Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Kokotoni Wilf (ZX Spectrum)

I've played some games with some stupidly-named heroes in my time. I've played Nodes of Yesod. I've played some Final Fantasy games, if only briefly. I haven't really played a Zelda game, but I know they've got some stupid names. It's kind of expected that characters will be named unconventionally. But what on earth would posses you to name your hero Kokotoni Wilf?

Released in the front half of the Eighties, Kokotoni Wilf was the first ever release from renowned company Elite. It's very highly regarded among Speccy owners, and indeed, I remember quite enjoying it at a friend's house. So in an off-period, having trawled through my archives, I thought I'd play it again for the first time in over twenty-five years.

I'm sure I've seen better dinosaurs on the wall of my kid's classroom.

Kokotoni Wilf is the poor, put-upon assistant of Ulrich the Magician. Ulrich is apparently so powerful that he is able to keep all the dangerous dragons of the world asleep. The spell, though, is about to expire, and Ulrich must renew it. Unfortunately, the powerful Dragon Amulet, a might artifact essential in casting the spell, has been broken and scattered across time...

That seems a bit irresponsible to me... how could you let something so important get smashed to bits? Anyway, Ulrich might be powerful, but he's also old and apparently his spell repertoire does not extend to magically collecting the pieces of Amulet, so it's up to Wilf to get out there and physically do the job.

Someone explain to me how that big thing got in this small cave, please.

It's a tricky task, so to give his manservant a bit of a hand, Ulrich give Wilf a pair of magical wings, so he can get to those tricky to reach spots. These will come in handy in your passage through time... jumping over dinosaurs and the like could be a bit beyond a man!

I can't say I remember just why I enjoyed this so much back then. I mean, I had an Atari 2600 which had considerably better sound than the Spectrum. And it's a very hard game to love on appearances. Initially, it looks like something a primary school class conceived and drew, with bright primary colours splashed across childish-looking characters.

Yeah, nice work, smarty-pants. Icarus could do that too, and where did it get him? Eh?

And then, the gameplay itself is terribly slow. For all he's got wings, Wilf limps around from screen to screen with all the urgency of a crippled sloth, which doesn't make the game very exciting.

For all that, though, there's something quite compulsive about Wilf's hunter-gathering exploits. Maybe the trip through time has something to do with that; or maybe it's that urge to see what's on the next screen (for better or worse). Maybe it's just that you don't want to be beaten by its infantile creations.

There you go, old reviewers... three games and I'm onto 1066AD. It's not that hard...

Kokotoni Wilf picked up all kinds of awards on its release, and even to this day is rated very highly on the excellent World of Spectrum website. Those rose-tinted glasses must be prettyy powerful, because it's really not that good. But it's not a dead loss either, and in those days when imagination counted for more and we were more prepared to imagine ourselves in a dinosaur-filled wonderland, I expect it was fairly easy to lose a good few nights after school to this.

As a kind of postscript, I had a read of the reviews for this on World of Spectrum, and was quite surprised to find that a fair number of them appear to have been written by people who couldn't be bothered to play the game properly before reviewing it. A few reviews mentioned not getting past the dinosaur section, which was only twelve or so screens of a sixty-screen game. To be fair, I haven't played it properly either, but at least I put a bit of effort into it, and it's not that hard. It gives you an even greater appreciation for the skills and application of the ZZAP! lads (and by association, the CRASH lot as well). I suppose a lot of games were released back then and time was at a premium, but it explains why ZZAP! 64 and CRASH were so far ahead of the rest... they appear to be about the only ones who actually enjoyed playing games!

Monday, 16 January 2012

Ganymed (Commodore Amiga)

So, after writing my top 11 iOS games of last year, I fancied a break before I started on the big boy games. So I was scrolling through GameBase, and as I went through the Amiga games, clicking on random games and looking at screenshots, I saw one that featured AT-ATs. Fantastic! Let's have a go at that.

Echo station 3-T-8, we have spotted something a lot like Imperial walkers, but that aren't actually Imperial walkers.

The game was, and indeed is called Ganymed. An odd title for sure, and no doubt a riff on Jupiter's moon, Ganymede. That moon is largely covered in ice, much like the planet Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, where AT-ATs march relentlessly in, smashing anything in their path.

And so, with that connection made, I settled down for a good blast.

You know, there have been some really good games featuring large walkers that you must shoot down. Parker's own The Empire Strikes Back, on the Atari VCS/2600, was a tense, thrilling blast, where you took your fragile snowspeeder to battle the Empire's mighty walkers. I spent hours on that game, which may well have been the very first game responsible for giving me an aching thumb.

Who'd have thought that blowing up a metal beast would result in an explosion of jam and custard?

Then there was Jeff Minter's Attack of the Mutant Camels. Although this had a distinctly British sense of humour added to the mix, the core gameplay was much the same, and probably accounted for a lot of knackered fire buttons on computer systems across the globe.

Ganymed is not a really good game featuring large walkers. It is, in fact, a shit game featuring large walkers. Essentially, it's the old Atari Empire Strikes Back game, with arguable better graphics and inarguably worse gameplay. Each level sees you take off in your snowspeeder ship, scrolling from right to left to confront the giant metal beasts, of which there are three.

You're just running around like a headless chicken.

