Saturday, July 05, 2008


Red is a very simple-seeming shooter, but there's enough interesting features about it to make it an entertaining game. Red is designed by Ivory, who also brought you 5 Differences and 6 Differences, and this shows in the aesthetic of the game -- while the design is very simple, it's also very pretty.

In any case, the basic gameplay is familiar to anyone who's played Missile Command or any similar game: you command a turret (located on Mars, hence the name of the game) as asteroids fall. You have to shoot the asteroids before they collide with your turret; if you get hit, it's game over. Your ammunition replenishes over time, so you can't fire continuously, but generally it's enough as long as you're reasonably careful. Of course, it has a tendency to run out just as you're in the thickest of things and need it most. (You can also fire more powerful shots, which naturally chew up a larger amount of ammo.)

The most interesting feature of Red is that shooting an asteroid doesn't destroy it; rather, it merely deflects it. So shooting is not just a matter of pointing your turret and blowing things up; you have to decide where it's best to hit the asteroid to push it out of your way with minimal effort. It rapidly becomes clear that gently deflecting the asteroids to one side is a much better approach than trying to completely push them back up off the top of the screen. Your bullets keep going after deflecting off an asteroid, too; you can set up some very satisfying sequences where, for instance, two asteroids are descending on you side by side, and by shooting between the two, your bullets can bounce back and forth and push them both apart so that they'll miss you.

There are a few powerups which drift by from time to time: shields, which protect your turret from one hit, although you can only have one at a time; a powerup which makes your shots much more powerful for a limited amount of time; and a powerup which adds additional turrets on the ground. These additional turrets fire randomly, and they tend to get destroyed pretty easily, so they're not really that useful (also, they have an irritating tendency to get created right in the path of an asteroid, so they often only last for a couple of seconds). Every so often, there's also a "boss" in the form of a very large asteroid which fills a large portion of the screen.

To add to the difficulty a bit, there's also wind which can (and will) blow your shots astray. The wind starts out light but can eventually pick up to the point where it can blow your shots all the way across the screen, so shooting at asteroids at one side of the screen may be difficult or impossible (however, one thing you quickly learn is that asteroids far away from the center of the screen should generally be ignored, as they don't pose a direct threat to you). Although you don't really notice the difficulty getting harder, when I was trying to get the badge (which requires surviving for 600 seconds) I always seemed to die somewhere in the 500-600 second range, so clearly the game does get more difficult as you go on.

As mentioned before, the graphic design is extremely simple but still pretty, and the background music is a nice song which adds an ethereal feeling to the proceedings. (It also -- and I can't stress the importance of this enough! -- is long enough that it doesn't repeat until after a while, which means you don't get immediately bored and/or irritated by it. Hooray!) That said, the 10 minutes that you have to survive for to get the badge will feel like a rather long time, especially given that not much changes while you're playing the game.

This brings me to my final point, which is only a minor irritation in Red, but will be a major issue in some of the upcoming games in the queue: the timer length is heavily dependent on the speed of your computer. For whatever reason, Red is apparently pretty resource-intensive, so if you're playing on a relatively weak computer, even if ten minutes have elapsed on your wall clock, the game may only think that you've been playing for six minutes (since the length of time in the game is presumably determined by the number of frames), so beware! If you're trying to get the badge on a slower computer, you'll have to survive for longer than you thought. This problem is amplified by the fact that the timer isn't displayed until the end of the game, so I strongly advise against dying just because you think you've reached your destination time. (The game will kill you soon enough anyway; no need to rush.) Anyway, this is kind of annoying, especially since it doesn't seem like Red should be that dependent on your computer speed.

Anyway, overall Red is a pretty game and you'll enjoy playing it for a while, but the fact that the game doesn't change all that much as you play means that its long-term value is pretty limited. Still, it's a fun badge to get.

Friday, July 04, 2008

Two short ones for today, but first a philosophical statement.

