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Column: Free Play

COLUMN: 'Free Play' - ece4co

August 7, 2006 9:21 AM |

[’Free Play’ is a regular weekly column by Ancil Anthropy about freely downloadable video games, and the people who make them. This week’s column profiles ece4co.]

ece4co’s website shares its clean, simple presentation with the games it contains. Most of the games on the site, originally developed in Shockwave, use a two-shade palette with finely-detailed sprites that some might find reminiscent of early Mac games. These games, presented in rounded windows in cool gradations of cyan, are Yoshio Ishii's "Neko" games.

Cats in trouble


Each game places the same big-headed kitten in a different, perilous situation, and requires a different play mechanic to get it to safety. In Fura-Fura Neko you balance the kitten at the end of a stick with the mouse, trying to reach the end of a barb-wire maze with both the cat and your hand unhurt. In Ito-Neko you drag the mouse to draw a platform that will keep the cat out of the water. And the glorious Nekotama has you dropping giant cat heads into pachinko machines, trying to land one in every marked pipe.

My favorites are Xananeko and its sequel, single-screen tributes to Falcom’s Xanadu series. Armed with shield and oversized sword, the feline hero explores magnificently detailed pixel dungeons fighting monsters (by bumping against them classic Xanadu-style), collecting gold, finding treasures and buying upgrades.

The Neko games caught the attention of laptop manufacturer Toshiba, who commissioned Yoshio Ishii to develop some advergames for their website. They starred impromptu Toshiba mascot Tobby the dog, his ladyfriend Jelly and rival Bull, and were mostly reskinnings of Neko games. There were a few original games, though, including Tobby Room 1048—a platforming adventure in which Tobby searches a hotel for explosives—and a snowball fight game in full color for the first time. Unfortunately, these are no longer available on Toshiba's site, but can be found elsewhere on the internet—try running a search for "tobby".

No-neko adventures


Besides the Neko and Tobby games, ece4co has developed a number of other games in Shockwave and Flash. Rayspline is a beautiful 3D shooter patterned after United Game Artists’ Rez, where the player is encouraged to lock on to as many moving targets as possible before firing. The game features Darius-like branching paths through 21 stages, each of which contains a large, pretty boss that probably wouldn't seem out of place in UGA's game. Other shooters include the gloriously huge-pixelled Cellblast games, no longer hosted on ece4co's site (but, again, available to a crafty websearcher).

The most recent project on the ece4co site consists of a collection of shooters clearly inspired by Geometry Wars. Each a variant with a slightly different objective, the games use the mouse for both moving and aiming--surprisingly effectively.

Finally, be sure to check out...

Neko-Kaitai Iseki Tanken, an oppressive, almost melancholy game of quiet underwater cave exploration starring a kitten with a snorkel.

[Ancil Anthropy is a game developer and space invader. She fills dessgeega.com with lots of good stuff and writes for a bunch of places, including The Gamer’s Quarter and The Independent Gaming Source.]

COLUMN: 'Free Play' - Metanet Software

July 30, 2006 1:29 PM |

[’Free Play’ is a regular weekly column by Ancil Anthropy about freely downloadable video games, and the people who make them. This week’s column profiles Metanet Software.]

"There are a lot of good games out, but at the same time there is an unsettling trend towards becoming more and more mainstream: to emulate the 'big leagues' of the video game industry. Looking at the music industry, it's depressing when the independent scene becomes a second mainstream." Metanet Software—who supplied the above quote in an interview with The Independent Gaming Source—are developers of freeware games.

Raigan Burns and Mare Sheppard, who comprise Metanet, see independent game development as an avenue for innovation and experimentation. Since they "don't owe anything to anyone," they're free to develop games that mainstream development houses might consider too risky or unprofitable.

The ninja is driven not only by a thirst for gold, but also by a physics simulation


"Sometimes you want to play a game that doesn't exist yet. So you make it, and all is well with the world again." Metanet's first release, N, most resembles single-screen action puzzle games like Lode Runner and Puchiwara No Bouken: there is gold to collect, enemies to elude, and an exit to find.

Where N differs is in the mobility of its protagonist. N stars a ninja, and where Lode Runner's stages are dense mazes in which getting from point A to point B is a puzzle, the acrobatics of N lay each stage wide open. The ninja is affected by momentum and inertia, and a measured running start and leap will allow the player to soar from one side of the screen to the other, jump up a wall and slide down the other side.

