Weapon of Choice

There are a couple of types of game that I’m always surprised not to see on Xbox Live Indie Games. One is screen-by-screen action RPGs like the old Zelda games; the other is Contra-like platforming shooters. There are a couple but they’re generally either quite light on the shooting or just not very good. Weapon of Choice gears up for a hefty bout of Contra’s massed carnage but also coats it with a layer of Alpha Squad’s lightheartedness just in case earnest destruction is too much for your frail disposition.

The basic gameplay is nothing you haven’t seen before, but it’s done well. You are a soldier ploughing through enemy forces, blowing up everything that moves like a pre-politics Schwarzenegger. One hit will finish you off, so you have to be agile, and quick on the right thumbstick. It’s unusual to see a twin-stick control scheme in a side-scrolling platform shooter, but it makes perfect sense. Enemies will come from all directions, and the levels frequently offer several routes to explore that might see you clinging to the ceiling with your bizarre robotic spider backpack or leaping between unsettlingly organic outcrops, so precision control is a lifesaver.

‘Unsettlingly organic’ is a good description for a lot of the visuals. Right from the first level you’ll stumble across (or under, or into) writhing, chitinous beasts the size of trains, or eye-pocked maws big enough to pick bicycles out of their teeth. Brightly coloured, smoothly animated and bursting with occasionally unpleasant detail, Weapon of Choice is easily an upper-rung XBLIG in its presentation.

There’s more to fun than looking pretty, though. If there wasn’t, then cathedrals would have all the best parties.

Maybe I’d even go as far as ‘upsettingly organic’

From the outset the game spoils us with a wealth of options. There are six difficulty settings and several characters to choose from even before we unlock more. Your choice of character is far from superficial here, as each has their own special weapon that functions uniquely with primary and secondary fire modes, and also a power that activates during a double jump, such as a brief decoy or a short float.

Xerxes Remington, for instance, lugs around a jet engine that he uses as a gun. Its primary fire mode acts more or less like a high-powered flamethrower, but its secondary mode cranks up the engine’s output, increasing its range but also launching Xerxes backwards if he shoots while jumping. Each character has a short file that you can flip through to get an idea of how their special weapon works, and scraps of biographical info if that’s your thing.

Chantarelle Marmalade uses a gun that is more of a flailing quasi-chainsaw; Moses Longhorn unleashes robotic satellites that hover around and fight for him. Each character’s weapon is completely different from all the others, and comes with two distinct modes for different situations. All the characters also have the same back-up weapon, but it’s no mundane sidearm. An assault rifle on the surface, activating the secondary mode sends the gun out to roam around as directed on a sort of prehensile cable. Make no mistake, the weapons are the focus of this game, and the source of both success and sometimes failure if misused. There’s a reason the whole game was named after them.

Genetically engineered cows transformed the dairy farming industry

The roster of characters also does more than provide a selection of distinctive play styles – it serves as a ‘lives’ system too. Your chosen character has one life; if they die, you choose another character to drop in and take their place. The catch here is that you won’t be able to use your original character again unless you can carry them, whimpering like a scolded kitten, all the way to the end of the level. Once out of the level they heal up and can be swapped back in the next time you get killed – though then they’ll have to return the favour by carrying their fallen buddy home.

It’s an interesting system. Weapon of Choice gives you a chance to avoid actually losing a life if you can adapt to a different character’s play style well enough to survive the rest of the level. The game makes you earn your boon, and it works astonishingly well. Just to throw a bit more of a dilemma into the mix, you will occasionally see entirely new characters lying wounded and in need of rescue. If you can get them out, you’ll effectively gain a bonus life for this playthrough, and will have a new starting character to choose the next time. You can only carry one ally though, so if you’ve been killed already you’ll have to decide between saving your old favourite or taking a chance on the unknown soldier you’ve just stumbled across.

The aliens eyed his floating lightchair covetously

Eventually I realised that discovering new characters in this way has one more interesting consequence. It doesn’t just give you a 1UP for this playthrough; it gives you one more life for every playthrough thereafter. As you play the game on the lower difficulty settings and find more characters, it makes higher difficulties more manageable by effectively enlarging your stockpile of lives. But each death means you have to change the way you play, and you might end up stuck with a character you’ve never managed to get the hang of. It’s a beautifully elegant system, and for me it’s the real highlight of the game.

