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.
- Price: 80 Microsoft Points
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.
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.
- Price: 240 Microsoft Points
Taking the immediacy of the twin-stick shooter, slowing it right down and blending in elements of co-operative survival horror, Inevitable Outcome may not reinvent the wheel but it at least gives the wheel an interesting coat of paint.
Viewed from the traditional top-down perspective, you must fend off an endless tide of brutish slug creatures as they slurp and slither towards you. To begin with you just have a pistol with infinite ammo and a couple of grenades, but more weapons can be picked up as they spawn. Shotguns, rifles, even laser guns all appear at random.
The game's gimmick is that day turns to night, and what was reasonably tricky in daylight becomes savagely difficult in pitch blackness, with only a weak torch to locate the encroaching creatures. Soon enough you're watching the game clock, praying for the morning so you can actually see where the bastards are.
For each full day you survive, you get one upgrade. Move faster, do more damage, get a better torch... it's all obvious, yet very useful, stuff. The title does rather give the ending away though - one way or another, you're going to die. It's just a question of how long you can last.
The main problem is the gluey movement, which makes survival even more unlikely. I know if I were being harassed by demonic slugs, I'd move a lot faster than the dawdling pace available here. The aiming also feels a little off sometimes, with shots skimming to either side of an enemy only feet away from you.
Four player co-op spices things up, however, and the lighting effects as night falls are genuinely excellent. More variety in the enemies would be welcome, and might make the choice of weapons more strategic, but this is still an above-average twist on a tired formula.
- Price: 240 Microsoft Points
One of the finalists in the 2009 XNA Dream Build Play contest, Morsel's endearing platformer is best described as LocoRoco meets Wizball.
You play as Tint, a minimalist black splodge tasked with bringing colour back to his monochrome world. You do this by collecting blobs of pigment scattered around the sprawling levels.
With each drop of colour gathered, a touch more colour is added to the scenery. So, for example, the more blue and green paint spots you find, the more green seeps back in to the palette. It's a lovely idea, and while the visual style feels a little too self-consciously indie-cute there's no denying that it looks delightful.
There are some issues holding it back from greatness, though. Forcing players to start each level over, with all enemies restored, whenever they find one of the three primary colour globes hidden in each stage is a fairly clumsy way of padding things out.
There are also some off-putting collision and control hiccups that make the trickier sections a pain to navigate, even with the game's generously infinite lives. A patch is apparently planned, but until that arrives it's enough of a hurdle to dull the shine of an otherwise promising title.
Adventures of Sid
- Price: 240 Microsoft Points
A satisfying platformer in the style of those not-quite-Mario games that populated the Amiga, the disarmingly loopy Adventures of Sid harks back to a time when tomatoes were acceptable gaming heroes, and bees, penguins and teddy bears could be deadly foes.
In terms of gameplay it's much as you'd expect - double-jump around the scenery, picking up coins and gems, then find the exit. It's never entirely clear why you're collecting these things, and since the game doesn't seem to mind if you don't find them all, it falls to the exploration to provide the entertainment.
Thankfully, Sid inhabits a remarkably well-designed game world. The early levels are a little bland, but as you progress through the 16 enormous stages - divided into themed sections of four, with a boss battle in the final chapter of each - you begin to realise that there's been real thought and attention to detail in the structure of this game. There are dozens of nooks and crannies to dig around in, and finding everything in the game will be a serious undertaking.
It's perhaps lacking the drive that compels you to complete a truly great platformer, and the double-jump is just a little too twitchy for comfort, but those are small quibbles considering how much the game gets fantastically right. In proper Monty Mole fashion, there's also a Christmas special available, should you fancy it.
Brethren of the Coast
- Price: 240 Microsoft Points
One of the many great things about indie development is that it allows for minority tastes to be catered for. One such underserved audience is the maritime enthusiast, the methodical pace and strategically unique challenges of nautical combat proving too obscure for most commercial developers to bother with.
It's appropriate, then, that two seafaring games have arrived on the Indie channel in the past month. Marauder Madness is the lesser of the two, a slick but simplistic shoot-'em-up with galleons. Brethren of the Coast, on the other hand, is much more interesting.
It's a proper strategy game, for one thing, and it has no interest in dumbing down its naval niche. Your fleet of ships is slow, changing course takes time, and getting back up to speed from a dead stop takes even longer. Then there's the importance of the broadside assault, the distinctive problem of placing your vessels in the perfect place to take down enemy ships.
Despite some subdued Olde Worlde presentation, it's not a particularly attractive game to look at, but the ability to zoom up into the sky or right down to sea level is impressive and useful. There are also some clever scenarios designed to test more than just your skill at sailing around islands and lobbing cannonballs at the bad guys. You really do need to think on your feet, and the game offers little room for error.
Obviously, such a narrowly focused game won't be for everyone, but beneath the functional exterior lurks a game that will please anybody who ever spent a Sunday afternoon gluing a poop deck on a scale model of the HMS Victory.