Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Go Go Diet



As some of you may know, my Big Mean Flash Gamer reviews are also available on the Way of The Geek website. A few months back, while I was celebrating 100 reviews here, I posted a special WoTG exclusive review for a woeful game called Mall Flirting. The game was technically sound, but the concept - run around a mall firing lightning bolts at boys to make them fall in love with you - was so repugnant that nothing could salvage the game in my eyes. (Incidentally, I recently came across the Japanese version of Mall Flirting, which is even more messed up, as you actually kill the boys and have their ghosts mindlessly follow you through a school.)

To make a long story even longer, fellow Geek scribe Devin de Gruyl mentioned finding another game on the girlsgames123.com website called Go Go Diet. Running this way from the Far East, it proves to be just as offensive as Mall Flirting ever was. I was reminded about it today by my fiancée, and since it's a quiet enough week for crappy games, I thought it was time to go back and call out this piece of garbage.



Go Go Diet puts you in the running shoes of a cute little girl on a treadmill. By tapping the left and right arrow keys you can make the girl run, and the goal is to stay on the treadmill for as long as possible. Nothing too worrying about that, right?

Well, the problem begins when sushi and Coke starts rolling down the treadmill towards you. You have to avoid the food at all costs, and apparently sushi is ridiculously fattening, because if the little girl ends up eating just one piece, her body weight seemingly doubles.



I can imagine a meeting between the developers probably went something like this...

Programmer #1: "So, what sort of game should we make now?"
Programmer #2: "How about something that preys on female insecurities about weight and body shape, and market it towards young girls?"
Programmer #1: "Sounds great! Man, I love being evil!"

Let's not beat around the bush here - you have to be a real asshole to make a game like this. Seriously, just a total dick. The type of guy who kicks puppies or tells women he loves them just so they'll have short, unsatisfying sex with him before he never calls them again. That guy apparently now knows Flash and is using it to make even more women feel bad about themselves.

Wonderful.



There's hope for fat chicks, though! All they've got to do is wolf down some magic weight loss medicine from a cute blue bottle! Because, you know, why stop at making young girls feel fat when you can also push the idea of diet pills and other garbage on them? I mean, if you're going to tear down their confidence, you might as well go all the way and make them mindless consumers of useless drugs that make them poop fat.



I'm really not sure what the goal of this game is. If you're trying to bring attention to childhood obesity, this is a pretty ham fisted way to do so. If the idea is to get more girls exercising, there has to be a more effective message than, "Exercise and never eat, or you'll get faaaaaaaat!!" And to be quite honest, the game isn't even all that well-made. The alternating button mashing I can deal with, but then you have to worry about moving up and down across the treadmill too, and as you play for longer more and more food comes tumbling towards you. It reaches a point where you have no choice but to take a hit and eat some food, leaving yourself open to the derogatory prodding of the mean girls at school.

All the cute artwork might appeal to little girls but it's just vomit-inducing to the rest of us. And the fact that the sweet outer shell contains such a potentially harmful message just makes it worse.



This game is just awful; there isn't a damn thing about it that I could recommend. The message it conveys can only damage the self-image of any young girl, and it lacks any interesting gameplay elements. Its only saving grace is that it's very small, less than 1.5MB of memory. But that's 1.5MB that could have gone to a game that wasn't a shallow, pointless borefest.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Canabalt



Hold up on the hate mail for a second; allow me to explain. I know my schedule is fairly erratic, but I didn't plan on posting this week's review so late in the evening. Oh no, I intended to get this thing written up nice and early so I could spend the rest of the evening playing Psychonauts and wondering what the hell happened to my life. Unfortunately Fate intervened to prevent my fun-filled night of telekinesis and self-loathing.

As I've mentioned before, I never do any research prior to my weekly Wednesday post. I mean, I write a blog - research would be anathema to the entire process. So what usually happens is I surf a few of my favourite Flash game sites, find a really bad game, and then write up a quick little rant. This method has worked for almost two years now, and I've never seen reason to change it. Except maybe now, because I've just spent the last four hours searching for a shitty game and I've come up with nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Sure, I've found some bad games, but nothing worth a post. And I did find one God awful game, but it's four years old so I've got to give it the benefit of the doubt. But a contemporary, terrible Flash game? Maybe I've just been too nice this week, but nothing jumped out and truly disappointed me. So, I did what any online writer with a dearth of material would do - I said, "Fuck it" and did something else.

So yes, this is one of those rare occasions in Big Mean Flash Gamer where I actually get to enjoy myself. For you see, dear readers, this last week I fell in love with a game called Canabalt.



If I told you that Canabalt has been made in five days, you might be a little wary. That's a remarkably short amount of time, unless the game you're producing is a pile of crap. However, with a talent like Adam "Atomic" Saltsman at the helm, using his own Flixel software, Canabalt is a wonderful game.

