In a month like this when there are so few big-name games hitting the shelves, you'd hope that some of the left-field alternatives in the download arena would fill the cavernous void. Well, lucky you, because this week we have arguably one of the best titles ever to hit WiiWare.
Sadly, anecdotal evidence seems to suggest (certainly among my friends and peers) that few so-called hardcore gamers ever bother to check out what's on Nintendo's download service. That's a real shame (if that's you) because some of the most exciting and downright creatively ambitious downloadable titles have appeared on both WiiWare and DSiWare lately.
Elsewhere, the iPad gets its first standalone title in one of our roundups, in the shape of the charmingly creative but rather limited Omium, while all bases are covered with the latest download-only titles of note on the PS3, DS and Xbox 360. If there's a game you've seen lately that you think we should review, feedback is always welcome...
Art Style: Penta Tentacles
- WiiWare / 600 points (£4.20)
Alongside the excellent Bit.Trip titles, the presence of the oddball Art Style games offers exactly the kind of creatively engaging and generally 'out there' experiences Nintendo promised when it first spoke of getting into the digital download space. You can't really imagine Penta Tentacles ever getting a boxed release, put it that way.
Set entirely underwater, Skip's latest WiiWare effort initially evokes memories of early PSN starlet flOw, with the goal to grow an aquatic organism by carefully brushing its flailing limbs into other micro-organisms of the same colour. Touch something of the same colour and it adds one segment to that limb, but if you mismatch then it will break off the limb at the point of impact and rob you of a life.
As you journey through the primordial ooze, it feels more like a trippy limb-flailing Snake, with the focus on continual growth of your organism while also avoiding obstacles. Once you've reached the goal of adding, say, 10 segments to each tentacle, you move on to the next stage and the process starts again. Eventually, more limbs get added to your organism, making the process of manoeuvring that much more hazardous. By gingerly rotating and steering yourself out of the way, you can carve a swathe through the gunk, gradually making yourself more conspicuous in the process.
A further reward comes in the form of additional modes, such as Endless and Snake mode. The former tasks you with absorbing a set number of organisms to progress to the next level, with no limit to your growth, while the latter is a neat twist on the concept, giving you two sides but only one tentacle. Although you still have to absorb the right colours as usual with your tentacle, the opposite side has to be used to get rid of everything else.
Whenever oddities like this turn up, I end up spending more time explaining what they are than how they make you feel. Fortunately, that's the easy part. Penta Tentacles is like a cuddly drug; a game you won't feel guilty about playing relentlessly on a sunny day in June.
Animal Color Cross
- DSiWare / 500 points (£4.50)
There are two suggested requirements for appreciating Little Worlds Studios' latest DSiWare release: one, you go to bed at night with after-images of Picross puzzles burned onto your retinas, and, two, you're a sucker for cuddly animal pictures. [John Walker would give it 10/10 then - Ed.]
Despite looking for all the world like another utterly throwaway, cheap Nonogram knock-off, it's evidently a gameplay formula that's impossible to screw up.
If you've never played any of Nintendo's many Picross titles, this is as good a place to start as any. Presented with a simple grid, you have to fill in squares with the correct colour to reveal the animal picture beneath as quickly as possible.
To help you fill in the picture are a series of numbers down the side and across the top, each corresponding to how many squares of the respective colour are required in each column or row, and the general idea is to gradually deduce the correct colour based on the information available to you. Each wrong guess incurs a time penalty, so it's vital not to be too hasty.
Complete with 72 grids to unpick, the boast of 50 hours of gameplay is probably not far from the truth, and for the sake of a few quid you'll get to feel good about freeing cute furry things.
Omium - 2 Player Shooter
- iPad / £0.59
What's that coming over the hill? Is it the inevitable barrage of novelty iPad titles knocked up quick-smart to take full advantage of the pent-up demand for something vaguely original? Why, you massive cynic, you.
Amusingly rated 9+ for its "infrequent/mild cartoon or fantasy violence", NimbleBit's two-player shooter intriguingly puts one of you in the role of the Bad Guy, while the other is presumably defending the very fate of mankind (or playing in goal for England).
By simply tapping the top portion of the screen, one of you rains moody-faced blocks down on your opponent like some sort of lunatic Space Invaders dispenser, while the one controlling the spaceship returns fire and dodges nimbly for as long as possible. With a limited supply of Bad Guys at your disposal, the aggressor can either rapidly tap to try and fill the screen with enemies, or hold a finger down to make the Bad Guys grow larger.
With its ultra-retro monochrome styling and extreme minimalist approach, it's a game you'll probably expect to be amazing. Sadly, the novelty wears off in a matter of seconds rather than minutes, and as soon as your opponent regularly unleashes the drumming fingers of death down upon you, it ceases to be a fair fight.
The presence of three subtly different modes (Dodge, Juggle and Infinite) twists the rules a touch, but its lustre soon diminishes. What you're left with is the skeleton of a cute idea, but for the price, that's probably fair enough.
Söldner X-2: Final Prototype
- PSN (PS3) / £9.99
Like football games and beat-'em-ups, there are hallowed genres that should just be left to the masters, and the 2D shmup definitely belongs in that category.
Evidently undeterred by the tepid critical reception it received for the PC/PS3 original a couple of years back, Sidequest Studios has returned with another stab at furious side-scrolling mayhem.
This polished sequel battles manfully to excite, with the requisite formation chaos, glossy backdrops, chunky weapon selection and mandatory screen-filling bosses. But despite ticking all the boxes, there's a certain spark of magic missing from Final Prototype, and it comes off feeling rather too in awe of the past to dare to take anything forwards.
You won't have too much trouble blitzing the first five of seven manic stages, but the game basically forces you to complete all manner of challenges to unlock the next two. On paper it's a great idea to encourage replay value and to make the game accessible to all-comers, but in truth, having to wade through the same few mildly entertaining stages over and over again is of limited appeal.
Like Craig David covering Marvin Gaye, Söldner X-2 makes you pine for the real deal.
Snoopy Flying Ace
- Xbox Live Arcade / 800 Microsoft Points (£6.80)
Wondering why on earth Snoopy is the star of a flight combat game set in World War 1? You're not alone. Apparently, one of the loveable cartoon dog's famous alter egos was as a Flying Ace who fantasised about climbing aboard the Sopwith Camel and battling the infamous Red Baron.
Presumably devotees of the adorable Schulz cartoon, Smartbomb Interactive fancied dropping the licence on top of long-lost classics like Crimson Skies and Secret Weapons Over Normandy, and crafting a series of aerial battles out of the ensuing silliness.
Playable solo or in split-screen co-op, Snoopy Flying Ace plays out as a bit of a My First Flight Combat game, with enclosed environments, simplified objectives and stripped-down controls to make it instantly accessible to everyone. Much of the time you're simply buzzing around the same small clutch of islands, barrel-rolling and doing loop-the-loops while trying to get a bead on resolutely slippery foes. With an unlimited stock of rockets and machine gun ammo, each mission winds up as a fairly perfunctory war of attrition, devoid of real challenge.
Occasional variety places you in turrets, or tasks you with bombing runs, but for the most part you're locked into a pleasantly lightweight affair befitting of a cheap-ish downloadable effort. With a comprehensive array of multiplayer modes adding plenty of dogfighting action to the fray, this is well worth checking out, if inessential for the committed veterans.