Friday, January 2, 2009

Minotaur China Shop, or Give Me More than Flash can Give!

Minotaur China Shop is a good game. It's not a great game, but it's good. Much better, in fact, than other casual "time management" titles. The people at Flashbang Studios have a good track record so far, offering up the addictive Off-Road Velociraptor Safari and its dino-sequel Jetpack Brontosaurus on their website Blurst.com. They've started with goofy but inspired premises and built simple looking games with deep replay value.

The premise this time around? The Minotaur was originally banished to the labyrinth for accidentally entering Minotaur Rage and destroying a china shop. After getting released on good behavior, he obtains a business license and Minotaur Rage Insurance and attempts to realize his dream of selling fine china. This charming evolution of the phrase "bull in a china shop" is reason enough to give the thing a go.

When you get past the amusing title screen, you'll find a game not unlike Diner Dash. People (and by people I mean other -taurs, like Donkeytaurs and Moosetaurs) waltz into your shop and ask for their preferred piece of pottery. You must navigate your Minotaur to the item and return it to the customer before they get pissed. I say "navigate" because Flashbang has successfuly translated the "bull in a china shop" idiom into gameplay. Controlling your character is frustrating. It's not easy maneuvering shelves of expensive china when your hands are effectively free-swinging christmas hams and you tiptoe everywhere on tiny cloven hoofs.

At first, I found my lack of agility discouraging. I really wanted to sell china and my own body was getting in the way. That's when the other side of the gameplay comes in. If you break enough stuff, the screen turns red and the Minotaur's body begins flaming. Your Rage is unleashed and you can begin smashing your own wares for insurance money. In between rounds, you can spend the money you earn from sales or insurance claims on various upgrades, one of which is increased payouts for your Rage Insurance. Basically, because you're a Minotaur, the insurance company understands that you might occasionally get so mad you can't control yourself. I can't remember the last time a specific in-game upgrade made me laugh.

Once you begin raging, customers flee for their lives and police show up, pelting you with arrows until you pass out. You have until you pass out to make as much money as possible by breaking the very things you're trying to sell. After five days of either selling or breaking china for cash, your final profit is posted on the site's leaderboard.

Where does the game succeed? In its inspired conceit and winking take on the time management genre of Flash games. Everytime I think about the game's concept I smile or chuckle to myself. This poor Minotaur is just trying to make it as an entrepreneur. In fact, every time I play, I tell myself "This will be the time I make it without breaking anything!" And every time, I break a pot or a plate and end up having to smash everything. The game's browser-friendly 3D graphics are standard for the folks at Flashbang; they connote a substantial amount of effort and help distinguish it from other Flash fare.

Where does the game fail not succeed so much? Its repetition. While the china shop needs to be very small for the idiomatic gameplay to work, it is just that: small. Other than by purchasing additional inventory, you can't change the shop. Velociraptor Safari demanded replay with its bigger-than-you-think environment; multiple play-throughs yielded even more places to collide fender and feather. China Shop's upgrades make each day a little bit different, but the second (okay maybe the third) time through I found myself really wanting to skip straight to day three or four when I can afford better moves and more china. Also, the "Bristle" ability - which allows you to shake off arrows - is a game-breaker. Effective use of this skill renders you invincible and your Rage mode endless, thereby abolishing the time limit to your rampage. God mode is never as fun as you think.

My conclusion? Minotaur China Shop is fabulously clever idea for a game. However, the idea deserves an execution with greater depth. The limitations of Flash as a platform really prevent this game from reaching its true potential. I'd gladly pay five bucks for an expanded downloadable version. Or maybe I'll just go play Velociraptor Safari again.

EDIT: As Andrew kindly reminded me, Flashbang has been using the Unity Web Player for a while now. It's not Flash, it's something different. My opinions, however, don't change much, since I feel like the browser-friendly, casual approach has forced this game to feel more repetitive than it otherwise could have.