Saturday, July 19, 2008


(TBA 2 is one of the few games I've played a substantial amount of without there being a badge for it. Actually, if I were sticking to schedule I would have written this review a while ago, but I missed it before for that reason. Fortunately, the timing works out well, for reasons you'll see at the end of the review.)

TBA 2 (which is also called TBA++ in some of its documentation; I don't know which is the preferred title, so I'm using what Kongregate calls it) is a one-button game -- all you ever have to do is press Space. The trick, of course, is pressing Space at the right time.

You have a playing field with a bunch of ports, and when you press Space, the ball will launch from its current port in some direction, and hopefully land in another port. The goal in each level is to reach the red exit port. Some ports just sit there, and indeed to beat the easiest levels all you have to do is hit Space repeatedly. However, most of the ports do something -- rotate, move back and forth, move around a track, etc. -- so getting your timing right is tricky. Each level also has a par time (dying does nothing particularly bad to you; you just restart and the timer keeps running) set as a target to beat, as well as a star you can collect; collecting stars allows you to unlock new worlds.

Simply beating a level is very easy; getting the stars and beating the par scores requires a bit more effort, but is not terribly hard by all means. There are some additional achievements which require some more careful play (for instance, beat all levels in a world without dying), which means that the game will remain interesting for a little while longer, but it's still not a long game by any stretch of the imagination. Still, it's entertaining for a little while. TBA 2 is another jmtb02 production, which means lots of stars and sparkles in the graphics. The music is very good (somewhat reminiscent of Super Monkey Ball), the backgrounds are very nice, and the sound effects are decent.

Now, it's time for me to rant a little. Like GemCraft (and many other games I've reviewed here), TBA 2 is distributed (produced? sponsored? I'm not quite sure what the right word is here) by Armor Games. Armor Games sponsors a lot of quality games, but recently they've started making it so that when their games appear on other sites, one feature is removed. This is presumably to encourage people to play games on their site instead, but it's incredibly frustrating to me to have to choose between getting badges and experiencing all of the content in the game (and I will choose the former, but I am annoyed by it). In GemCraft, this is just one skill, and not a particularly important skill, so it's no big loss. But in TBA 2, one (possibly two? it's unclear) entire areas are removed in the Kongregate version, which means that some of the achievements it's not even possible for me to get (this is also, allegedly, part or possibly all of the reason that it doesn't have badges on Kongregate). I find this very unsatisfying, and hope that this practice doesn't continue to persist.

Anyway, with that rant off of my chest, like I said, TBA 2 is not a particularly deep or challenging game, but it is a well-put-together game which should provide entertainment for a little while.

Friday, July 18, 2008


GemCraft is, at its base, Just Another Tower Defense game, but it's so pretty and well-executed that it manages to remain interesting for longer than you might expect.

The basic layout of GemCraft should be familiar to anyone who's ever played a tower defense game. There's a path, with plenty of twists and turns, and enemies walk along the path. The object is to destroy them before they reach the end of the path by building various defensive structures. Now, one interesting twist to GemCraft is that these structures aren't fixed. Well, you build towers along the sides of the path, and those are stationary; but, by themselves, the towers don't do anything. You create gems and put those in the towers, and then they can fire on enemies. You can also throw gems as bombs directly as enemies; I tend to prefer using my gems towers, but there are apparently some people who use strategies which involve almost exclusively throwing gems (which makes it quite a different kind of game, I suppose).

