App of the Day: Zaga-33

Have @ you.

Version tested iPad

@'s been a gaming superstar since 1980, climbing up from the keyboard - where he had spent a quiet, rather mild-mannered life, resting above '2' and waiting for email to be invented - and jumping into the screen itself, ready to explore dank caves and castle keeps, sip mysterious potions, and battle monsters. Let's hear it for @, everybody. Let's hear it for Rogue.

Let's hear it for Roguelikes, too, the procedurally-generated, brutally punishing dungeon-crawlers that have spent the last 30 years inflicting minimalist horrors and ASCII torture on foolhardy players around the world.

Like permadeath? Enjoy randomised loot? Got a pen and paper handy to keep track of things? You're ready to play a Roguelike. My prognosis: pain.

1

Hectic and twitchy, it's a great game to play while pondering a FEZ puzzle.

Actually, with Zaga-33, you won't need the pen and paper. Michael Brough, the creator of gorgeously migrainey games like Vertex Dispenser and Glitch Tank, has limited each level of the dungeon you're diving through to a single screen. Everything from the entrance and exit spots to the randomised obstacles and wandering enemies is visible to you from the moment you arrive at a new floor.

Does this reduce the tension? Hardly. (Would it reduce the tension if you were locked in a garage with a bunch of angry gorillas and I switched on the light for you?) Instead, a clear view of the landscape actually makes things even more stressful, as you see your enemies stalking you turn by turn, confounding your plans and complicating that crucial path to the exit.

Luckily, though, you're not entirely powerless. You have nine hitpoints to spend in combat, and you regain a single lost point each time you reach a new level. Even better, there are plenty of artefacts scattered around the caves you're exploring, and although their uses are muddled about for each game, they tend to be seriously helpful, sending out laser beams, say, or freezing enemies, damaging everyone at once, or even blasting holes in walls.

2

You won't have a long life in Zaga-33, but it will be filled with violent incident.

As with most Roguelikes, though, there's still a wonderful uneasy thrill whenever you fire an artefact up for the first time. Sure, it could create a handy little drone that runs around, thinning the ranks of your foes, but it might teleport you randomly into the heart of the mob, and that would probably be bad news.

Each enemy seems to have its own AI behaviours, meanwhile, and dodging the ugly green nasties you're faced with sometimes feels a bit like dancing between razor blades back in good old Jet Set Willy. There's a sense of stilted choreography to Zaga-33's enemy movements.

Feeling heroic, then? This is all about seeing how far you can go on a single credit: heading deeper and deeper into this punishing and entirely unfair world, and surviving through skill, quick thinking, and absolute dumb luck at times. Your reward for getting closer to your eventual goal - a cortex that you have to destroy on level 25, I think - comes in the form of new tile sets. All of them make use of a sickly colour scheme and fantastically gloopy pixel graphics, and although the game isn't ASCII-based, your @ still looks entirely at home in this brilliantly primitive landscape. The oozing, wheezing soundtrack isn't bad either. I think I love this game.

Zaga-33 isn't available on Android yet as far as I'm aware, but if you don't have an iPhone or an iPad, you can download it for free on both PC and Mac. Brough makes luminously clever games, and this is as good an introduction to his stuff as anything. Get to it.

App of the Day highlights interesting games we're playing on the Android, iPad, iPhone and Windows Phone 7 mobile platforms, including post-release updates. If you want to see a particular app featured, drop us a line or suggest it in the comments.

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