If the replayability of assorted difficulties and a multitude of characters aren’t enough, there are at least three (that I know of) story strands to explore. The route you choose to take in the first couple of levels will determine which plot you follow, which levels you visit and what the ultimate fate of humanity will be. It’s a lot of responsibility for the sort of person whose idea of precision marksmanship is ripping the propulsion from a Harrier and stuffing it in an alien’s mouth.

Jet engine, meet face. Still fractionally more finesse than MW3 TDM.

This replayability is important, because Weapon of Choice really isn’t very long. Higher difficulty settings will take longer to battle through, but the levels in each plot strand number maybe half a dozen at most. If you’re the sort of person who doesn’t care about seeing different endings, exploring every level or challenging yourself with tougher replays, then Weapon of Choice might not be worth the asking price. For someone like me though – a chronic replayer of games even when there’s nothing left to discover – the combination of different routes and retrievable characters are a powerful lure. Even without those the hectic, over the top, manic carnage of the amped-up cartoon Contra gameplay is enough to draw me back for a quick blast through from time to time. If you like games about shooting things, and especially if you like them to be unique as well as explosive, this should be your Weapon of Choice.

Sushi Castle

Regular readers might have noticed that I like a bit of randomly generated exploration. Whether it’s Cursed Loot, Mega Monster Mania, Lair of the Evildoer, Dead Pixels or the newly released Spelunky, the phrase ‘randomly generated’ (or ‘procedurally generated’) sets my heart a-flutter like I’m a chaste maiden in a period novel. It doesn’t always work out, but the sheer animal magnetism is always there.

Sushi Castle, just released by Milkstone Studios (the developer of the delightfully antagonistic Infinity Danger), grabs pretty much everything I like about randomised dungeon crawling and throws it all together. In the manner of a roguelike, you have one solitary life in which to explore as much as you can of a series of randomised floors, killing everything that moves and picking up everything that doesn’t. There are a couple of catches, though.

The first catch is that the actual control works like a twin-stick shooter. None of this turn-based walking into enemies to damage them. Instead you open fire and circle strafe like it’s Infinity Danger all over again. The second catch is that in place of huge quantities of largely interchangeable loot, you instead pick up a small number of very different items that modify your abilities. Where many dungeon crawlers have you switching from Ragged Loincloth +1 to Reinforced Pantaloons + 3 as you pick up a modest junkyard’s worth of miscellaneous brick-a-brack, Sushi Castle doesn’t.  It eschews equipment in favour of one-offs that are usually found in special rooms only once or twice per floor, like the Ninja Cloud that enables you to fly and the stodgy snack that gives you a health boost but makes you walk like you have EA’s DLC catalogue strapped to your feet.

This guy is definitely wearing Back to Karkand sandals

The upshot of all this is that while many randomised dungeon crawlers promise replayability yet offer only repetition with minor variations, Sushi Castle is genuinely hugely replayable. The differences between playthroughs aren’t just a matter of fractionally different stats on your Orcish Linguini Spatula of Flaying but real, tangible changes that alter the way the game plays out. This also forces you to be adaptable. Sometimes you might be a damage sponge with a ton of health, while other times you’ll be a glass cannon with high damage but no means of defence. Sometimes you’ll rely on bombs to deal serious damage, and other times you’ll have to make use of your manoeuvrability. You have to be able to play in a variety of styles, because you never know how your character will end up developing.

The game’s greatest strength is its most conspicuous weakness. Some attempts can feel doomed from the start if you can’t find the right items to unlock shops, or you keep picking up stat reductions through sheer bad luck. The game’s scrolls and sushi have randomly assigned effects that can be very positive but also sometimes very negative, and it’s frustrating to have an otherwise successful playthrough suddenly fall apart because you unwittingly used a scroll that filled the room with live bombs.

The shoulder-mounted panda, a common sight in the Shogunate armies

This isn’t a huge problem though, and the benefits of this truly unpredictable approach to dungeoneering outweigh the drawbacks. For only 80 Microsoft points, there’s a lot of play time in Sushi Castle. In principle, you can play it indefinitely without having the same experience twice. I’ve already got my money’s worth out of it with hours of play time invested, and I’m still seeing new items popping up all the time. Just to add delicious icing to the cake, Milkstone Studios plan to add new features when they reach specific sales landmarks. It’s an interesting approach that is increasingly common in indie games, and personally I find it far preferable to demanding more money in exchange for negligible additions.