Yes, each level contains a not-exactly-unmanageable three enemy walkers. Defeat them and you whizz off to the next level. Take a couple of hits and you die. Let them reach the right of the screen, and it's game over, quite unceremoniously and without fanfare. Just a message saying "You lost all your ships".

And that's it. It's rubbish. Of all the things to stop on randomly, I managed to hit Ganymed. Out of 50,000 games over 18 systems, I landed on Ganymed. I won't be making that mistake again.

Friday, 13 January 2012

Top 11 of '11 (iOS) - the rundown.

Just in case you feel like posting any of this anywhere (and I'd love it if you did), here's the top 11 as a list of links, so you only need to post one link rather than all eleven.

Number 1 - Silversword.
Number 2 - Minotaur Rescue.
Number 3 - Jetpack Joyride.
Number 4 - Forget-Me-Not.
Number 5 - Hard Lines.
Number 6 - X-Baseball.
Number 7 - Bug Princess.
Number 8 - Monsters Ate My Condo.
Number 9 - PicoPicoFighters.
Number 10 - Groove Coaster.
Number 11 - Space Junk.

So there we have it... my favourite iOS games of the year. Looking at that, I think it's a damn good list. But what do you think? Please let me know!

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 1 - Silversword.

A lot of you might not have heard of my number 1 pick. And, it's fair to say, I may have been wearing rose-tinted glasses whilst picking it. But so what? It may be very retro, and not terribly original, but you could say that about a lot of games in this list. It's not a "Top 11 all-original all-new-concept games" or a "Top 11 non-retro games" list. It's my favourite iOS games of 2011. And Silversword is my very favourite of them.

Bit of a dump, this, innit?

When I was a lad, back in the mid-to-late-80s, I owned a Commodore 64. One day, I wandered into the computer shop as normal, and there on the shelf was a game called The Bard's Tale. I'd read the review of it in ZZAP! 64, and it sounded amazing. But it was disk-only. Or so I thought...

I picked it up to have a look at it, and saw that this version came on two cassettes. And it was only £2.99! There was no way I could turn that down, not at that price. So I bought it, and trundled off home to play...

Cat got your tongue? Oh... no. I see that it hasn't.

It wasn't what you would call an immediate game, The Bard's Tale. To a novice, all the rolling characters and stuff was a bit highbrow. The game did give you a pre-rolled team to play with if you wanted, but where's the fun in that? Once you got started, exploring the ruins of Skara Brae was genuinely thrilling... until one of you got killed by a low-level monster and you had to either start again or create a new character.

Eventually, you'd learn to fight your battles carefully and save after every one. It was the only way to make progress, and it was very slow going, but you could cut the tension with a broadsword. After a long time spent creeping about you'd be able to level up, becoming more powerful and finding better weapons and armour. And then you'd feel brave enough to tackle your first dungeon...

Come on gang, let's get powerful!

The Bard's Tale took me thirteen months to complete. I can say, with complete honesty, that I enjoyed every second of it. Yes, even the multiload. Yes, even the epic fight with four groups of 99 Berserkers. On occasions such as these, I'd just read ZZAP! 64 or listen to my Yngwie Malmsteen albums. Happy days.

Here's where the point emerges. I've been looking for a game like The Bard's Tale for years. I could play the original on an emulator, but time has robbed me of much of the patience I need. The Etrian Odyssey games fit the bill even if they are really, really hard. But they're on the DS, and I don't carry that around with me (shamefully, I don't use it much in the house, either). But Silversword, on my iPhone, is perfect.

Hey, look! The circus in town!

It really could be The Bard's Tale IV. The game has that distinct style you'd expect of a Bard's Tale game... three windows, one at the bottom displaying your party, one at the top left showing you the game world, and one at the top right giving you a description of anything interesting that's happening. A heart-warming sight, indeed.

So, once you've had a read of the instruction manual, you'll be ready to go. Hang on a minute... what? That's right... Silversword comes with a 41-page instruction manual. It's a real rarity nowadays, and is very welcome. If you're particularly enamoured, you can buy (for £1.99, through In-App Purchases) the Silversword compendium, which is an expanded version of the manual running at 74 pages.

Jeeesus Christ! Run away! Run awaaaaaaay!

I've forked out for that, although you're not missing that much if you don't. You'll get illustrations and more details on the character classes, which are nice additions. Of more practical use are the creature and item lists. These seemingly-exhaustive documents provide all kinds of information... values of items, who can use them and what benefits they give, for example, and creature types, hit points and XP values. This could be seen as being a bit spoilerish, but if you don't buy it you've got nothing to worry about, and if you do you're probably going to be playing the game enough to find it of real use.

Silversword begins with you in the Ruin Camp in the realm of Tarnak. There's a team pre-assembled and waiting... rather like a new car, you can take them out for a "test drive" while you get used to the game, its controls and how it works. They're a decent bunch, and if you want to play the game with them you most certainly can. However, it's much more enjoyable to roll your own characters, and go to battle yourself with a bunch of your mates or heroes by your side. I have a load of real-life musicians that I like battling with me... yes, I'm just that sad.

Ahhh, that Sister Elenore is a Saint!

Once you're out and about, you'll find yourself in the ruins of Castle Cranbourgh. It's best to have a bit of a wander and familiarise yourself with the surroundings. At first, you'll be spending a lot of time here. Luckily, the game auto-maps itself, and it allows you to make notes at points of interest. This is a great feature, and saves massively on the cost of graph paper!

