Uprisings and Updates

The Indie Games Uprising III is over now, and there’s plenty to review once I’ve spent enough time with the remaining games. In the meantime there are some quick look videos on The Indie Ocean’s YouTube channel.
I can tell you right now, though, that one of the Uprising games has displaced a regular diner at my Captain’s Table of the finest Xbox Live Indie Games. Congratulations to Smooth Operators: Call Centre Chaos, which offers us a management sim smooth, professional and addictive enough to rival the classic likes of Theme Park. And for only 80 Microsoft points! That’s almost offensively good value. If you’ve ever got even a moment’s enjoyment from a Theme, Sim or Tycoon game, go and take a peek at Smooth Operators.

Smooth Operators: Call Centre Chaos

Advertisements

City Tuesday (Indie Games Uprising III)

Out of the entire Indie Games Uprising III, City Tuesday was the game I was looking forward to most. It seemed poised to do everything that the finest indie games on any platform often do – challenge assumptions about what can be done with games as a medium, express something philosophical or emotional, evoke a mood and intrigue the brain.

I tried to not to hope for all this when I sat down to play. I studiously avoid hype for anything that interests me so that I won’t be greeted with crushing disappointment when I experience the reality. That’s why I haven’t played Skyrim. It couldn’t possibly live up to the hype.

In the case of City Tuesday, it helped that the promotional material didn’t make it clear how the game would work. It could have been a platformer, a puzzler, a point and click adventure – there was no telling. As it turns out, City Tuesday is a game of two parts.

One part is a terrorist attack on the anonymous city, and this part reminds me of The Legend of Zelda: Majora’s Mask on the N64. Not aesthetically or in gameplay style, but in its approach to preventing the bombings. Streets, parks and buildings teem with people, all going about their everyday business. They walk the dog, go to work, eat, drive around and chat to each other. At the same time, terrorists move among them, planting bombs that all detonate at the exact same moment, wiping everyone out. The bombers are no fools; they hide their explosives in places that are hard to access: behind locked doors, buried under concrete, or stashed in someone’s car. If you don’t disarm these bombs by the end of the day, it all ends and…you start over. That is your power, and the reason that only you can save the innocent people of the city. You are unbound by time.

Including renting it from Blockbuster

On subsequent attempts, the day plays out the same as the first time. If you’ve ever played Majora’s Mask or seen Groundhog Day (or the earlier but more obscure 12:01 for hipster points) then it will make sense to you. You relive the same day, with the same people doing the same things, and through observation of their routines you can begin to work out how to tweak the pattern – and finally neutralise the bombs.

I love this part of the game. It’s a brave attempt to do something that isn’t often seen in games, and for the most part it does it well. I floundered around for a few minutes because the game explains very little about itself, but once I got a handle on how things work I began to really enjoy it. I can think of one or two changes that might be beneficial – in particular, forcing the player to disarm all the bombs in one go, Majora’s Mask style. Some events that occur during the day will make certain bomb locations inaccessible, but, once a bomb has been defused it remains defused even when the day starts over from the beginning. Personally I feel it would have been both more challenging and more interesting to reactivate every bomb upon restarting the day, so that the player has to not only work out how to resolve each individual threat but also slot them all together into an overall sequence so that all are disarmed in one flawless, heroic run.

But watch out for naked men on trains

I said the game is in two parts. The other part is the black sheep of the City Tuesday family. It’s not bad, not by any means, but it’s also nothing special. The whole of City Tuesday is divided into three stages. Stage 1 is a tutorial. It’s a short series of simple single-room puzzles; not particularly interesting or challenging, but that’s to be expected from a tutorial. Awkwardly, it actually doesn’t teach you very much, and at least one part is too cryptic to be helpful (a remark about security being unable to stop you that only makes sense once you already know what it means). We can disregard this tutorial as not part of the main game, leaving us with Stages 2 and 3 as the main body of City Tueday.

Stage 3 is the larger scale rewinding bomb hunt I discussed above. Stage 2, sadly, is basically a longer version of the tutorial. It is again a series of single-screen puzzles, most of which are very simple. There is one that made me think and actually forced me to go away and come back later, once I understood more about how the game’s concept works. The interesting ideas introduced in this puzzle, however, are never repeated. Standing alone it is enjoyable but too short and sorely under-used. The other screens in Stage 2 are pretty straightforward. Identify how to reach the bomb, then go and get it.