Oh, one more thing. I have to mention this or my journalistic credibility badge will be repossessed and used to fund nefarious criminal activities. For better or worse, Sushi Castle is Edmund McMillen’s Steam hit The Binding of Isaac. There are a few differences – the ability to fire diagonally, some of the bosses and one or two enemy  types – but 90% of the game is lifted directly from Isaac and just re-painted. The way the game generates everything in general, its item room/shop/gauntlet room set up, its bomb/key/special item system, the enemy types, the item effects – the majority of these things are exactly the same. Sushi Castle would be stretching the acceptability of being ‘inspired by…’ to its limits. Having said that, if your computer can’t run The Binding of Isaac, or you hate Steam, or you just prefer to play from your sofa rather than a rigid office supplies chair, this might be the game for you.

I recommend Sushi Castle because it’s good fun, it’s generally executed well, and the way it handles randomised dungeon crawling means it’s still entertaining after hours of play. For the price, you won’t get many better deals. It’s just a shame that all of its qualities are actually something else’s qualities recycled, with no voice of its own.


It doesn’t seem fair to call Compromised a twin-stick shooter. I’ve played quite a few twin-stick shooters since discovering Xbox Live Indie Games, and Compromised doesn’t really fit it. It isn’t shallow or repetitive. It doesn’t star either zombies or neon wedges. It isn’t about defending yourself in a static arena. No, Compromised isn’t really a twin-stick shooter in the sense that we’ve come to think of them. It’s an oppressive science fiction exploration shooter that happens to use two sticks for control.

I was reasonably impressed with Compromised from the outset, and it only gets better. The game looks good, if gloomy. It’s not going to wow anyone with 3D facial animations or anything, but it doesn’t need to. Sprites of various sizes and designs flit gracefully around crumbling future-industrial tunnels and subterranean cavern complexes that feel reminiscent of the ‘real world’ sections of the Matrix trilogy. Lumbering drill arms burst through the walls and release clouds of small enemies that clump and swirl like particles of smoke. Missiles boom like Satan slamming doors in hell, dropped energy cores twinkle in the darkness, and occasional boss enemies loom and rip the world down around you.

I don’t resort to the over-used internet superlative ‘epic’ very often, but at times Compromised really does feel epic. Most of the game sees you speeding through winding tunnels where you’re harried by small, quick enemy fighter craft, but it’s punctuated by frantic arena battles that sidle back into more familiar twin-stick territory for a little while as you fend off escalating waves. I’m not a big fan of arena-based twin-stick action, but fortunately these sections tend to feature rapidly changing enemy times and come to an end before they get too repetitive. If you run into a couple in succession they can get a little tiresome, particularly if they’re long, gruelling battles with sparse checkpoints, but they never become boring.

The real highlights, though, are the boss fights. There are a several, sometimes at the end of a level and sometimes in a level all to themselves. The bosses here aren’t just big enemies that require a lot of firepower to bring down. They’re gargantuan mechanical beasts that launch devastating attacks in patterns that you must observe and learn, with specific weak spots that have to be targeted, and several increasingly powerful forms that you must defeat in turn before you can finally breathe easy again. For the major bosses, the camera usually zooms way back and has you manoeuvring a tiny speck around some sprawling monstrosity. In all honesty, I’d have to say Compromised has some of the best boss battles I’ve played in years. They’re tough and sometimes frustrating, but you can always see how you’re meant to proceed, you can always think of a new strategy, and with enough persistence the titans always come crashing down. When they do, you’ll feel like you’ve felled a fierce god. Compromised has the sort of bosses that people would still be reminiscing about if it had come out in 1995.