The wrecked town around the castle contains an armoury, weapons store, training hall and shrine. From these you can buy armour and weapons (obviously), level up when you have the experience, and heal wounded characters. You'll also encounter characters in the town that will prove useful if you can complete certain actions...

Alright, gang... we're going in...

Set foot a bit further afield, and you'll find towers and dungeons, and new, fiercer creatures. That's why you have to take baby steps... stray too far and you'll get creamed. This kind of "grinding" is either loathed or tolerated it seems... I really don't mind it in games like this, because I genuinely enjoy the whole process. Just pottering about and figuring the lie of the land is good.

Another benefit of doing this is that the more you perform certain actions, the better you get at them. So spellcasters are more likely to cause more damage with a spell the more they use it, for example (not exceeding its maximum, of course). So it does pay to beat up the little guys, although whether it's worth the time it takes is debatable.

Alright, now it's brown trousers time!

Your actual quest is very vague. You don't really know what to do or where to go. But I actually like this aspect of it. It means that you piece together the storyline as you go. Or at least, that's what I'm expecting. I haven't got all that far yet, at least, I don't think I have. I've no idea how big this game might be. But I'm going to find out... even if it takes me thirteen months, or longer... there have been loads more Yngwie Malmsteen albums released since then...

Silversword is my number one iOS game of 2011. It's a Universal app, and is currently £2.99... exactly the same price I paid for The Bard's Tale about twenty-five years ago.

Monday, 9 January 2012

Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 2 - Minotaur Rescue.

If 2012 is the Year of the Dragon, then 2011 was the Year of the Yak. Programming veteran Jeff Minter turned his bearded head towards Apple's devices, cranked up his Minotaur Project, and Llamasoft turned out four new games. It was like 1983 all over again.

Of course, anyone with a knack for code could knock out four games in a year, but that wouldn't mean they would necessarily be any good. Of Llamasoft's games, three of them were genuine contenders for this list. The only one that wasn't, for me personally, was trippy puzzler Deflex. There's nothing wrong with that game, in fact I do quite enjoy it, but I'm not very good at it and, well, there were at least eleven games I enjoyed more.

Whooo, bendy bullets!

The other two games that missed the list were Minotron: 2112, an excellent reworking of Minter's Atari ST classic Llamatron, and Goat Up, the first ever Llamasoft platform game. Minotron is a twin-stick Robotron-inspired shooter that sees you blasting all manner of bizarre and hostile objects, including telephones, footballs, bags of chips and the like. Goat Up brought to mind Rainbow Islands, as it scattered untold amounts of bonus goodies your way as you leapt ever upward (and eventually downward). They're very good indeed, but I'll write separate posts about them at a later date.

But the game I chose to put on the list, the game that is not out of place in any way at number two, is Minotaur Rescue.

It's a hybrid of many games, is Minotaur Rescue. It looks just like the old Atari VCS version of Asteroids, if it was thrown into a Space War machine. And then had some of Minter's own Gridrunner Revolution added to it. At least three shooting games in one. Bullet-tastic!

That sun makes me want to eat a banana toffee. Or play Atari VCS PacMan.

One of the main strengths of Minotaur Rescue is the control method. The game uses an autofire method, which is the firing mechanism of choice for yer iDevice shooter. It really doesn't make sense to have a fire button on a screen, unless your game has an excellent reason for not using autofire.

Coupled with that, though, is the swipe control system. It's a little tricky to get used to at first, but once you master it (or even get mildly proficient at it) you'll be whizzing about all over the screen like it's second nature. It's a far better method than using a virtual joystick, certainly for this game, and adds an extra level of control that you'll find very welcome in time...

The object of the game, of course, is to rescue minotaurs. Actually, it isn't... that's just an element of the game, and a chance to earn stacks of bonus points. The object of the game is to shoot things and not get killed. Yes, it's that simple.

It's hard to control the stream...

Complicating matters a little is the sun in the middle of the screen. It pulses away happily to itself, unless you get too close at which point you'll discover it has its own gravity, and will destroy you if you get too close. As if that wasn't bad enough, it'll destroy anything else that gets too close. Uh-oh.

That means that you have to manage its size as you play. That's easily done... destroy all the asteroids and pick up all the minotaurs before they get swallowed up, and all will remain well and relatively unthreatening. But it's inevitable that you'll miss some...

You can, though, use the sun's gravity for your own good. The gravity also affects your ship's bullets, so you can position yourself on the screen in such a way that you can bend your bullets around the sun to destroy asteroids. Learning how to do this effectively is beneficial but not hugely important (at least, not on the small-screen version - I haven't played it on the iPad)... there's not much that's that far out of reach and that you'll need to destroy urgently.

Check me out, with my million points!

Causing further problems are the enemy craft that sporadically appear and try to kill you. At first, you're only attacked by UFOs from the original VCS Asteroids. But as time goes by, others join the fray... a Star Raiders TIE-Fighter-esque ship, a Defender Baiter, Combat jets... all will weigh in with attempts to destroy you. If you've played any of these games in the past, they're likely to bring smiles to your face as they're having a go at you.

