Version tested: Xbox 360
Call it avoidance, call it coincidence, or just plain bone-idleness, but the download scene took an almighty hit during E3. Microsoft turned off the tap for two consecutive weeks, Nintendo seems to have all but given up on WiiWare and DSiWare, and Sony's initial PSN comeback flood has reduced to a trickle.
That's fine, though, because whenever this happens, great games from other platforms seem to magically spring forth. Recently we've had a spate of Steam releases, but this week it seems that the Xbox Live Indie channel is where all the action is, and we've plucked three titles from an especially healthy crop for you this week.
It's a trend that's not likely to slow down in the near future, with numerous extremely promising new titles lined up for this year's Dream, Build, Play contest, where indie developers compete for a Microsoft publishing deal. Check out Firebase Industries' stunning Orbitron: Revolution for an idea of the strength of talent out there. In the meantime: games!
The Adventures Of Shuggy
- Xbox Live Arcade - 800 Microsoft Points (£6.80).
Reading the recent Jet Set Willy retrospective is enough to make any gamer of a certain vintage pine for a slightly cracked 2D platform collect-em up. As if by magic: The Adventures Of Shuggy.
Imagine, if you can, that Matthew Smith flushed his LSD down the bog and went on to become Britain's Miyamoto. By the late 1980s, he'd almost certainly have come up with a game about a wonky-eyed bat-thing who has inherited a castle full of goblins, zombies and robots (except Smith would have filled it with Cossack dancers and man-eating toilets).
With mandatory absurdity, matters are rarely as simple as bounding around collecting all the gems to get the exit key. You wind up facing levels that you can rotate, levels where a ghostly doppelgänger appears and replicates all your prior moves, levels turned on their side with messed-up controls. Anything, basically, that makes you wish you had your 12-year-old self's gaming skills once again.
Fortunately, it's vintage bouncy platforming nonsense right out of the top drawer, wherever that is. Set against the clock, there's not only the pressure to actually succeed, but to crush your friends' list times into the dust.
And if 100 single player levels doesn't sound like the kind of good value you'll rant to your friends about, then Smudged Cat has provided 36 riotously entertaining co-op levels for us to, er, riot to, not to mention online head-to-head, and a slightly superfluous turn-based challenge mode to claim bragging right in the single-player levels (isn't that what the online leaderboards are for?). No wonder it took so bloody long to get the game out of the door.
What's not to like? The controls are silky smooth, the visual style is adorable, and it doesn't involve shooting men in the face. All this for less than the price of a Spectrum game.
- Xbox Live Indie 80 Microsoft Points (£0.68)
Move over Chuck Norris: Eric Woroshow is in town. He works. He kick boxes. He climbs. He codes excellent real-time Risk-alike Tacticolor and demands that you buy his game. No arguments.
As with Risk, greedy land-grabbing is the name of the game. Each player starts off with a set of territories, a finite number of units, and has to go out and do battle with their three opponents to try and dominate the map.
The difference is that everyone's going for it at the same time, so if you snooze, you lose. No room for careful consideration here - you just have to decide how many units to slap down and juggle the demands of defence and attack on the fly.
The best thing about Tacticolor is that you'll be able to forgive the American spelling almost immediately. Thanks to its stylish minimalism and complete absence of droning backstory, you can fill in the blanks. You're fighting for the pyramid head warriors of the future on a mission to lock all abandoned hospital doors.
But despite the shoestring budget, Mr Waroshow has thoughtfully included a three different-sized maps and bothered to include both local and online multiplayer. So what are you waiting for? All your abstract territorial strategy needs are catered for.
- Xbox Live Indie - 80 Microsoft Points (£0.68)
When the June skies are as fed up as tired eyes, and there are men stalking the Devon countryside with murder on their minds, sometimes the only answer is to blast your way through 32 levels of destruction madness.
That's Magiko Gaming's inelegant solution to the summertime blues, anyway, and I'm certainly not going to argue with the perpetrators of the wondrously evil Platformance: Castle Pain.
This time, the indie mischief-makers cop a feel of knackered old VIC-20 game Blitz - but in a good way. Sadly, you'd have to be about 40 and a former owner of the seventh best home computer of the early 1980s to get that reference, so allow me to explain.
Now, as then, it's basically single-screen Scramble, where you guide your aircraft precariously around the sky and attempt to bomb all of your ground targets without incurring any damage yourself.
With the forces of gravity and a limited fuel supply to contend with, you wobble precariously between merciless obstacles and try to dispense your payload with precision. Of course, it's never as easy as it looks, and once the environments get more elaborate and innocents enter the fray, just one slip-up and that's your lot. Back to the start.
Such an obstinate stance will either drive you potty or send you into one-more-go nirvana. Join the OCD brigade and show us what you've got.
Pixelbit Helicopter Challenge
- Xbox Live Indie - 80 Microsoft Points (£0.68)
When people go all doe-eyed about the Dreamcast, you never hear anyone standing up for that lost launch title, Toy Commander. That's probably because it was a bit rubbish, but at least it had the decency to be interesting.
Pixelbit's Helicopter Challenge picks up the house-based flying bit, sprinkles a bit of Pilotwings over it and stands there demanding sixty-eight pence for about 30 levels of the stuff. Bargain.
Unlike a lot of the pointless crud cluttering up the indie racks, it doesn't look like it was knocked up by Buckie-quaffing chat roulette victims. With its long-lost cel-shaded style and precise, responsive twin-stick controls, it's an instant buy.
Under pressure to scoop the gold medals, you'll be soaring through hoops, collecting stars, shooting targets and collecting bonus letters to gain access to the other parts of the house. It's simple, obvious, unpretentious and all the more likeable for it.
People used to make games like this, slap them in boxes and expect large chunks of your pocket money for it. Yeah, it's a bit old fashioned, but then so are you. Roll with it.
- DSiWare - 500 Points (£4.50)
- Previously released on PC and iPhone (£0.59
It's almost preferable when a puzzle game stands there with its arms folded, refusing to explain the rules or even the point of it all. Perhaps that's the point.
Puzzle Rocks comes on like any half-arsed, block-dropping, match-three game you've encountered down the years, if one that requires the turn-based foresight of Connect Four.
But then you realise that Cinemax's latest also requires that you swap between screens and play it in the DS' rarely used book orientation.
Curiosity piqued, you fumble around sliding rows so that the containers match as many falling shapes as you can manage. If you succeed, a gem appears on the corresponding screen, which, if you're smart/lucky, you can reap for points when you feel like it.
And so it goes on, with the goal to eliminate all the jewels while trying to rack up as many points as possible. It's hardly the world's most exciting puzzle formula, but nor does it try to be.
Puzzle Rocks feels like a game comfortable in its own skin, confident enough to exist without fuss or fanfare for people who enjoy whittling away coloured gems at their own sweet pace.