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Under the Radar - Indie Games

by Tim McDonald on March 16, 2008 @ 7:16 a.m. PDT

In the past weeks, we've delved into some of the games you haven't played (but really should), taking in some of the best of the unknown horror and comedy games. With those two extremes out of the way, this time, we're going to focus on independent games, which are PC-only, with one pseudo-exception. For those of you who didn't read the previous articles, these are games that you've probably not played, but you really should.

In the past weeks, we've delved into some of the games you haven't played (but really should), taking in some of the best of the unknown horror and comedy games. With those two extremes out of the way, this time, we're going to focus on independent games, which are PC-only, with one pseudo-exception.

As ever, the guidelines for inclusion in the list are the same. Those that are listed here are in no particular order, but are games we feel to be particularly special in some way, and are more unknown than most games. If I haven't railed at five people, at the very least, that they simply must play a game, and they've subsequently ignored me, then a game is probably not going to be in here. My taste in friends notwithstanding, on with the show.

I Wanna Be The GuyPC, freeware

Do you remember the days of games that were brutally unfair? Games that would kill you stone dead if your sprite came within a few pixels of an enemy; games that gave you three lives and then kicked you right back to the start, no matter how unremittingly hard they were? I Wanna Be The Guy is a love letter to you. It's also a love letter to Nintendo, disguised as a platform game taking its cues from a lot of old Nintendo games. Expect levels based around Castlevania and Metroid, bosses culled from NES games, random appearances by Ryu from Street Fighter, and more spikes per screen than your average bed of nails. Now, at this early stage, allow me to point out that I Wanna Be The Guy is potentially the single hardest game I've ever played (and yes, I've played most of the other usual candidates). You will walk onto a new screen and immediately deem it impossible to pass. You will be killed by things that you thought were scenery, and you will be killed by things that are impossible to anticipate. Throughout all of this, it remains fun.

This may come as a shock; normally if a game is incredibly unfair — not hard, but unfair, and that's a careful distinction — we journalists tend to slate it. Ninja Gaiden and God Hand both had punishing levels of difficulty, but when you died, it was your own damn fault. You didn't move fast enough, you should've been blocking, or you shouldn't have taken that silly jump. I Wanna Be The Guy is ridiculously unfair, but creator Kayin has hit upon a clever solution: If you're laughing at whatever just killed you, you're not going to be angry. I assure you, the first time the moon kills you, you will laugh — hard. Honestly, I could write this entire article pointing out all the fantastically random and hilarious things that kill you, but that would completely ruin the experience.

It's still frequently frustrating. The funny/unexpected deaths are common, but as pretty much everything else on the screen is also capable of killing you and screens will take a fair amount of time to pass, they seem farther apart than they are. The unexpected deaths are, quite sadistically, frequently placed directly after a long and incredibly hard section that will take many, many tries, but you won't mind because you'll be laughing, and because you know that you can do it again. That latter part is key, too, as once you start on a seemingly impossible screen, you learn the tricks and can begin to form a plan. Once you know you can do the first bit, and die on the second, you'll keep going.

The save system helps a little, too, with save points placed every couple of screens. The difficulty level you choose at the start actually determines the amount of save points around, ranging from having extra ones, which roughly equates to one per screen, to having none at all throughout the entire game, which is for the frankly insane. The save points themselves aren't always saviors, however, as activating one at an inappropriate time has caused me to save in an impossible place at least once. Considering the game makes it clear from the very first screen that it hates you, personally, you can't really blame it for this.

I Wanna Be The Guy is brutal, sadistic, frustrating and unfair in oh-so-many ways, but it's extremely well-made (in terms of the holy trinity of coding, graphics and sound), it's got a fantastic sense of humor, and it's one of the only games of late that's actually made me stay up until the early hours with just-one-more-go syndrome. Despite everything, I love it to death, and considering it's free, it's definitely worth your time.

DefconPC

Does Introversion still count as "independent?" I suppose so. Despite widespread love, they fit the rest of the bill. Anyway, it's this roundup's obligatory Game That More People Will Know!

After the acclaimed marvels of Uplink and the slightly less acclaimed (but no less good) marvels of Darwinia, Introversion went in a bit more of a multiplayer direction. Defcon has a single-player component, certainly, but it's far from the focus. Do you remember WarGames, dear reader? The Matthew Broderick thermonuclear-war-is-bad hacking film? Right. Well, Defcon assumes that thermonuclear war is in fact occurring, and plays out said war in real-time, between countries. As leader of one of those countries, it's up to you to place your missile silos, radars, nuclear submarines and the like, in order to minimize your casualties and rain down fiery death onto your foes.

