I truly believe that the Indie scene is the last remaining bastion of creativity in the games industry. Microsoft’s willingness to welcome bedroom developers onto the Xbox 360 dashboard provides one of the last unique selling points that the console has to offer… but there’s a catch. A vast selection of excellent games can be found on the Xbox Live Indie marketplace, but they’re usually difficult to find beneath a putrid heap of rushed, lazy and insultingly broken content. To this end, I’ll be diving headfirst into said heap every Wednesday in order to select three outstanding Indie titles that deserve your time and money.
Oh, and we’ll be picking a winner. There’s nothing wrong with a little friendly competition…
PLATFORMANCE: Castle Pain
Developer: Magiko Gaming
Back in the day, 8-16 bit platformers used to be all the rage. Punishingly difficult yet immensely addictive, these games pushed us to our limits while dragging us back for more... and I'm delighted to say that this week's outstanding game will remind retro fans exactly why we fell in love with the medium in the first place. Sit back, relax, and watch out-because I'm about to get a little pretentious.
PLATFORMANCE: Castle Pain resembles a beautiful piece of digital pixel art... and in many ways, that's exactly what it is. It distils the very essence of classic platformers into a single level housed within a lavish frame. The premise is beguilingly simple: as a knight tasked with rescuing the imprisoned princess, you'll have to make your way through the eponymous castle in order to be united with the hapless blueblood. However, a huge number of platforming challenges stand in your way: from massive drilling machines, bloodthirsty octopi and some dangerously incontinent bluebirds.
The framed level first appears to be a linear set of disjointed obstacles, but a quick tap of the X button zooms out the perspective so that you can see the entire map at a glance. You'll need to toggle between the view modes to work out how some of the puzzles interlink (since the game resembles a finely tuned clockwork mechanism once you get the hang of it). Castle Pain doesn't do anything new, but it succeeds by feeling absolutely spot on. The selection of traps, puzzles and obstacles will remind you of your favourite parts of your favourite games of yesteryear- and the 8 bit graphics and catchy music bolster the authentic atmosphere. I'd strongly recommend using the D-Pad rather than analog stick for this one; partly for the sense of retro authenticity, but mainly because it makes several of the jumps a lot easier to pull off.
Saying that Castle Pain is hard is a both an understatement and a complete fallacy. It's hardcore, not difficult. The gameplay harks back to an age where developers didn't hold our hands and coddle us at every opportunity- rather, it challenges us to excel and overcome our shortcomings without feeling cheap in the process. Frequent checkpoints allow us to die as many times as we want (and believe me, it'll kick your ass something fierce)... but a randomly-roving pixelated ghost will instantly end the game on contact (requiring you to continually check on its position by changing the zoom mode). Multiple difficulty levels increases both the amount and severity of the challenges- and medals dare us to try harder skill levels and strive for fewer deaths.
PLATFORMANCE: Castle Pain hits the perfect sweet spot between punishing difficulty and immense satisfaction at beating each obstacle. There may only be one level, but you'll be surprised at how much they've managed to pack into it. Essentially, it's an archetypal platformer that'll make you dig out your NES all over again!
Developer: Executive Iguana Studios
Match 3 mechanics always tend to make for a fun and accessible game- and Runic 3D sets out to deliver a Nordic twist on the concept. Rotating a 3 dimensional game board, you'll shoot out coloured runes that stop on contact with other pieces. Matching a group of three runes next to an immovable God Rune removes it from the board, and the objective is to destroy them all within a tight time limit. It's a simple concept, but soon gets taken to extremes with complex board design in the later levels. A large campaign mode, solid graphics, slick presentation and avatar support rounds out the package.
It was another close battle for first place this week, but unfortunately Runic lost the edge due to its dry presentation. Norse gods and mythology make for an epic canvas for a vibrant game, but there's little variation and a slightly drab (if high-res) backdrop. The Gods themselves are squandered- and a little more character would have pushed it into pole position.
Runic 3D is a solid and entertaining puzzler that more than justifies its meagre 80MSP price tag. Whilst it doesn't quite take us to Valhalla, it does provide a meaty and satisfying experience that's perfect for short play sessions.
Developer: NoStatic Software
Avatar Pinball does exactly what it says on the tin. Your avatar becomes the ball in an enormous beachfront pinball table, with the ability to move and rotate your hapless virtual self (in addition to manipulating the flippers) as he/she careers around the bumpers and targets. There's only one table on offer, but there's a surprising degree of complexity with many multiplier bonuses, multiball powerups and targets to hit. The excellent physics and ragdoll mechanics rival the likes of Pinball FX, and the graphics are shiny and vibrant enough to hold your attention. Plus, it's always cathartic to watch your virtual self getting brained on the big screen. Or maybe that's just me.
Avatar Pinball delivers a rollicking good time; providing cathartic thrills, excellent physics and a surprisingly detailed table that stacks up with the full-price pinball sims on XBLA. Whilst the single stage and handful of modes only lend themselves to quick and hectic blasts, it's still worthy of your time and money.