Version tested: PlayStation 3
Even the most promising selection of downloadable games can turn out to be right old duffers, and sadly we find ourselves in "buyer beware" mode this week. But that's all part of the fun of this exciting sector: the often complete absence of hype or pre-release info of any sort turns the selection process into a kind of digital lucky dip.
Sometimes you're dimly aware that other people are getting all excited and take a punt, but, as with AlphaBounce, what looks certain to be quirky and exciting can actually be a bit of a drag. But we're not here just to be giddy cheerleaders for the poster-children of the scene - we'll also point out the ones with faces that only a mother could love. Eurogamer: sparing you from genetically mutated offerings since 1999.
- PlayStation Network (PS3) / £7.99
SEGA proved beyond any doubt several years ago that monkeys are the cutest possible animal to run inside a ball. So what exactly is the point of Hamsterball?
Presumably developer TikGames noticed that there hasn't been a decent Marble Madness-inspired game in forever, and decided to throw in its own take on Super Monkey Ball while it was at it.
By far the most interesting part of the package is Stunt mode, which takes the already tricky Marble Madness template and somehow makes it even more taxing. The simple challenge of guiding your ball to the goal remains, but with some thoroughly devious level design and a sprinkling of pure evil, it treads a fine line between challenging and downright infuriating.
Getting to the goal is usually the least of your worries. Mostly, it's the insane time limits, the unending procession of traps, or the bits when the lights go out just as you're guiding your ball blindly down a narrow snaking ramp. At the 43rd time of asking it's enough to leave you a gibbering wreck.
The other modes are less taxing, but also less interesting. Hustle's generic refresh of Super Monkey Ball is merely competent with its trap-laden race ramps, and nothing that Amusement Vision didn't do better eight or nine years ago. The two-player split-screen Race mode adds a multiplayer element to the Hustle levels, while the seven-player Sumo mode is a Fusion Frenzy-style party mode. With everyone battling frantically to smash each other over the edge, it's chaotic, but limited.
With its unwisely generic title, Hamsterball doesn't inspire confidence that it's going to do anything more than roll over old ground, and so it proves. Monkeys rule, OK?
- DSiWare / 500 points (£4.50 / €5)
If you've wondered why no-one's ever made a brick-breaker RPG, you might want to poke your nose around MotionTwin's DSiWare effort.Taking Nolan Bushnell's ancient Breakout template to demented extremes, it promises an insane 25 million levels, and, presumably, the chance to plumb depths of OCD you never thought possible.
On a mission to find your way back to Earth, you find yourself in the centre of a gigantic intergalactic map, with each square representing a level that you can choose to tackle. To make things somewhat more exciting than the average Arkanoid/Breakout clone, each stage is absolutely awash with different power-ups - some 26 are available in total, one for every letter in the alphabet.
As the trailer conveys rather well, the sheer volume of power-ups which rain down turns AlphaBounce into a frantic affair. If you hit the right combination of power-ups in sequence, the whole level erupts in a thrilling explosion of psychedelia.
Sometimes, though, the exact opposite can be true, and clearing levels can descend into a monotonous war of attrition as you patiently bat the ball back to the remaining bricks, partying like it's 1976.
The problem with having so many stages is that making concerted progress is absolutely interminable. Now and then you'll pick up a permanent power-up that you can bolt on, such as a missile, but collecting each and every one will involve reserves of patience that are disproportionate to the entertainment on offer.
When it's firing on all cylinders, AlphaBounce can be a riotous diversion; full of inventive ideas and bold scope, the potential's clearly there. But rather than make a tight, focused design that continually entertains, MotionTwin waste far too much of your time.
The Will Of Dr. Frankenstein
- WiiWare / 500 points (£3.50 / €5)
Some games seem specifically designed to sap your will to live. Foisting one pointless task after another on poor little Frankie, Enjoy Gaming's WiiWare effort feels like a curious social experiment to test the unquestioning complicity of the average player.
A heavily cut-down version of a US-only Wii title, The Island Of Dr. Frankenstein, you play the cheerfully gormless young 'un, Frankie, on a mission to collect five million pointless objects for no particularly good reason.
Transported back in time (appropriate, given that it looks like an N64 title), you find yourself wandering incessantly around a floating island in search of five pieces of a machine. But to do so, you have to run a seemingly unending procession of trivial errands. Get so-and-so's hat. Dig up a cooking pot. Unearth some treasure. Go and murder 17 puppies with knitting needles.
OK, I lied about the last bit, but it would probably liven up a game where you spend most of your time continually sucking up little cloud-like 'Vaporite' critters with your 'Steampack' vacuum cleaner and trying not to cry. Sometimes you need them to be able to dig things up, other times you have to do it simply because someone told you to, or because, gasp, the red Vaporites are dangerous and we must vanquish them to protect the island.
If any of this were fun in any way, you might forgive its tenuous premise - but as it stands, being governed by the Will of Dr. Frankenstein is the Chinese water torture of videogaming.
Earthworm Jim - DSiWare
- DSiWare / 500 points (£4.50 / €5)
There's not a great deal to be said about Earthworm Jim turning up on DSiWare. It's not a remake, it's not a reboot, but a completely faithful port of the 1993 16-bit platform classic - albeit with one rather superfluous addition.
On each of the game's 11 levels, you are challenged to pull the same expression as Earthworm Jim himself, be it open-mouthed, or with a raised eyebrow. It's amusing for all of about 0.2 of a second before you realise it's completely pointless.
The game, though, is the same enjoyable knockabout romp that it ever was, and Gameloft has thankfully made no attempt to shoehorn touch-screen controls in unnecessarily. If you feel a burning urge to spend 500 points to relive some small part of your lost youth, you won't be disappointed.
Lead and Gold: Gangs Of The Wild West
- PlayStation Network (PS3) / £11.99
- Steam / £9.99
Talent borrows, genius steals, and this Wild West team shooter certainly knows which bits of Team Fortress 2, Left 4 Dead and Battlefield to half-inch.
With a great selection of stylishly designed maps, a decent selection of modes, a slick visual sheen and simple class-based mechanics, FatShark's budget-priced offering looks highly tempting.
From the simple team deathmatch of Shootout through the control zone domination of Conquest to the objective-based destruction of Powder Keg, Lead and Gold would appear to have something for all tastes. Indeed, all four classes give the impression of catering for your preferred playing style; from long-range sniper to close quarters and everything in between, it appears to tick all the right boxes.
But with woolly, inaccurate combat mechanics and some of the flakiest network code seen in years (we played the game on PS3), the hands-on reality comes nowhere near its lofty potential. Games continually dump you back to the menu, there are lag issues and a worrying lack of online matches to choose from; getting the game working properly is a frustrating experience.
Providing Fatshark can quickly patch the problems, then the player base may build. But that's a big if, and while its problems remain, it's difficult to see Lead And Gold making a big impression on players schooled in big-budget multiplayer thrills.