Doing roundups of downloadable games is like being zapped back 20 years to a time when all games were this unpredictable. Released from the tedium of 18-month PR drip-feed, you're free to experience the element of surprise that used to accompany all videogames: a surprise that can cut both ways. Sometimes, the most instant games can turn out to be the most dull, while others - like Sam & Max - you expect to be formulaic, but end up confounding your expectations entirely. And then there are horribly confusing titles which turn out to be the most satisfying of all. The moral of this week's story? Never judge games by first impressions. You're probably wrong...
Zombie Panic In Wonderland
- WiiWare / 1000 Wii Points (Ł7 / €10)
Scented dwarves are missing! Loved-up zombies want huuuuuuugs! Let's shoot them in the face until they realise the error of their ways!
Such is the way of things in Akaoni's berserk arcade-style shooting gallery, where fantasy characters including Snow White, Momotaro and Dorothy from Wizard Of Oz get to blow zombie brains out in the name of community service.
Influenced by the fondly remembered arcade blaster Cabal, you view the action behind the character, steering them left and right across the screen as you blast the oncoming hordes by aiming the Wii remote. Against the clock, you face wave upon wave until you eventually reach the goal of 100 per cent clearance.
Armed with an infinite-ammo machine gun, you're afforded the luxury of spraying bullets with abandon around fully destructible environments, and part of the fun is seeing which buildings you can get to collapse on your enemies. With limited power-ups spewing forth, you can also periodically go on satisfying killing sprees, roasting a crowd with your flamethrower, or cutting a swathe with a booming assault rifle.
Across the nine stages, you also face the odd crazed monkey-cock-lion boss thing, which proves to be far less enjoyable than it sounds. Forcing you into some of the most exacting avoidance tactics we've faced since the Metroid Prime 2 boss encounters, progress becomes a tiresome combination of dodge-the-instant-death attacks, and remembering when to use your powerful weaponry. Some might find it challenging in an old-school sense, but I just found it annoying.
Zombie Panic's gleeful initial charm and quirky visual appeal wane once the frenzied, bullet-spraying repetition kicks in after a couple of stages. It's evidently one of those games best sampled in small doses.
The Shadows In The Underworld
- Xbox Live Indie Games / 80 Microsoft Points (Ł0.64)
Who'd be a submarine pilot? Under attack by ravenous marine life and perpetually facing the threat of imminent suffocation, it's a vocation right up there with Portaloo cleaner for fun value.
As a quickfire 80-point indie experiment, though, it makes for an engaging premise as you guide your vulnerable craft through a dark underwater labyrinth, searching for keys and artefacts while trying not to get eaten.
With immaculate presentation and crisp cel-shaded backdrops, it's hardly surprising to find Polaris' The Shadows In The Underworld nestling in the Top 20 shortlist for the DreamBuildPlay challenge.
Easy to, ahem, dive straight into, the twin stick controls make your gloomy aquatic voyage pleasantly fraught, with the left stick mapped to eight-way movement, and the right controlling the direction of your craft's torch beam. Once you're plunged into the inky depths, navigation is impossible without it - especially with an unseen enemy lying in wait.
Armed with torpedoes, you can either charge up a powerful blast and try to take out a whole group of enemies as they approach you, or loose off several in succession. Neither option is particularly ideal, especially if you go too far and overheat and leave yourself defenceless for a few seconds.
With the left trigger giving you a temporary speed boost, much of the gameplay is spent dancing around your enemies, desperately trying to line up your shots without incurring too much damage yourself. With numerous upgrade and health pickups to scoop up, you also have to be mindful to scour each area with your searchlight to make sure you haven't missed anything.
While The Shadows In The Underworld may lack a crucial degree of variety, its atmospheric intensity and stylish presentation mark it out as one of the more interesting efforts to hit the Xbox Live Indie channel of late.