Rad Raygun

RR1Rad Raygun is nostalgia. It’s not merely nostalgic; it’s constructed top to bottom entirely from dewy-eyed longing for the sepia-drenched days of yore – ‘yore’ in this case being the 1980s. I know, that might not be yore enough for some of you, but considering there are documented cases of five year olds playing Call of Duty online, there’s a significant chunk of the game-playing audience for whom the fall of the Berlin Wall and the fall of the Roman Empire happened around the same time.

If you never played on Nintendo’s original green-screened Game Boy, the endearing charm of Rad Raygun’s visual style will probably be lost on you. I enjoyed it, but I harbour no illusions that it was down to anything other than the warm ‘aww, this is how I remember platformers’ sensation. For one cosy hour, I relived the days I spent playing Asterix in the back of my dad’s car. If you don’t have these fond memories, then Rad Raygun is already losing ground. Memories of your own, that is. I’m fairly confident that you weren’t in my dad’s car, unless…Dad?

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Master Chief was having a bad day.

RR isn’t the first Xbox Live Indie Game to try its hand at Game Boy visuals. Punishment platformer Slick tried it too, as did teeth-gnashingly obtuse puzzle-platformer Treasure Treasure: FFEE. Recreating the style of yesteryear is one of the things XBLIG developers like to attempt, whether it’s bleaching out the colour to simulate a Game Boy, drawing the art in primary coloured blocks to mimic an Atari 2600, or making everything as monstrously hideous and cumbersome as possible to ape an Intellivision. The difference here is that Rad Raygun actually pulls it off. It reproduces not only the visual and audio style but also the feel of the gameplay, with a little bit of modern polish subtly applied in a few places so that it doesn’t play like a complete wreck. Make no mistake, most 1980s portable games haven’t aged well.

Some of these determined concessions to faithful ‘80s-ness stray beyond stylistic affectations to impact the gameplay. When Rad leaves a room, the action will freeze as the camera shifts over to the next area. While this sort of break in the flow wouldn’t be acceptable in a non-retro game anymore, it’s perfectly valid here and doesn’t cause any inconvenience.

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“It’ll probably fit in if I give it a good shove.”

The same can’t always be said of the other conscious Game Boy-isms. The jumping in particular is a bane; rather than leaping with any kind of practical arc or sense of weight, Rad sharply twitches a mile upward at the slightest nudge of the jump button, and whatever you do you will never succeed in making the horizontal distance equal the vertical. The result is a jumping sensation that feels awkward and clumsy, not to mention frequently impractical as you find yourself brazenly stuffing your head right into overhead enemies’ lines of fire.

The other influence here aside from the Game Boy is Mega Man. Mercifully RR doesn’t even begin to approach classic Mega Man difficulty, but it’s full of nods to that series – the gun arm, the robotic main character (he’s actually a distorted Game Boy, but close enough), the slide ability, even the types of enemies. I loathe and despise Mega Man games for their cheap shots, but Rad Raygun mostly doesn’t stoop to that. In fact, it’s distinctly easy for the most part. All in all the game will probably run to about an hour of play time, maybe an hour and half, so it’s not a particularly enduring experience. Fortunately, this is one of those cases where brevity is a good thing.

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Call the Daily Mail! Handheld video game console destroys White House!

Rad Raygun doesn’t just imitate the games of years past, it’s also crammed to bursting with humorous contemporary references, whether it’s jingoistic fear of Communism, Rad’s mission to bring down the Berlin Wall or Ronald Reagan’s gurning face giving briefings. 80s names and events spill out from Rad Raygun like Ready Brek from a Thundercats bowl. Dependent as it is on nostalgia and referential gags, it would be easy for the game to outstay its welcome, but the relatively easy level of challenge and the short overall playtime ensure that it all wraps up just before the gags start to grate.

That’s the key to enjoying Rad Raygun, really. The bold and ridiculous 80s-ness of it all kept me smiling most of the time, and I was able to forgive its couple of awkward gameplay affectations because I’m desensitised to them from the real 80s. If you don’t remember the 80s or have enough awareness of pop culture and world events from that decade, then the largest part of the entertainment value is gone. You’re left with just the gameplay, which is a decent enough but easy and unremarkable platformer with a jumping motion that might you grind your teeth down to stumps. Rad Raygun is less an 80s-themed game than a lighthearted nostalgia slideshow with some simple gameplay inserted to keep you occupied. That’s not to say the gameplay isn’t fun, but aside from the odd detour into impromptu Tetris it’s too short and too generic to be worth recommending to anyone who lacks glasses of a suitably rosy hue.

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I’m sorry but building my name in the sky goes beyond fanboy into goddamn creepy.

If you do remember the 80s, though, Rad Raygun is an entertaining use of an hour. It avoided boring me by providing enough reference gags to prevent the gamplay getting tedious, and vice versa. I can’t complain at getting 60-90 minutes of “Ha! I get it!” moments stitched neatly onto a “Aww, I remember games being like this” backdrop for 80 Microsoft points.