As befits its fantasy nature, there's no cash in the game; rather, your currency is mana. You gain mana both over time and by killing enemies; summoning gems is, naturally, the main way of spending mana, though you can also build more towers (you generally start out with a few, but you may wish to place your towers more strategically) or moats along the path to slow down enemies. One other unusual feature of GemCraft is that, as you might expect, various types of gems have various special abilities (eight in all), which correspond to eight possible gem colors, but when you create a gem, you don't get to pick the color -- it's randomly chosen. This can be a source of great frustration. (However, in a typical map, only a subset of the eight possible colors is available -- all eight appear only in the epic boss levels.) You can also combine gems to create more powerful gems -- you can create gems of levels 1 through 6 (with ever-increasing costs, naturally), but you can also combine two level n gems to create a level n+1 gem. Combining gems of two different colors yields a dual gem, which has some of the special powers of both, but these tend to be slightly weaker than a pure gem of the same grade. (You can similarly create tricolor gems or gems with even more combinations, but these are even more strongly disfavored.) Trying to combine two gems of different grades will just yield another gem with the higher grade of the two combined, so there's usually not much point.

As in many tower defense games, though, the real strategy comes in managing your money supply. You have one spell, Mana Pool, which increases your mana total and mana gain rate; thus, it is essentially equivalent to interest in a normal money-based game. Not casting enough Mana Pools is the prime cause of defeat for beginning players -- if you don't do it enough in the early part of a map, you'll never have enough mana to build the more powerful gems you'll need in the later part of the map. Conversely, if you do well enough in the beginning, often you'll find yourself swimming in mana by the end of the map, so that the later waves are a cakewalk. If enemies reach the end of the path, some amount of mana is deducted and they return to the beginning; if you should run out, you lose that map. This usually happens only due to carelessness, or due to the epic bosses.

The game is huge -- there are a total of 48 maps, including 5 epic boss levels and 8 hidden levels, which are revealed by getting a "glowing frame" on other maps (obtained by attaining a sufficiently high score). The overall layout is not entirely linear, so you don't have to play all of the levels, although you of course have to beat the epic boss levels. Being a completionist (and since you need to beat them all to get the hidden levels, which are required for the last badge), I naturally played them all anyway, which took a fair amount of time. Each individual map has somewhere between 8 and 50 waves (following the normal pattern of normal creatures interspersed with the occasional boss wave), with typical maps probably being somewhere around 30. Fortunately, each wave is relatively short; 20 creatures is a pretty large wave, and even non-boss waves can have as few as 3 creatures, so an individual map goes by pretty quickly. The game does a good job of avoiding the dead time which plagues games of this genre; you can quickly send new waves if you've already defeated the existing one, and you can also speed up time if things are going slowly in general, so you don't have that much time sitting around twiddling your thumbs.

As you clear maps, your wizard gains experience, which can in turn be used to improve skills which help various aspects of your gemcraftery. This brings me to the first complaint about the game: the difficulty is very uneven. The first few levels are very easy, and you don't really need to develop much strategy or learn much about careful play, and then you hit the first epic boss, which is quite difficult. You'll need to become much more proficient at carefully managing your mana (and much more aggressive in using Mana Pool) in order to beat it. (Looking at the comments, I'm far from the only person who hit a difficulty jump at the first epic boss.) Then, once you've developed your proficiency, the game goes back to being pretty easy (although no longer completely trivial), until your wizard accumulates enough experience that you can reach the really high-level skills, at which point the game becomes embarassingly easy. After I reached that point, the rest of the game was more time-consuming and not challenging at all, so I wish the designers had found a way to alleviate this boredom somewhat (possibly by not making the high-level skills so powerful to begin with). My second complaint is somewhat more trivial: with eight colors, it's of course going to be hard to keep them all distinct, but still, that's no excuse for having two of the colors be "lime" and "green", which are nearly indistinguishable to my eye. The blue and purple also look awfully similar, and it's very easy to get confused in the heat of battle.

The presentation of the game is absolutely gorgeous -- the graphics are excellent, and the sound is also well-done. (There is no background music, however.) But what really makes this game stand out is the attention to the interface -- buttons make a little click when you highlight them, tabs slide out, information is always easily accessible; it's very well put together and makes it feel like a much more professional game.

