Thursday, December 18, 2008

Super Crazy Guitar Maniac Deluxe 2

Those of you who know me know that I have a pretty strong compulsion to finish games, and the Kongregate badges only aggravate that compulsion. However, there are times when even I can resist this compulsion -- when I look at the game and decide that the ratio of effort to fun is simply too high for me to want to finish it. (Obvious examples, for instance, include Ring Pass Not and Papa's Pizzeria.) When I first tried Super Crazy Guitar Maniac Deluxe 2, I figured that it would fall into this category. It's not that I don't enjoy games of this type, but I'm just not very good at them, so I didn't think I would be able to finish it in any reasonable amount of time. So I made a fair amount of progress and put it aside without any intentions to finish. Well, a few months later, I decided to try it out again, picked up some more perfects, and, well, then I just had to finish it. So now I'm in possession of another impossible badge. Yay?

Anyway, SCGMD2 is a pretty typical rhythm game -- if you've played DDR, Guitar Hero, or something of that ilk, you'll find it pretty familiar. Notes come from the right side of the screen, and you have to press them when they reach the line at the left. The notes come in two forms: arrows, which are tapped (presumably by your right hand), and letters, which are held for a given duration (presumably by your left hand). There's no close in SCGMD2; either you get the note, or you don't. (The target area has a nonzero width, so there is some tolerance.) Getting many notes in a row increases your score multiplier, while missing a note decreases it. (Playing a wrong note doesn't decrease your multiplier, but does cost you points.) The interface is divided into two rows; up and right arrows appear on the top row, and down and left arrows appear on the bottom row, while the three different hold letters appear on the lines above, below, and between the rows. This allows for all of the keystrokes to be in a relatively compact space.

There's a total of eight amateur and ten pro songs, although some songs have both an amateur and a pro version, so there's actually only 14 different songs. Nearly all of the songs are instrumental -- in fact, there's only two songs with vocals (and, to be honest, the quality of the vocals ranges from mediocre to pretty awful, so I don't really mind their absence in the rest). They don't have the quality of songs you'd see in a Rock Band, being amateur music but most of them are pretty decent, although there are a couple of clunkers. There's kind of a large number of Nintendo remixes; while I like the music, of course, I can't help but feel that this is a little bit overdone -- overall, I found myself preferring the original tracks. The keying is generally pretty solid -- most of the time it feels well-matched to the music, although there are definitely times when it seems like the flow of the keys doesn't quite match the flow of the music. The songs range from about a minute to about two minutes, which is a good choice of lengths -- after all, there's nothing more frustrating than getting nearly all the way through a song and then screwing it up right near the end, and the short song lengths mean that no song is too tedious.

The graphics are pretty basic -- the interface is just arrows and letters, although you have a wide selection of guitars, which produce various effects when you hit a note. There's also a stickman playing at the bottom of the screen who gets more and more animated as you get better (when you're at the highest multiplier level, he's playing the guitar on fire), which is a cute little addition, if distracting. There's also an announcer who announces things like "You rock!" at opportune times, which I guess adds a bit to the game.

Now, for the one big problem, which I'm not sure whether to blame on the game or the Kongregate chat system. You see, when someone says something in the chat, it often causes the game (whatever it may be) to lag for a split second. For the vast majority of games, this doesn't matter, or is a minor inconvenience. In SCGMD2, it is death -- the lag is pretty much always enough to cause you to miss a keystroke (and if it's bad enough, it can even cause the arrows to bunch up downstream, which can confuse the heck out of you). You pretty much either have to mute the chat or play at some time like 3 am when no one is actually in chat. Even if you have the chat muted, the chat pane will occasionally update the list of people in the room and cause you to lag. It's really, really frustrating. It's my guess that there's plenty of blame to go around -- the Kongregate chat system doesn't always seem like the soundest, and I suspect it could probably be optimized, but I've played plenty of twitch-heavy games on Kongregate and this definitely seems to suffer the worst, so I wonder if there's not bad programming on both ends.

