Monday, July 6, 2009

demo monday: xbox community games edition

cardcommunityGames Something a little different this week – in lieu of downloading a single demo, I decided to go slumming in the Xbox Community Games section of Microsoft’s marketplace. For the uninitiated, the Community Games truly put the indie in ind(i)ependent, as they’re developed by individuals or small groups of individuals with no backing of any sort by major developers or publishers.

There has been noise around this here Internet about the coverage, or lack thereof, given these games by Microsoft, whether Community Games are even financially viable, and whether Microsoft takes too big a cut from the games’ revenues. I’m not here to address any of these issues directly, but I am here to tell you whether any of the three games I picked this week are worth your time.

Bennu

screen3_Web.jpg AlMra’s Bennu starts with some promise, or at least, the game select screen is reasonably polished looking. It opens with an overly wordy and pointless story before actually letting you play the game – apparently some Egyptian god has done something that some other Egyptian god finds unacceptable. Because of this (?), you become a little round wheel that shoots chains out of its mouth.

Roll your little wheel person around using the control stick, and shoot the chains to latch onto walls or other structures and swing around. The object of the game is to swing your wheel thing into blocks of certain colors, though you can only take out one color at a time – say there are red and grey blocks in a level, for example. There will be a receptacle with red fire in one corner, and one with grey fire in another corner, and you need to change colors and take out all the blocks within the time limit.

It sounds interesting, but in practice it’s too clunky to be enjoyable. I would have liked the game much more if my chain had an infinite reach, or if, once suspended by said chain, my character actually responded to my input – a game like this one needs to be fast and fluid to be truly satisfying. As it is, though, your character rolls around a little awkwardly, and after failing a couple of levels because I couldn’t move the way I wanted to, I started to lose interest.

Angry Barry

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arrogancy’s Angry Barry is a sidescrolling beat-‘em-up featuring the 44th President of the United States in the starring role. Punch and kick the crap out of all comers to win their votes, which spray from their fallen bodies in the form of acorns – haha, get it?! Again, I cannot go very far into a description of this game without talking about its problems.

This is a gaming blog, so gameplay first – this is as bland and boring a beat ‘em up as any I’ve played. There are two planes your enemies can be on, an upper plane and a lower one. You can jump between these two planes. Your enemies can but generally don’t. This is sort of boring. Your walk from left to right is uninterrupted by special events or messages telling you to GO! or leveling up or anything else. This is sort of boring. You fight crowds and crowds of the exact same enemy over and over again. Sort of boring pretty much sums it all up – I’ve been more entertained by licensed Super Nintendo games.

I have roundly critiqued the gameplay, now allow me to critique the subject matter. I do this not on political grounds – I have no idea for whom this game’s developers voted, and I don’t really care. My beef is with the fact that they released a game about the 2008 presidential election in May 2009, replete with references to individual manufactured mini-scandals – the ACORN reference is a case in point, or perhaps I should point you to the boss battle with a floating version of Jeremiah Wright.

One could forgive the bland mechanics if the game had been released eight months before, but as-is it causes the strange feeling of time displacement you feel when you watch a JibJab video or listen to the Obama Girl song after the fact. Things age quickly in this Internet epoch, and even if this game is irreverent or politically incorrect, my response is a resounding “so what, this happened forever ago.”

Gravity Bounce

screen2_Web.jpg toddm’s Gravity Bounce is perhaps the game I liked best of the three, and as such it’s probably the one I have the least to say about. The playing field has several spheres in it, all bouncing off one another. You launch another, red sphere onto the field, and begin to charge the globes that were already there. Charging the spheres causes them to orbit around you until you let go, which sends them flying off in whatever direction you sent them. Get two charged circles to collide, and they disappear – make all the circles disappear to win.

There are wrinkles that make this task more difficult – most levels will only allow you to charge a certain number of spheres at once. Getting two charged circles to run into each other while they’re bouncing off of six other circles is sometimes difficult, though in this case it is the fun kind of difficult and not the frustrating kind. While Bennu and Angry Barry are just about on the same level as your average browser game, with a different background image I think Gravity Bounce could just about make it to the bundled-with-your-operating-system level. Honestly, flat black would be a much preferable background to the squiggly MS Paint art that’s back there now.

Also notice how I made it through that entire write-up without once saying “balls.”

In closing

I don’t think these three games should be regarded as indicative of what is available on the service, but I can say that all three were in either the Most Recent or Most Popular category. I know these games have low budgets, and I know that we shouldn’t expect them to be nearly as polished as even the smallest game given backing by a major studio, but while these games are occasionally entertaining distractions they simply don’t have a lot to offer. There aren’t new ideas here, and there aren’t mechanics that, given time and resources, could be the foundation for the next Big Thing. None of these games are ever going to be the Narbacular Drop to anyone’s Portal, and while that’s unfortunate, I think maybe that’s why interest in the service is so low.

Bennu, Angry Barry, and Gravity Bounce are all available in the Xbox Live Game Marketplace in the Community Games section. Gravity Bounce goes for 200 Microsoft Points, while Angry Barry and Bennu both go for 400 points.