Digital distribution is the hot new thing. Publishers love it due to lower costs and elimination of piracy. Consumers love it due to unmatched ease of wasting money. At DPad we love it because damn, some of these games are great. DD, especially on consoles, encourages modest filesizes and has brought a mentality that 2D is okay again. It also allows independent developers to get their games out there in a way that wouldn't be possible in retail sale. All in all there's a lot to like.
Xbox 360's Live Arcade has been a frontrunner for console DD since release, boasting the largest and most varied library. In a calculated marketing stunt that I and many of my friends played right into, Microsoft hoarded away 5 better-than-average games to drop within the month of August. They called it Summer of Arcade and plastered the dashboard with as many ads for it as they could fit. Geometry Wars Evolved 2, Braid, Bionic Commando: Rearmed, Galaga Legions, and Castle Crashers debuted about a week apart from each other, and I bought 'em all.
And you know what? I liked 'em all. Before last month there were maybe a dozen titles I'd call worth owning from XBLA. The allure of the service has skyrocketed since. The following are mini-reviews of all five, and at least a couple should pique anyone's interest.
Geometry Wars: Retro Evolved 2
800 MS points
The original GW was the first game on XBLA and probably the most popular. A simple shoot-em-up, you're a little... shape, thing. And you shoot other shapes. That's pretty much it. Like Asteroids on a different kind of 'roids, GW is probably the only twin-stick (LS to move, RS to aim and fire) shooter to ever not suck. Problem was, it was hard as hell. And with only the one gameplay mode, only autistics and robots played it for extended periods of time. The successor addresses these complaints. "Geoms," little green polygons that drop from fallen enemies, are the basis of your score multiplier, which remains even if you die. Hooray! Now that regular people can manage decent scores, what else to do?
Well, they added five new modes of play. In Deadline, you have 3 minutes and infinite lives to rack up a high score. King has you racing between decaying safe zones that you are helpless outside of. Pacifism takes away your weapons and requires you to race through exploding gates to destroy huge swarms of enemies. Waves pits you against screen-wide waves of foes that saw back and forth across the screen in ever-increasing numbers. The final mode, Sequence, has 20 levels of finite length, and while you don't have to beat all of them to finish, you can only screw up as much as your extra lives permit.
Further sweetening the pot is both versus and co-op local multiplayer. And to keep you motivated in SP, your top-ranked friend's high score shows in real time in the upper corner of every play mode. No pressure.
Simple, addictive, just a touch easier, and six times as varied, GW2 is about as good as shooters get.
1200 MS points
I'm not going to lie, I really like Braid. The problem with the game is that it received the Portal Treatment in the gaming press and player community. That is to say, every journalism dropout with a thesaurus and an attention disorder hailed it as the second coming of Game Jesus and wrote up such sickeningly wordy, borderline-erotic praise over the thing it could make Keith Olbermann turn away in disgust.
The game is an analogue to Portal in a lot of ways, really. It's short. It takes a tried-and-true gaming genre as its base and then adds a mechanic that, while not altogether new, got enough thought put into it that it ends up almost startlingly clever. And the story, while initially intriguing, gets annoying in about 10 minutes from all the internet frothing on about it. But let's get to the actual game.
Braid welcomes you with a hand-painted visual style and a lilting string arrangement for a soundtrack. It is, at its heart, a simple little platformer. There's a platform. There's a ladder. There's an enemy that borders on Goomba copyright infringement. Your Italian plumber is instead a man in a rumpled blazer who lamentably cannot jump 3 times his own height or shoot fireballs. He can, however, rewind time. Now, this has been done before. The Prince of Persia Sands of Time trilogy did this, and Braid's system works in basically the same way. The difference comes in how different game worlds react to this ability. In the first, it's all vanilla. You mash X, time rewinds. In later worlds, you find some things are immune to the time shift. In others, shadow dopplegangers continue on as if time hadn't been rewound at all. Later still time can be further mangled in little area-effect bubbles. All the while you're tasked to collect puzzle pieces that complete a picture in the game's hub. A couple are just sitting there, but most require you to solve some kind of puzzle to get.