These were the moments that made me feel I was playing the sort of game that I started playing games for in the first place. Compromised has a slightly Super Nintendo or PS1 feel to it, but that’s not to say it’s retro. Admittedly I was infatuated with the SNES-era Mode 7-style spinning of the burrowing drill arms, but Compromised doesn’t feel like an undiscovered relic of the good old days. It feels like the sort of game I used to play, simply because of how it handles itself. It doesn’t clutter things up with lengthy exposition but does at least provide some sort of story to give you a reason to fight. Too many indie shooters give you nothing more than ‘shoot this stuff because it’s there’. There are several well-balanced defensive and offensive abilities, including a devastating but hazardous gravity bomb, activated through judicious use of collected energy cores. Your little spacecraft can be upgraded, and any upgrade cores you’ve picked up carry over after you get killed, so if you’re really stuck on a particular level you will actually gradually get stronger each time you try it. There are two recharging default abilities as well, missiles and bombs, which are crucial to success. The whole thing feels painstakingly balanced and very carefully crafted, and it’s that quality that makes Compromised feel like games I used to play: the game gives a sense that it was made by people who are proud of what they do, rather than slinking into the room apologetically like most XBLIGs.

Not that it’s perfect, of course. Don’t get the wrong impression from my lavish praise. While the difficulty is challenging yet surmountable, it’s also uneven. There are also one or two badly designed areas: a series of crushing contraptions on the first level that simply can’t be avoided by any means, and late-game chase level that depends far too much on trial and error. Note to all developers: exhilarating chase levels cease to be exhilarating if you have to start over every twenty seconds. Chases need to maintain momentum, and to that end maybe it’s better to make them slightly too easy than slightly too hard.

The story is a bit of a loss as well. Having some sort of context for our combat is very welcome, but the cryptic mentions of ‘Se-Da’, ‘Stem’ and ‘BIOC’ that intrigued me in the early game are never really resolved. The plot comes and goes without ever revealing what’s going on, who we are or what we’re fighting. As someone who notices to game music and listens to it in his free time, I feel I should also mention that while Compromised’s music is quite good and feels appropriate for the grim science fiction environment, it’s not always in the right place. Some of the most frantic scenes in the game are accompanied by mellow tracks that don’t really fit the action on screen. It’s not a problem – a lot of the time the music is drowned out by the combat anyway – but it’s an odd choice.

All in all, Compromised impressed me hugely. It may not be perfect, but it looks good, generally sounds good, and plays delightfully. If you really don’t like shooting at things with your thumbsticks then maybe give it a miss, but I’d encourage anyone else to at least take a look, and take my word for it that the demo shows you the least of what the game is capable of. Between its carefully designed player abilities, its well-balanced challenge and its alarmingly huge boss battles, Compromised should be a flagship for all the things that Xbox Live Indie Games can do right. I might have to create a top ten list just so I can put Compromised on it.

My Cat vs Zombies Ep I

When I saw My Cat vs Zombies Ep I listed in the new releases a few weeks ago, I pointed and laughed. I did, literally – I turned to the other person in the room, flung out my accusatory finger and made a “haw haw, what’s this rubbish?” kind of noise. I may also have rhetorically exclaimed something like “who would think that’s a good idea?!” or “what’s wrong with these people?!”

The title and cover are absolutely despicable. On Xbox Live Indie Games, the word ‘zombies’ immediately gives me indigestion. 90% of the time it’s like a rickety old flickering neon sign advertising bargain bandwagon rides (boarding hourly from outside the Creative Bankruptcy Motel). Expanding it to anything ‘versus zombies’ is an improvement in the same way that falling into a sewage processing facility is an improvement over faceplanting in a urinal. It’s more ambitious, but that’s not necessarily a welcome quality.

‘Cats versus zombies’ would be like falling into a sewage processing facility with the greatest hits of ABBA playing in the background. On their own, cats/ABBA are fine, but their sickly sweet presence is almost insulting when it’s tacked on to a horrible experience in a cynical attempt to dilute your misery. The final touch, making it ‘my cat versus zombies’ and having a LOLcat-style cover that was thrown together while waiting for a bus just adds a smear of self-indulgence, like a man in a huge foam Stetson singing along to ‘Dancing Queen’ off-key while the mingled excretions of a major city close over your despairing head.

So yes, I felt thoroughly justified in my pointing and laughing, secure in the knowledge that my obnoxious behaviour was positively genteel by comparison to this game’s many crimes.

Well the developer can point and laugh right back at me, because My Cat vs Zombies Ep I is pretty good.