Failure to keep the sun from expanding will see it turn into a black hole, and then you're really in trouble. Black holes swallow everything in sight, and you'll have a giant problem just keeping yourself out of there. It reminds me a little of the end of the world in Defender, where only great skill will see you extending your game.

Once you've got got to grips with the control system, the first few levels of Minotaur Rescue are quite simple. Luckily, Llamasoft's excellent tried-and-tested level select is available, and you can choose your starting point up to any level you've previously completed, picking up your previous best score once its completed. It's a brilliant way of making sure you don't get bored with the early levels once you're good at the game, and should be standard in all new arcade games.

This is a different kind of Combat...

As a package, Minotaur Rescue is fantastic. For 69p you get two versions of the main game (default game Solar Minotaur Rescue Frenzy and Survival), plus Deep Space Minotaur Madness (a different variation on the main game with no sun), Tanks, and Jets. Tanks and Jets are Minter-arranged versions of the games from Combat with eye-melting visuals and subtle gameplay refinements...

Minotaur Rescue is a true star of the App Store. Llamasoft's aim to recreate new arcade games in an old style has been perfectly realised with this title. It's great for a quick blast, or if you want to sit down for a long session of minotaur rescuing. It plays tremendously well, is always enjoyable and rarely frustrating... and it's cheap. If you've got a current generation iPhone/iPod Touch or an iPad, you should really give it a try. Although Llamasoft titles don't appeal to all, if you click with it you'll have a fantastic time. Surely 69p is a small gamble for the amount of fun you could have?

Minotaur Rescue is a Universal App.

Sunday, 8 January 2012

Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 3 - Jetpack Joyride.

Every so often, a game comes along that, for whatever reason, becomes a juggernaut. We've seen it in the past... Angry Birds, World of Warcraft, Horace Goes Skiing. This year saw a juggernaut arrive with a jetpack strapped to its back... Jetpack Joyride.

Jetpack Joyride is touted by many as being another entry into the "running man" genre of games... you know the ones, like Canabalt and Solipskier, where you have to head from left to right as far as possible, before some obstacle or other brings everything to a crashing halt. It's a very popular game style on the iPhone, probably because such games are very easy to play. However, it's actually more like those old Flash "copter" games that were all the rage years ago.

Oh yeah, baby... now we're rollin'!

Any game is only as good as its hero. Luckily, Jetpack Joyride has one of the best heroes in modern gaming... a man going by the extraordinary name of Barry Steakfries.

The name may be ringing a bell with you at this point... that's probably because he's been seen before. In fact, he's a recurring character in developer Halfbrick Studio's games. And why wouldn't he be? You can't go throwing away a character like Barry Steakfries!

Ooh, they look hot. Better keep away.

What of the game, though? What makes it any better, different, any more worth playing, than the games I've already mentioned? Well, obviously the jetpack gives it a different mechanic, for starters. Running and jumping has a certain feel to it. Flying a jetpack is completely different, and takes some adjustment (unless you're still hooked on copter games, that is).

Fortunately, flying a jetpack is also great fun, especially when it fires bullets at the ground. This might not be as much fun for the scientists that are running about, but they're all expendable commodities in the quest to, ummm, get as far as you can whilst wearing a jetpack.

Have you met my friend? He's called Mr. Cuddles.

This quest has its rewards, though, in the form of... goooooold. Shiny gold coins, in fact, which are suspended in mid-air, ripe for collection. These come in handy because, when you're inevitably brought sliding on your chin to a bitter end, you'll be dumped back to the start, and to the in-game shop. That's where you can go a-spendin' all your lovely coins.

This is where a large part of the game's appeal lies. You can buy all sorts of stuff in the shop, from new outfits to improved jetpacks to vehicle upgrades to missions. Hang on a minute... vehicle upgrades?

Rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat. Haha, see those scientists run!

Oh yes, I almost forgot... at points throughout the game you can pick up a vehicle to help speed you on your way. These include the Bad As(?) Hog, a Harley-type motorbike that's cool as hell, to a crazy freakin' teleporter that's, well, a bit rubbish really, to Mr. Cuddles, a giant robot dragon. These things are great, but in reality they only offer you a limited amount of protection.

You see, this being a top secret lab, they have deterrents against thieves, and those deterrents come in the form of lasers. Giant, powerful lasers that, much like the lovely gold coins, are suspended throughout the complex. One hit is enough to see you brought to a halt, which is why it's important to pick up a vehicle and stay with it. Because if you hit a laser, it's the vehicle that gets destroyed, and not you. Quite important, that.

Barry Steakfries, lying dead, coz he landed on his head.

When you do eventually come to an unfortunate demise, it's not necessarily game over. If you've picked up a Spin Token, a floating 'X' that you might see through the game, you'll get to play a fruit machine. Prizes range from coins to an explosion which will propel you a bit further to a second chance to, well, nothing. And you know which of those you'll win most often.

Jetpack Joyride is a very polished game, but that's only ever half the battle with a game. Most importantly, it's great fun, and it's nailed that crucial "just one more go" factor. It's a game that you'll keep on your phone or Touch, because you never know when you'll fancy another crack at it... you just know that you WILL fancy another crack at it. It's inevitable. Also, at the moment, the game is free. You know what to do.

Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 4 - Forget-Me-Not.

Of all my top 11 iOS games of the year, if there was one I might have left out, it would have been Forget-Me-Not. And yet, it sits at number four. So why would I have left it out? Quite simply, because I'm rubbish at it...