The secret is in its simplicity. You play a little black and white figure who races across the rooftops of a crumbling city, trying to avoid pitfalls and obstacles thrown in your way. The longer you run, the greater your speed, pushing your concentration and reflexes to the limit.



Canabalt endears itself to you almost immediately, from the first satisfying leap through a window, shards of glass scattering through the air. Rendered in a solid eight-bit style, this is classic one button gaming. All you have to do is press the jump button; the sprite does all the rest. Sometimes that's all you need, and when most people play these games as a distraction from work, it's nice to have a game that doesn't feel like a chore to play.



It's probably a bit hypocritical of me to like such a minimalist game, especially when I've denigrated other titles for not giving players some kind of plot or context. Canabalt doesn't bother to do it either, but it's so addictive that you hardly notice and you care even less. I have a feeling, however, that Saltsman had a story all laid out for this, one he had to remove at the last second for fear of a lawsuit:

Manhattan, 2059. Having faked his death fifty years before, Michael Jackson is finally woken from cryogenic suspension. Doctors have reconstructed his face, giving him the opportunity to now live out the rest of his days in peaceful anonymity. Unfortunately, robot Glenn Beck's 9/12 Destructobots have launched their full-scale assault on the New York liberal elite. Then the call comes through. It's Tito. The Shah of Kuwait wants the Jackson 5 to perform at his daughter's birthday. Tito really needs this gig, man.

Michael must run.



Naturally, there are all sorts of nasty objects in your way. Most of these are just boxes, designed to slow you down, which makes long jumps more difficult. There are also crumbling buildings that collapse under you as you run across them, but for my money the most difficult obstacle is the giant mangling machine that drops out of the sky when you least expect it. These things will turn you into a fine mist before you know what hit you, so make sure to keep your finger on the button.

In truth, though, you'll more often than not die because you mistimed a jump. Whether it's overshooting a small building, misjudging a wide gap or just missing a window, your little guy will usually end up falling to his doom.



I suppose I should point out some faults, since that is the whole point of Big Mean Flash Gamer. And indeed, Canabalt isn't perfect. A lot of players have commented that they'd like to see a high score table, and while I'm not too worried about how I measure up to the mutant super players who tend to post record-breaking scores, it would be nice if it recorded your best runs for posterity. I've also found problems when it comes to loading Canabalt; if you have a slow connection you might be waiting for a while. I have to suspect, however, that this had less to do with the game itself and more to do with my wireless internet connection, which can go on the fritz if the wind is blowing the wrong way.

The greyscale landscape is pretty to look at for a while, and fits in with the stripped-back feel of the game, but as the screen shakes and things begin to blur it can start to wear on the eyes. Of course, this might only be a problem because I can't stop playing the bloody game.



But searching for reasons not to like this game would be like searching for a happy goth. What strikes me most about Canabalt are the little touches that you probably wouldn't miss but which just make the game feel more well-rounded and complete. Flocks of birds fly from rooftops as you land; the sprite grunts as he jumps, runs and rolls; and even the sound of his footsteps change depending on the surface he's running across. There's also a brilliant theme that has a great retro feel but that never gets annoying.



I know that people expect me to rant and rave about crappy games - why else would you be here? (Unless you're my fiancée - hi, honey.) But hey, sometimes I play good games, too, and Canabalt has taken up a lot more of my time this past week than any online title should. I wholeheartedly endorse this game, and if even a grumpy son of a bitch like me can enjoy it, you know it must be good.

I promise to return to reviewing garbage next week. But for now, let's make one more daring escape from Tito.

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Flash Runner



Flash Runner. Well, it doesn't win any points for originality, but then we are talking about the world of casual games, so perhaps the direct approach is to be applauded. Before we begin, this is not a Flash game based on Blade Runner; I know the likes of Flash Portal or Flash Mirror's Edge might have caused you to get your hopes up as you dream of chasing down Replicants in a nightmarish, dystopian future choking on smog and drowning in acid rain, but you can stop that right now and prepare for horrible disappointment. Flash Runner is about exactly what it sounds like: running, then running some more, then stopping. There isn't actually any plot behind it to explain why it's so important to run. It's minimalist gaming, stripping away all the unessential items like story or graphics or fun.



The first thing you do is select the runner you wish to play as. There are only two differences: each one is noticeably faster than the last and only one of them doesn't look like a reject from a Pokemon cartoon. Once you've made your pick you can go straight to a tutorial level.



Here's where you really see what you've gotten yourself in for. The levels are flat, uninspiring geometric shapes with terrible colours vomited on screen. I've made more attractive looking things in MS Paint while drunk. Look, I'll show you:



He's standing next to a pond.

Anyway, Flash Runner. The tutorial level is where you discover that you're not actually running in any races, which makes this need to run through strange landscapes even more bizarre. Also, you control your (pretty frickin' small) character by holding down the left mouse button; the runner will speed up or slow down depending on his distance from the cursor. I'm a bit put off by this method of control simply because it makes the character harder to, well, control. And considering the speed at which you'll be moving through the levels, trying to get the runner to move exactly where you want him can prove more than a little frustrating.