Overall, SCGMD2 is not an easy game. There are apparently people who find this kind of game a piece of cake, but I'm not one of them. (I do notice, however, that my performance varies substantially with the time of day -- there are definitely times when I'm better than others.) In order to get all the perfects, I had to put in a fair amount of practice; certainly less practice than I would have to if I were playing on a real guitar, which is slightly more complicated than four arrow keys and three letters, but definitely a nontrivial amount of time. Although, I suppose, if your goal is just to get the other badges, that can definitely be done in a more reasonable amount of time. Anyway, whether you like it really depends on how you feel about the genre. If you enjoy this kind of game, you'll find SCGMD2 a fine example of the genre; if you can't stand rhythm games, SCGMD2 isn't really the type of game that'll convert you. Still, I'd have to say I had fun despite the lag occasionally driving me crazy.

(A tip: If you're trying to get all perfects, you'll probably find Run 'n' Gun really, really annoying. For those sequences of left-right-left-right-etc., I kept trying to play them as eight notes and failing. I found that it's much easier to treat it as four pairs: in each pair, hit left-right in succession as quickly as you can, and aim to place the left on each beat. This allowed me to get through those segments much, much more reliably. Actually, the tolerance on the notes is such that you can actually hit left and right at the same time and still have them register, which is a lot easier on your hand, but it requires much more precision timing, so I would recommend the first method.)

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Casual Gameplay Escape

This review is going to be rather tricky to write, because Casual Gameplay Escape is one of those puzzle games where much of the puzzle is in figuring out what the actual puzzle is, so I'll try to write this without giving too much away.

In Casual Gameplay Escape, it's just you, a room, and eight puzzles. You're tossed into the room with extremely little in the way of introduction or explanation. Solving all eight puzzles will allow you to escape the room and win the game. Each of the eight puzzles is straightforward enough once you figure out the rules and objective, but since these are not given to you, figuring them out requires some clever logic and experimentation. (Indeed, a couple of the puzzles I'm still not quite precisely sure of the rules, but we figured them out well enough to make our way to the solution.)

Anyway, the quality of the puzzles is obviously the main yardstick for whether this is a good game or not, and the puzzles here are generally solid. Each of them requires a completely different way of thinking, and none of them is either too easy or too difficult. (Though the solution to one puzzle was perhaps slightly unfairly tricky.) The interface is pretty simple -- you don't need to do much maneuvering between the puzzles, though it's still a little more complex than just "select a puzzle and do it".

Graphically, the game is of high quality; both the drawings and the animation are solid. In the background is not quite music, rather just a loop of atmospheric sounds which lend a vaguely creepy air to the proceedings; it's effective atmosphere, at least. The sounds get a little repetitive, especially that one clunk that you get when you're clicking something (you'll see what I mean soon enough).

Overall, I'd say Casual Gameplay Escape is an excellent game. It kind of makes me sad that walkthroughs for this type of game are so easily available, because really the challenge is in figuring out everything yourself (which we did). It'll make you think, but in a good way. Give it a try.

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Factory Balls 2

Factory Balls 2 is, as you might be able to guess, a sequel to Factory Balls (review here). It's basically the same game, with a few welcome improvements, so I probably won't have too much to say.

As in the original, the basic task is to perform a series of transformations on a ball to get it to look like a given target. This most often consists of painting the ball, often after applying some kind of mask so that only part of the ball is painted, but there's still a fair number of operations available, some of them old (like that thing that I still haven't quite figured out what it is) and some new (you can now make Chia pet-like balls in some of the levels). None of the puzzles is particularly difficult, but a few may stump you for several minutes.

The game now has a total of 30 levels, and automatically saves your progress so you don't have to play it all in one sitting. Another welcome addition is the elimination of the lives system from the original -- now, if you run low on balls, balls that you toss into the recycle bin are actually recycled, so you don't need to worry about failing two-thirds of the way through. This was one of the more annoying features of the original, so I'm glad to see it gone. The graphics, sound, and music are all the same as in the original -- serviceable, if not great. (Although I notice this time around it's much more annoying in my headphones. I guess they accentuate the bass.) One small interface complaint, though, is that there are several operations that you'll often need to use several times in a row, and having to drag the ball to that circle five or six times in a row is a little tedious. If you could just click on the circle instead, it would be vastly simpler.

Anyway, there are some good puzzles in Factory Balls 2, and it's eliminated the things that annoyed me most about the original, so give it a try. You'll definitely appreciate the cleverness in some of the puzzles, and you'll definitely have to think at least a little bit, but it won't leave you frustrated.

