the creeps' path, but you can create new openings and close off openings that they were heading to.) This adds a whole new dimension of strategy to the game and adds a lot of spice to what can otherwise be a pretty dull concept.

This innovation isn't the only thing setting DTD apart from the host of other tower defense games; it also gets all of the little things right. A lot of tower defense games can drag, but the pacing of DTD is nicely brisk; you'll rarely find yourself with absolutely nothing to do, so it's good news that the interface combines keyboard and mouse to allow you to quickly deploy and upgrade your towers in the heat of battle. (It's also good at presenting information, so you can tell quickly just how powerful a tower or upgrade that you're contemplating is.) DTD also offers an overwhelming host of game modes -- in addition to the basic game play mode, which comes in three different difficulty levels, there's also a bunch of challenges (most of which require you to play under some restrictions, which can make for some quite interesting games) and "fun" modes (these are somewhat silly modes where the rules of the game have been altered somewhat for unpredictable results). The result is enough to keep you challenged from when you're just starting out all the way up until you're an excellent player.

I actually cut my teeth on version 1.2, which is also available on Kongregate, but the new version, 1.5, is by far the more popular. 1.5 features some different modes, a few new creep types, and a couple new tower types (which I haven't really gotten the hang of yet), making it overall somewhat more complicated but still very easy to learn and handle. The presentation is not bad. The graphics are clean and simple, and the sounds, while a little basic, are well-chosen to be fun rather than annoying when hundreds of them are going off at a time.

Overall, DTD is a tremendously entertaining game. If you have fifteen minutes of spare time, sit down and give it a whirl, and you should have a lot of fun.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

6 Differences

As you might be able to guess from the name, 6 Differences is a followup to 5 Differences (below). There's not terribly much difference between the two -- certainly the basic principle and the whimsical attitude are both still quite present -- but there are a few differences (no pun intended).

6 Differences features photographic images (in this case, of night scenes) rather than the rotoscoped images of 5 Differences. This often makes it somewhat more difficult to pick out the differences. (However, the changing differences feature of 5 Differences appears to be gone, as the differences are the same each time, as far as I can tell.) Animation also plays a heavier role, as many of the different elements are moving. There's also some pleasant background music available which fits nicely with the game. Time also plays a larger role -- there are some differences that don't become apparent until other things have happened. Finally, sometimes the two panels are reflections of each other, which adds a layer of difficulty. As compensation for the additional differences, there's also a hint feature, which reveals one difference. The interface is still non-existent, alas.

Despite these changes, this is still pretty much the same game, and an enjoyable way to spend twenty minutes or so (depending on just how skilled you are at difference-finding).

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

5 Differences

(I'm somewhat breaking my promise to do these in order here, but the next couple of games in the queue deserve a meatier review than I can give them at the moment, so I'll quickly hit this one.)

5 Differences' creator describes it as "more of an art project than a game," and I would be hard-pressed to disagree. The premise of the game is very simple: find the 5 differences between the two panels. Just click on a difference, and it'll be flagged.

If Drone Wars is an example of a game hampered by its medium, 5 Differences is an example of a game which exploits the advantages of Flash. There are a few small touches which set it aside from the equivalent in a newspaper. While there is no interface to speak of, there always is an indication, usually cleverly included in the environment, of how many differences remain to be found. Little touches of animation enliven the scene. And perhaps most interestingly, the five differences aren't always the same -- a replay reveals that they do, in fact, seem to be selected from a larger set of possible differences, giving the game at least a tiny bit of replay value. It also helps that when you click a difference, it disappears, helping you to find other differences without having to remember if you've already found that one.

The real star of this game, though, is of course the art. The scenes are well-drawn, and tend towards the surrealistic and whimsical, providing an entertaining backdrop for your task. The complete lack of an interface is somewhat frustrating -- you can't replay an arbitrary level without starting all over again from the beginning, and there's no save or anything, so you'd better be able to finish this all in one sitting, but it should be an enjoyable and relaxing sitting.
Drone Wars

(Sorry I missed yesterday -- I was traveling to Fermilab. To make up for it, two reviews today!)

Drone Wars is, ultimately, a cautionary tale -- an illustration of what can happen when medium and game don't blend well at all. So far, most of the games I've reviewed here have been well-suited to being Flash games. Puzzle games, which typically have lesser graphics demands and can be broken up into small level-sized chunks, are of course a perfect fit for the medium. Third-person shooters or dodgers are also extremely popular, as you can make an interesting game with a relatively simple control set and a relatively small battlefield which also lends itself to quick, casual play. Turn-based strategy and RPGs, while they're not quite as conducive to five minutes of play, are still a good fit for Flash, since they don't require graphics and the player can take his time making his decision, making a good interface comparatively easier to design. Drone Wars, on the other hand, is a real-time strategy game, and an engaging RTS requires a relatively large battlefield and a way for a player to quickly carry out complex instructions, and it is here that Drone Wars falls flat on its face.