One of the things that appeals to me most about Kongregate is the badges give me something to shoot for. I tend to like finishing games, so a game in which the only goal is to get ever-higher high scores tends not to hold my interest for long, unless it's a really, really good game. (This makes me wonder if in college I did play more of those games because I had my roommates to compete against -- there was only a high score, but you could always shoot for your friends' scores. But now that I don't have that, I wonder if that's part of the reason I don't really play that type of game any more.) Anyway, the badges give me a certain target to shoot for. You may notice that I often say something like "After finishing this game, there wasn't really much reason to keep playing". This isn't perhaps as harsh a criticism as it may sound -- all it really means is that the game isn't a truly amazing game, and, to be honest, while I've found a lot of fun games on Kongregate, there are really none that were so excellent that I really wanted to keep playing them after finishing them; I'm perfectly happy to move on to the next game. The real test is if I still enjoy a game up until getting to the badge; there are more than a few games where I've had my fun but the badge was still far away. That is obviously not a good sign. Anyway, on to today's games:


The rather unfortunately named WetDike is an implementation of Klondike (i.e., normal solitaire). That's pretty much all there is to say about it. The pack art is very distinctive and interesting, and there's also a jukebox which seems to generally be playing interesting music, so those are two advantages it has over Windows solitaire. On the other hand, you can only play the three cards at a time variant, which I tend to enjoy less than the one card at a time variant, and there's also a chat pane at the side (inside the game, that is, in addition to the standard Kongregate chat) which tends to be even less worthwhile than normal chat. So, overall, it's probably somewhat more enjoyable than regular old Windows solitaire, but it's still the same basic game.

Balance Balls 2

Balance Balls 2 is an extremely simple game. You have a large ball on a teeter-totter, and you have to tilt the teeter-totter to keep your ball from rolling off; this task is complicated by other balls of various sizes constantly falling onto the balance beam. There are also three powerups you can collect: one to make your ball bigger, one to make it smaller, and one which adds spikes which crush other balls. It's not actually clear whether it's a better strategy to have a larger or a smaller ball; larger balls are harder to move away from the center, but if your ball does end up out at the end of the beam, it'll be almost impossible to save it; conversely for small balls. The spikes are incontrovertibly good, however. Anyway, this was an entertaining game for a while, although earning the badge (which requires surviving for 120 seconds) proved to be quite challenging. The graphics are crisp and clean, the sound effects are pretty minimal, and the background music is not bad, although there is a strange gap in it periodically.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

Today, I'm doing a whole four-part series, Understanding Games. Understanding Games is a series that, as the name implies, attempts to teach people the fundamentals of game design. As such, most of each part isn't really a game; it's some explaining along with some demonstration. Each part does include a small game which attempts to illustrate the principles discussed in the section.

Understanding Games: Episode 1

Episode 1, as you might expect, tackles some of the most fundamental parts of games: the need for rules of a game, the need for a player to exist who can influence the outcome of the game, and the abstraction present in a game and its implications. All of this is illustrated by using one of the simplest video games of all, Pong.

Understanding Games: Episode 2

Episode 2 talks about another very important part of games: a clear goal, so the player can understand what he or she should do and not do, the need for competition (either against another player, a computer opponent, or the game itself), and feedback so the player can tell how he or she is doing. Finally, the episode mentions the need for a challenge to match the skill level of the player. All of this is illustrated with a simple race game in which catching the correct-colored blocks speeds you up and incorrect blocks slow you down.

Understanding Games: Episode 3

Episode 3 is perhaps the weakest of the bunch. It talks about puzzle games, and begins by giving you a mildly interesting puzzle game to solve. Then, after you've finished solving it, it goes on to talk about it. The discussion consists of going through the player's thought process, but of course this is entirely pointless, since it's mostly just a recap of your own thought process as you were solving the puzzle yourself. There are some useful lessons here about the value of trial and error, but the presentation leaves something to be desired.

