Category Archives: Indie Game Spotlight

Explosionade – Indie Game Spotlight (Xbox 360)

Indie Game Spotlight

Explosionade is the latest from Mommy’s Best Games, the developers of Weapon of Choice and Shoot 1Up. That’s a pedigree that demands at least a download of the trial, and I’m happy to report it’s worth your buck as well.

Quick aside – I just have to say how much I love seeing the developers of great indie games sticking to XBLIG, hopefully gaining a following, and continuing to put out game after game. After sifting through one student project or zombie massage cash-in too many, I can look at the Mommy’s Best, Ska Studios, or radianGames logos and know I’m in for a treat.

Explosionade is a 2D shooter/platformer with combat reminiscent of Metal Slug and some clever platforming mechanics. You have a normal jump and some jet packs that’ll keep you hovering for a couple seconds. Additionally, you have a recharging shield that’s activated with a pull of the left trigger. Activating the shield in mid-air gives you some momentum, allowing you to bounce and float around.

Jumping, floating, and bouncing eventually become your main modes of transportation. The finesse and technique required to do this (while also conserving shields to actually block bullets) becomes the major joy of playing Explosionade. That, and you can have a second player join in for the game’s 40 stages.

The only real issue with Explosionade is how limited its environments are. I don’t mind repetitive art in a $1 game (especially when it’s this good), but the gameplay left me wanting a bit more room to move around. Every level is limited to a single room and it can get really cramped with two players.

Explosionade isn’t quite the ride that Mommy’s Best’s first game Weapon of Choice was, but it’s at least as good as Shoot 1Up. Like that game, it offers a quick and enjoyable experience for a mere dollar, backed by a level of polish and gameplay refinement that’s still extremely rare on Xbox Indies.

Download on the Xbox Live Marketplace

Beat Hazard – Indie Game Spotlight (Xbox 360)

Indie Game Spotlight

Beat Hazard is a fascinating game – if you can get it working. Before I start talking about the game itself, it’s important to address the simple-to-nightmarish process of getting it to recognize your music collection. Beat Hazard is a twin-stick shooter that syncs the action to your own music, requiring you to set up some kind of streaming solution between your computer and Xbox. I’ve known people who have literally never been able to get this working, and that’s not really the game’s fault, but it’s something to keep in mind before you get started.

The effort is worth it though, at least it was for me. Once I finally got everything synced up and found songs that didn’t lock up the game (a serious issue that is the game’s fault), I entered a kind of synaesthetic nirvana. The excitement of Beat Hazard is, as you can imagine, largely dependent on the kinds of songs you play. Dynamic music seems to work best – songs with a build-up of intensity into a climax tend to give the game a nice difficulty ramp, so my prog metal collection tended to play rather nicely with the game.

There’ll be some surprises too – I found Beyonce’s Single Ladies to be one of the hardest songs. You will too, as the algorithm that builds the action in Beat Hazard isn’t random, it’s smart. Yeah, the game has a few hiccups – occasionally it takes far too long to send the next wave of enemies your way – but it’s a fair trade-off for how well it typically syncs with each song.

The actual gameplay is good – solid at the very least – but mostly made thrilling by the music integration. The variety of enemies can get boring a bit too quickly because there isn’t a ton of interesting behavior. There’s nothing like those weaselly green enemies in Geometry Wars – everything more or less flies in a set pattern and tries to crash into you or shoot you.

Thankfully, Beat Hazard includes a couple elements that not only keep things interesting, but also more closely tie the music in with the gameplay. For one, collecting power-ups increases your ship’s strength, but more important it increases the volume of the music. If you die you drop your items and the volume drops to a muted, disappointing level. It encourages staying alive not through a high score or progress, but through aesthetic pleasure. The game is more fun when you’re doing well so you want to do well at any cost.

Additionally, as you increase the game’s difficulty, the effects of the music become more pronounced. This is where the game is most likely to lose some people – particularly those who don’t like the psychedelic light-show elements of games like Geometry Wars and Space Giraffe. The game becomes an exercise in visual processing, and the fun of it is the feeling of zen you get when you’re able to see through the rainbow of nonsense.

Once I found the right music and started falling into that aforementioned zen state, I also fell in love with Beat Hazard. It can be a bit of a pain, it doesn’t always work, and it doesn’t hold a candle to Geometry Wars, but it still manages to be brilliant. There are moments in games where everything comes together – visuals, sound, and gameplay in a perfect harmony that gives you chills. These are normally rare moments, but they come so frequently while playing Beat Hazard that I can’t help giving it my utmost recommendation.