The London Underground pre-apocalypse

The world has been overrun by zombies, as you might expect. What you probably wouldn’t expect is the immunity of cats to the zombie-propagating virus, and the consequent rise of cat colonies in the abandoned subway tunnels beneath the world’s cities. There’s a definite touch of Fallout 3 to the setting. You’ll journey entirely through tunnels, crossing disused stretches of track and stumbling across little isolated enclaves of survivors. There are also rumours of a larger, secure cat city known as Whiskertown, which put me in mind of the awed curiosity I felt whenever someone in Fallout 3’s wilderness mentioned Rivet City.

I also felt touches of the old SNES RPG Shadowrun in places, particularly when I was asked early on to deliver a shipment of hallucinogenic catnip to a junkie. The bleak ad hoc communities remind me of Fallout, but the slide into despairing depravity has Shadowrun’s fingerprints on it, intentionally or not.

In gameplay, My Cat vs Zombies Ep I is essentially a twin-stick shooter. Move with one stick, aim with the other, shoot with the right trigger. The emphasis on taking missions from NPCs, exploring the maze of tunnels for loot and making the most of relatively sparse supplies of ammunition give the game a more action-RPG feel than the control scheme would suggest. Fallout 3 rears its head again here in the form of perks that you can choose from each time you gain a level, mostly giving you either a damage boost or extra health.

In spite of all this, the game is far from serious. In conversation, characters are represented by amusing or cute photos of real cats, and the names of the perks make liberal use of the internet’s various cat memes. I never laughed aloud, but the tongue in cheek tone works fairly well and gives the game some personality.

I should shoot you right now for wearing those glasses

Aside from the largely uninspiring visual design (par for the course among Xbox indies), my only real complaint is the length. I wasn’t watching the clock, but I estimate that I finished My Cat vs Zombies Ep I in about an hour, maybe an hour and a half, and that included quite a lot of leisurely exploration. That still isn’t bad for 80 Microsoft points, and this game is clearly intended as the first in a series of episodes, but I’m no fan of the episodic release format. It irritates me when I have to stop playing just as a game is hitting its stride.

Still, if wanting more of the same is my biggest gripe, I’d have to say My Cat vs Zombies Ep I is a winner. Not a big winner – maybe a local raffle winner rather than a lottery millionaire – but certainly worth a play for its charming post-apocalyptic RPG adventure. It’s just a shame that everyone with any taste will be sent screaming in the opposite direction by the gut-churningly awful title and cover art.

10 Amazingly Awful Games Vol 2

A title like 10 Amazingly Awful Games Volume 2 has to be a marketing ploy. I never played the original 10 Amazingly Awful Games because I had enough faith in its self-assessment to save my time, but I’ve heard that they weren’t actually bad. On that flimsy basis, I thought it was worth taking a chance on the sequel, Volume 2.

The game’s developer said recently that his aim was to parody old low-grade game collections such as the infamous Action 52. I’ll admit I was a little curious as to whether this worked as a parody or merely retrod the same ill-advised path.

As it turned out, the contents of 10 Amazingly Awful Games Volume 2 were quite variable in quality. In the interests of clarity and satisfying my neurotic leanings, here is a blow-by-blow account of what I found lurking within. Buckle up; it’s a rollercoaster ride. One of those rickety old rollercoasters that you find in dilapidated, windswept coastal resorts that are decades past their prime.

In the order that they occur in the menu:

Blobby Blobby is a very basic one-hit-death platformer with clumsy controls, unclear hit detection and bursts of unreasonable difficulty that seem to be designed to catch you out. Platformers live or die by their controls, and Blobby Blobby controls like trying to balance a blancmange on a tennis ball.

10 Amazingly Awful Games Vol 2 - Blobby Blobby

Fruit Defender has you pressing the face buttons to pop fruit that approaches from the corresponding four directions. It’s executed perfectly soundly but feels depressingly pointless. There’s just no incentive to keep going.

Grid Warrior is basically a monochrome Space Invaders. A few negligible additions, such as enemy turrets at the sides and the ability to move up and down the screen, fail to enhance the experience.