If you’re Rad Raygun’s target audience you’ll like it, and if you’re not you won’t. You probably already know which category you fall into. If you want out, just follow the smell of broadband and dubstep to the exit. Otherwise, pull up a pogo ball and try to avoid making eye contact with Erasure.

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Flycatcher

I wrote this review for The Indie Mine, using a review copy they provided. Please take a look. Reproduced here with permission.

Flycatcher doesn’t leave the best first impression at a glance. Its title is hardly inspiring; while it certainly represents the core principle of the game, a title that sounds like budget domestic insect repellant doesn’t do an indie game any favors. Things aren’t quite that simple, though. Flycatcher is like a respectable city gent who dresses himself in the rags of a substance-addled vagrant for reasons best known to himself – its true strengths are hidden behind its offputtingly unhygienic exterior.

There’s no way to be circumspect about this and still get the point across adequately: Flycatcher looks bad. It also sounds bad, and quite possibly smells bad. I imagine if you were to lick it, it would also taste pretty nasty. It is a sensory tour de fiasco. Still, there’s wisdom in the old saying “don’t judge a book by its cover”, and Flycatcher embodies it.

The premise is simple. You are a spider, named Flycatcher by your unsettlingly literal-minded spider parents, and your job is to eliminate all the flies, wasps and beetles that are plaguing your fellow creatures. You can do this by either shooting them directly with a strand of web, or by snagging them with a strand that you’re swinging on. Later you can also spin enduring webs between trees, though I never found this particularly effective.

Catching bugs is the motivation, and meeting the required minimum to exit each level is the core principle, but it’s not really what the game is about. In practice, it’s about swinging exhileratingly around obstacle-filled levels, trying not to fall into water or set yourself on fire. Focusing on this aspect of the gameplay was a good choice, as this is where most of the fun comes from. Using this unusual form of movement effectively is both essential for completion of the levels, and surprisingly satisfying as you begin to devise and master more complex maneuvers. Oddly enough, I ended up feeling like Spider-Man.

It’s a simple thing, but I must emphasize how much the experience of swinging around obstacles, changing direction mid-flight and catching that elusive bug improved my opinion of Flycatcher. With a less carefully crafted swinging mechanic, like the infuriating Grapple Boy, the game would have foundered. Maybe it’s just me, but nimbly swooping around kept a smile on face.

There are also some nice little touches that add to the experience. Your spider has two additional powers; increased swing momentum is by far the more useful, enabling you to launch yourself further than usual, but even the largely redundant ability to slow time is a welcome option.

The swinging mechanic that provides the fun also provides the frustration. Aiming your web shots with the right analogue stick is an imprecise art, which can make it tricky to hit a knot hole or small ledge mid-flight. Worse, the web’s range is limited but its limit is beyond the edge of your view, so it can be hard to know whether you’re shooting anywhere near your intended target. You can zoom out to a more distant view by holding the left bumper but, like recent platformer A Voxel Action, Flycatcher has whole levels where this is constantly useful, forcing you to navigate tricky obstacles with your finger clamped to the shoulder. Good luck finding that comfortable. Why so many developers choose not to implement a toggle, I don’t know.

The nature of the web itself adds some additional inconvenience. It adheres anew to any surface it touches while you’re swinging, and while this is sometimes useful, it also means that when you’re swinging back and forth in one place you creep noticeably along the ledge as the top part of the strand brushes against it and sticks to a new point every couple of seconds. This sounds minor, but it can really mess up some maneuvers that would otherwise have worked out.

Where the hell is this garden?

It’s not an insurmountable oddity, though. For the most part, the swinging mechanic works well.  The game also benefits from some good design choices. The introduction of new mechanics – web-resistant beetles, waterfalls, knot holes, and more – is paced very well, and they all affect gameplay in ways that are distinct and well thought out. It’s clear that the developers took some care in designing and balancing their game, and for that I commend them.

On balance, Flycatcher provides some fun but I’m not sure I can go as far as to recommend it. I’m not someone who demands slick presentation in order to enjoy a game. I still play Pirates! on the NES, and that’s one of the ugliest things ever created by man or beast. Flycatcher‘s presentation issues do let down though, making it feel cheaper and more amateurish than it should. Its ideas and design, while not dazzlingly original, are fresh enough and thoughtful enough to deserve better clothing. I also feel that the game might work better as an iOS or Android release. I think it would come into its own with touch controls, and being played in short sessions of one or two levels on the bus to work.

Flycatcher, then, isn’t a bad purchase. I don’t think you’d kick yourself for shelling out a mere 80 Microsoft points to own it, unless you don’t like this type of game or you insist on pretty visuals. But would you sit down at your Xbox for a couple of hours and finish it? I’m not convinced. With  better presentation, some refinement of the mechanics and a release on a mobile platform, Flycatcher could be worth picking up to play on the go.

As it is, it’s worth playing the trial to see if you enjoy swinging around the levels. I know I genuinely had fun with it for an hour or two, and that’s what matters. If that doesn’t do it for you, though, then Flycatcher won’t hold your attention.