Remakes, rip-offs, subtle twists. There really is no secret recipe to making a great download game, as this week's ragbag collective amply proves.
On the surface, none of the five titles put under the microscope this week look like anything special, and you'd be dead right to shrug your shoulders at the prospect of a couple of puzzle titles, a diving game, a Castlevania clone and a board game remake. Yeah, big deal.
But once you actually get around to playing them, it's abundantly clear how much effort has gone into making every one special in its own sweet way. Dive manages to outdo Endless Ocean at a fraction of the price, while Piczle Lines outdoes most puzzle games at no cost at all. And if you can resist that one, you're probably just immune to fun.
Dive: The Medes Island Secret
- WiiWare / 1000 Wii Points (£7.00)
When Ringo Starr sang "I'd like to be, under the sea, in an Octopus's Garden in the shade," he probably didn't imagine Mr Octopus and his fishy mates could be such utter cocksacks.
Far from being cuddly peace-loving creatures of impossible natural beauty, all this lot want to do is nibble on your fleshy parts while you go about your treasure-hunting business. Not cool.
Essentially a modern-day update of Spectrum classic Scuba Dive, the idea is to explore the ocean floor and scoop up as much booty as you can while trying not to get killed by vindictive aquatic life.
Despite its initially playful and "relaxing" charm, where you mainly focus on conserving your air, about four levels in Dive decides that the gloves are off and proceeds to slap you around like a cat toying with a barely-alive mouse. Jellyfish, spiky plants, puffer fish, sharks, hideous cave-lurking tendrils and giant bloody octopuses all consider you fair game, lining up to take turns to feast on this foolish morsel paddling around in the blue.
But hey, we all love a bit of punishment-reward in our videogaming, don't we? Especially when the rewards let you dive even deeper. And we all know what's down there, eh?
- iPhone / free (extra level packs available for purchase)
Admittedly, Piczle Lines just looks like some brain-optional logic puzzle game where you pair up numbers on a grid until a picture forms out of the chaos. But look how lonely they are. They're certainly not going to track down their ideal partner by themselves. You're welling up just thinking about it, admit it.
Maybe it is brain-optional. Or maybe I just really like tidying things up for reasons too dark to unpick. Whatever it is, Piczle Lines is the game I had to positively force myself to stop playing this week.
Score Studios knows exactly how to reel players in. It all starts off with a premise so simple a baboon could figure it out, but there you are, hours later, still doodling wiggly lines in an endless expression of numerical reunification.
Presented with an empty grid full of numbers, you have to gradually fill in the entire grid line by line by connecting a path between two numbers of the same colour. To start with, you'll doodle in the low numbers, like 2, 3 and 4, because they're almost impossible to screw up. The larger the number, the harder it is to determine the correct path, and the more genuine logic needs to be applied.
With three packs of 20 puzzles given away for free, you might imagine Score has missed a trick for such an obsessively addictive game. But once Piczle Lines has its hooks in, you may as well surrender. Along with recent obsession Numba, this is pure puzzle perfection.
- PSN Minis (PSP & PS3) / £3.49
Scientific studies have objectively, verifiably demonstrated that even live Outdoor Bowls commentary is marginally more interesting than talking about match-three videogames, so hang in there.
Mere Mortals' admirable Minis effort involves saving hapless fishies before the beastly fishermen haul in their nets. As with seemingly most things in life, ensuring their route to safety involves lining up three colours of a kind and cackling inappropriately as tasty points come pouring down an imaginary pipe.
Armed with the ability to move each row left and right, and each column up and down, you're constantly shuffling the board around, eyeing the next opportunity to free these tasty morsels from certain doom.
In the quick-fire Arcade mode, the goal is to simply rescue as many as you can for as long as possible before the counter expires. Create a line of three, four or five and you're awarded with a few more precious seconds. Faff around, though, and it'll be Game Over in a couple of minutes.
But where Aquattack (Aquat Tack? A Quattack? Aqu Attack?) really comes alive is in the monumentally compulsive Challenge mode. Comprised of 50 short, sharp tasks, this mode gives you a target (make two lines of five), and a time limit (30 seconds) and thrusts you into a series of panic-stricken situations that often require lightning insight and forethought to pull off.
What starts off as a fairly humdrum spin on match-three soon reveals itself to be a devious little time thief. Do not be deceived. Show it the error of its ways.
- Xbox Live Arcade / 1200 Microsoft Points (£10.20)
Yeah, we're a bit late to the party with this one, but only because the game steadfastly refused to work on our 360. Fortunately, it was worth the wait for this slick, streamlined version of the classic board game.
But before the board game purists have a coronary, we should point out that Electronic Arts has been thoroughly respectful of the source material, presenting Risk in both old and new flavours.
For fans of classic Risk, nothing's changed from the board game, with the ability to play the same turn-based game of world domination that we all know and love. Playable offline or online, it ticks all the boxes you could wish for. The only problem is that playing a decent game of Risk can take absolutely hours, which is where Risk: Factions comes in.
Rather than simply tart up the existing gameplay with a few lazy gimmicks, EA has adopted the goal-based rules introduced in 2008, where the aim is to achieve specific objectives (such as controlling all the radar installations at once) rather than engage in a pure land-grab exercise.
Capturing enemy capitals, for example, grants you more units to deploy on the next turn, while securing control of a dam allows you to flood enemy territory. But with several key parts of each map to aim for, there's always an alternative strategy available. As ever in Risk, though, even the best-laid plans can falter at the mercy of the dice.
With five excellent campaign missions to master, and local or online play for up to five players, it's hard to think of a single reason why you wouldn't enjoy battling it out with malicious cats, malfunctioning robots, slavering zombies and hairy yetis.
Soul of Darkness
- DSiWare / 500 DSi Points (£4.50)
If even Konami itself can't seem to fashion a decent Castlevania any more, what chance has Gameloft of doing any better?
Unexpectedly, despite being the most blatant tribute imaginable, Soul of Darkness serves as a timely reminder of why Castlevania is held in such high esteem in the first place.
On a mission to save your loved one from the clutches of an evil vampire (as opposed to the cuddly sensitive ones you might come across in True Blood), it's the usual 2D platforming romp through intricate castles and cathedrals. Humming All About Eve and Sisters Of Mercy songs is, of course, mandatory.
It's only fair, then, that you get to dispatch an array of familiar foes, from gargoyles and werewolves to zombies and succubi. Armed with a fire spear and, eventually, an ice spear, you cut a dash, slashing wildly, showing everyone what a dark prince you really are.
As if there were in any doubt of your greatness, you'll eventually get to show off your shape-shifting skills, periodically changing into a bug, fish, or column of water in order to negotiate all those tricky-to-reach places. No-one said winning back your love was going to be easy.
With its pleasantly non-fascist checkpointing, sensibly compact level design and satisfying combat system, you'll appreciate Soul Of Darkness all the more. It's short, sweet and entirely unoriginal, but for all the right reasons.