Overall, this game felt a little longer than it needed to be (especially since the final ending was a little anticlimactic), but it's definitely a game that's worth playing. Even though it's an old formula, this is so expertly executed that you can have a fun time playing it.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Hedgehog Launch

Hedgehog Launch is a very simple game -- you have a hedgehog, and using a rubber band launcher, you launch him into the air. While he's in the air, you can maneuver him from side to side using a rocket pack (but you have a limited amount of fuel; once it runs out, you're just dead weight). Your goal is to build a rubber band and launcher so powerful, you can launch your hedgehog into space (where "space" is defined as approximately 4500 feet high). And how do you do that? Well, conveniently, the air into which you're launching the hedgehog isn't like the air around my place -- it's filled with coins which you can collect for money (there are three denominations, 25 cents, 1 dollar, and 5 dollars), and also filled with launchpads which not only give you a cash boost (1, 5, or 10 dollars) but also propel you higher into the air. Your amount of money for a round is determined by the amount of cash collected times a bonus for your highest elevation reached times a bonus for your time of flight. These multiplicative bonuses mean that in later rounds, when your launcher is already pretty good, collecting even a relatively modest amount of money can lead to huge amounts of swag. This money you can use to build various upgrades to your setup; not only can you improve your launcher, but you can fit your hedgehog with a parachute, radar, goggles, or booster rocket, or improve his maneuvering rockets.

Naturally, there's a very strong positive feedback component in the game, in that making money makes making more money easier. And indeed, the one constant complaints in the comments is that reaching space in 5 days (which is the prerequisite for the hard badge) is very heavily dependent on luck on the first day -- if you happen to hit a couple of the yellow 10-dollar launchpads, your odds are a lot better, and (especially on the first day, where you don't have much gear on your hedgehog) whether or not you hit those launchpads is pretty much a matter of luck, since their location is entirely random. This complaint is true; sometimes, especially in the early days, you'll just end up with a terrible launch and end up wasting a day, and there's not much you can do about it other than try again. Still, the game is hardly boring, so as long as you're not worrying too much about the badge, it's not a big deal.

Being a jmtb02 production, the game is very flashy; the sound effects are good, the music is very entertaining and breezy, and the graphics are full of stars and sparkles. Overall, this is a cute little game; because of the randomess, it's not High Strategy or anything like that, but it's an entertaining little diversion for a little while.

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Dino Run

Dino Run is a perfect example of how to create a game with lots of interesting content that will keep you playing for a long while around a very simple gameplay concept. It's also where I earned my very first (and to date only) Impossible badge, so you can tell I liked it enough to stick it through all the way to the end.

The basic concept is based around an entertaining, if scientifically dubious, thought: what if the dinosaurs had been able to outrun the wall of lava kicked up by the asteroid impact? Maybe they would have been able to survive then! So your goal is, quite simply, to run as fast as you possibly can, over hills, through valleys, and with all sorts of obstacles running the gamut from annoying to irritating. (If this reminds you of Danger Swamps, I'm not surprised, but rest assured that this is a vastly better game.) Should you stumble and slow down, fiery doom awaits you, but if you make it to the end of the level, you'll find sanctuary in a cave (or, if you manage to beat challenge mode in the highest difficulty level, a spaceship, but perhaps I shouldn't give that part away...). You're not the only creature running for its survival, though; there are hundreds of other dinosaurs, nearly all of which are also trying to similarly escape their fate, some smaller, which you can eat, some bigger, which get in your way, and some faster, which you can hitch a ride on. There are also pterodactyls flying overhead, which you can grab onto to fly above the fray for a short period of time, but beware the wrong-way pterodactyls, which give the legendary unbeatable(?) pterodactyl a run for its money as the most annoying video game pterodactyl.

