It's long been accepted that the games industry basically turns off the tap of new boxed releases for most of December and January, but this year that only seems to have provoked the download sector. This past few weeks has produced some of its best games in ages, with the likes of Raskulls, ilomilo and echochrome II demonstrating the depth and quality you'd expect from games costing many times the price they ask.
Those appear to be just the tip of the iceberg, too, as this week's exceptional line-up of downloadable titles demonstrates in some style, with two 9/10 offerings, two 8/10s and a 7/10, and many more left off the five-game shortlist due to lack of space. In particular, we didn't have room for the many interesting new Xbox Indie titles doing the rounds (including Score Rush, ZP2KX, Revolver360 and Cthulhu Saves The World – titles we hope to get to soon). In the meantime, enjoy the best line-up of download titles yet.
- PSN - £3.99 (£2.99 with PlayStation Plus)
Where have you been all my life, Blokus? Somehow I've managed to avoid physical contact with this incredibly tense, absorbing shape-laying multiplayer puzzle game over the past decade. And not because it's been trying to avoid my attention, either – there's the original board game, the bizarrely overlooked PSP game release, Gameloft's excellent iOS versions released last year, and there's even Blokus Online. Whoops.
Now available with PlayStation Move enhancements on PSN, I decided to atone for my error by actually bothering to review it. I'm extremely glad I did.
If you've never indulged, here's the deal. You have 21 assorted Tetris-esque shapes to dispense with, and take it in turns with up to three other players to do so. The game finishes when all players are blocked from laying down any more pieces.
Played on a 20 by 20 grid, the game kicks off with each player laying down a piece of their choice in their respective corners, and each new piece must touch only the corner of another piece of the same colour, and never the sides. Within a few turns you start strategically being the biggest bastard possible by blocking your foes from laying their weary slabs. It all gets testy very quickly.
The ultimate aim, of course, is to occupy the largest number of squares on the board, which the game tallies up based on the pieces you've laid. If you're ninja enough to lay all 21 pieces, you gain an extra 15 points to go with your smug grin.
Although arguably best played as a four-player game with real people in the same room, the PSN version offers plenty of scope to play with canny AI, including a mode where you take control of two sets of shapes, as well as a team-based mode where you must gang up against two of your opponents.
Predictably, it's a breeze to play on Move. The drag-and-drop premise lends itself particularly well to the new controller. But even on a boring old DualShock, this is among the most intense, competitive, and devilishly strategic puzzle games I've ever come across, and it's as cheap as (posh) chips. Buy it immediately.
- Xbox Live Arcade - 800 Microsoft Points (£6.80)
- PSN - £6.29
We've come a long way since Fantastic Voyage. Our haircuts may be slightly worse, and we still haven't learned the harsh lessons about leg warmers and high-waisted trousers, but when it comes to making games about piloting microscopic craft around the human body, Naked Sky Entertainment makes us feel like Tomorrow's World was onto something.
This unexpectedly absorbing twin-stick shooter has an air of sinister mystery about it that pulls you into its battle against spiteful micro-organisms. From the moment you're literally shot into the game through a hypodermic needle, it's a war you feel oddly compelled to see through, even when you're fully aware that it's only the context that makes it interesting.
For the first few levels, it's not even that much fun. You beetle along down various arteries, shooting ugly spiky things, and dutifully hoover up the 'atoms' and DNA left behind in their squelchy wake. Eventually you stumble across hubs where you get to upgrade your arsenal and strap on expensive new gear.
Once you do, Microbots gradually comes into its own. With progressively more interesting and challenging enemies to face, the game stops being a routine plod into twin-stick shooter land and acts more like the furious all-out war that it promised at the outset. Having initially impressed thanks to the mere beauty of its organic environments, it's the kind of game you end up prodding your friends into trying.
So take no notice of the game's early failings. This is yet another quality downloadable shooter that deserves both your money and your love.
Hydroventure (also known as Fluidity)
- WiiWare - 1200 WiiWare points (£8.40, with free demo available)
If you're as pathetically disorganised as some of us, you probably spent a miserable Christmas Eve pissing about amidst the hellish throngs buying the presents you swore you'd gather earlier this year. As a result, you probably missed out on one of Nintendo's best ever WiiWare releases, which arrived the same day.
It's essentially an ingenious side-scrolling platform-puzzler, but the star of the show isn't some meek child who triumphs over adversity, or a buff warrior off to get the girl – it's humble water in its various forms.