I Madez a Clone Wiv Zombies Innit is one of the better offerings in this package. It’s a vertically scrolling twin-stick shooter with a few weapon pick-ups. Its title parody of I MAED A GAM3 W1TH Z0MBIES 1N IT!!!1 gave me a chuckle but after that the experience went downhill. It functions adequately, and when I was seven years old this would have seemed like the best game ever. If you’ve ever played a twin-stick shooter before, though, this low-rent, entry-level attempt will just remind you that you could be playing better versions. As a rule, a game that parodies another game has to be either at least as good as the original, or amusing enough to compensate. The gameplay here is very basic at best, and the only humour to be found is in the title. The eye-scouringly horrible visuals don’t help, with primary school character sprites and backgrounds that look like the contents of a dinosaur’s stomach.

10 Amazingly Awful Games Vol 2 - I Madez a Clone Wiv Zombies Innit

Lame Defenders 2 is a side-scrolling space shooter. You shoot things. It’s more challenging than it seems and, like the zombie/clone game above, could be fun for a child who’s never played anything like it. I had flashbacks to my dad’s Atari 2600, in gameplay style if not in aesthetic. It’s still sinfully ugly though, and your spacecraft moves woodenly enough that it can be needlessly frustrating to manoeuvre.

Nastyroids is the classic Asteroids with weapon power-ups, a larger arena and occasional targets that fight back. If you’re someone who still longs to play Asteroids, you might enjoy this. I never really liked Asteroids that much, but this take on the formula does the job perfectly well. It gave me some simple fun for a little while. The expanded arena helps the classic clunky control scheme (rotate your ship with the left stick, then propel it forward with the right trigger) feel less frustrating, and its basic visuals are an upgrade over the wireframe graphics of its predecessor. Probably the best of the whole batch, by virtue of being a decent enough example of its type.

Seeker is a 2D explorer/shooter. I don’t know if it’s based on an old template like many of the other games here, but the game it reminds me of most is the dreadful Bit Crunch. Fortunately Seeker isn’t that bad. You roam around a randomly generated maze of rooms, dodging obstacles and shooting enemies, looking for keycards and the route to a computer that must be destroyed. Your health (or ‘power’ here) depletes over time as well as when you take hits, so the pressure is on. Seeker actually has some potential to be fun. If it wasn’t for a couple of glaring problems, it could be something I’d choose to play, at least for a little while. Firstly, it’s very easy to get stuck on corners. When leaving a room, I got stuck more often than I didn’t, particularly if I was hastily fleeing a group of enemies. Secondly, you can only shoot left or right, despite the manifest need to at least add up and down to the range of fire. It’s infuriating losing valuable points from my power meter just because an enemy approached from above and I had to manoeuvre across the entire room to be in a position to open fire. I think the lesson here is that the developer should give up on making batches of ten lazy, poorly designed games and focus on making one decent game. If he’d devoted the effort from the other nine games in this collection solely to Seeker, it might have been worth playing.

10 Amazingly Awful Games Vol 2 - Stormwheel

Stormwheel is a driving/shooting hybrid that reminds me very much of Action Fighter on the Sega Master System. The objective is to get to the finish line within the time limit while dodging hazards, shooting other cars and making blind jumps that require trial and error. As an Action Fighter clone, it’s fine. It does pretty much what that game did. The problem is that Action Fighter wasn’t much fun 25 years ago, and age hasn’t improved it. It isn’t offensively terrible but there’s really no reason to play it. It’s just not a fun way to spend your free time.

Terror Tunnel is a watered down Missile Command. Use a reticle to direct your fire against falling stuff. Hold the right trigger and move the left stick around. At one point I realised I was daydreaming about walking to the supermarket to buy lunch, but still successfully playing the game. Skip it like a flat rock on a tepid sea.

Viper Wing is a vertically scrolling space shooter. Hold the right trigger while weaving around. So bland that even its own description of itself uses the word ‘generic’. Presumably that’s a chortling display of the art of high parody but, as I said about I Cloned a Clone with Clones In It above, a parody still has to be a good game if you expect anyone to play it, or else be funny enough that people will forgive the mediocre gameplay. Going ‘ho ho, my game is intentionally generic’ at the beginning doesn’t qualify.

10 Amazingly Awful Games Vol 2 - Viper Wing

All in all, 10 Amazingly Awful Games Volume 2 neither follows through on the grim threat of its title, nor really works as a fun parody. A couple of the games within are simple fun for brief periods, but there’s nothing here that can’t be found better elsewhere, usually very cheap. Admittedly you’re effectively paying a measly 8 Microsoft points for each game in the collection, but that doesn’t make it right. I wouldn’t forgo my lunchtime BLT in favour of munching down on eight boxes of toothpicks just because the price is the same, and you shouldn’t be tempted to buy ten games that occasionally manage to reach up and tug at the ankles of mediocrity. If you want all these games, it’s worth paying ten times the price for ten better versions.