Museum terrorists are more sporting

This is City Tuesday’s big weakness. Two of the three stages are effectively little more than tutorial, then when the game hits its stride and begins to unfurl into something more majestic in Stage 3, suddenly it’s over. It feels like ­City Tuesday is a quarter of a great game. If there had been another two or three stages after Stage 3 that played in a similar way, and revisited or built upon some of the ideas introduced earlier on, this could have been one of the best games on the Xbox indie channel. As it stands, I really enjoyed City Tuesday once it got going, but was left hollow and disappointed by the whole thing suddenly jumping ship and calling a halt after what is, to all intents and purposes, level 1.

I still recommend City Tuesday. When it actually gets on with doing what it’s meant to do, it is a very good game that would stray into brilliance with a couple of tweaks. Even in its truncated form it’s easily worth 80 Microsoft points to get a glimpse of what’s possible in indie games. It’s just a crying shame that City Tuesday is content to remain only a glimpse – an introductory trailer for a grander project that doesn’t exist.

qrth-phyl (Indie Games Uprising III)

My very first, instinctive gut reaction when I read down the list of titles included in the Indie Games Uprising III and saw qrth-phyl was to facepalm so hard that I dislodged a couple of molars. Never, ever, ever, EVER, EVER release a game with a title that makes your audience’s brain emit smoke and label the game forevermore ‘that one with all the random letters’. Key marketing basics #7: have a name that people can at least try to repeat from memory.

Insane, nonsensical title aside, qrth-phyl makes some bold claims for itself, touting adaptive design – that is, the game changes depending on how you play it, so not only is different each time, it’s different in a way that’s tailored to your playing style. In practice this manifests mainly as difficulty fluctuations. Think a less sinister version of the AI Director in Left 4 Dead. Do well and the next level will be harder; do badly and it’ll go easy on you. This variety is absolutely essential to any hope of longevity here, since it rapidly becomes obvious that qrth-phyl is basically Snake. Not Hideo Kojima’s snarling super-commando but the antique game that was packaged as standard with every mobile phone ten years ago, and was geriatric even then.

Despite its hyper-retro foundations, qrth-phyl is one of the more original games I’ve played recently. Many indie games claim to be a modernisation of a classic while in fact being barely more than a fresh coat of paint, but this one really is. It works as a series of short stages, each a variation on the basic Snake format. Some take place on a flat plane, but with the addition of the ability to flip to the opposite face of the plane. Others are set on a cube, with the snake manoeuvring across its various surfaces.

You’ve thwarted me for the last time, Rubik!

The main variation, though, comes in the three dimensional levels, wherein your snake winds its way through a cubic room collecting dots and trying not to collide with itself or occasional obstacles. This could easily have been a grisly gameplay fiasco if it had controlled like the average 3D XBLIG, but Hermit Games have managed to strike that most delicate balance here. The snake’s controls are smooth but not slippery, and responsive without being twitchy.  This makes all the difference; it prevents these levels getting frustrating or feeling like a cheap pocket change basement project. It may be exactly that, but it doesn’t feel like it, and that makes a world of difference.

Sadly, the fluid controls are offset by a visibility issue. qrth-phyl actually has one of the better 3D cameras I’ve seen lately, particularly by indie games standards. It doesn’t do anything awkward, strain against the player’s directions or twist in disorientating ways. The problem with the visibility isn’t that the 3D camera is bad, it’s that there’s a 3D camera at all. Being able to see the whole of your growing tail was vital to Snake’s fairness as a game. Here you catch glimpses of your tail but often don’t know where most of it is, and sometimes this is all it takes to end your game.

Universal Studios’ new look raised a few eyebrows

Even in the more 2D levels this can be a problem. The cube levels, for instance, have your tail wrapped around the cube onto multiple faces, so at times you have no idea you’re about to crash until it’s too late. Even the simplest level, the original flat plane, suffers from this to an extent as you’re required to flip over to the underside blindly.

It isn’t a game-ruining problem so much as a nigglingly persistent one. It’s always there, gnawing at the edges of the fun. Fortunately the rest of the game is competent enough to compensate. The thing that keeps qrth-phyl from being an easy recommendation, though, is the repetitiveness. Like Hermit Games’ previous release, Leave Home, the adaptive design of qrth-phyl doesn’t deliver on its promise. It gets closer to that dream than its predecessor ever did – my 25-ish playthroughs of Leave Home were all essentially identical – but it isn’t enough to sustain prolonged interest.