You start off the game slooshing a pool of it around a gorgeous puzzle-strewn environment, gently coaxing it left or right by tilting the whole area in the direction you want it to flow. Lose too many droplets en route and the wayward blobs evaporate to nothingness, and there won't be enough weight to activate the switches that operate the various doors and machinery that block your path to the elusive Rainbow Drops, which you need in order to wash away all the badness corrupting the environment.
Collect enough of them and you gain access to new parts of the level where you're rewarded with new abilities that help solve the many challenges. For example, to complement your default ability to 'jump' by jolting the controller upwards, eventually you're able to gather the water together in one unified blob for a short while, and then use it to blast obstacles out of the way or shower fiery foes with a cooling splash. The further you progress, the more versatile the water becomes, with ice and steam coming into play along with new lightning attack abilities.
Unlike a lot of download titles I could mention, Hydroventure is also designed to go the distance. After an hour or so, you'll be lucky to have found the first half-dozen Rainbow Drops, and there are 80 of the blessed things to go for in total.
With that in mind, it would be demented to whine about the slightly higher than usual price point, when, in reality, Curve Studios has come up with a beautifully original game that in another era would have been much-admired at triple the price. With a free demo version available, you won't even have to splash out to see why we're excited.
A Space Shooter For Two Bucks
- PlayStation Minis - £1.74
Presumably "A Space Shooter For One Pound Seventy-Four Pence" wasn't considered quite as snappy a title for Frima's latest attempt to demonstrate that it is, in fact, possible to make decent-quality Minis.
ASSFTB (as we like to call it) immediately scores bonus hugs for intimate self-awareness of how stupid this all is. It knows it's a dumb-arsed, roaring 2D blaster, so has no problem peppering the campaign with dunderheaded characters with idiotic lines.
Frima also seems to have a good handle on what makes for an exciting retro shooter, and pulls all the tricks out of the bag, with challenging-but-fair waves, engaging boss encounters and all the power-ups in the book. It's also one of the slickest, most visually polished titles we've seen on Minis for a while.
It even bothers to give the game structure and a sense of purpose. Rather than simply providing a long sequence of levels for you to attempt in one show of improbable twitch-shooting skill, it divides them all up into bite-sized chunks that make it perfect for on-the-go consumption. But while you can sample most levels in any order, you find that it's a much better idea to bolt on ship upgrades earned in the easier levels and wait to tackle the more brutal ones when you're an armed-to-the-teeth war bitch.
For a game that's entirely happy to plunder the past and repackage it all with a nod and a wink, this cheery portion of nostalgic blasting is well worth dusting off your neglected PSP for.
- DSiWare - 500 DSiWare points (£4.50)
I love matching things, me. I pair socks with unlikely zeal, and the daily washing-up blitz is made all the more enjoyable by the combos gained through putting the plates and cutlery next to all their buddies. Sadly, while the world continues to haggle over an official scoring system for this noble domestic chore, such achievements go tragically unnoticed.
Not so with Zener Works' loveable twisty-turny number-matching puzzle offering. As the title helpfully points out, this is all about spinning six different numbers and trying to line them up so that they all go to that great number heaven in the sky. If you line up three 3s in a row, for example, they're removed from the grid.
In the game's 'One-Turn' Puzzle mode, you have one chance to make all the numbers line up, and doing so involves moving a 4x4 grid over the numbers you want to rotate. Once you're set, you can either spin them 90 degrees clockwise or anti-clockwise.
As you might expect, removing numbers from the grid has a knock-on effect, with chain reactions causing other numbers to fall into place and, in turn, line up with the remaining digits. In the 'Chain' puzzle mode, you're also given a limited number of spins to create a chain reaction, and, if you're quick, you can move your cursor to a different part of the grid, twist other numbers and take advantage of the ongoing chain reaction.
Puzzle games often sound complicated when you try to explain them to people in text, but Spin Six quickly becomes one of the ones that gets under your skin. And with 99 of the One Turn and Chain puzzles to wade through, there's plenty to keep you going when the Jubilee Line screws up yet again.
On top of that, you've also got the inevitable Time Attack, Score Attack and Chain Challenge modes to battle against, where your mastery of nimble number chain creation is the kind of workout that even Davina McCall would probably pass up on. Who said thumb exercise couldn't be beneficial?