The obstacles in N are not the walls, which bend to the player's motive abilities, but the octogonal robots that patrol the corridors. There are drones which give chase, turrets that launch missiles, and mines positioned in just the right places for the ninja to brush against them. A brush is all it takes. Fortunately N mitigates the frustration of frequent deaths by animating every death. The explosion will blow the ninja to pieces, a limb might fly across a room, brush another mine, and be propelled back in the opposite direction. The most elaborate physics in the game, according to Raigan, are the ones that animate the ninja's death. Death in N is the game's second pleasure.

The stages that challenge the player are lovely to look at, combining smart two-tone visual design with devious level arrangement. In the course of revising and re-releasing the game, Metanet has created over a thousand stages. Thousands more have been created by players using Ned, the N level editor.

One day robots will reach out to the stars


Currently, Metanet is working on their next game—tentatively titled "Robotology"—developed in OpenGL and C++. Like Umihara Kawase, the protagonist will be able to fire and swing from a wire and use a variety of parkour-like gymnastics to navigate a Phillip K. Dick-inspired future world of robots (some comparable in size to the population of Fumito Ueda's latest release). As with N, a level editor and user-created stages will be an important part of the game.

Finally, be sure to check out...

Freeware Rebellion, a ten-minute documentary on Metanet filmed by Jim Munroe, in which Mare and Raigan talk about freeware, their favorite games, and desktop katamaris.

[Ancil Anthropy is a game developer and space invader. She fills dessgeega.com with lots of good stuff and writes for a bunch of places, including The Gamer’s Quarter and The Independent Gaming Source.]

COLUMN: 'Free Play' - d_of_i

July 24, 2006 3:01 AM |

[’Free Play’ is a regular weekly column by Ancil Anthropy about freely downloadable video games, and the people who make them. This week’s column profiles d_of_i.]

Most of the games on d_of_i's website were originally blog posts, physics toys created in Processing, a Java-based programming environment aimed at non-coders, but the blog entries were so frequently linked that they ended up on d_of_i's frontpage. d_of_i's creations, which now include Flash- and Windows-based games, revolve around a set of physical laws which the player must learn to manipulate. Some of them are just toys, sandboxes where the player is free to tinker with the rules and pieces endlessly.

Sand sand sand


World of Sand may be d_of_i's most impressive toy, a literal sandbox. Sand and water, salt and oil pour from the sky, and the player can use the mouse to draw walls, creating containers, fountains, mixing pots. The substances all interact in different ways—plants grow when exposed to water, burn when exposed to fire. Oil will ignite if it catches flame.

Being a toy, it has no real goal—you just tinker with it as much or as little as you like. More game-like variants exist: slay slugs with salt or extinguish fire with sand. Similiar is War of the Hell, where the player dangles a rope that tiny, damned stickpeople grab onto, and swinging your mouse will toss them up towards heaven (the top of the screen). Later, d_of_i combined the game with World of Sand to produce Hell of Sand.

Other Java-based games worth playing include Rolling Omusubi, a game about a spinning rice ball's journey home, and its more interesting sequel in which the rice treat swings from its nori wrapping like Umihara Kawase. X Snow Cats is a kitten bobsled race—the Z and X keys are used to make the player's cat turn in mid-air, executing flips and backflips for points.

Neko neko neko


In addition to blog-posted browser games, d_of_i has also released a few downloadable games for Windows. In Cannon Cat, the titular kitten uses a mounted gun to propel itself through polygonal caverns while fighting giant sprite enemies. The mouse is used to aim and fire—shooting backwards will propel the kitten forward. The goal is to get the cat to the rightmost end of the cave before the time limit expires, but the exit usually won't open until all the enemies have been defeated—also with the cannon, backfire still applies.

The same cast of monsters makes an appearance in Magic Puppet (guide to downloading from Vector for non-Japanese readers), but in this game they have to be hacked up with sword slashes and magic attacks. The player controls a wooden puppet that can change its size by consuming mushrooms, and explode into pieces as a special attack.

Finally, be sure to check out...

Egg Way is a short but tricky game that asks the player to use the drawing mechanic of the sand games to guide an egg into a frying pan.

[Ancil Anthropy is a game developer and space invader. She fills dessgeega.com with lots of good stuff and writes for a bunch of places, including The Gamer’s Quarter and The Independent Gaming Source.]