Understanding Games: Episode 4

Episode 4 is a little less general than the rest. It talks about player identification, the distinction between games where you control the characters and games where you are the characters, and how characters can be different, which affects strategy and identification. The game in this episode is a simple tag-like game, which is rather poorly designed -- very few games ever actually end up with a winner.

Overall, this is a fun little series, and it definitely does a good job explaining some very basic concepts. The pixel art is perfectly functional, and the music is kind of a nice touch. However, I wish it had tried to go into at least a little more depth -- I didn't feel like I ended up learning all that much in the end, just a few principles.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

A techno twofer today; Kongregate's challenge for that week was these two games, which is why I played them. Overall it was a pretty easy challenge; most of the challenges are pretty easy, but this one probably took 15 minutes at most. So, as you can probably guess, these are short games.


(Sorry for the caps, but that's what the game calls itself. I'm not going to keep doing that, though, so don't worry.)

Elephant Rave is one of those games that makes you go "Oooooooookay". It's thoroughly random -- you control an elephant, which is trying to dodge various colored bars attacking you from the top of the screen (and later, hurdles which move across the bottom of the screen) while techno music plays. The entire game is maybe 20 seconds from the start of the action to the finish, although you're probably not going to beat it on your first try. The action is preceded by an extremely lengthy (but fortunately skippable) random rambling asking for more understanding of elephants (no, really). And...well, that's pretty much it. It's very random, very short, and fun for about 30 seconds. Fortunately, it doesn't ask much more of you than that. At least the music isn't bad.

- Music in Motion -

Music in Motion is another experimental music-based game, although it has less of the "something whipped up on a lark" feel of Elephant Rave and more of a feel of something self-consciously trying to be experimental, with all that implies.

Music in Motion consists of four minigames, each consisting of various events happening in time with the music (at least I guess that's what the intent is supposed to be, though really in practice you don't notice it except maybe at the beginning and end of levels). In "Run and Jump", you have to run and jump over blocks which appear from the ground. In "Falling Blocks", you have to dodge blocks falling from the top of the screen. In "Disco Disaster", you're on a large disco ball and have to dodge spikes of light which appear from its surface. Finally, the final boss shoots various projectiles at you, and you have to stomp him at the appropriate time to defeat him.

I can't really say whether this is a successful experiment or not -- if the point is to notice the synchrony of game and music, then it's not really, as, like I said, it doesn't really seem to be that noticeable. But as a game, it's not much fun -- the games just aren't that interesting, and they're aggravatingly hard (not helped by the fact that the controls seem to stick occasionally), so beating this will probably take a few tries. It's not even particularly clear what you have to do for the final boss, which, given the frustration it takes to get there, is completely unforgiveable. Fortunately, getting the badge still doesn't take that much time, but this is a game I'm more than glad to see the end of.

Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Monster's Den: Book of Dread

Are you the type of person who enjoys pondering whether Runed Magesteel Plate Sabatons of Deftness or Soothing Planeforged Plate Sabatons of Discretion are the best sabatons for your level 11 cleric? If so, then Monster's Den: Book of Dread is the game for you! Book of Dread is a very old-school dungeon crawling RPG, and I mean that mostly positively, but it also has some downsides.

The basic formula is very standard -- you build a party of four characters, each of which can be one of 7 classes (warrior, cleric, rogue, ranger, mage, conjuror, and barbarian). You then take this party adventuring in a dungeon. Each level of the dungeon consists of a series of rooms, which may be empty, contain treasure, or contain monsters. The object in the level is to reach the exit to the next dungeon level; you can fight as many or as few of the monsters as you wish to accomplish the goal (more fights will bring you more stuff and more points, but of course have more chances to get you killed). Each level has one boss monster, which you get a nice point bonus and a rare piece of equipment for terminating. The fights are similarly pretty standard; you line up your party on a 3x2 grid on one side of the battlefield and the enemies do likewise, then you take turns acting. An action consists of picking a skill (attack, spell, etc.) and target. Turn order is determined by characters' quickness, making this a valuable stat to improve.

