Version tested: PlayStation 3
After a sluggish start, the European PSN Store finally seems to be picking up speed with more and more original games added. With Xbox Live Arcade's regular Wednesday updates, and the Wii guffing out retro releases every Friday, does November's batch of bite-sized PS3 downloadery have what it takes to compete?
Remember Snake, that classic green-and-black mobile phone timewaster? Well it's back! In HD! And colour! And it's got balls! Scoff all you like, but Snake works - it's a classic arcade concept, and the fact that your mum probably has a go on her brick-like Nokia while she's waiting for the bus is testament to its lo-fi genius.
Such delicate concepts often fly to pieces when updated and weighed down with modern clutter, but Snakeball holds itself together surprisingly well.
The main change is, as the title suggests, the addition of colour-coded balls - instead of just chomping them to make your snake bigger (wahey etc) you now earn points by dumping them in a goal, or gobbing them out as projectiles. You're also much more nimble than ever before, steering your robotic serpent with analogue accuracy, a shift which suits the new score-based gameplay but rather undermines the frantic forward planning that was required when you could only turn at right angles. Still, there are loads of gameplay modes for your money - including online multiplayer for up to eight players, specific puzzle-style challenges, and a classic survival mode where you have to nosh as many balls (wahey etc) as you can before you gobble your own tail (wahey etc).
Pitching itself somewhere between Micro Machines and Katamari Damacy, Toy Home looks like a racing game but will only disappoint those who approach it as such. You drive a little clockwork car around oversized domestic environments, with pathways and bridges formed from household objects. Coins hover and rotate, ripe for the collecting, while swirling checkpoints are scattered all around. The game funnels you towards these checkpoints with its rough track layouts, although it doesn't really matter what order you hit them in. Once you figure this out, and realise the game is more like an open arena than a strict race course, it's actually a lot of fun, pelting around these cleverly designed playgrounds. In fact, stray off the prescribed routes and you tend to find all sorts of fun little secrets and bonuses that can be earned by generally smashing and toppling the scenery.
However...the game only uses the SIXAXIS motion sensing for steering. This alone will see it crossed off many people's lists. It's certainly not the worst motion sensing game, but nor does the act of twisting and turning the joypad really suit a game where precision control is so important. Lining yourself up for a tricky bonus item, or staying on top of wobbly raised pathways, can become a real niggle. The wooliness of the steering is compounded by the destructible environments. Pretty much any item in the game can be knocked over if you hit it hard enough, and while such mayhem is part of the fun, it can also leave you ping-ponging off debris or even demolishing a ramp that was vital for completing the level. Still, it's got charm to spare and - if you don't mind wrestling with controls that occasionally leave you gritting your teeth - this is a groovy little romp.
High Velocity Bowling
According to the principles of Miyamoto's Law, you can't have motion sensing controls without a bowling game and so here comes one for the SIXAXIS. Everything is much as you'd expect, although the zappy name rather contradicts the lackadaisical middle-American atmosphere the game tries to evoke, with its small town setting and hayseed characters.
High Velocity Bowling breaks the sport down into three little chunks. First you tip the joypad left and right to position your bowler. Then you tip it left or right to aim, using a rather stubby little arrow as your guide, and add spin using the shoulder buttons. Only then do you get to swing back and forward to send the ball on its way, where the game is actually very good at gauging the speed you were after.
For those who were frustrated in Wii Sports when an unconscious mid-swing wrist rotation sent the ball inexorably gutter-bound, this means that you can concentrate on getting your aim right and then swing without worrying about hand-wobble affecting your aim. But it also makes you wonder why the game uses motion sensing at all, since all you're really doing during the swing itself is setting the power of your shot. If you can live with that then it's a decent bowling game with plenty to unlock, as well as trick shots and other fun frills.
Despite a title that sounds like something unspeakable involving yoghurt, Feel Ski is actually the first game I've played where the SIXAXIS (oh so tired of capitalising that) works in total harmony with the game concept. Skiing is, after all, all about slow graceful sweeping motions, and the motion sensor reacts to these extremely well. What it doesn't react to very well are the upwards twitches required to launch yourself off the sporadic jumps (indeed, detecting vertical motion seems to be a distinct weakness of the controller in general) while pulling off stunts simply means waggling in different directions in mid-air. You get a short speed boost when you land a jump, but no real incentive to master this clunky mechanic.
There's a distinct whiff of Cool Boarders about the whole thing, a sensation which is sadly carried across to some of the graphical effects which don't quite glow with next generation sheen. There are only two courses initially (more will doubtlessly be made available to download) and the emphasis is on racing online, with only a rather dull single player mode for the friendless, in which you can save your best runs and race against your own ghost. There's probably a Japanese horror movie about that.
While the side-to-side swooshy skiing action is very nice, the jumping and stunts do the hardware no favours and there's no getting away from the fact that Feel Ski seems more like a shortlived demo than a complete experience in its own right.