COLUMN: 'Free Play' - iteration GAMES

July 17, 2006 2:01 AM |

[’Free Play’ is a regular weekly column by Ancil Anthropy about freely downloadable video games, and the people who make them. This week’s column profiles iteration GAMES.]

In 1999, Mark Overmars—professor of game and media technology at Utrecht University—began developing a program called Game Maker. Now in its sixth iteration, Game Maker is a software package designed to simplify PC game development—referred to as "middleware", it allows developers to create games in a straightforward drag-and-drop environment without having to deal with serious coding.

Jph Wacheski discovered Game Maker while searching for a way to make games without having to learn C++, and over the last few years has been releasing Game Maker "experiments" under the name iteration GAMES. Prior to creating games, Jph was "deeply devoted to" designing sounds and creating music with the Buzz synthesizer, and Jph's experience working with audio shows in the sound design of iteration's games.

The games—sadly Windows-only, due to Game Maker's reliance on DirectX—are evocative of the arcade experience, combining Minter-like screen effects and staticky bursts of audio to create an effect that oscillates between hypnotic and unsettling. These games have a presence, and you're never quite sure whether it's playing with you or against you.

Remember when we used to play?


Iteration's "experiments" (all downloadable from the front page of the site) draw from a library of older arcade games, sometimes literally. Joust 3 applies the mechanics, characters and sprites of Midway's original series to new scrolling stages. Sub Atomic began development as a remake of Taito's Electric Yo-yo, and the first three stages of that remake have to be played before the new game will be unlocked. And there's 100 Invaders, which begins as a straightforward Space Invaders game (using sprites designed by another Game Maker developer, Graham Lackey), until the ghosts of invaders you've slain return to haunt you.

But perhaps the most impressive remake is Wizard of Wor Remix, an expansive recreation of Midway's maze shooter. The labyrinths in the remix are larger and more tangled, with passages that admit players but not bullets. Players can use a new charging teleport ability, and an AI will step in to control player two if there's only one person at the keyboard. But the most compelling addition is the harsh new audio: the static-heavy laughter and mocking taunts suit Midway's dark arena crawl perfectly.

Survive long enough to get the high score.

Lock-On, with its downtempo background music and drum-like sound effects, is closer to the "hypnotic" end of the spectrum. The player and enemies drift on the blue-grey screen like lilies on a pond. Laughter accompanies a miss in this game, but it sounds like a chuckle, an invitation to play another game.

The goal is to clear each stage of enemies. A forward shot fires in the direction and speed the player is moving, but the lock-on shot is more reliable, sending a homing missile toward the nearest enemy. When destroyed, some enemies leave pick-ups behind. As in Joust, if the pick-ups aren't collected quickly, they'll transform into new, more dangerous enemies. Collecting enough will provide a color change and greater firepower. As stages progress, the wind that blows on the pond becomes more severe, and the enemies more numerous.


Finally, be sure to check out...

Seeds, an "artificial life" sandbox that the player is free to fill with various lifeforms that transform the screen into a living kaleidoscope.

[Ancil Anthropy is a game developer and space invader. She fills dessgeega.com with lots of good stuff and writes for a bunch of places, including The Gamer’s Quarter and The Independent Gaming Source.]

COLUMN: 'Free Play' - OMEGA

July 10, 2006 1:10 AM |

[’Free Play’ is a regular weekly column by Ancil Anthropy about freely downloadable video games, and the people who make them. This week’s column profiles OMEGA.]

"I think too many people take part in one game title," says doujin freeware developer OMEGA of the videogame industry, in an interview conducted by NTSC-UK's Jamie Davies. Though friends often contribute graphics or music, OMEGA develops alone. "OMEGA is a circle like other doujin game circles....a solo circle."


OMEGA's most recent release, TwinTower, appears to be a straightforward balancing game. Blocks fall from the sky, and the player catches them on a set of scales controlled with the mouse. The goal is to build two towers—one on each scale—that reach the height the stage requires without tipping the balance and making them topple.

There are only ten stages, but the game's depth comes from how those stages are scored. A stage only ends when both towers have been capped by a special top piece, so the player is free to keep adding to them—bonuses are awarded for final height and weight, and for any coins still attached to the tower at the end. They're easily knocked off, so the player has to build carefully around them without upsetting the balance. A quick play with a deep scoring system—TwinTower is an OMEGA game.