Since Drone Wars is a space-based RTS, it's natural to compare it to the granddaddy of all RTSes in space, Starcraft. To say that it suffers from the comparison would be an understatement. Drone Wars completely lacks any strategic element -- you have your base (a "mothership"), one asteroid for resources, and no way of ever expanding. There's no different races; each and every player in the game is exactly the same. You can't build any buildings, either, only ships (excuse me, "drones"). There's no tech tree to speak of -- while you can research some limited vehicle upgrades at your mothership, you can't create any new units. Units have absolutely no personality beyond the occasional beep, much less the sophisticated voice acting in Starcraft. So what do you have? You have four noncombat drones: resource drones, repair drones, scout drones (which behave like an Observer), and control drones (which behave like an Overlord), and four combat drones with varying degrees of toughness and damage ability. That's about it.

There are two main modes: in the somewhat-misnamed Arcade mode, you go through eight missions which walk you through the various aspects of the game, ending in a 1-on-1 battle and a 2-on-2 battle. Since the AI is not particularly competent (it doesn't, for instance, appreciate that if one attack wave fails, perhaps you should build a bigger attack wave the next time), these are pretty much a breeze. But the near-total lack of any strategic component means that even a competent AI wouldn't help things much -- there's no kind of large-scale economic battle to be fought, and for the question of "what units should I build?", there's no rock-paper-scissors element requiring different build strategies when confronted with different opponent strategies; it's just rock versus more rock. The Survival mode totally dispenses with even the small amount of resource management in the Arcade mode -- enemies come at you from all directions and you get a fixed quantity of ore for each wave you survive. This makes it simply an exercise in tactics and micromanagement, which Drone Wars is even more ill-suited for, thanks to its extremely frustrating interface.

Really, the interface was the thing that really left a bad taste in my mouth about this game. As I said earlier, an RTS demands that you be able to move quickly, and Drone Wars' interface does not do a good job at all of bringing this about. The map doesn't scroll, so the only way to move to other parts of the battlefield is by using the minimap, which makes it impossible to move along the battlefield in a convenient way (especially since the standard Starcraft technique of tapping the button assigned to a group twice doesn't bring up that group). Since you're limited to a single mouse button (thanks to the limitations of Flash), a lot of times you'll find out that clicking doesn't do exactly what you want it to do. (When you've got a repair drone selected, will clicking on another unit select that unit, or cause the repair drone to repair that unit? Be prepared to be frustrated multiple times by this!) This simply does not work for a fast-paced RTS.

The presentation is pretty mediocre. The music is OK, but it's far too short a loop; the sound effects are pretty bland; and the robotic computer voice which announces various happenings to you is a robotic computer voice.

I played through the whole game to get the badges and the challenge card, and I revisited it briefly to write this review, but I have no desire to play this game again. It's just an exercise in frustration.

Monday, June 09, 2008


(Like Portal TFV, I had played this before Kongregate, but played through it again to get the badges. Yay badges!)

Indestruct2Tank (the somewhat peculiar internumbering is because this is a sequel to the original IndestructoTank, not currently on Kongregate) is a game with a thoroughly ridiculous, yet entirely enjoyable, premise.

So, here's the basic idea. You have a tank, which is indestructible, as the name might imply. A massive flotilla of airplanes and helicopters battles you by flying around and dropping bombs on you. The good news is, as mentioned earlier, that you're indestructible. So all the bombs do to you is cause you to fly up in the air. This is actually very good news, from your standpoint, since when you're up in the air, you can collide with the enemy airplanes and helicopters and destroy them. Each collision also gives you a little upwards boost, so you can rack up massive combos in which you destroy tens of enemy vehicles before touching the ground again. Large combos are far more profitable in terms of points than destroying vehicles one at a time, so there's a fair amount of skillful maneuvering required in order to keep aloft for as long as possible given the available enemies and their ordnance. The catch is, of course, that your tank isn't completely indestructible. (There's always a catch...) As time passes, your fuel decreases, and if you happen to run out of fuel, your tank (somewhat inexplicably) explodes. The only way to prevent this is by reaching some goal before running out of fuel.

So, like I said, completely ridiculous. (To ask the most obvious question, why don't they just, you know, stop shooting at you?) But pulling off a combo of 30 or 40 is extremely entertaining. There are two basic game modes: regular mode and adventure mode. In the regular mode, you have to accumulate a certain number of points to finish the level and refuel your tank. When you advance a level, you can spend the points you've gotten on increasing the frequency of enemies that attack you (which you'll need in order to get longer combos in order to get the higher number of points required to advance to higher levels). In adventure mode, you just have to survive the length of the level to advance; interspersed are various cutscenes which advance the (thoroughly ridiculous, appropriately enough) plot. There are also boss fights in which you have to defeat the boss before running out of fuel.

The one flaw in the gameplay is that sometimes enemies just won't show up when you need them. This is especially irritating in adventure mode, where some of the later levels are filled with obligatory bottomless pits, and sometimes you just end up falling into the pit because no airplane is considerate enough to fly by and bomb you in time. Conversely, sometimes the screen is just filled with so many enemies that you couldn't possibly get all of them, which only makes the preceding situation that much more frustrating.

