Critics and pundits have recently been laying into Microsoft's lack of first party developer talent... but frequently forget that the Xbox 360 has a massive stable of independent developers built right into the dashboard. Whilst it's sadly innundated with a thick slurry of rushed and weak content, the Xbox Live Indie Games channel (XBLIG to its mates) contains plenty of masterful titles that deserve their day in the sun. To that end, we'd like to kick off our fortnightly look at the best, brightest and occasionally worst that the service has to offer. Let's do this thing!
Urban Space Squirrels
Developer: DTA Entertainment
Cute rodents and big explosions are a fairly common videogame combination, but DTA entertainment have taken the concept further with Urban Space Squirrels. Silly name aside, USS is a puzzle-platformer that lets us guide a bomb-hurling squirrel through a number of hazardous urban environments. The minimalist silhouette art design is easy on the eye and the platforming is competently executed... but let's get to the main event. The explosives.
Pulling the left trigger launches a bomb that can be stopped at any point in midair or bounced around the scenery with sick trick shots. Detonated with the right trigger, these explosives used to activate switches, destroy obstacles or gain extra height while jumping. The early stages ease you into simple challenges (such as clearing high platforms by carefully positioning and detonating a bomb mid-leap), but you'll soon need to use some serious brainpower as well as serious firepower to circumvent the increasingly complex later levels.
Urban Space Squirrels is addictive, charming, cerebral and stylish; and at 80 Microsoft Points, it's an absolute steal. Highly recommended.
Developer: My Owl Software
A plague of Pandas, washing machines and ghosts have overrun the home counties. Or something. Either way: it's up to our titular hero to jump on their heads, pick them up and hurl them at similarly-coloured enemies to destroy them.
It all sounds a bit simplistic, but Apple Jack soon ups the ante by providing some genuinely perplexing puzzles and platforming challenges. Add some slick graphics, a serene acoustic guitar soundtrack, loads of levels and anarchic British comedy- and you've got yourself a true Indie Gem. In fact, I'd go as far to say that it's practically bargain bin Braid.
Apple Jack has been receiving a fair bit of publicity (thanks, in part, to the hateful Independent Charles Show on Xbox Live)... but if it's slipped under your radar, consider this your wakeup call. Download the demo and drop the points! Quite frankly, it's a budget masterpiece.
Developer: ZXB Games
At first glance, Blood Tempest is staggeringly well-featured for its 80 MSP price bracket. You control a pimped-out speedboat in full 3D combat against fleets of enemy vessels; with an array of upgradeable weapons, mines and swivelling turret at your disposal. The bumpers roll your ship under the water, providing a nifty way of bugging out from hairy engagements and incoming missiles. To put the cherry on the cake, a single touch of the Back button takes you to the Armoury, where every aspect of your ship can be upgraded. Nipping in and out of combat and engaging guge targets is an absolute delight, and the graphics are surprisingly impressive considering that it costs less than a quid.
These fantastic mechanics could've been leveraged into a strong singleplayer campaign, but unfortunately this is where Blood Tempest cops out. You see, the game mechanics have been lifted from ZXB's own (and excellent) Modern Pirate Hunter... and there's only a single skirmish mode on offer that soon becomes ludicrously difficult after a few levels- even with a fully specced ride. There are only 3 cosmetically different backgrounds to choose from (including an admittedly awesome space backdrop), providing a bare minimum of content that fluctuates between grippingly addictive and aggravatingly punishing.
But hell, 80MSP is still good value for what Blood Tempest has to offer. Considering the graphics and game mechanics, it's well worth getting your feet wet.
That Seagull Stole My Chips
Ever wanted to play a lightgun game without a lightgun? I can't see why you would... but now you can, courtesy of That Seagull Stole My Chips. Imagine Duck Hunt without the peripheral and charm and you've pretty much got the picture. Reticle control is sluggish, feedback is minimal and the graphics are vaguely reminiscent of Microsoft Paint.
I hate to rag on Indie Games. I really do. But unfortunately, lazy throwaway titles like this are keeping XBLIG out of the big leagues. Considering that a huge number of hardworking bedroom devs are busting a gut to code great indie experiences, it's insulting that they frequently get tarred by the same brush as games like this. Cease and desist, please.
Developer: Rendercode Games
"Oh great, another cheap and nasty avatar title." No sooner had these words escaped my lips, I started to realise that Avatar Racedrome was actually quite a capable little title in its own right. You'll rag a colourful cart around a selection of twisty tracks- either against bots or with up to four of your mates. Whilst the singleplayer is fairly dull, Avatar Racedrome holds up very well with a few friends and several beers. The collision detection is a little wonky and the graphics are rather uninspiring- but it works.
Avatar Racedrome is a functional kart racer that's surprisingly good fun in local multiplayer. You'll quickly tire (no pun intended) of the bland tracks, dodgy collisions and single drivable vehicle after extended sessions- but it's perfect for those problematic "what are we going to play while we're waiting to go to the pub" moments... and priced appropriately.