Comments Off Now Playing… #2

So what’s on my mind lately? Too many things to post here, but here’s a rundown of another three games I’ve been playing recently and which have occupied me a bit. These are suggestions for people looking for retro with gusto, and also some fine arcade games.

Now playing…

Totally Tiny Arcade (PC), Flea Circus Games

Totally Tiny Arcade is a collection of old arcade games, renamed so that creators Joe Lesko and Marcus “Makke Nilson” Nilsson aren’t sued. Which totally falls in with the aesthetics and mindset of the time these games were made, when companies would churn out minor variations of arcade hits looking for your quarters. That introduction might seem like a disservice to Lesko and Nilsson, but it’s not. TTA has enough to please retrogamers looking for quick, crunchy gaming. Described as “WarioWare meets MAME, with a cheesy ’80s plot added in”, it’s more akin to Retro Game Challenge spliced in with Kid Chameleon. As Joystick Johnny, players navigate shady arcades looking for a quick thrill in recreations of classics like Frogger, Space Invaders, Pac-Man and Robotron, among several others, trying to outwit the Video Virus, which is corrupting arcade games.

Each room contains several arcade cabinets, from which you can sample a slice of retro goodness. As you approach a game, Johhny is sucked and digitized into its virtual world, becoming the main character of the game. The charmingly naïve premise is helped by the good pixel art and electroblips that make up each game, and choosing what game to play is actually a tactical affair. While you have infinite lives in each game, a timer determines how long the whole entire experience lasts and the number of levels you play is determined by the chronological order in which you choose them. So the first arcade game you play will only let you play one level, while the second will let you play two levels, and so on. Of course, subsequent levels also become trickier, so it comes down to juggling which game you’re more confident in and how quickly you can deal with the challenge.

After playing 12 games you come upon the Experimental Prototype cabinet, located in the back of the arcade and bathed in mysterious neon, where the Video Virus’ presence is much more noticeable. At this point you’re only given three lives to deal with four minigames, either based on the previous games you played or entirely new ones.

While each game’s design lends itself to quick play sessions, Totally Tiny Arcade is actually a meaty package. Completing the first round of arcade games unlocks a second mode, and beating the second one unlocks a third. After that, you’re looking at two additional modes, Mystery Mix and 1-Dollar Dash; the second mode in particular is where Lesko’s comparison to WarioWare makes more sense, considering the rythm and speed of the challenges on offer. The main arcade modes also have plenty of secrets and rewards to unlock and the added leaderboards (where you can create a personal score table) make it all the more attractive.

3D Space Tank (DSiWare), Q-Games

3D Space Tank is Spectre VR without the multiplayer. It’s Star Fox without the furries. It’s Cholo without assimilating other robots. It’s Tempest without Jeff Minter’s hallucinations. It’s Tron without the Jai Alai. It’s also a sequel to Japan exclusive X, the first three dimensional game for the Gameboy, and the first 3D game for a portable ever, released in 1992. More important than technical specs, however, is that it’s a game by Q-Games’ Dylan Cuthbert, responsible for the technology and some of the design behind Star Fox and Lylat Wars. And it shows.

Players control a VTOL called VIXIV as they fight to release a galaxy from the Kiisan Empire. In a time where the “new 3D” is all the rage, 3D Space Tank is built upon the “old 3D”, the kind that looked upon vectors and polygons as if they were coloring books, letting players paint the shapes with their imagination. The arcade aesthetic also lives on in the gameplay, which organically combines exploration, ground and air combat, along with sprinkles of customization. There are many things to enjoy here, but three stand out.

The first is found in the visual design. More than just a novelty, it’s constantly challenging players to adapt to its color palette, with a different three color scheme for each planet. What starts out as a chromatic irritation gradually gives each place a distinct feel: you’ll quickly come to identify a particular environment, threat or environmental hazard through the techniques being used (the garbled noise of a sandstorm, the bright radio interference of a solar flare, the error codes of a virus lodged in the ship).

The gameplay itself is surprisingly simple but well oiled, built upon a handful of rules that require acceptance and experimentation. At first VIXIV can only engage in flight by driving at full speed against special pyramids; later on you gain the ability to take off and land at any moment, as long as you have enough energy on your shields. The tactical implication is that VIXIV is faster on the ground but prone to damage from enemy aircrafts, while flying brings a certain supremacy over ground targets while requiring shield energy – which also serves as fuel to keep flying. Eventually enemy patterns require careful use of both functions, as they split into smaller versions of themselves upon being hit, divide into a tank and a jet to patrol the battleground on two fronts or hover in the sky while dropping turrets.

In the end, it’s the music that steals the show. It’s an electronic parade that contracts and expands without warning, giving each moment – whether fighting or contemplating the remains of civilizations long gone by hacking at data cores – a tangible presence. Three days after finishing the game the soundtrack was refusing to leave my ears, like a lost dog howling until dawn. It took Kazumi Totaka eighteen years to show us what he was trying to do with the Gameboy sound chip, and the wait was worth it.

Q-Games. I want the soundtrack. Now.

Neon Runner (Mobile), Pixalon Studios

I’ve been away from mobile gaming for several reasons, chief among them the stomach churning cost of iPhones. Still, after playing Mobigame’s Edge and realizing there was a lot more to the game than the controversy around it, I ventured in search of something else.

Neon Runner was the next in line, and it really is something else.

A cross between Snake and Tron, colored in 80s neon and synth soundtracks, Neon Runner’s objective is simply to guide a triangular craft around top-down mazes, collecting a given number of geometric shapes in order to open an exit portal. But simple games are not necessarily simplistic and Pixalon Studios understands this quite well. Neon Runner’s dormant complexity is found in color, or rather, color modes which affect your moves.

The basic color is blue, which affords a sedate but safe speed with which to navigate the mazes and crack open blue walls. Shortly after, you’re introduced to more colors like red and green. Red brings incredible speed and a way to burst open green walls, while green forces you through fixed access tunnels (by design or made by you) but is your color of choice when it comes to destroying enemies. Each level forces you to use a two color combo in order to proceed, and the shapes required to activate an exit portal – stars, cubes, triangles – can only be collected if you’re using their associated color.

Also, not only does the ship have a limited amount of health, each level is also a race against time.

Neon Runner’s main strength, other than the audiovisuals which keeps things clear and charming, is the pace at which levels require you to move and react to its challenges. When making turns, the screen freezes and rotates into the direction you pressed, also forcing you to quickly adapt to the revolving scenario. While the game is short on variation it reutilizes its core elements in smart ways, and once you think you’ve seen it all, it starts dropping more twisted mazes and power-ups at you.

Abstract beauty and timeless gameplay has always kept arcade gaming alive, and that’s definitely what Neon Runner manages to do.

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