On reflection, though, lack of ability is not a reason to penalise a game. Especially not when it's as good as Forget-Me-Not.

It would be easy to give Forget-Me-Not a couple of goes, dismiss it as too hard and never touch it again. Because although it looks like a simple old 80s arcade game, there's a surprising amount of depth to it, and it takes a fair amount of play and perseverance to go beyond merely scratching the surface.


Forget-Me-Not sees you placed in a series of randomly-generated mazes. Each maze is filled with flowers, which you must collect. Once you have all the flowers, a portal is opened which enables you to progress. But to open the portal, you must have the key...

That's not so difficult, the key is openly on display at the start of every level. All you need to do is pick it up. The only slight problem is that each maze is inhabited by various critters, and they all want that key, too...

Fortunately, you're armed, and with your constantly firing weapon, most creatures can be dispatched reasonably quickly and painlessly. Or rather, they can be if you've got a long corridor and some distance between you. Less fortunately, many of the mazes are quite cramped and twisty, and if you get jammed in you're liable to take some damage.

Hey, cool! I can explore AND get my five a day!

It's possible to repair your damaged health. Well, apparently it is, anyway. Shooting a critter leaves behind a mountain of fruit, which can be picked up... but only for points. To gain health, you must find a green potion. I've never found one yet! I've found a red one... that gives your shots extra power for a time, which is handy. But the green potion remains a mystery to me.

The game has many other subtleties and features, too. For instance, "grinding" along walls builds up a resistance to collisions, although this lasts for a very limited time. It's like a friction-powered shield. Too much of a good thing is bad for you, though, and if you grind too long you'll explode!

Another interesting gameplay feature is that bullets will wrap around corridors and you can damage yourself, but if you have the key, this will block bullets. Of course, those sneaky enemies might steal the key from you, and then you're in even more trouble.

Use keys to open doors. Mazes come in many shapes and sizes.

I hate to throw any negatives into the mix, but there are people out there that aren't keen on the game's swipe controls. Personally I think they're fine, although I've had a couple of moments where I haven't turned when I've wanted to. But it never results in insta-death, and I still think it's better than having a joystick on the screen, so you have to take as you find.

For such a simple game, it could take you a long time to figure out Forget-Me-Not's complexities. That's certainly been the case with me. But it hasn't been for the want of trying. If you'd walked into an arcade in the early Eighties, Forget-Me-Not could have stood proudly among cabinets such as PacMan, Amidar and Tutankham... games that are all brought to mind whilst playing. But that's not to say Forget-Me-Not is dated... it's a great addition to any iDevice. If you like the sound of it, it's available for the princely sum of £1.49.

Saturday, 7 January 2012

Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 5 - Hard Lines.

There are so many games released on the App Store these days that if you haven't got a big name or publisher behind you, it must be a bit of a nightmare to get noticed. It seems to take a fair amount of luck, or maybe being in the right place at the right time. Occasionally, though, just having an excellent game is enough.

Hard Lines is an excellent game. It's another very simple affair, at least on paper, although a number of variations give it masses of longevity. Hard Lines is a cross between the classic Snake game, and the light cycles from Tron. That might sound a bit dull, but this game has tons of personality...

Nice to see Al Pacino made his way in here...

You might wonder how a game featuring a few coloured lines can have any personality, but you just play it and you'll see. Every snakey-Tron-type-line-thing that comes on screen "says" something, and almost every line is either funny or geeky enough to get you grinning.

There are six game modes in Hard Lines. You get the classic Snake, where the more you eat, the bigger you get. That can go on a bit, so to stop you from getting bored, your snake tells jokes on the way around. It's quite bizarre, but I can no longer imagine playing a snake game without it.

I'm sorry to hear that. Soon, I'll make you dead.

There's a Survival mode, which is self-explanatory. DeadLine is a mode where you have three minutes to score as highly as you can. This mode forces you to be more aggressive in the pursuit of high scores. Time Attack puts fifteen seconds on the clock, and you have to pick up the dots to add time. Other snakes roam the arena though, trying to force you away. It's a really tough challenge, and a welcome addition.

The other modes are Gauntlet, where other snakes are constantly teeming onto the screen. There's not much room for manoeuvre here, and it's only a matter of time before you're boxed in and killed. The final mode is Pinata, where you must "Kill them all and NOM their entrails. KILL THEM!". Killing a snake leaves behind a trail of dots which should be eaten (picked up) for points. You need to be alert if you want to score highly... any killed snake leaves its bits behind, whether you've killed it or another snake did, so be ready to swoop in and pick them up.

No. You're not. Trust me.

Hard Lines could have failed in so many ways. It could have been dull, for starters, but it plainly isn't. It could have played horribly, especially on a touch screen, but the swipe controls work tremendously well. The six game modes are all enjoyable in their own right. Some modes last longer than others, so you can pick and choose depending on how much time you've got available.

It just goes to show that you don't always need an original concept. If you can take something that's been done to death and give it a twist or a real shot in the arm, then people will go for it. Hard Lines is the best Snake game there has ever been. It might even be the best six Snake games there have ever been. I bought it for 69p, but at the time of writing it's free. Free. Go and get it.

Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 6 - X-Baseball.