Have a strong will!

OMEGA's design philosophy is more often applied to shooters. Dan! Da! Dan! gives the player three minutes to clear three stages with the highest possible amount of points. These stages are filled with Mr. Driller-like configurations of different-colored blocks. Shooting a block removes it and any adjacent blocks of matching color, and those blocks will give up whatever's inside them: credits that extend the timer, sunbursts of bullets.


Tapping the shot button shoots bullets straight ahead, while holding it creates a small field that can destroy hard-to-reach blocks and slow down bullets. Pressing the special button—when fully charged—will turn those bullets into points, and activate a spread shot that lasts for a few seconds. Smart use of these abilities is essential to achieve a decent score.

Every Extend is a shooting game in a less strict definition, as the game involves no shooting. Rather, the player controls a guided bomb that will explode at the touch of a button. Crossing the screen are formations of blocks that, if caught in the explosion, will also explode—allowing a crafty player to engineer large chains for lots of points. Learning how to get those points is necessary: since one stock is lost whenever it blows up, the player needs enough points to earn extras—needs "every extend".

Huge object approaching!

In 2005, Q? Entertainment—developers of Meteos for the Nintendo DS and Lumines for the Sony PSP—announced that they were developing the sequel to Every Extend, Every Extend Extra, for Fall 2006 release on Sony's handheld. Like Q?'s prior PSP release, each stage seems to feature a new skin and a different trance track. One skin is modeled after OMEGA's original game—another appears to be an homage to Dreamcast rail shooter Rez, which a number of Q?'s staff worked on. It's a curious collaboration between freeware and commercial development, and the results ought to be interesting.

Finally, be sure to check out...

Geki Pori, a game of belly-bumping platform combat starring monsters from Ragnarok Online, played by up to four people at a single computer.

[Ancil Anthropy is a game developer and space invader. She fills dessgeega.com with lots of good stuff and writes for a bunch of places, including The Gamer’s Quarter and The Independent Gaming Source.]

COLUMN: 'Free Play' - Pixeljam

July 3, 2006 2:12 AM |

[’Free Play’ is a regular weekly column by Ancil Anthropy about freely downloadable video games and the people who make them. This week’s column profiles Pixeljam.]

Pixeljam identifies themselves as designers of "neo-retro games," and their games do indeed demonstrate an impressive vocabulary of gaming imagery, much of which evokes Atari arcade and VCS titles. The team is composed of artist/photographer Richard Grillotti, who draws and animates the pixel population of Pixeljam's games, and musician/programmer Miles Tilmann, who codes the games in Flash; Mark Denardo creates the games' VCS-like sound effects and music.

Pixeljam's goal, says Miles, is "to make as much impact with as little glitz as possible, and to keep the level of abstraction so high that people's imaginations are doing the work to fill in the gaps, instead of a million dollar 3D engine." Like most freeware developers, they don't have access to that kind of money—Miles tells me they didn't work for six months to produce their most recent release, and are now trying to "yank ourselves out of the debt we created and make even better ones." (Why not help them out?)

Monsters have no place


Ratmaze is the first game the group was able to complete. It stars a cute pixel rat who hunts for cheese in 37 rooms that look as though they wouldn't be out of place in Atari's Adventure. Like that title, Ratmaze contains secrets: on the first playthrough, a thorough player may find a hidden trick to aid in subsequent runs through the game, in addition to another surprise.

Ratmaze was developed while Pixeljam was working on a more ambitious project: Gamma Bros. This game follows the daily commute of two brothers, Zap and Buzz, home to their families for dinner—the path between their place of work and the Earth, though, is filled with dangerous refugees from Galaxian who need be dispatched using Robotron-like four-way laser fire. Though passwords divide the game into stages, Gamma Bros is clearly intended to be played in one long session from start to finish-transitions between waves of enemies, bosses, shops and bonus scenes are seamless. The brothers just keep falling until they reach the Earth.

The real charm of this pixel game is in the little details. Enemies burst into blocky explosions, a salesman floats by with power-ups in tow, a word balloon—containing the image of a coin—hovering over his head. And there are little touches a player might miss the first time through: the reflections of the brothers in the windows as their ships leave the station, or the sight of one brother chasing a flock of enemy ships in the background. There are details for those who seek them, and of course there are secrets. "There's got to be secrets in video games," says Rich.