And now for a marginally-related rant. One of the things I enjoyed about the original Final Fantasy (to pick the first example that comes to mind) was that there was a very strong strategic component, not just a tactical component. By that, I mean that it's not enough to be able to win individual battles (which is what I'll call the "tactical" side). Rather, you had to be able to win a long series of battles without any rest or refueling (I'm thinking specifically about the Ice Cave here), which meant that merely being able to win a single battle was not sufficient -- you had to win a single battle while using as little of your resources (HP, spells, etc.) as possible. Over time in the Final Fantasy series, however, healing items (phoenix down, tiny houses, etc.) became more and more easily available and powerful, so that the strategic component practically disappeared. This left only the tactical component, but ordinary encounters couldn't be so powerful as to kill you (that would be really unfair, given the paucity of save points), so the game tended to consist of a boring slog through hundreds of normal encounters until you got to the one horribly difficult boss at the end of it all, which was the only place the game could really be tactically difficult. I found this not a particuarly welcome development, which is why I haven't played Final Fantasy in a while.

Anyway, as you can probably guess, strategic management plays a big role in Book of Dread. Ways to recover HP and MP (called "Power") and revive fallen party members between battles are extremely scarce -- each level has two healing shrines which restore you fully (but at a stiff cost in points), and if you've fully cleared the level above you, you can also return there once to rest for free. Other than that, you're limited to whatever potions you've managed to find in the treasure chests scattered about the dungeon. You're also quite restricted in your movement -- once you've gone down a level, you can never return to the previous level (except to rest as mentioned before). There is an item shop, but you can't visit it at any time; you need to find a portal scroll, and typically there's only one per level (some levels don't even have one at all). This makes the early levels very challenging. Unfortunately, every RPG I've seen which emphasizes strategy has a fatal flaw -- eventually your characters reach the point where they are able to regenerate enough HP and/or MP during combat that they can actually come out of a combat stronger than when they went in. At this point, the game becomes pretty easy. Fortunately, Book of Dread is well-balanced enough that if your only goal is to complete the campaign, that'll happen before you reach that point. But if you go for the 50,000 point badge, you'll reach that point long before you get to 50,000 points, making the game rather boring.

Speaking of points, the meter is always running. You gain points for exploring or clearing more of a level, and (as mentioned) killing enemy leaders. You lose points for using the aforementioned healing shrines, having a character die (even if he or she gets instantly revived!), and a really large penalty for having the whole party die (unless you have Hardcore mode on, in which case that ends the game). This brings me to the most old-school aspect of all of the game: there's no saving. Or, more precisely, there's saving all the time. Every time something happens in the game, it's instantly saved. So there's no going back to a previous save if something particularly bad happens to your party -- you're stuck with that result, whether you like it or not. I think that this adds a lot to the game, although it means that you do need to not be too careless with what you're doing! Note that while the game has points, it does not have XP in the traditional sense; you just gain a level every time you descend the stairs into a new dungeon level. Thus, there is no bonus (other than points and equipment) that you get from fighting more enemies. (This is probably also why you can't go back up in the dungeon; otherwise, you could just gain a level and then go back up to wipe the floor with the enemies there.)

Now, the downside of the old-school ethic is that a lot of content is programatically generated. Each dungeon level, for instance, is randomly generated. While this adds some variety to the game, and the random generator is good (no level that I've seen has any particular degeneracies), it also means that there's no really interesting elements in any dungeon level, either. Each dungeon level is also characterized by one of five different enemy types (undead, cultists, orcs, dwarves, and creatures), which can get pretty repetitive after a while. All of the equipment is similarly randomly generated (some random material combined with zero, one, or two random enchantments), which means that you'll be doing a lot of wading through equipment with names like I mentioned in the beginning. (There are some rare and unique items with more interesting names and properties, so it's not entirely monotony.) In any case, this means that equipment management, while a vital part of the game, can be rather tedious, especially if you're as careful about always optimizing as I am.