The presentation is not bad. The programming itself is solid; there aren't any glitches or problems (at least that I could see), the graphics are fine if a little vanilla, and the sound effects are serviceable. The music is OK, but since there's only one track, you're going to get pretty tired of it after a while (which seems to be the case, really, for nearly every Flash game that lasts longer than a few minutes or so, so maybe I shouldn't be too harsh here). There's even some voice acting in the adventure mode, which is by no means great, but I definitely appreciate the effort.

Kongregate only awards two badges for this game, but there are a bunch more you can get within the game itself, which unlock some not-particularly-interesting rewards. So in conclusion, it's definitely a fun little game worth playing if you want to get the Kongregate badges. I enjoyed playing it to unlock everything, but that's mostly because I'm a horrible completionist.

Sunday, June 08, 2008

Portal: The Flash Version

(I actually played this game long before finding Kongregate, but on Kongregate, it has badges attached to it! So naturally I had to play through it again to get the badges. Fortunately, this didn't take too long.)

The next time someone says to you, "Games of today really don't need their fancy 3D graphics and voice acting; all that really matters is the underlying gameplay concept" (and yes, I know that sounds like something I might say), have them play this game, then have them play the real Portal, and then patiently wait for them to admit that they were wrong. (Since I'm going to be doing a lot of comparison between the original and the Flash version, if I say "the original" or just "Portal", I'm talking about Valve's original product. The Flash version I'll call "TFV". Hopefully this will at least somewhat reduce confusion.)

Portal is the perfect example of a game which pairs an innovative gameplay concept with excellent writing (and the voice acting implementing that writing) in order to make a truly great game. TFV totally lacks that deft writing touch; the writing (which appears in floating text boxes at the top of the screen rather than in a disembodied GLaDOS voice) is functional rather than amusing (compare, for instance, how the two games introduce the concept of player death to the player). And, of course, it's hardly accurate to call the gameplay concept in TFV "innovative" when it's been, ahem, borrowed directly from Portal (which, in turn, got it from another game, but at least they paid for it).

The gameplay in TFV is pretty much identical to that in Portal, although the perspective shift from first person to two-dimensional third person side view naturally affects game play significantly. Because of the limitations of Flash, the simple two-button interface of Portal is absent; instead, the left mouse button alternates colors, and you can use keys to open portals of a specific color. There's also a button to close both your portals, which is quite useful and something I found myself wishing for occasionally when I went back to the real Portal. Most of the elements in Portal (cubes, buttons, turrets, doors, and Aperture Science High-Energy Pellets, though not fizzlers or the Weighted Companion Cube) are present in TFV; TFV also introduces a few new elements: blue plasma fields, which are solid with respect to you and cubes, but which the portal gun can shoot through; red plasma fields, which can also be shot through but result in instant death; crushers, which pretty much do what they say; and electric fields, which zap you when they're on. As you can see, many of these elements are focused on killing you, making TFV a much more deliberately hostile environment than Portal. (Yes, I know that there are crushers in parts of Portal, too, but those are just pieces of machinery designed for other purposes; the crushing is just incidental. The ones in TFV are covered with person-crushing spikes, and are clearly designed for one purpose only: to stab the unwary or slow test subject.) The game is also somewhat glitchy, especially (but not only) when you're carrying boxes around; they can end up in the weirdest places if you're not careful.

The presentation is average. The graphics are OK but nothing special, the sound effects seem somewhat, um, familiar, and the music is OK but not really quite appropriate. The interface is minimal but has pretty much everything you would want an interface to have; the one thing that can be somewhat frustrating is that there's no way to save your progress in the middle of a level (either voluntarily or with some kind of checkpoints), which can get really, really annoying in some of the later, longer levels.

As for the level design -- I will be the first to admit that, for all that I love Portal, the level design is only fair, at least from the perspective of requiring you to think creatively. Although the portal gun opens up all sorts of crazy possibilities, if your goal is just to get through the game, variations on the Fling will be nearly everything that you need. (The challenges, on the other hand, do require you to deploy more of your arsenal.) Unfortunately, TFV doesn't really take advantage of this opening; the levels in TFV are pretty well thought out (and there are more of them than in Portal, which is a plus, although since the levels are limited to the size of the screen in TFV, the total amount of puzzling you have to do is probably the same or possibly even less), but there's not anything which requires a really insightful solution. Because of the greater emphasis on things which can kill you, there's also a greater demand for being able to execute complicated maneuvers quickly and precisely than in Portal; this definitely makes the game harder, but not in a way that I would consider as much fun. I would prefer the game being harder in terms of requiring more thought than more dexterity. There are also a few levels which are just super-frustrating in requiring perfect timing and execution.

Since it might sound like I'm totally ripping on TFV, I should point out that falling short of Portal, which is a great game, is nothing to be ashamed of, and the gameplay concept is still a lot of fun. Overall, TFV is a fun way to spend an hour or two, but after you've played the real thing, it will feel like a pale imitation.