And now, from the sublime to the ridiculous. Or rather, from a wonder of modern technology (Bug Princess) to the height of simplicity. My number six iOS game of 2011 is X-Baseball.

Baseball. America's game. Nine men on each side, taking turns to try and belt a ball out of the stadium. Trying to outwit them is the pitcher, standing atop his mound with his array of different throws. It's a classic strategic battle.

That one might be sailing for the fences, but the pitcher's already winding up another...

X-Baseball distills the battle considerably, and instead makes arguably the most addictive time-killer I've played all year. It's unquestionably the simplest. Many's the time a game's controls have been whinged about as too complicated or unresponsive. I don't care how picky you are, you can't say that about X-Baseball. All you do is tap the screen to swing the bat.

It's not exactly a reaction test game... X-Baseball presents you with a side view of proceedings, where you, as the batter, must hit every ball that's pitched at you. It sounds simple, and really, it should be. But you'd be amazed at how easy it is to lose concentration and miss.

And that's a birdie. Oh, wait... wrong sport.

As you probably know, in baseball it's three strikes and you're out. X-Baseball is a little more generous than that. If your strike count reaches three, you are indeed out, and it's game over. Luckily, someone is on your side. Every so often, after you've had a strike, one of your fans in the crowd will throw you a bunch of bananas. If you manage to hit the bananas, a strike is wiped from your count.

X-Baseball is not a game where you score home runs, or in fact any kind of runs, actually. Instead, you score points for successful hits, with the value depending on your timing. That makes X-Baseball a very addictive high score game, too. And there are other ways to get points. Various things will fly overhead during the course of the game... birds at first, but don't be surprised to see men wearing jetpacks and even UFOs if you get far enough. Hitting any of these with the ball will net you bonus points. I love this, it reminds me of arcade games like Track and Field.

OK, this seems like a bit of a mis-match.

If you survive long enough, the starting pitcher will get worn out, at which point a replacement is brought in. Unfortunately, the replacement is a massive gorilla looking not unlike a purple Donkey Kong, and he puts some real oomph into his pitches. It ramps the difficulty up a fair bit, and if the game was quite frantic before, it's quite mad by this point.

For a baseball game stripped of so many of the game's characteristics, XLarge have really knocked it out of the park with X-Baseball. It can be maddeningly addictive (or frustratingly addictive, depending on how badly you do), and games don't last very long, so if you're hanging around waiting for a lift or something, this fills your time in perfectly. It's not the best game ever, but I've been thoroughly hooked since I downloaded it, and that's what's important with a game. X-Baseball is free, so there's no reason why this shouldn't occupy 2.4MB of your iThing's memory, whether you like baseball or not.

Thursday, 5 January 2012

Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 7 - Bug Princess.

I love a good shoot 'em up. Didn't I just say that? Oh well. One of the premier exponents of the shmup is Japanese company Cave, who have given us some of the craziest, most eye-wateringly difficult shooters of all-time. And yet, despite the difficulty levels, they remain fun and playable, which means that every new Cave release is awaited with some anticipation.

Recently, Cave have turned their attentions toward the iPhone. It sounds ridiculous, even attempting to shoehorn arcade machines featuring a million bullets per minute onto a screen the size of a large stamp, but that's what they've done. What's more, they've done it with aplomb.

Scream! It's The Beetles!

Bug Princess, which you might have expected to be called Mushihime-sama if you have any knowledge of Cave games, is their "latest" offering, although it's a conversion of an arcade game from 2004. Have any of you played it? I haven't, but I'd love to see a Cave arcade machine.

Arcade shoot 'em ups have moved on a bit from when I were a lad. Back in the day, you were more likely to die from being rammed by an enemy craft, and you'd have done very well to score 200,000 points. Now, especially with Cave games, you'll die after being hit by bullets. That's guaranteed. However, when you die, you will very probably have many millions of points. That's a trade-off against the difficulty... at least you're rewarded for your pain.

Hmmm. I normally like lobster.

There's a bit of a story, but all you need to know is that you fly up the screen shooting bugs, insects, arachnids, arthropods... all manner of creepy-crawlies. And they in turn will shoot you. I'm not kidding. They'll spew out so many purple projectiles that you won't see right for hours after you've finished playing.

Weaving a path through these is the main skill you'll need. The game shoots automatically on your behalf, leaving you to concentrate on squeezing through minute gaps. You'd think that might be a problem on a telephone, but it's a testament to Cave's designers that it's not just possible, but extremely do-able. In fact, I managed to 1CC the game on the Original mode... something I've never done on any other game like this.

Don't buy this game if you can't bear to look at insects. Or purple.

You might think that this game must be too easy, then, but the Original mode is just a prelude to the main game. Complete it, and you'll unlock Maniac mode, and then there's the Ultra mode to go for. These modes ramp things up considerably, being more difficult (obviously), but they also introduce new gameplay mechanics... chaining comes into play, giving you the chance to get much, much higher scores.

Bug Princess is an absolute joy to play. I find myself surprised to say that, but it's a true wonder of modern technology. Being able to successfully navigate streams of laser death using just your fingertip on such a small screen should be nigh-on impossible, but it's intuitive, straightforward and totally painless. If you have any lovefor arcade shoot 'em ups, you owe it to yourself to get this (if your iThing supports it)... with the varying difficulty levels, there's something for everyone.