There’s no denying that this first release of the Indie Games Uprising III is brave and distinctive, and I can’t praise those qualities highly enough. It’s also quite fun for the odd brief play session if time is short. There are plenty of people who love this sort of quick-fix game that they can dip in and out of – it’s an itch that still exists but that mainstream games no longer bother to scratch.

Sex Ed at progressive schools took a turn for the abstract

Ideally qrth-phyl would find its home as a mobile game, providing short bursts of entertainment on the move, but sadly it’s chosen to Leave Home (ho ho) and finds itself slightly out of its depth. At 80 Microsoft points it’s worth buying just for its inventiveness alone, and it will be fun for an hour, or longer if you’re in love with simple games, but when you switch your TV on and sit down at your Xbox in the coming days and weeks, you might find you need something a little more meaty than this snake.

A free Uprising III soundtrack album is available HERE

Acid Drift: Solar

I was never the biggest fan of Eilte as a whole package. I liked the concept, and the feeling of wandering space with only my own skills to determine whether I lived or died, but it rapidly became repetitive and boring thanks to the endless parade of identical space stations requiring nothing more involved than buying and selling crates of third-rate confectionary.

Xbox Live Indie Games has already corrected a lot of Elite’s weaknesses with Final Rift but that is far from the only XBLIG that reminds me of the classic wireframe space roamer. We’ve already had Project Delta (a review for another time, me-talking-about-stuff fans!) and now in the grim unseasonal downpour of summer 2012 we get Acid Drift: Solar, a game that contains no corrosives, drifts or suns, but successfully reminds me of both Elite and Project Delta without shamelessly copying either.

You are the captain of a spacecraft and you’re set free in a small chunk of galaxy to do whatever you want – as long as whatever you want is either trading, mining or fighting. Space is crammed to bursting with mineable asteroids, to the point that I start to wonder how it can legitimately be called ‘space’. There’s more rock than space, but I suppose ‘Dad, I want to go into rock when I grow up!’ doesn’t sound quite so impressive, unless your dad is Angus Young.

When the game starts, you have a barge. It has a cargo bay the size of a toddler’s shoe and slightly less weaponry than a ham sandwich. The game wants you to be in no doubt that this clump of cardboard and bin liners isn’t going to get you anywhere. Look at the name. Other ships are called ‘fighter’, ‘gunship’, ‘frigate’ – yours is ‘barge’. Not even ‘cargo barge’, just barge. The ability to name your ship as in Sid Meier’s Pirates would be a welcome touch, but our slum-dwelling barge captain isn’t afforded even that dignity. Instead he must slink around the galaxy avoiding conflict with anything larger than a kitten, scraping pebbles from asteroids until his cargo matchbox is full, then selling them for pennies at the nearest planet while swaggering captains of industry snigger and push him into hedges.

The 2012 Olympic committee took their stadium seriously

Or that seems to be the plan, anyway. One of the loading screens states categorically that a barge can’t beat a battleship, but once you figure out the trick to the combat system, I think it probably could. I’ll try it and update the review accordingly. I certainly managed to put a fair few heavy duty military vessels out of commission with my little wireframe USB stick of a ship.

Combat and mining in Acid Drift are handled as minigames, while trading is a straightforward transaction menu. At any of the asteroids that rudely clutter every inch of space you can press X to initiate a brief button-matching session to garner resources which you can then sell on at any of the game’s handful of planets.

Alternatively you can buy the resources of your choice at the market and haul them to a planet where they’re in demand. The trading screen conveniently shows you the selling price at all other worlds, so there’s no brain work involved. Annoyingly for an aspiring trader, you have to select your destination planet while still docked. You can try roaming around on your own but you’re unlikely to find the right patch of space, and you’re unable to change the locator arrow while on the move. Presumably you have to buy your locator arrows at a little kiosk in the spaceport, staffed by a disillusioned old man who just wants to be left alone to wither in peace. Or maybe I’m thinking of Heathrow.