10 Amazingly Awful Games Volume 2 isn’t amazingly, astonishingly, tourist-enticingly hideous. It’s just bad. I’d take one competent game over ten half-hearted ones any day.


[Originally written for The Indie Mine, using a review copy supplied by them.]

Infinity Danger

I’m not a great fan of twin-stick shooters. I occasionally play one that’s fun, but mostly they’re too generic, shallow and uninspired to appeal to me. They’re either variations on Asteroids, Geometry Wars clones or I Made a Game with Zombies wannabes. Dull.

I played Infinity Danger because I’d read something intriguing about it. More on that later. I entered the game expecting another wave-swarm-survival-arena-spraying-shooty yawn factory. What I got was my little ship, a huge ship that wanted to kill me, and a load of guns pointed at my face. I bricked it, just a little bit.

Infinity Danger drops you in a combat zone and has you square off against one solitary enemy – a sprawling airborne fortress that would be an end-of-stage boss in other games. It’s given a variety of names that are determined by its exact armaments, but in a nod to Sonic & Knuckles I think of it as The Flying Battery.

When you first butt heads with this thing, it’s merely large. Its arsenal is limited to being just slightly overwhelming. With some nimbleness of thumbs, you can wear down each fortified limb until the core is exposed, then finally trash the beast.

Bask in the glow of victory. You have all of five seconds before the next cry of “Danger! Danger! Danger!” heralds…well…danger. You were expecting someone else? Hell no. The Flying Battery is back, and it’s seriously pissed off. It’s bigger, it’s more heavily armed, and it’s more determined than ever to rip you apart.

And that is how Infinity Danger plays out. It’s a series of boss confrontations against ever-evolving forms of the Flying Battery. Sounds boring replaying the same battle over and over, right? Surprisingly, it isn’t. The key word to take from the above sentence is ‘evolving’. The Flying Battery doesn’t just grow larger and get tougher, it actually responds to your play style, fortifying against your strengths and jamming a rusty fork in your weaknesses.

Did you strip it of most of its armour before you took it down last time? Well this time it’ll have much more armour, that will take you longer to get through. Did you manage to dodge its lasers but sustain a couple of painful hits from its missiles? Bad news; this time it has three times as many missile launchers, and the lasers have been traded out for a vulcan cannon. Sorry.

This is true escalating difficulty. Infinity Danger doesn’t increase the challenge by throwing in things that someone thought would be tougher to survive. It assesses you with an unflinching eye, then attacks you where you’re vulnerable. And if its new strategy doesn’t pay off, it changes again. Each revival of the Flying Battery is one step closer to being an enemy custom-built to be your personal worst nightmare.

And the real kick in the teeth is it doesn’t even need to beat you. You’re running on a time limit, trying to score as highly as you can before your stock of precious seconds trickles away into infinity (danger). All your nemesis has to do is stall for time. But don’t think for a moment that this means it’ll go easy on you. Oh no, the titanic screen-filling nightmare death fortress will do everything it can to grind your face into the industrial landscape below, and it will enjoy it. Sooner or later you will reach a point where the pre-battle cry of “Danger! Danger! Danger!” ceases to be just a routine commencement klaxon, and instead becomes a teeth-clenching warning of an impossible struggle against insurmountable odds.

It’s always worth playing a game that delivers on its promise. An infinity of danger awaits.

Old School Destruction

Oh how I wish this was a game about demolishing a decrepit educational establishment. The heady thrill of lining up the wrecking ball, the management sim aspects of ensuring you have at least one worker not on a coffee break at any given time – what’s not to love there? Certainly it would have more to offer than the reality of Old School Destruction.

OSD, as it dubs itself with the pushy jocularity of the maldorous bore regaling you with ‘humorous’ accountancy anecdotes at the bus stop, is sort of a twin-stick shooter. Tell me, what are twin-stick shooters primarily characterised by, other than their use of both sticks? Some form of action, right? Stuff happening? Not here. Those of you who lament modern games’ tendency to include activity need no longer spend your free time sighing wistfully over memories of spending hours watching a broken Pong machine go about its delightfully inanimate business. You now have OSD to fill that gaping chasm in your life.

