All Alone in a Small Island

All Alone in a Small Island, by Frances (2018).

Created for a weekly game jam at itch.io under the theme “Small World,” Frances’s game looks at first blush like a Harvest Moon-type of time management and gardening game. That’s not entirely inaccurate, either, and the game is working with that genre in the backdrop. When you first load it, the game gives you an impressive diversity of avatars to choose from and tells you that you’re about to participate in a rite of passage for your culture. This is a challenge to spend 30 days on a tiny island all by yourself, staying in the island’s only building, with the objective of raising one hundred orange flowers by month’s end.

What the game does with this setup is special and unique and opens up a space for an examination of ritual, routines, goals, and the individual’s place vis-à-vis society. It’s striking that while the game’s days count from thirty down to zero, the days themselves do not have time or action limitations. Suggestive text appears when you retire to your hut every night, reinforcing the themes it raises with the word “Alone” in the title, while allowing enough space with its evocative second-person language to give space to insert yourself into the narrative. How will you fill your days? How do you have a game like Harvest Moon or Stardew Valley–each of which emphasizes community as much as farming–when you’re, in fact, “All Alone in a Small Island?” I’d say more, but I think this is a game that is best not to spoil–its particular rhythms need to be experienced for themselves. Suffice it to say that the framing device, for me, ultimately surpasses the core “challenge” of the game. I believe this game will stay with me for a long time.

Download the game for Windows from itch.io.

Snake Strike

Snake Strike (スネークストライク, Suneiku sutoraiku), by Udonpa (2018)

Snake Strike is a rare 2D platformer that rarely asks you to do all that much walking. Instead, aided by a fairy companion controlled with the mouse cursor, your adorable Blue Coral Snake protagonist zips through the air, utilizing the “Serpent Path” (蛇道 jadou) power to strike enemy animals, items, and targets, even passing through walls.

While the core target-striking mechanic immediately reminded me of the last decade of Sonic the Hedgehog games, the game’s overall design philosophy reminds me most of Super Mario Bros. 3 in that every single stage has a design hook that makes it utterly distinct. Each themed world presents you with three stages you must clear to face off against the stage’s boss, but each stage features unique enemies, environmental object, or layout patterns that mark it off from the rest. Even different screens in the same stage stand out from each other with the game apparently never wanting to repeat itself. Bosses, too, mine the game’s core mechanics for surprising implementations and depth. 

This level of care in the differentiation of stages and screens is lavished on the direction of other parts of the game. Like your player character, every enemy and boss is a wild animal and each animal and boss has a collectible card you can pick up in the game world, loaded with scientific facts and the species’s scientific name. A particular moment that helped me realize the careful attention to detail occurred when the final stage in an arid desert world launched my snake into the air to fight the area’s boss, a bald eagle. When you land back on the ground triumphantly, the desert landscape is transformed. It’s snowing. You’re headed to a snow world next.

Part of the joy of the game is the discovery suggested here. When you arrive in the snow world, what kind of animals are you going to meet/face off against? How will they behave?

After each boss is beaten you become friends with a new fairy that grants you a new fairy, each of which has a special power that alters the core mechanics of the game: one enables you to double jump, another gives you more health, etc. You can only use one of these at a time, though, so you can customize according to your play preferences or to meet specific challenges. 

Despite all this depth, Snake Strike gives an almost willfully amateurish impression with its visuals. The game’s first stages, in particular, with over-saturated, overly-intense yellow-green grass tiles and clouds with thick blue outlines, are slightly garish. Later stages tend to look more visually pleasing. The diversity of environments and animals works as an interesting counterweight to this and the juxtaposition as well as the thoughtfully polished mechanics and level design. (The music, on the other hand, is excellent throughout. Especially enjoy the laid back, J-pop beats of the Fairy Park).

The game gets very tricky in its later stages. But through its novelty it earns every challenge (one might complain that the point at the bottom of the screen that counts as falling off the screen is a little too restrictive, but that’s forgivable). Snake Strike is a joy to play. 

Snake Strike is available for free from Freem (for Windows)!

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The game is Japanese-language only. So I’ve prepared a translation of some of the game’s early text and most important features. You can download my Unofficial English Player’s Guide as a PDF here (last updated June 1, 2018).

粉色鱼鱼 Find the Pink Fish

粉色鱼鱼 Find the Pink Fish, by wengwengweng (2018)

You are presented with a pile of fish. The fish you see are not pink. You have been told that somewhere in this pile of not-pink fish is a pink fish. You have been told that you must find the pink fish.

The fish in the pile squirm horribly. When you pick one up to clear it out of your way, it shakes ferociously as if to escape your grasp. Do you see evidence of the pink fish beneath it?

Dozens or maybe hundreds of fish stare up at you from this awful pile. Those bubbles you hear. Are you underwater? Where are you? Where’s the pink fish?

Will you find the pink fish?

Download 粉色鱼鱼 Find the Pink Fish for free from itch.io (Mac, Windows, Love).

Daddy!, Don’t Explode Me

Daddy!, Don’t Explode Me, by Fi Silva (2015)

I should let readers of this blog know from early on that I have an incredible fondness for and fascination with Lemmings (DMA Design, 1991), which I’m sure will continue to come through in my posts. In my own game design, this fascination with has resulted in two decades of games that try to build on or reinvent the Lemmings formula. One of the difficulties of making a good game in a Lemmings vein is that even DMA struggled to improve on the mechanics of their own formula, only really blossoming in levels that explored those mechanics well. The eight abilities from the original Lemmings are ingeniously simple and actually quite comprehensive for navigating two-dimensional, side-view space. As you can see from numerous games that followed in Lemmings’s wake, reworking–rather than just remaking–Lemmings is a challenge that partly owes to difficulty in imagining around the original set of abilities.

Made for 2015’s Ludum Dare 33 competition, Daddy!, Don’t Explode Me reimagines its little walkers as eager-to-please minions of a faceless villain and further reinterprets two of these abilities–the blocker and the exploder–into three abilities with an added elemental theming. The blocker turns into a block of ice, while fire can melt ice blocks. In addition to turning your little demons into ice blocks, there are ice blocks in the stages themselves. This twist allows for a different approach to the game’s physical spaces, producing a distinctive iteration of an old formula. (And the adoring little demonic minions are kind of adorable.)

The bombs, mercifully, are less demanding of precise, anticipatory timing than their Lemmings counterparts since they detonate right where you click your demon. However, the timing of where to light them on fire proves more fussy, fidgety, and hard to hit precisely, leading to some frustration. Compounding the frustration, the game soon gives you very little or no wiggle room to meet the minimum number of demons that need to reach the goal of each stage (little houses they set on fire). On the whole, though, this is an incredibly charming, clever take in a genre that needs charming, clever takes.

Download for free from itch.io (Windows).