Download on the Xbox Live Marketplace

Apple Jack – Indie Game Spotlight (Xbox 360)

Indie Game Spotlight

There are a lot of simple 2D platformers on Xbox Live Indies. Some of them attempt to be artsy, some toss in unique puzzle elements, and some just try to be hard as hell. But the common denominator amongst almost all of them is how amateur they feel – the jumping physics are off, the graphics are flat, and the level design is sloppy.

I get whiffs of these problems playing Apple Jack, but the game is often too fun, challenging, and charming for me to care. Yeah, the jumping feels a bit off (it’s certainly not Mario) and the art has that flat, amateurish style that’s so common in the indie space, but it’s also a huge game with clever puzzles, awesome music, and quirky British sensibilities.

Apple Jack is presumably a fine English chap with an apple for a head. He explores strange worlds named after counties in England, running, jumping, and grabbing enemies from atop their heads a la Mario 2. Most enemies are color-coded, and the goal is to match same-colored enemies, tossing them at each other to finish them off.

The game will have you tossing washing machines at pigs in skirts and dodging owls that shoot laser beams, chaining your attacks for a coin bonus. The one really cool effect in the game is when you get a really high combo and hundreds of coins shoot out and fill the entire screen. Going for a high score almost feels like trying to break the game, but it never happens.

Apple Jack’s one hundred levels are sure to keep you busy for a while too. Some of them are really tough, coming from the N+ or ‘Splosion Man school of level design. If you liked those games, you’ll probably enjoy this.

Even at its toughest, Apple Jack is a joy to play thanks to a beautiful acoustic guitar soundtrack. There’s some surprisingly heartfelt compositions, and yet they mesh well with the quirky visuals. The challenge can be a bit uneven in spots (a level in the first world has one of the hardest puzzles in the game), but it’s hard to get mad at a game that’s so goddamn quaint.

For a dollar, Apple Jack is probably the best deal on XBLIG. The amount of quality content here could easily qualify it for the $3 or $5 bracket. Hell, with a bit more polish, this could have been a great Xbox Live Arcade game. Absolutely check it out.

Download on the Xbox Live Marketplace

Exelinya Burst – Indie Game Spotlight (Xbox 360)

Indie Game Spotlight

Exelinya Burst is but one in a long series of Xbox Live Indie games out of DK Alpla, a Japanese developer that has made one strangely compelling indie game after another. Each one typically centers around a simple, but engaging concept, repeated over and over through the course of 50-100 levels. They’re well-made, fun, but ultimately nothing ground-breaking. Exelinya Burst isn’t exactly ground-breaking either, but it’s unique in its ability to be nearly indescribable.

Throughout my time with the game I found myself searching desperately for a purpose, a goal, or winning condition. I think I found it, as I did manage to improve and make it to level 45 – an improvement of maybe a few seconds over my previous high point of level 37. Yes, you can complete several levels over the course of seconds. My pro-tip: jam the A-button maniacally until the entire screen blows up.

You control a little anime witch-girl armed with a grappling hook. The play area suddenly begins to fill with turnips and beets, which explode on impact when grabbed and tossed. Eventually a boss shows up – a giant plate of Tiramisu which must be dispatched quickly in order to gain a bit of extra time. Make it that far (not a difficult task), and more beets and turnips appear, followed by another plate of Tiramisu. This escalation of vegetables and desserts moves exponentially until the entire screen is exploding in a fireworks display of high-yield explosive foodstuffs.

I’m not entirely sure what compelled me to share this game with you, other than the fact that I played it. It is a game that exists for some reason, and my previous descriptions haven’t necessarily made a case for it. Either way, I had a fun enough time losing my mind for an hour that it justified the single dollar I paid.

Download on the Xbox Live Marketplace

Crossfire – Indie Game Spotlight (Xbox 360)

Indie Game Spotlight

Space Invaders isn’t exactly a new concept, especially with two re-imaginings (Space Invaders Extreme and Space Invaders Infinity Gene) released in the last two years. A copycat should surely crowd the market, but Crossfire’s take on the formula is a fresh twist that gives even the official versions a run for their money.

The hook of Crossfire is your ship’s ability to jump between the bottom and top of the screen. The move allows you to dodge fire, collect power-ups, and get behind enemies. The effect is disorienting at first, and with enemies that aren’t afraid to shoot back, the challenge becomes visualizing all the madness.

The actual shooting is reminiscent of more modern 2D space shooters. Armed with a bullet-hose, you’ll have to dodge and weave between some devious bullet patterns. It can get pretty hectic, but with the ability to leap from floor to ceiling many dangers can be avoided by playing intelligently.