Things get off to a horrendous start, with the longest loading times in the world. Holy shit. We’re talking Morrowind on original Xbox loading times, here. Long enough for you to make and eat a BLT without encroaching on your play time. In Morrowind it was only barely tolerable on the basis that it was a game intended for PCs, running on a console that cried at the mere thought of trying to load its Jupiter-sized game world. Here, it’s an indie game that certainly doesn’t seem strikingly huge, running on a current-gen console, with visuals that would make a PS1 smirk derisively. The only excuse I can see for this gargantuan loading time is that the developers are frantically stalling in the hope that you will quit before reaching the gameplay, and no one will ever discover their secret shame.

No, Dave, not Spin the Bottle. Now is not the time.

I sat through this lengthy wait, clutching ever more sceptically to the hope that it meant there would be something really impressive coming. Surely if it takes that long to load, it must have a load of content. Well…I don’t know. It might be the longest game on the face of the earth; I played for as long as I could bear to, but I really don’t want to find out how long this abomination lasts.

If it played in some sort of normal, coherent fashion it might be a mediocre and forgettable roaming twin-stick shooter. But it doesn’t. Somehow it manages to mess up this simple control concept. You thought you’d seen some pointless control decisions in these games, right? The ones that require you to pull the trigger to fire in addition to aiming with the stick, for instance? Redundant, certainly. But at least they function. OSD…does not.

Move with the left stick, aim with the right. So far, so good. Unfortunately, that’s the end of the part that makes any sense. You see, the right stick doesn’t control the simple direction of your aim, but instead moves crosshairs around the screen. You aim at an enemy by placing the crosshairs over them. It reminds me a little of Syndicate, in that it would probably be much easier to control with a mouse. Awkward, but not necessarily insurmountable.

Oh, the misery of this war-torn...er...series of hexagons.

But wait. It’s not over.

The reticle sticks like glue to your target. This probably seemed like a clever way to overcome the imprecision of twin-stick aiming, but clearly whoever implemented this system never bothered to actually use it. It’s possible to detach your crosshairs from a target, but it isn’t easy. You chose your target, and now you’re stuck with it unless your aim unglues itself on a passing whim. Like a senile terrier, the reticle latches onto anything that comes near it and won’t let go until you wrench it away with the force of a titan.

While OSD doesn’t (or didn’t, in the time I was able to endure it before ruining my controller with my tears) fling screen-filling hordes of enemies at you like most twin-stick shooters, there are often a number of foes attacking at once. These are spawned from generators that need to be destroyed but do eventually stop churning out cannon fodder, like the locust holes in Gears of War. As enemies approach and you manoeuvre to stay clear of them, the wisest choice of target changes from moment to moment. The enemy who was leading the charge is now at the back, while another is almost on top of you. Well, tough shit. Should have thought of that earlier.

Just to rub salty faeces in the septic open wound, the gluey reticle is indecisive. Some enemies sprint straight at you and the game advises you to use a melee attack against them. That’s fine. But when I can see them coming a mile away, surely it’s in my interest to pick a couple off before they reach me? No? If it’s possible to make the crosshairs lock on these runners, I never managed to pull it off. Maybe that’s a conscious design choice. So what we have is either inept programming or poorly considered design. What a treat.

Dave, look out! I just saw some grey movement over there behind the grey, next to the grey!

I like games, and I’m pretty forgiving of flaws. There are numerous much-maligned games that I quite enjoy, simply because I’m able to overlook their odd control scheme, their hideous graphics or even their excessive loading. Not this time, though. When I exited the game because I couldn’t take any more, I could feel my face grimacing and I noticed myself making a disgusted ‘urgh’ noise.

Old Scool Adventure is horrible. It has many more flaws than I’ve mentioned here, flaws that would count as serious mark-downs against another game, but here they are actually the high points. The control scheme should have been listed alongside rains of blood and the four horsemen as a sign of the imminent apocalypse. Even in the supremely unlikely event that you’re willing and able to keep playing OSD through your torrent of tears and sporadic retching fits, I can’t see anyone repeatedly sitting through a loading process that lasts longer than the complete run of the X Files.