Bug Princess is £2.99 at the time of writing.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 8 - Monsters Ate My Condo.

Monsters Ate My Condo is brought to us by Adult Swim games, and is copyright of The Cartoon Network. I am forty years old and not cool, so I don't know what Adult Swim is. But it must be alright if it can give us a game like Monsters Ate My Condo.

You're possibly wondering what the hell I'm talking about. Monsters Ate My Condo is actually a match-three game. But it's almost certainly the most mental match-three game you'll ever play.

I love match-three games. This is strange, because I'm generally almost allergic to puzzle games, which is how the match-three game is generally categorised. But, if done well and with a twist, I find them tremendously enjoyable. Among my favourite match-three games are Puzzle Quest and Zookeeper, both fantastic examples which stray from the path of the mundane and liven up the formula with their particular takes.

Waaa-haa-haaaa!!! Where's me money?

Monsters Ate My Condo is very unusual, in that you have to match three within just one column. Usually, a game will have its pieces laid out across a grid for you to do your tile/jewel/animal-swapping. This game gives you one big tower of condominiums to match.

It's as odd as it sounds. As the condos drop from the sky, monsters stand on either side, dancing, grinning and looking ridiculous. One of them looks a bit like Eugene Krabs. I like that one.

There are four monsters in total, and each is a different colour. Conveniently, the condos come in four different colours. And, get this, those four colours are the same colours as the monsters! You'd never have guessed that, would you?

If you have to feed a monster, feed him properly. Or give him Chewits.

Your goal is to make blocks of three or more condos of the same colour. Do that, and the set of matching coloured combos will disappear. Not only that, but if a monster of the same colour is on screen, it will step aside and be replaced by one of the other monsters.

This adds a bit of extra strategy to the game. To play the game, you have to swipe out condos that impede your progress. Swipe a condo block to its like-coloured monster, and you'll make it happy. Feed it a block of the wrong colour, though, and it'll get mad. Too many wrong colours and it'll attack your tower, making it imbalanced. And if the tower topples over, your game is over.

Matching three or more doesn't just get rid of those blocks, it will also re-stabilise your tower. So it's important to give yourself as many opportunities as possible. Having said that, it's possible to manually pull the blocks, Jenga-style, back into place without actually swiping them out. It's just a bit fiddly... you might as well swipe it into a monster's gaping maw.

Looks like things are going great, considering!

This all sounds terribly easy, but of course, obstacles pop up as you progress. Concrete blocks will fall into the tower, and these can't be matched with anything. They don't cause any harm, they're merely an obstruction... but you'll want them out of the way. Create a block of three or more on or around it to get rid of it.

Of more concern is the flaming condo. This one will explode when a timer runs down, so you'll have to move fast to erase this threat. Again, you need to match three or more on or around it, but be quick about it!

There's so much going on in Monsters Ate My Condo, I could write for ages. But that's a waste of playing time. You can level up, which means your tower grows higher. You can create bronze, silver, gold and diamond condos, which are worth more points and which power up the monsters for a time, activating their special abilities.

Or rather, they were. Oh well, time to start again...

Games can last a long time, so unlike previous entries in this list, it's not necessarily great for killing five minutes. You could always pause it, I suppose. If you like high scores though, this could be your game... get good enough, and you can score BIIIIILLLLIIIOOOOONS!

Monsters Ate My Condo is really good. It takes the match-three game in a different direction, and throws in a large amount of the silly. It's a combination that works tremendously well, and has had me addicted since I bought it. It could do the same for you, especially as the universal app is just 69p. If you've got any liking for matching three of anything, Monsters Ate My Condo should be right up your apartment block.

Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 9 - PicoPicoFighters.

If you've been reading my ramblings for any length of time, you'll know that I love a good arcade shooter. I cut my gaming teeth on Galaxian, and since then have always gravitated towards shooty games.

I probably wouldn't have heard of PicoPicoFighters if it hadn't been for Stuart Campbell's short-lived but superb Free App Hero. Then again, a trawl through a few of my friends' Game Center records would have seen me stumble upon it, but let's pretend we don't have such conveniences...

Peeow! Peeow! Die, blue alien things!

PicoPicoFighters looks almost exactly like an arcade game circa 1984. If that's not enough to get you interested, I don't know what is. It's about as simple as vertically-scrolling shoot 'em ups get. There's no storyline whatsoever, which is great... who wants some dopey backstory getting in the way of proceedings?

There are four stages in PicoPicoFighters - that's yer lot. You know what, though? It's plenty. It'll be some time before you've seen all four. In fact, it'll probably be some time before you've scored 10,000 points. Getting through them in one go will take some doing... thoughtfully, the developers have made them selectable (unlockable).

You're not the boss of me.

Controls-wise, this is not one of those games that's saddled with a fixed on-screen joystick and fire button. Instead, you draw your way around the screen. You have free reign to move wherever you wish, by dragging your finger wherever you need to go.

That's probably the best way to go here, but unfortunately, it's the game's one slight failing. Your ship is small, and it's quite easy for it to get lost underneath your finger, meaning that negotiating the hail of bullets and enemy craft can, at times, be more luck than judgement.

Alright, things could be about to get a bit hairy...