This is the game's strength: the puzzles are not easy. Some may have you staring at the screen for a half hour scratching your head. But the answer is right in front of you, and you have everything you need to complete it. You just need to wake up the part of your brain that will let you realize it. You know, the part that withered away in most of you thanks to the Strategy Guide Industry. Anyone who plays Braid and clicks on GameFaqs at any time during receives instant Worthless Pussy certification. Just do it yourself. Collecting all the puzzle pieces opens up the final world, which, at the risk of sounding like one of Those Guys, is borderline genius in its implementation. The game leaves you in a kind of contemplative awe, thinking "Damn, that was really very good."
Are there downsides? Sure. First of all, it's not very long, 10 hours max if you're really taking your time, and once it's beaten there's little reason to run through it again unless you hate yourself and all that is good in the universe. There's more to do in the game but it's such insane, unobvious madness that it's a wonder anyone actually noticed it exists. And the story, if you manage to navigate the monsoon of metaphorical backwash, is revealed to be pretentious garbage. Luckily it really doesn't have any bearing on the gameplay itself and can therefore be safely ignored.
Oh, and as you may have noticed, it costs more than most Arcade games. 1200 M$ translates to 15 Real Dollars. Instead of 10. $5 difference. If this is staying your hand, perhaps you'd be better off finding a cheaper hobby, like collecting driftwood.
A hard but satisfying puzzler, Braid is one of those games that you wish was made a lot more often and talked about a whole lot less.
Bionic Commando: Rearmed
800 MS points
Bionic commando is not a new game. A Capcom classic from the NES era, BC was a pretty original action-platformer that casts you as a Special Forces infiltrator from a fictional future military organization. You are supposed to tear up the other rogue fictional future military organization and rescue one of your comrades while uncovering a secret plan for a secret weapon. Pretty generic stuff, but what do you want? It was a video game released in 1987, having any kind of semi-coherent premise back then was groundbreaking. As a platformer, you spend most of your time navigating some platforms, shootin some guys. . . but the twist comes in the form of a huge fuckin' robot arm attached to your hero. The arm and its abilities are the core of the game. It can deflect bullets, grab and sometimes destroy enemies and obstacles, and most importantly, acts as a grappling hook to propel you up, over, around and through the many game areas.
Which is a damn good thing because you can't jump at all.
This simple thing stopped many people from ever playing. If it's higher than your ankle, you aren't stepping over it. I don't know if that arm is too heavy or what, but there it is. Any navigation you do besides simple running all depends on the arm and an impeccable sense of timing. At best, you may have to start a complicated grappling and swinging sequence over again as you hit the ground below. At worst, there isn't any ground below. What enraged many intrigued just as many others, and the nuances and exploits that the game exhibits made the game the classic that it is.
Rearmed is a complete reworking of the original NES title. They examined the original game and rebuilt it using 3D backgrounds and characters, edited the cutscene scripts, redid the bosses, remixed the original music (which was really good to begin with) and added an all-new final level. They threw in a hacking minigame (all the rage these days!) and a load of challenge levels to test your grappling skills. On top of that they added local co-op for story mode, and local and online deathmatch. The effort comes off as really polished and impressive. The game looks, sounds, and plays great, and whatever changes they made are for the better. Well, it is harder this time around, but be a man about it. What I never realized in the days of my youth was how much depth there was in this game- there is a Legend of Zelda-style upgrade system where you can collect many different weapons, upgrades and armors to make your hero tougher or access new areas. There's an impressive amount of replay value within that simply didn't exist in most original NES games.
A top-notch remake of a top-notch classic. If the Arm floats your boat, then you'll get a lot of mileage out of this one. This one is also available for PC.
800 MS points
There are a lot of shooters on Live. Horizontal scrolling, vertical scrolling, no scrolling, 3d, you name it. (Hell, we just reviewed one of them) Few are worth a second look but Galaga Legions is one of them. It's not really a game for Galaga diehards, as the gimmick is different and as a result it plays in a whole new way. The gimmick is that your craft has two little detachable satellites. Docked, they augment your ship's firepower much like rescued ships did in the original. The difference is that you can place each satellite anywhere on the screen, firing up, down, left or right, independently of you and the other satellite.