The game offers three different game modes. The Den of Corruption is the first, and is (apparently) a remake of the original Monster's Den. You fight your way through nine levels of the dungeon to encounter the Corruptor, a horrible monster with a few deadly tricks up his sleeve. After defeating the Corruptor, you can keep delving into the dungeon to score more points. The Den of Terror is slightly different -- each level of the dungeon now contains one Fearsower, an advance agent of the Dreadlord. Defeating nine Fearsowers allows you to travel to the Dreadlord's den and defeat him. Like the first, after defeating the Dreadlord you can keep exploring the dungeon. In practice, there's not terribly much difference between the two campaings, although the variety is welcome. There is also a survival mode, The Fall of Tellunos, where you fight an endless series of battles against successive waves of enemies with no interludes for equipping or healing.

The graphics are nicely done, although I wouldn't mind a little more choice in the character portraits. The sound effects are decent, and the background music is high quality, although (to repeat a very frequent complaint) the loop is a little short, so it will get a little repetitive after a while, although there are several different tunes it alternates among.

Overall, this is a very enjoyable experience, and does an excellent job making a very interesting and challenging least for the first few levels. If you're trying to go to the very high levels, though, it doesn't hold up as well, so I would recommend sticking to just completing the basic campaigns.

Monday, June 30, 2008


It's hard to get a game much simpler than Particles. There's a playfield with a bunch of red balls bouncing around it, and you, the blue ball, have to avoid the red balls for as long as possible. As time goes on, more and more red balls get added, making your task more difficult.

The music is kind of nice (the opening reminds me of Greebles -- now there's a game I'd like to see remade) and the sound effects are crisp. The physics, while simple, is done correctly -- not all balls have the same velocity, so a nearby collision can suddenly propel an otherwise-innocuous ball toward you at high velocity, which can be quite startling.

Overall, this is well done for what it is, but it's a little too simple to remain interesting for long. Like many, many other games in this list, I played it long enough to get the badge and that was about it.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Mr. Bounce

Mr. Bounce takes an old classic and attempts to inject some life into it, but perhaps not entirely successfully. The basic gameplay is familiar to anyone who's ever played Breakout, or Brickles, or Arkanoid: bounce the ball off of your paddle to destroy the targets. Unlike most games typical to this genre, however, the ball does not bounce off of targets after hitting one, so it's very easy to bag many targets in a single shot. There are some levels which have indestructible walls (either fixed or moving) which your ball can bounce off of.

Your paddle has a few tricks up its sleeve you won't see in Breakout, though. First, you can set the altitude to which the ball will bounce by pressing the up or down arrows, which thoretically allows you to make nifty shots, I guess. In practice I pretty much always set the altitude to maximum and didn't mess with it, since I had better things to worry about. Second, the game includes a "trajectory prediction" -- the game shows a dotted line showing the current trajectory of the ball and where it will bounce after hitting your paddle. The trajectory prediction won't work at the edges of the screen, and it completely ignores any walls in the path, so it's not 100% accurate, but it obviously gives you a much better idea of where your ball will go. Thirdly, you're also given a limited amount of slow motion, which (obviously) slows the ball down so you can more carefully line up your shot. The slow motion gauge refills over time, so it's difficult to run out unless you use it continuously for a long period of time.

The graphics are in bright colors on a black background, and the music is a generic techno, giving the game an overall futuristic feel which is not bad. However, the simple fact is that all of the additions make the game rather easy -- I had no problems getting through the whole game (and earning 50 points in badges! See the below rant) on my first try. And really, there aren't enough changes from the basic formula to make this a game with lasting replay value. It's fun once, but not a game I have a burning desire to go back to.