Still, it's a small flaw and to be honest, it's not something that has caused me too many problems in playing the game. It's a real rush when you make it through a particularly difficult section, even if there's not much time for respite. Levels are short, but bastard hard, which makes it great for killing off a few spare minutes. I love a good shoot 'em up, and PicoPicoFighters is one.

Oh... PicoPicoFighters is free!

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 10 - Groove Coaster.

I'm a bit of a sucker for music/rhythm games. Frequency, Amplitude, Guitar Hero, Rock Band, Rez, Child of Eden (yes, I count those last two)... all have provided me with hours of good times. So when I heard of one hitting the iPhone from the creator of the excellent Space Invaders Infinity Gene, I was sold.

If any of you played Space Invaders Infinity Gene (and I'm sure that plenty of you did), then you'll know that it took the basic idea of Spacies and twisted it into something barely recognisable but brilliant. Groove Coaster didn't have the advantage of a classic framework to build on... so exactly what kind of game would it be?

You know what? You're right. I am cool.

It turns out that Groove Coaster is exactly what the name implies. Your avatar rides along a crazy track, looping and swooping in time to the music. At key points on the track, you have to tap the screen in time with the tune. Every time you're successful, you build and add to a chain, with perfect timing giving you a higher score. Miss a beat, and the chain is broken. Bye-bye, high score and S-Ranking!

So, Groove Coaster is a very simple game. But there's a lot to it, in the form of unlockables. For starters, each level has to be unlocked in turn. That's not exactly a problem or a hardship, by the way... it's just a natural progression. However; you can only play a level on Easy difficulty on your first attempt... there are Normal and Hard difficulty levels to be unlocked for every track.

Space. Invaded.

Even completing a level doesn't mean you've done the best you can. Sneakily, the game has thrown in the ability to "ad-lib", an idea which has been pinched from Rock Band's "Freestyle" mode, unless I'm mistaken. To fully capitalise on this, you're going to need to have an understanding of the music, and of its beat. From this, you should be able to guess the points where extra notes could fit. Find them, and maximise your score. Guess wrong, and you could break your chain...

This adds an element of risk/reward to the game, although I'm not sure if I'm entirely comfortable with it. On the other hand, the game might be too easy without these... it's much harder to account for a player's timing issues when all the plyer has to do is tap the screen at the prompt (as opposed to "playing" the notes on plastic instruments).

Groove is in the heart.

As of the most recent update, the games has around twenty tunes, and with a minimum of three playthroughs of each one purely to complete every level, there's a good amount of game here. Even better, each level is short. That means that nothing outstays its welcome, and it's perfect for bite-sized, time-killer gaming. And the high-score element means you're always likely to want that elusive "one more go" that games developers are dying for you to need.

Groove Coaster is a lot more fun than it might have been. It has the odd frustration... occasionally, the shape of the coaster tricks you into thinking there's a beat when there isn't, and your chain is ruined. But even that can be overcome with experience. With high scores to be obtained for every level, avatars and skins to be unlocked and different difficulty levels to be beaten, this is a quality release. As of writing, Groove Coaster is 69p on iPhone/iPod Touch, and it's also 69p on the iPad. I think it's well worth that asking price.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Top 11 of '11 (iOS). Number 11 - Space Junk.

OK, I'll be honest... this one only sneaked in because I used the year as an excuse to make a bigger list. What can I say? It was really hard, cutting out over a dozen good candidates!

Space Junk only came to my attention fairly recently, but in that short time I've been quite hooked on it. And that's strange, because Space Junk is pretty much an Asteroids clone, and I don't like Asteroids...

Look! Space shuttles! Really!

My problem with Asteroids, I think, stems from the way all the controls are accessed via buttons. So rotating the ship is done with your left hand and everything else (firing, thrusting, hyperspace) with your right. For me, that was a bit like trying to pat my head whilst rubbing my belly. I was rubbish at it.

Space Junk is similar, but instead of a ship you control a jetpack-clad spaceman. I don't know why that feels better to me, but it does. Perhaps the control scheme, which features the tried, tested but not always working on-screen disc for movement, plus buttons, helps. It's very easy to spin your spaceman around quickly to deal with any dangerous space debris. Better than using left and right buttons, that's for sure.

I'm not surprised the ice caps are melting. That sun's blinding!

I always found Asteroids' rotation too slow. This method, for me, makes the game a lot more playable for instant arcade fun. When you die in Space Junk, it's much more likely that it was your own stupid fault, and not the limitations of the game or interface. That's important.

Another plus point is that you can choose the orientation of the screen. For me, it works better in landscape mode, but it feels a bit more Asteroids-like in portrait mode. A lot of games force you to play in one orientation... I appreciate having the choice.

For some reason, I feel a little taller...

Space Junk looks very nice too, like it could be a genuine vector graphics arcade machine. It's more colourful than the majority of those old vector machines, and I presume it's a simulation of vectors, but it's pin-sharp and a real retro treat for the eyes, although you could be forgiven for thinking otherwise from these pictures!

I've been very impressed with Space Junk... it scratches my arcade shoot 'em up itch quite nicely. There's a choice of game modes... eventually... you have to unlock the others, which is plenty of incentive to play the game even more. I'd certainly recommend this to anyone that frequented an arcade in the late seventies/early eighties. It's currently £1.49 from the App Store on the iPhone and iPod Touch and on the iPad, which is fifteen tens in arcade money. You should easily get your money's worth out of that.