Pimp My Ride was under-qualified for its space spin-off

Combat is the most exciting of the minigames, but it has a pretty straightforward tactic that I figured out within two fights and mastered within five. It’s a sort of one-on-one Space Invaders. Your ship and the enemy face each other across the screen and let rip with your space pixel guns while sliding from side to side. It’s a pleasantly inventive way of handling combat, but it doesn’t take Darth Revan to notice that you can win at least 90% of the time by sidling slightly ahead of your enemy until it gets nervous and sidles back, then repeating until explosions occur. It’s hard to describe but trust me that it’s simple and works on every type of ship. I noticed this in my first or second battle, and now you will too. Enjoy.

Although you take out most (if not all) types of ship with your basic peasant barge, buying new ships makes things a lot easier. Every ship in the game is for sale, and you get a discount for trading in your current ride. Well, the game says you do but you actually don’t. I’m pretty sure you could take the ship showroom to court for that kind of chicanery. Stan would be proud.

This early section is a bit of a slog. With small cargo capacity, neither trading nor mining is particularly profitable, and while you can make some money tussling with pirates it takes so long to wear them down with your barge that it feels like your hull will rust before you make enough money to buy lunch. When you do eventually manage to offload your pauper’s wagon in exchange for something with a bit of style, the game hits its stride and it’s pretty fun as long as this samey space fighting/trading thing is up your street. That’s not sarcasm; it’s up my street and I know there are other people on this street with me.

Tetris just got real

Sadly, after maybe an hour, perhaps less, the game hits its second slump. You’ve got to your ideal ship (I stopped at a destroyer because I didn’t fancy the lack of mobility I’d suffer in a battleship) and you know how to make money at a reasonable rate. All that’s left to you is to chase the two ultimate goals listed in the planetary menu. One is quite easily affordable by the time you get a good ship, but the other requires quite a lot of grinding for cash. Even with a cargo hold the size of St Paul’s and firepower that would make Goku whimper in embarrassment, making this immense sum of money takes patience. It’s unfortunate, then, that the ending is the most anticlimactic event in gaming since the release of the Virtual Boy. Don’t worry, I won’t spoil anything. There’s nothing to spoil.

You have two aims to work towards, both listed in the planetary options: retire to a mining colony or retire to a private moon. Of course the moon is the real ultimate goal here. After a lifetime spent trading, fighting and scavenging in my now battle-scarred (presumably) destroyer I eventually managed to accumulate just barely enough money to buy my very own natural orbital satellite. With a swelling feeling of pride and anticipation filling my chest, I moved with portentous slowness down the menu to the final climax of the game, and anxiously nudged the A button.

‘You retired to a private moon’ said the game.

I’d expected a brief paragraph describing my retirement, or a picture of the moon in question, or even just a rundown of my stats – enemies killed, resources mined. Something. Anything. What I got was one short sentence on a stock deep space background; the same background used for the close-but-no-cigar mining colony ending. Even Goolin managed to muster an insipid ripple of fireworks. Here, nothing. I bought the bloody moon! The sentence might as well have been ‘the game is stopping now’ for all the sense of fulfilment it delivers.

Shepard’s friends hated his boring shopping lists

Most of Acid Drift: Solar is a generally enjoyable, if brief and shallow, space trading and combat escapade. If you enjoy the Elite variety of game at all, you’ll probably find some fun here. If you’ve never played a game of that type, this is as good a place as any to start. The orange wireframe visuals are hardly lavish, but they have their own style and feel, which is more important than maximum graphical sheen. Combat is unusual enough to be fun for a little while, and wandering around space as you please is as liberating as the fairly small game world allows it to be. Unfortunately the game’s simplicity costs it longevity, and the imbalance of the beginning and end is discouraging. If the opening trudge doesn’t put you off, the final grind might – and if it doesn’t, you too might feel a little resentful at the ending’s refusal to match your hard work. The apathetic conclusion doesn’t detract from enjoyment of Acid Drift’s gameplay, but when you’ve spent half your time with the game just working gruellingly towards that one distant dream, something slightly grander than ‘fine, you’ve done it, now piss off’ would have been nice.

Hypno Vol. 1

Hypno Vol. 1 is a strange one. It takes the ‘dark and edgy’ thing that so often feels forced, then adds a mission-based structure and top-down perspective. After a while it starts to feel a little like Grand Theft Auto. The first one, back in the days before it became a colossal franchise made entirely of ego. Unlike Grand Theft Auto, Hypno doesn’t have colourful visuals or a large world. Instead it opts for black and white minimalism and a compact grid of featureless squares representing a city, relying on its tone and originality to do the heavy lifting.

