Xbox Indie Games Roundup

The latest offerings from the lunatic fringe.

Many years ago, I used to drive the owner of my local record shop insane. His tiny Stalybridge music boutique was also the only place in town that sold computer games - or at least offered a selection of bargain-priced Mastertronic and Firebird budget classics.

Rather than have them take up precious shelf space in a cramped, gloomy shop roughly the size of a toilet cubicle, he instead had all the cassette inlays in a ring binder. I'd spend up to an hour at the counter every Saturday, flicking backwards and forwards through this holy binder, trying to work out which two-quid classic to risk my pocket money on.

The shop in question has long since gone, of course, but I like to think that my weekly visits helped to keep it going. I certainly never saw anyone else in there. It did appear in the background of Jossy's Giants once, so that's something.

I don't miss it though, because I get much the same feeling now flicking through the Xbox Indie Channel, even though the presence of trial versions removes the uncertainty - and therefore part of the fun - of taking a gamble on a cheap unknown property.

It's also clear that the indie community is getting better at teasing interesting shapes out of the XNA development kit. Judging by the past month of uploads, the number of half-baked applications and avatar-based distractions is dropping and more actual proper games are taking their place. This can only be a good thing.

Earth Shaker

Rather fittingly, since the Indie Games channel puts me in a nostalgic mood, this remake of a self-proclaimed 1990 Spectrum "classic" by Michael Batty makes no effort to pretty up its 8-bit origins for the 21st century. Plinky, parpy Sinclair music, colour-clashing sprites, it's all here and deliciously retro.

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Not pictured: sky tumbling down, tumbling down.

The game's pretty great as well, though as a blatant riff on the old Boulder Dash / Repton template it doesn't have to do much beyond sticking with a formula that works. As you might expect, you move left, right, up and down in an underground arena, collecting gems and dodging the rocks that drop when you dig out the supporting soil beneath them. Careful planning is required to avoid being squished, or worse, burying a gem under a pile of immovable boulders.

There are a couple of twists thrown into the mix. Perky jelly beans top up your timer, and in the latter of the 30+ levels you need to carefully ration these lifelines to get the job done. Bubbles can also be used to prop up tumbling items, while gimmicks like anti-gravity and teleports are also introduced to keep you on your pixellated toes.

Control is a touch stiff, which can lead you to prod your character a step too far, but that's about the only enduring technical criticism. Nimbly balancing easy nostalgia with a game that justifies your affection, and boasting a level designer to boot, this is a bargain at just 80 Microsoft Points.

8/10

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