Good people of Earth


The pixel people who would eventually become Pixeljam's signature actually debuted at a Chicago art show. Multimedia art collective M5 approached Rich about contributing, and he created pixel model series 01, featuring a bunch of sassy pixel ladies, including a recreation of Botticelli's Birth of Venus.

"We really like our little pixel characters and feel they have a lot of personality," Rich tells me. "They're just regular folks, with strengths, imperfections and odd little quirks like all of us. Some of them are pretty well balanced, some are a bit more unstable." Says Miles, "the pixeljam universe is populated with these little personalities who never talk, and have around 4 or 9 colored squares for a head, but for some reason we can still kind of relate." Rich adds that he would "like to see our universe expand and grow"—Pixeljam has a number of upcoming projects envisioned, including two planned sequels to Gamma Bros.

Finally, be sure to check out...

...OMAC, a musical endevour which sees Pixeljam tunes provider Mark Denardo performing hip hop over chiptunes.


[Ancil Anthropy is a game developer and space invader. She fills dessgeega.com with lots of good stuff and writes for a bunch of places, including The Gamer’s Quarter and The Independent Gaming Source.]

COLUMN: 'Free Play' - babarageo

June 26, 2006 2:39 AM |

[’Free Play’ is a new, regular weekly column by Ancil Anthropy about freely downloadable video games, and the people who make them. This week’s column profiles excellent Japanese 'doujin' PC Flash game website babarageo.]

The first thing you see when you visit babarageo is a game—a tiny shooting game, just fifty pixels tall. Move the ship with your mouse, dodge bullets, left click to fire, shoot enemies. At 1000 points the image below the game will change to something different. Maybe it’ll look like a screen from Dig Dug. Maybe if you click the cherries, your tiny ship will get a new weapon.

This game serves as the banner of doujin developer babara’s website. In a small way it’s every game on the site: simple gameplay, charming pixels, and nods to older games that reward the player who picks up on them. And it’s in Flash, seamlessly integrated into babara’s frontpage.

Kill ghosts, challenge skeletons


babara’s influences are reflected in the population of babarageo - tiny tributes to Dragon Quest, Wizardry, Game & Watch-style LCD games. My friend Tim W. pointed out Great Kung Fu G on his blog—less a remake than a reinvention of Irem’s Jackie Chan title Kung Fu Master. In babara’s Flash version, enemies march toward the player to be swatted away by left-click combos, and dragon-headed bosses announce themselves with haughty laughter before striding onto the screen.

A less scoring-oriented title is Xenoraider, a kind of abridged Legend of Zelda. Xeno fights monsters, rescues fairies, and fetches items for bearded elders in a quest for a lost princess. Our hero swings a huge sword, but enemies do no damage—an acknowledgement that in contemporary Zelda games battles exist more to pace the game than challenge the player. Xenoraider’s solution is elusive.

Thousands of battleships


Other games take advantage of the fact that they’re on the internet — Dezao stars a tiny figure in a red cap who runs and jumps, collects coins and avoids enemies. The coins, enemies and pits are all positioned by visitors to the site: the game includes an editor which allows anyone to design a stage and add it to the game. There isn’t much room for fancy design in an auto-scrolling game with three lanes and only three objects, though. But Dezao wasn’t babara’s last experiment with user-created content.

Boschvos is a manic shooter to which anyone can contribute an enemy space fortress, bristling with lasers and cannons to fire at the player. The game currently boasts a fleet of over 350,000 user-made warships. Poking through them (the database seems glitchy—you may have to hold RIGHT until you reach playable stages) reveals gunboats shaped like boats and moons and Doraemon. I found a laser-armed fish that made me think of Darius. Other battleships are composed of a single weaponless tile, floating in space. And others are rigged to explode at a single shot.

The surprising part is that they’re all very playable. I don’t think I’ve encountered a design that seemed impossible to beat. And of course you can browse and skip through the entire fleet with the arrow keys. There are incentives for destroying enemy ships, though-though the ship you start with can’t pick up power-ups, victories unlock additional ships that can, each equipped with a different weapon.

Finally, be sure to check out...

...Robodome, a game of hefty robot combat that’s mostly about manuevering your stodgy bot to get a shot at your opponent.

[Ancil Anthropy is a game developer and space invader. She fills dessgeega.com with lots of good stuff and writes for a bunch of places, including The Gamer’s Quarter and The Independent Gaming Source.]