What it comes out as is a surprisingly in-depth strategy game. The different continents frequently require different strategies; Africa is really, really big, with a lot of the populace concentrated in a few areas, but it's also bordered by a large chunk of sea, so ignoring your borders may mean that sneaky foes will move their submarines up there. North America is a bit smaller and suffers somewhat from having a war on three fronts; not only is South America directly below, but their defenses have to be split between the East and West coasts.

Where Defcon really shines is in the sheer level of backstabbery and bastardry allowed. In most game modes, alliances can be forged and discarded at a moment's notice. Allying with your closest neighbor might give you a temporary advantage, but when you notice that his score is creeping up on yours, it's all too tempting to sneak some subs around next to population centers on their seaboard and launch a surprise attack, which will naturally result in retaliation. Everyone else playing will, if they're at all sensible, capitalize on this. A rash decision can result in your losing the game by a long margin.

It's very, very clever, very deep, and astonishingly pretty considering the graphics based around said '80s film, although some continents do seem rather harder to play than others, and there are occasional questions of balance. Special mention has to be made of the atmosphere, though, which is absolutely haunting. Death tolls flash up, in the millions, as text on the screen, and this is far more horrifying in its simplicity than any animation could be — all the more so because of the momentary glee when you notice it's propelled you into the lead, and the subsequent guilt. The soundtrack only exacerbates things, with some very low-key ambient music supplemented by effects like crying children. Spooky.

Above all, Defcon is an extremely fun strategy game which, while easy to learn, is difficult to master, and it's moddable with custom maps, amongst other things. As such, it's highly recommended for all strategy buffs that haven't already picked it up. Or anyone interested in nuking Paris.

AudiosurfPC

A very late addition to the lineup for this round-up, Audiosurf (reviewed recently, and accurately — go buy it now — by our own NekoIncardine here) is newly available on that wonderful Steam service. Audiosurf fuses together elements of racing, puzzle and rhythm-action games into a marvelous little product that, while not something you can play for long periods of time, will keep you coming back again and again.

Enough with the marketing blurb, though. What Audiosurf really is, is a very, very clever visualizer with a game built in. Drawing its levels from any audio file or CD of your choice, it creates something that's going to make me sound incredibly pretentious: a psychedelic soundscape (less pretentious: lots of pretty colors that move and change in time to the music). The levels themselves resemble rollercoasters, with the course moving downhill sharply at fast bits (and occasionally turning or throwing in loops for really insane parts), while moving uphill slowly for the more sedate sections of songs. The ground thumps up and down along with the beat, and all the while, you're controlling a vehicle across three lanes, either picking up or avoiding blocks, which are all placed according to beats in the song.

Why you're picking up or avoiding these blocks depends entirely on the vehicle you've chosen. Underneath your vehicle is a grid; when three or more blocks of a certain color are touching in this grid, they disappear, and you get points. Hit another set of blocks while they're disappearing, and the time until they disappear resets. Naturally, the more blocks disappearing at once, the better, so it's in your interest to keep the appropriate blocks flowing in. Different modes set it up in different ways; some let you shunt blocks either to the left or the right (normally, they'll fall into the grid only in the lane in which you pick them up), while another lets you immediately remove all blocks of a certain color, if you so desire, which naturally gives you potential access to much, much larger combos.

A personal favorite is Ninja mode, where you have only two types of blocks, which I will misleadingly name Good and Bad. One type — the Good, obviously — is colored, and disappears when three are touching, as normal. The Bad type is gray and does not disappear until a certain amount of time has passed. The natural reaction is to try and avoid the gray blocks and simply rack up as many points with Good as you can (which is a fair goal, as there are some whopping points bonuses for things like not hitting any gray blocks), but when you factor in some additional abilities, like destroying all gray blocks you've picked up, you once again start thinking of those juicy combos. Why are these points so important? Because of the online leaderboards for each song, going according to the ID3 tags, naturally.

In a first, not only can I not actually criticize the level design — because it's based off my musical taste — but if it were conscious, the game could actually criticize the music to which I'm forcing it to play along. It's a genuinely worrying thought, but not one that should put you off this. It's staggeringly pretty, and the visualizer (and the way said visualizer creates levels that actually mesh perfectly with the song) is so far ahead of most music visualizers that the level of technical wizardry astounds me. There's a four-level demo available on Steam, letting you pick any four tracks you like, and, hell, the game gives you the Orange Box soundtrack, which is pretty much worth the price of admission by itself. It's certainly worth a shot, and it's perfect for days when you need to relax and days when you need something hyper. The levels are only as intense as your music, after all.

AquariaPC

As the name implies, thalassophobes need not apply (laypeople: that means people with a fear of the sea). Aquaria, a little bit of beautiful genius in gaming form, is set down in the murky waters and features any number of multi-tentacled ocean beasties.