Without giving away plot points, the premise is that you are a bloodthirsty sociopath named Lydia who has just escaped from some sort of institution. Lydia is blind but has the ability to steal the intentions from the minds of people around her and use them to programme behaviour into others. For instance, if she ‘rips’ the intention ‘I’m going to the bar’ from Steve, she can then ‘brand’ it onto Dave and make him go to the bar instead. This is the core mechanic around which the whole game revolves. I’m sure Dave has no complaints. 

Branding soon becomes more elaborate. You have to start stacking intentions to cause a whole series of actions – make Bob go to the sports shop, buy a baseball bat, go home, use the bat to kill his wife. It’s quite grim yet also strangely compelling. For the first couple of minutes this is all there is to the game, but there are only so many times you can make people kill each other before the novelty wears off. Our pet maniac, Lydia, gets bored of aimless slaughter around the same time we do, and that’s where the missions come in.

“Oh, I’ve been wondering where I put that.”

A mysterious man calling himself Darius asks you to use your powers of hypnosis to carry out criminal jobs for him, all to further his undisclosed agenda. In payment for your services, he tips you off about opportunities for ‘fun’ uses of Lydia’s powers – getting a teenage girl to murder her stalker, or ensuring that a wife is drunk and armed when she discovers her husband’s infidelity. These are basically missions too, though they tend to be more savage and unsettling than the ones that benefit Darius directly. I’m not one to get squeamish or take games too seriously, but there is a voyeuristic tone to these interludes that leaves me slightly uneasy.

The odd thing about all this carnage is that as Hypno progresses it increasingly comes to resemble a puzzle game. The missions cease to be menial ‘walk over here and brand this person with this intention’ tasks, and instead become more about finding ways around various restrictions that are imposed on Lydia. This is where the game comes into its own, and at the same time starts to fall apart.

Clive’s only defence against the green marble attack was his extremely pointy beard

You’ll often find that areas of the map are walled off; civilians can wander in and out, but Lydia can’t. These walled off regions are usually patrolled by guards who can recognise ‘the branded’ – someone you’ve reprogrammed – and will kill them on sight. It’s never made entirely clear how this happens. Presumably the branded all cluck like chickens and clutch Paul McKenna plushies as they go about their nefarious business.

To get around this inexplicable problem, you have to brand someone to sneakily climb a building for a spot of rooftop surveillance on the guards. Once your spy finds out that, say, one of the guards is a sleazy old lothario, then you can send one branded to intercept and distract him by flirting, while another branded sneaks up and kills him. It doesn’t seem to matter who you send to do the flirting; evidently the developer of Hypno considers everyone in the world to be omnisexual and have no standards. Maybe the whole game is secretly a statement of sexual politics and we should send a copy to the government with signatures attached.

If only Skyrim’s world had looked this good

Add into the mix people who can’t be branded, a drug that reduces the number of people you can brand during a given mission and other obstructive factors, and Hypno’s missions start to test the brain a bit. With some experimentation, practice in branding the right people as quickly as possible and a little bit of luck, you can make each mission unfold just as planned and domino its way to a satisfying conclusion. 

That might sound enticing, but there’s a down side to all this. Your instructions from Darius are often quite vague, and frequently leave gaps that can have you scratching your head for a while, not because the puzzle is intricate but because the game doesn’t explain what’s happening, or in some cases even what the objective is. Like many mission based games, additional tasks are introduced part way through many of the missions, but sometimes you will simply be pointed towards targets and not given a clear idea of whether you’re meant to kill them or brand them, or something else entirely. Being given a challenging puzzle is fine, but when the challenge comes from poor explanation of the requirements, it becomes a serious drawback in enjoying the game.

If important people are entirely orange, Bob Monkhouse was the emperor of the world

It’s tough to decide on whether to give Hypno Vol. 1 a recommendation or not. It’s certainly different to any other game I’ve played on Xbox Live Indie Games, or anywhere else for that matter. The problem is that it expends its effort in the wrong places. The game goes all out to make itself shocking and brutal, and it has a good try at being unique, but it’s so busy with all this that it forgets to have a coherent structure – and in doing so it obstructs the player one too many times. If the idea intrigues you and you have the patience of a Spelunky player, give it a try. If the gratuitous grisliness and the aimless wandering guesswork of some missions don’t sound like your cup of tea, don’t bother.