Once placed, they'll chill right there, firing endlessly until you pass back over them or call them back with a button. They are unaffected by enemy fire or collision, so quick thinking and wise placement can turn a horrible onslaught into fish in a barrel. Furthermore, rescuing a captured ship from the Galaga swarm works somewhat like the classic combination system, but instead of docking with the rescued vessel it turns into a swarm of small ships that follow and fire when you do. These are immune to enemy fire but not collision and stay with you until destroyed.
That's pretty much it. There are five levels of increasing difficulty that you can campaign, or play singly in a score challenge. While probably the least enticing title from the Summer of Live, it's still very good. It just suffers from a lack of variety compared to geometry wars, but if you're looking for a solid shooter of a different flavor, definitely give it a try.
1200 MS points
Castle Crashers is one of those games that somebody should have come up with a long time ago. While big publishers saw Live Arcade as an opportunity to repackage classic arcade beat-em-ups and resell them to us, it took The Behemoth, the teensy little flash game developers, to take it to the next level.
Four players, beatin' the crap out of waves of enemies, pickin' up food, alright, that's good. But we aren't feeding quarters into a machine anymore, so why not add some depth to the thing? I mean gauntlet got the leveling thing going but that franchise degenerated into... i don't even know what it is anymore.
Castle Crashers is simple: You start with one of four knights, each has a different elemental attack (Poison, Lightning, Ice, or Fire). Apart from than that you can fast attack, strong attack, jump, and block. Soon you get a bow and arrow. Then they added the good stuff: you can level up your character, and each level earns you skill points you can spend into Strength, Magic, Defense, or Agility. You can also find new weapons, of which there are approximately Tons. These can have stat bonuses or special qualities like elemental or critical chances. They're also all graphically different (no palette swaps here!), and have a range of everything from giant ice-enchanted swords to what appears to be a large rigid platypus. As you level you open up different magic attacks and melee combos. Further complicating gameplay are little Animal Orbs, tiny rotund caricatures of animals that follow you around once you find them and give you various abilities or stat bonuses. There's also a small army of alternative characters for you to unlock, each with their own specialized magic attacks, melee upgrades, and so on.
There's enough customization in the stat leveling to create some pretty different characters even though all are baseline identical. Spend all into agility and you're a blindingly fast pro arrow sniper, but you may get in over your head when surrounded. The melee tank may find himself in trouble when faced with a horde of ranged attacking enemies. But, hey, that's why it's multiplayer! Play with up to three friends locally or over Live (if it feels like working, more on this later) or any combination thereof and the fun multiplies. Balanced teams can breeze through levels that would hand a single player his armored ass. Best of all, as you progress through the game there are four princesses to rescue- In a multiplayer game, your former comrades are soon pitted against you as you all turn on each other to win the kiss from the rescued maiden. No mercy guys, sorry.
Of all the August Arcade titles, this is the one with the most depth and replayability. In particular I have replaced sleep with this game and became that one guy that is twice everyone else's level and is barely fun to play with anymore, but dammit I NEED that sweet XP!
There are downsides, though. At release, the netcode seems pretty broken. A more-than-2 player game over Live's chances of working are iffy, especially if you're trying to play with people overseas, and there are some glitches in the game that may get you stuck temporarily or in rare cases have to restart. Luckily the game is pretty good about saving your progress even if you're dumped out of a game forcibly. The devs are reportedly hard at work to iron this stuff out in an update.
Normally an online mp game with moderately broken online support would be the Worst Thing Ever, but the fact that I'm recommending the hell out of it anyway should be an indication of how good I think the rest of it is. If I had to choose one game from the August onslaught, this would be it.
All things considered, I can hardly believe that August was as good as Microsoft promised. As it turns out, it was even better. So take advantage of another bonus of digital distribution and demo all these games. You'll likely end up buying one or two, and even if you get them all, I doubt you'll regret it.