Being gamers, you must have played either the Metroid series, the more RPG-ish entries in the Castlevania series, or at the very least know what sort of genre to which the term "Metroidvania" refers. Aquaria follows in this vein by featuring a fairly open world, a lot of blocked-off paths, and a lot of abilities that must be gained to unblock them. First things first, though: For an indie game, the production values are astonishing. The graphics are all sprite-based, true, but I at least still think that the late days of beautifully hand-painted backgrounds and sprites (King's Quest VI, for instance) looked — and oftentimes look — much nicer than the modern polygon worlds. The backgrounds featured here are beautiful. The sprites are gorgeous. The music fits the underwater theme fantastically, and the voice acting — professional developers, if a game made by two people can find perfect voice talent for their product, why can't you?

With the shockingly good visuals and audio out of the way, we come to the gameplay, and this is almost equally impressive. It has faults, certainly, but all in all, it's thoroughly enjoyable and extremely evocative of the best that the adventure-like Castlevania games ever had to offer, with multiple forms, strange abilities, decent puzzles, interesting combat, a full-fledged and extremely well-design crafting system, and even decent controls, catering not only for those with a 360 gamepad to plug in but also a simple mouse layout. The game taking place underwater, you have full 360-degree movement, and both of these control systems work well. The 360 gamepad works "traditionally," making full use of the buttons and thumbsticks, while the mouse simply asks you to click in the direction you want to swim, or use the right mouse button to activate whatever powers you have in your present form.

Fault-wise, the difficulty can be a bit uneven, but this isn't a major bugbear, as there aren't really any truly horrendous stopping points. The bigger fault is something that really isn't a fault: The areas are massive, and the minimap isn't as helpful as it could be when you're trying to remember where you've been and what you're going to need to do in order to progress. For anyone who loves exploring, this isn't much of a negative, and once you've got your bearings, you should be able to take a good guess at what you have to do next.

For those seeking comparisons, it's rather reminiscent of Ecco the Dolphin, only far, far superior. It might seem a bit pricey at $30, but the demo gives a decent taste of what to expect.

NPC, Xbox 360

Finally, we come to N, a freeware PC game that recently got an updated release on the 360's Live Arcade brand as N+. N, by virtue of its name one of the most impossible games to search for on Google (you can find it here, by the way), is a game with a familiar tale: You are a ninja. As everyone knows, ninjas, presumably through careful crossbreeding with the mayfly, only have a life span of 90 seconds, but this can fortuitously be counteracted somewhat through the acquisition of gold. As such, your objective as said Mayfly ninja is to get through a series of viciously trapped single-screen levels, acquiring as much gold as possible to extend your time limit, and always striving for the exit.

N is almost as evil as I Wanna Be The Guy in places. Inertia is king in this game; making a flying leap across a ravine won't do you much good if the other end of the ravine only has a tiny ledge to land on, because unless you've timed it just right, you'll simply skid off the end. While you have a number of abilities to rely on — clinging to walls and wall-jumping being the major two — you do not have titanium legs, and a fall from a great height will snap you in two. Throw in a lot of robots, ranging from drones that move in a set pattern all the way up to roving machine-gun emplacements, and the aforementioned levels suddenly become a lot more varied.

In fact, the levels in N vary a great deal in style, if not in appearance. Some are multiple-pathed mazes, challenging you to take the most effective route to open and reach the level exit. Others are great acrobatic feats, bouncing between blocks and walls in a frequently vain effort to evade homing missiles, mines and crosshairs that spell doom in the form of a ridiculously fast gunshot from a stationary gun turret. The most infuriating are the more puzzle-based levels, where a lot of foresight is required in order to work out where any given enemy will be at any given time, and knowing precisely where and when to move to make your escape. The odd level taunts you by placing an open exit right next to you, but hiding away a ridiculous amount of gold in what is quite obviously a deathtrap. These in particular are greatly entertaining; there's no frustration involved because you can finish the level at any time you like, and the thought of the sheer skill you can display if you can just get to the gold and return to the exit propels you to try again and again.

Sound design is minimal with no music and only basic sound effects, and there's little in the way of enemy animation, but the ninja himself is a beautifully animated ragdoll. Should you come into contact with, say, a bullet, he will — propelled by inertia — spiral into the air until he comes into contact with a wall or another enemy. This frequently sets off a hilarious pinball death sequence, with the hapless corpse being bounced from one robot to another by great gouts of electricity. Morbid though it sounds, the basic graphics and cartoony style prevent it from being anything but hysterical.

Best of all, there's a gigantic user community devoted to constructing a huge amount of levels. All in all, N isn't as defiantly cruel as I Wanna Be The Guy, as getting stuck on one five-level episode means you can simply try another from the tree of 100 (with 10 unfinished episodes unlocked at any given time), play some user-created levels, or make your own. If you particularly love the puzzle levels, then go create! Just don't send them to me.

That's it for this roundup, so until next time: Get playing the above. They're cheap and excellent.

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