Murder for Dinner

I’ve been told I’m like Sherlock Holmes. I’m not sure whether that means I’m observant and insightful or just an arrogant sociopath. I like to think it means I have peerless detective skills, so I seized the opportunity to test them in Murder for Dinner.

The first thing I detected was the spirit of Agatha Christie sneaking around the party, eating everyone’s canapés. This is definitely a classic-style mystery with an enigmatic host, a cryptic gathering of seemingly unrelated people, shady characters, secret misdeeds and clues aplenty.

The second thing I detected was the total absence of dinner from Murder for Dinner, so frankly I don’t want to think about what spectral Agatha was really eating. Fortunately the other part of the title is pretty accurate. There is certainly murder here, and it falls to you to work out who did the dark deed. To aid you, you have only your eagle eyes and your razor sharp brain. Well, those and your thumb. For once we get the chance to find out how it feels to be Hercule Poirot (with a bit more thumbing).

It’s easy to see why Poirot spent so much time at high society functions. The elegantly appointed house, rolling (if compact) lawns and enticingly impenetrable outbuilding consummately set up the evening of intrigue. Apart from a persistent chug in the game engine whenever NPCs are close by, the visuals are good for an XBLIG title, with character models that remind me of something from the N64 Zelda games if they’d been set in 1920s Buckinghamshire – all exaggerated moustaches and elaborate garb.

Castlevania: The Marple Years

I imagine some might dislike that, but I found it charming. It works in the context. Each NPC has their role to play and they play it to the full in both appearance and character, from the weary old soldier to the gossiping duchess. Every one of them has their own secret, and piecing these hidden pasts together is the most satisfying part of the experience. While frustratedly combing the cellar one more time for missed clues, it was the desire to find answers that sustained me. What were those two whispering about? Why is she so anxious about that innocuous trinket?

Beyond the feel of walking amidst dangerous secrets, though, the way if feels to be Poirot according to Murder for Dinner is tranquil and a little repetitive. I’d always credited the legendary literary detectives with a prodigious intellect, but as it turns out the key to solving mysterious murders is actually to walk around the area ceaselessly, prodding at things until one of them suddenly becomes significant. That’s where Murder for Dinner lets itself down a bit. Dialogue can’t be directed and items can’t be picked up or used, so what it all boils down to is pressing A by objects in the correct order. A particular piece of domestic clutter will have no significance until after you’ve spoken to specific people, whose dialogue won’t necessarily give you any indication that this object is relevant. Talk to someone, see if your journal updates, then do another circuit around the house, A-ing everything. Find the right object. Talk to someone else, check your journal, do a circuit.

Reynald hoped his old strangler’s cramp wouldn’t implicate him unduly

In that respect, the game is a little disappointing. Being required to choose the correct line of questioning or show the right item to the right person might have made all the difference in helping this feel like a genuine mystery, particularly if some strand of logic ran through it. As it is, your involvement in unravelling the tangled web is minimal, and that starts to show through once the initial glow of ‘holy crap, I’m solving a murder!’ wears off.

Having said that, whether it’s a disappointment will depend on what you wanted. You see, Murder for Dinner is just disguised as a game, like Sherlock Holmes masquerading as a priest in Scandal in Bohemia . In actuality it’s a short story that gives you the means to soak up the atmosphere of a traditional high society murder evening by being there.

The pill bottle was the last man standing in kitchenette Battle Royale

Personally I enjoyed the time I spent with Murder for Dinner; maybe an hour in total. It kept me engaged and although I was occasionally frustrated I was seldom bored. With my contribution limited to pressing A in the right places to advance the story I can’t see myself replaying it any time soon, but I don’t regret paying it a visit. It’s a shame that the mystery didn’t need me to solve it and instead solved itself as I watched; had it been any longer than it is, the lack of meaningful interactivity might have started to get boring.

As it is, the atmosphere, the simple but engaging web of lies, and the freedom to wander around the house keeping your eyes peeled for clues make it worth the price of admission for an hour or so of Agatha Christie clue-hunting, at least for those of a contemplative disposition. Adrenaline junkies might want to give it a miss, but they’re probably too busy leaping off gantries and chest-bumping each other to read reviews anyway.

Super Killer Hornet

Super Killer Hornet is shooting by the numbers. That’s a joke. You’ll get it later.