The game offers a wide variety of game modes. In challenge mode, you run through a course of 7 levels, beginning with a bright, sunny field and ending in a scorched, blacked, magma-filled Apocalypse level. You can gain more lives by collecting eggs (and hence saving more members of your species), but should you run out, it's game over. There are also "speedruns", which are really just single levels, usually with one feature that makes them stand out (for instance, a large valley, or lots of pterodactyls). Interestingly, no level will be the same twice -- each is randomly generated. It seems that the map is generated from a certain fixed set of chunks of terrain, some which may be large and some which may be small, and certain large features are likely to appear in certain levels, but nothing is guaranteed. For instance, there's a large waterfall that usually shows up in Level 4 of the challenge mode, but it could show up anywhere in the level, and it might not show up at all. This means that practicing a speedrun, while helpful to some degree, won't really help you learn the course (though you can learn to recognize signs of some of the larger terrain features, and some of the chunks are pretty large, so learning them can be useful).

There are four difficulty levels, but starting out on the hardest ("Insane") is literally impossible. Your dinosaur starts out puny and slow; in order to be able to handle the harder difficulty levels, you have to increase his power (just like tuning your car in Gran Turismo, for instance). This is accomplished by collecting DNA, which can either be obtained by collecting eggs, munching critters, or accomplishing various milestones. These milestones represent various degrees of achievement, and often reward you with hefty chunks of DNA or bones (which are used to unlock additional content). Some of these milestones are awarded for various difficult stunts (e.g., "doomsurfing", or staying just barely ahead of the wall of doom, for a given amount of time), while others are awarded for cumulative achivements (e.g. saving a certain number of eggs total). The latter can be kind of frustrating at the end of the game when you're trying to reach all of the milestones -- after finally beating the challenge mode and all of the speedruns on Insane, I still had to go through and collect more eggs and eat more birds. You'd think I'd have already proved I could do that.

The presentation is suitably retro -- the art is very pixelated and 8-bit, and the music similarly so. The sound effects are not bad; the music (as is so often the case) gets a little repetitive, but there are enough different themes to prevent it from being totally boring. The interface is a little odd (sometimes relying on the keyboard and sometimes on the mouse), but when you're playing it's all keyboard. There are also lots of cute little touches -- for instance, you unlock additional colors as you progress through the game, which allows you to customize your dinosaur; donating also gives you access to various amusing hats your dinosaur can wear.

Dino Run provided hours of enthralling gameplay for me, because it has such a large source of generally interesting challenges. While it is by no means an easy game, you'll get better as you play, and there's quite a feeling of accomplishment for making it through to the end, whether it's your first time surviving or your first time on Insane mode. Overall, it's a thoroughly enjoyable game.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Music Catch

Music Catch isn't a game so much as it is a Flash relaxation device. The gameplay, such as it is, is very simple: a piano piece plays, and as it plays, shapes will appear from a continuously rotating line on screen. You move your mouse to catch the shapes with your own shape. Yellow shapes will increase your score multiplier and make your own shape larger, making it easier to catch more shapes both good and bad; red shapes will decrease the multiplier. Purple shapes activate "purple power", which draws all non-red shapes towards your shape for a limited amount of time. And, well, that's about it. You play for the length of the song, and then see what your score is.

The music is a pretty little piece, although the number of comments saying something like "I don't normally like classical music, but this is the best ever!" makes me despair a little, since there definitely is a lot better out there. Still, it's a lot better than your typical Flash game music. The graphics are pretty and colorful, albeit not particularly fancy. As a game, it's not perfect -- some times, you might get lucky and get a lot of yellows and purples early, which helps to bring up your overall score a lot. Also, while each yellow increases your multiplier by 1, a red can cut your total multiplier in half, which can be awfully frustrating, especially in the late game when your multiplier has gotten very large.

Anyway, that's mostly nitpicking; overall, this game is quite successful in providing a lovely interlude from the more stressful, action-packed games on Kongregate.

Monday, July 14, 2008


What do you get when you cross Missile Command with tower defense? Hopefully, a better game than PlanetDefender. PlanetDefender tries to vary the tried-and-true tower defense formula somewhat, but unfortunately the game that results is somewhat less interesting than the sum of its parts.