Monday, December 15, 2008


So, way back in the third week of my writing these reviews, I mentioned that I was skipping Areas because I hadn't yet finished it. Little did I know that it would be more than six months before I finally did finish it. This is, as you can guess, not quite an endorsement of the game. It's a neat idea, but it drags on interminably, and the last several levels are annoyingly difficult, and not in a good way. So I played a bunch of levels, liked it, then got stuck and lost interest, and it was a while before I finally came back.

Part of the charm of Areas is figuring out how the game works, so this review is unfortunately going to be mildly spoilery; I'll try to keep it to a minimum. In fact, the game doesn't have any words at all -- the (minimal) help is entirely visual. Anyway, Areas is a shooter without clicking: your ship fires shots in the direction of the pointer when the pointer is close to the ship, and moves to the pointer when the pointer is far away. You fight in a circular arena, and your enemies are white circles which gradually grow. Shooting the enemy circles will cause them to shrink, and if you're persistent enough, eventually you'll destroy them. If you're crushed between the enemy circles, then you die; the goal for a level is simply to survive for a given amount of time. When an enemy circle is destroyed, it usually leaves behind a circular area (I don't know whether these or the enemy circles themselves are the areas that the title refers to). These have generally beneficial effects; most of them, when you stand inside them, will power up your shot in some way (triple shot, bigger shot, explosive shot, etc.), while some of them you shoot into to trigger some ability (repelling enemy circles, activating a laser, etc.). Needless to say, clever use of these powerups is pretty much critical to beating all but the simplest levels.

Now, the first problem with Areas is that there's 74 levels. That's simply way too long. The game could easily be 30 levels without losing anything except quite a bit of frustration and annoyance. Because the game has such a large number of levels, and because it likes to introduce a new powerup every couple of levels, the powerups, after a while, begin to suffer the same problem as Mega Man enemies: either they become completely ridiculous, or else they're just a slight variation on something that you've already seen before. There's only so much you can do. But what's really aggravating about the later levels is how random they are. The first problem you see right off the bat -- because the later levels get so large, you pretty much have to pick a direction to go in and hope you stumble across an enemy circle. If you happen to pick the wrong direction, then it's easy for an unseen circle to grow so large by the time you discover it that you're already doomed. Even if you happen to pick the right direction, there's often enough randomness in what powerups you can get on a given level (and enough variance in their quality) that if you happen to get a sucky powerup, you're also pretty much screwed. As a result, a fair number of the levels, including the last several, are far more about luck than skill, which is really no fun at all.

The graphics are pretty basic, as you might expect from the given theme, although the game does do a good job of distinguishing the different powerup areas. There's no sound, just kind of creepy background music, which is kind of endearing for a little while but eventually begins to decrease your sanity. The game generally runs smoothly, but often when a lot of the more complicated powerups are on the screen it can lag pretty badly.

Overall, if Areas were 30 levels, I'd be writing about how it's a nice variation on the standard shooter formula and manages to be a very interesting game despite its simplicity. At its current length, though, all those warm feelings generated by the beginning of the game evaporate into annoyance and frustration by the end of the game -- it just adds too much randomness to the basic formula. I suppose, then, I would recommend that you play this, but please, don't try to play the whole way through! It's an odd recommendation, but I think the best one in this case.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

The Majesty of Colors

The Majesty of Colors is almost more art project than game. As a game, it's very simple, but it's beautifully done and will engage you with its interesting, if brief, story in a way that most Flash games don't.

In the game, you play a sea monster-like creature experiencing an awakening and its first encounter with humans. The controls are very simple -- just click on something to interact with or move it. The game is nonlinear; depending on whether you are friendly or hostile towards the humans at your various opportunities, you can end up in one of five different endings. The game, however, is very short -- you have only a few decisions to make over the course of the game, and can easily play through once in just a few minutes. Finding all of the endings might be a bit trickier, but it's not particularly difficult.

The graphics are in the retro-pixelated style that seems to be in vogue at the moment. To be honest, I don't think this adds particularly much to the game in this case; it just seems to be kind of a fad. The sounds are simple, but they add a kind of nice atmosphere; there's no background music, though. The writing is good, perhaps even a little unnecessarily florid (I think this is the first time I've seen the word "squamous" not describing a cell), but it complements the story well.

Overall, The Majesty of Colors is too short and simple to be a great game viewed as simply a game, but as a short story it's kind of a fun read. It's a nice, quiet, contemplative alternative to your typical frenzied Flash game.