The game feel like it should be controlled with one of those chunky old analogue joysticks, sticky from the sugar-saturated hands of a thousand fumbling twelve year olds. That’s my arty writer way of saying it feels like a 1990 arcade game.

The graphics are pretty straightforward, with adequately (but not extravagantly) detailed sprites and some very SNES-ish explosions that would have made Jaz Rignall gasp “ooh, pretty” back in the day. Not much in the way of backgrounds though, so it ends up looking a bit spartan (in the sense of minimalist, not the sense wearing only underpants). The music is better, and can be selected at the start of each level – a small but welcome touch.

The core gameplay is similarly…er…’streamlined’. Tap A to rapidly fire a spread shot; hold A to let rip with a sustained laser barrage that is more powerful but slows your movement in a classic power/survivability trade-off. That’s the idea, anyway. In practice you can spare your thumbs the dreaded RSI risk of constant tapping by just holding X instead, for the same effect. Nor does the power/speed trade work; the beam is quite wide so enemies mostly won’t get close to you, and the slower movement speed actually makes it easier to dodge incoming shots. This has been consciously built into some other games (Redshift) but it seems accidental here.

Yep, that will definitely kill a hornet

So far, so routine as retro vertical shooters go. Fortunately, Super Killer Hornet throws in something of its own to liven up the bare bones shooting. Remember that ghastly term that hung around the early-mid ‘90s like the inexplicable smell of cabbage in a pensioner’s living room? You know, the one that clutched test tubes full of wretched creations like Mario is Missing. That’s right, Super Killer Hornet flirts – in the most chaste and evasive way – with the lingering dread spectre of ‘edutainment’. This game, this retro arcade shooter, incorporates mathematics. Weirdly, that’s actually the best thing about it.

While blasting your way through the descending swarms of alien spacecraft, you will occasionally spot a mathematical function – a ‘3 X’ or a ‘7 +’, that sort of thing. If you collect that, a number will appear a few moments later. Collect that too and you’ll have almost a whole simple equation, maybe ‘3 X 9’ or similar. Plough on through the mayhem without being killed and soon three numbers will appear, one of which is the right answer to the mathematical problem. Grab that answer and…well, what happens next depends on the game mode.

Should have grabbed that 1. Easy money.

The two modes on offer use the maths element differently. Arcade mode is the one that leaves me yawning. You have a limited number of lives and the maths function just acts as a score multiplier. If you’re someone who is motivated by beating your previous scores this mode might hook you like a lecherous fisherman. Personally I find high score chasing only fractionally less appealing than filling in a tax return, so I lost interest in Arcade mode after five minutes.

The second mode, Black Label, is the one I choose to spend time with. It gives the maths element a purpose beyond making a meaningless series of digits at the top the screen change more quickly. I have no idea what the title Black Label refers to, but it’s an enticingly decadent name for a timed challenge. The Arcade mode’s meagre allotment of lives is traded for infinity, but don’t get drunk on the dizzying possibilities just yet. In place of finite lives, the game slaps a huge timer across the screen, unrelentingly ticking away every second until your ignominious demise. Your salvation comes in the form of mathematics; each complete equation extends the timer and buys you a little more life.

Get off! On arithmetic dogfight night, your embrace means nothing to me.

I quite enjoy this mode, and although it’s not interesting enough to sit and play for protracted sessions, it works quite well in short bursts. The use of contrasting brainwork – the observation and reflex of combat stapled onto the logical process of arithmetic – is surprisingly refreshing. I’m not accustomed to using my brain very much in this sort of game, and certainly not in this way. There’s also a nice side effect, in that when you die any incomplete equation is wiped clean, so even though you have infinite lives you can’t afford to be reckless. Death does have a cost, it’s just not as tangible and immediate as in Arcade.

I can’t in good conscience give Super Killer Hornet a recommendation, nor can I bug spray it into oblivion. With the Arcade mode alone I’d say this was too slender a package to be worth your time (shame on anyone who sniggered at ‘slender package’). With the addition of the Black Label mode there’s enough here to give both score chasers and score avoiders their 80 MSP worth of fun. Even with its unusual mathematical additions to gameplay, the Super Killer Hornet experience is just too bare and minimal to get the full seal of approval. It’s fine, but whether just ‘fine’ is enough for you will depend on your taste.