The game offers a steady difficulty ramp while still providing enough challenge for dedicated players. It does a great job of introducing each new enemy and then slowly working in combinations. The final level’s enemy pattern is a nearly impenetrable wall of death.

The game provides you with three lives to start, but you can continue at the beginning of a level as many times as you want. Crossfire’s 50 levels can be completed in 20-30 minutes or so, and even less with a second player helping. Even so, a few extra modes spice things up, and ultimately these kinds of games are about perfecting a run and getting a high score.

Crossfire’s level progression, controls, enemy patterns, and overall feel are expertly crafted for high score runs. You’ll always have that sense of improvement, eventually breezing through early levels and catching onto patterns in the trickier ones. It’s for that reason that the game’s biggest flaw is such a detriment to the experience – Crossfire has absolutely no online leaderboards.

If you can get past that, it’s a surprisingly polished indie game that shouldn’t be missed.

Download on the Xbox 360 Marketplace

Arkedo Series – 02 SWAP! – Indie Game Spotlight (Xbox 360)

>>Indie Game Spotlight

Tetris Attack/Puzzle League fans take note – Arkedo’s latest Xbox 360 Indie title, SWAP!, is a polished variation on that classic puzzler. If you can craft wicked chain reactions, SWAP! is going to be an interesting change of pace.

The twist, if you can really call it that, is to give the player more freedom compared to Tetris Attack. Not only can you move blocks side to side, but up and down as well. The only real setback is that you must match 4 or more blocks instead of 3 or more.

The added range of movement opens up a lot of possibilities. Being able to swap any block to any part of the screen makes matching relatively trivial. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the game is easy. Its five levels quickly increase in difficulty, eventually reaching a speed that makes the freedom a crutch. You’ll have to learn to move efficiently, swapping blocks fast and thinking ten steps ahead.

Much like Arkedo’s previous title, JUMP!, SWAP! is novel for its expert level of polish. Of course, as a studio responsible for published DS titles, it only makes sense that their Indie games achieve higher production values. But beyond that and the core gameplay, SWAP’s features are lacking: No multiplayer, a brief adventure mode, and few bells and whistles amount to an anemic package.

That may sound like a condemnation of the game, but it’s a good $3 take on an established, fantastic game, but with adorable visuals and a more casual control scheme. And for those who’ve mastered Tetris Attack, SWAP! should feel like sweet revenge for all those lost hours.

Download on the Xbox 360 Marketplace

Veks and Silence – Indie Game Spotlight (Xbox 360)

>>Indie Game Spotlight

Veks and Silence takes players on a ride back to the 1990s – a time when video game maturity meant being one step above a teenager’s sketchbook. Veks may play like Metal Slug, but it’s more reminiscent of Robocop vs. Terminator or Loaded.

Veks, the character, is a bag-headed grunt with a wife-beater, a beer gut, and an arsenal of weapons. His world is a mess of slummy streets, an endless highway car accident, a junkyard, and a zombie-infested graveyard. He fights giant farting monstrosities and robots that fire rolling mines out of their metallic ass holes.

The game is low-brow, but intentionally so – Veks is introduced as an escaped convict charged with video game violence. The cutscenes are smartly used to mask some of the loading times, and their sloppy, hand-drawn style only reinforces an overwhelming air of immaturity.

The visuals are particularly impressive for how grungy and ugly they are. Normally this would be a fault, but here it’s an artistic decision. The game’s palette is garish, its textures are grimy, and the visual noise of the complete picture evokes a diarrhea portrait of mud and blood. It uses today’s horsepower to evoke the grittiness of early 3D graphics. The Playstation era was built upon a mountain of muddy, melting textures that look awful now, but certainly had a way of capturing a mood. Veks and Silence evokes that same feeling, but through style rather than a lack of horsepower.

Then there’s the combat, which is half straightforward, left-to-right run ‘n gunning and half insanely-difficult action-platforming. Imagine stretches of the aforementioned Metal Slug mixed with any number of 16-bit action games like Vectorman, Robocop vs. Terminator, and Earthworm Jim.

The mix presents some uneven difficulty. Some levels involve little more than walking left to right, shooting, and looking at all the pretty scenery. Others require pixel-perfect platforming among scores of enemies or tough-as-nails boss fights. The challenge is welcome as a reminder of a bygone era, but without any consistency it can be rather frustrating.

Those tougher levels could be a deal breaker for some players, but the charm of Veks and Silence is sure to pull most players through to its conclusion. It’s the kind of nostalgia trip that’ll leave you hunting for the 360’s cartridge slot, and yet it’s still got a soul of its own – ugly as it may be.

Download from Xbox Live Marketplace