Like a tower defense game, you face a number of waves of malignant, increasingly powerful enemy ships bent on wreaking destruction on your peaceful planet, and you have to build various things to blast them out of the sky before they can do too much damage. However, unlike your typical tower defense game, the enemy ships can and will shoot back at you. They can either damage (and possibly even destroy) your defensive structures, or kill your population, which is bad news, because your population is your tax base. Unlike your typical tower defense game, where you get money for every enemy killed, here you get money over time based on your current population. In turn, you can build the usual array of weaponry, economic centers (which increase the money gain from your population), or bunkers to protect your population, as well as research some additional technologies.

Now, on to the flaws of the game. First of all, there's no strategy (at least none that I can see) to placing your units, unlike in a typical tower defense game. You just place them somewhere on the planet and they shoot at the enemy. This takes out one rather large chunk of strategy. Secondly, the pacing of the game is terrible. At the beginning of the game, you end up waiting for very long periods of time for enough money to accumulate in order to buy the next thing you want to buy. (This is, to a greater or lesser extent, an issue in any tower defense game, but PlanetDefender does not do a good job regulating the pace.) At the end of the game, when everything is maximally upgraded, you also just end up sitting around twiddling your thumbs while watching the alien fleets bravely float into the meat grinder. Thirdly, the interface is really annoying -- when your mouse isn't over the planet, all of your buildings fade away, presumably so you can see -- well, it's not actually clear what the purpose of this is. I suppose you can enjoy the majestic beauty of Earth's oceans and clouds, but this feature doesn't bring any useful information to your fingertips; in fact, it takes it away.

But the most unforgivable sin is very simple. As I mentioned earlier, a key to building a successful tower defense game is feedback -- the player needs to be able to understand what's working and what's not working, so he can adjust his strategy accordingly. PlanetDefender provides almost none of that -- you can't look at the enemy ships' health bars, so you have no idea how close you may or may not be to destroying them. You also can't see where on the planet you're taking the most damage, which might be useful if you were thinking of, say, placing one of those fortified bunkers. The only thing you can see is if your defensive structures are taking damage, since there's a little bar which gradually increases (not that it's at all clear to the novice player what that bar is). Even here, though, when a structure gets destroyed, there's no notification, so if your notice happens to be elsewhere on the battlefield, you can be blissfully unaware that a key component of your defenses has suddenly disappeared (though if this happens, you're screwed anyway, in all likelihood).

PlanetDefender also exhibits the hump in difficulty common to tower defense games. That is, since your income is dependent on your population, if you make a mistake which causes more of your population to die, then you have less income, which means you'll be able to build fewer defensive structures, which means more of your population to die, etc. That is, there's a strong positive feedback. As a result, small improvements in skill can result in large differences in the outcome. Like I said, this is common to many tower defense games (especially those with interest), but it seems to be especially problematic in PlanetDefender.

The graphics are decent, although small; the music gets boring fast, and the sound effects are nothing special. Overall, I was very glad to finish this game and get the badge, and was annoyed that it took as long as it did.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Castle Crashing "The Beard"

Like Newgrounds Rumble, I don't quite understand why this game is on Kongregate. OK, it doesn't announce its origin right in its title, but the whole thing is essentially an extended Newgrounds joke -- apparently, Tom Fulp (the creator of Newgrounds) took a vow not to shave his beard until he finished his newest game, and so in this game, you have to battle a fearsomely enbearded Fulp for, uh, some reason.

The gameplay itself is like any boss fight from any 2-D platformer: you're tiny, and have a small weapon (which gradually powers up as the battle goes on), and Fulp is huge and has a wide variety of devastating attacks; defeating him requires learning his attack patterns and reacting accordingly, along with some degree of dexterity.

The presentation is high-quality: the art, sound, and music are all above-average, and the programming in the game is very solid. Still, there's just not much game here, and if you're not one to appreciate the joke, you won't get much value from that source, either. It's a fun little tidbit, though.