There are all sorts of obstacles that you need to avoid, but they whizz by so fast that you barely notice them and it's almost impossible to avoid any that get your way. Luckily your character will automatically jump over logs and rocks, but he won't continue running unless you take your finger off the mouse button and click it again. Since every level is a race against the clock, this break in momentum can be a real pain in the ass.



Also, don't you dare think about running through water - this is Flash Runner, damn it, not Flash Swimmer! Seriously, though, this will piss you off more than anything else, because you have one narrow bridge that you can cross, and if you miss it by so much as an inch, you'll be sent back to the nearest checkpoint before you know what happened. It's a great way of creating a false sense of increasing difficulty, as if this game actually has a learning curve. No it doesn't - it's just forcing you to be more cautious, which means you'll move slower and take longer to complete a level. That's not the same as solving a new puzzle or measuring a jump in a platform game, it's simply screwing with the player.



Half the game involves collecting these... things. Really, that's all they are - things, with no relation to anything you'd see in real life, except maybe the planet Saturn. The tutorial says they're magic eggs, but I like the idea of collecting miniature Saturns a lot more. Hey, if you're going to make a game this brain-splatteringly ridiculous, you might as well go all out.

So, with no story and no character background, no explanation for the tiny Saturns or races to win, what exactly is the player trying to achieve? What is your reward for successfully completing a level?



Giant. Gold. Bunnies.

Wow.

I don't know what it is about Flash Runner that I hate the most. Is it the awkward controls? The total lack of pleasing visuals? The sheer pointlessness of what you're doing? The answer, of course, is "Yes." Because these all come together in a game that bores and frustrates in equal measure. Eventually the only glimmer of satisfaction comes from ramming your character headlong into a wall.



Ah, that's better!

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Axis of Evil



Although I'm a pinko Commie liberal scumbag in my day-to-day life, I do enjoy turning to the dark side on occasion. I can still remember playing Dungeon Keeper in my teens, siding with the bad guys in Command & Conquer, and in more recent times exploiting the capitalist system in the wonderful Oiligarchy. But why are these games so popular? Well, d'uh! They're fun! Sure, doing good to your fellow man is important, and everything, but sometimes you just want to let your inner bastard out to play.

That's why I had such high hopes for Axis of Evil, a game that allows you to be an evil dictator hell bent on becoming a nuclear power. Of course, it wouldn't be in this week's Big Mean Flash Gamer if it was any good, and its rating on Addicting Games told me as much before I even clicked the Play button. But since I'm a glutton for punishment, I had to give it a shot.



The first job is to name and design your dictator. Here's my guy, Gregory McAsshat; although he is a prick, he does have a bitchin' beard and pipe combo going on, so it's hard not to give him some kudos.

The next decision is to choose what region you want your dictatorship to be a part of. There are three choices of varying difficulty, each area described by a man who sounds almost exactly like Eugene Hutz, lead singer of gypsy punks Gogol Bordello. This was the best thing about the game, other than the ability to name your character McAsshat. I decided to go with the easiest region, which is the Far East.



So we get on with the game proper, and before doing anything else I'm asked if I want to set up a statue to commemorate my victory in the entirely fair elections. Well, sure, why not? I suppose it isn't such a hot idea, because every time you build something it reduces your support among the people. I don't think it's actually building stuff that gets them down, but rather what you build. Hospitals and schools would be a good choice, but in Axis of Evil the emphasis is on firepower, and lots of it.



You're going to need it, too, because you start getting attacked almost immediately. I don't know who these guys are, but since I haven't bombed any neighbouring countries I can only assume they're rebels. There's some crap about managing resources and setting a price for them on the world market to raise funds, but really the most important thing is killing anyone who tries to get close to your city. So I guess this is some kind of war game, right? Well, I sure hope not, because if it is, then it's one of the worst war games I've ever played.



For one thing, you're only allowed a certain number of units, whether it be infantry or tanks. And while I can understand only having what you can afford, I'd like to know why the hell I can't build as many tanks as I want? Aren't I the Dear Leader of this nation? Gregory McAsshat will not stand for this slur on his honour!

But then, it might not be a bad idea to limit the troops, since so many of them are dumb as posts. Both your units and the enemy can only travel along roads (you know, like armies in real life) and your boys will travel up and down the same road until you tell them to go somewhere else. What makes this so frustrating is when three or four enemy soldiers march towards your capital city and your entire army is on the other side of the God damn country.



What the hell are those assholes doing!? I've got rebels and other nations knocking down my door, and my tank units are trundling around like they're in Canada! I'm trying to build a WMD over here!



If your popularity dips below 15% NATO start carpet bombing the country, as if I didn't have enough problems already. And just so we're clear, all this happened in less than five minutes. I had no idea what was going on until it already happened. I felt less like a dictator and more like a child king, with no control over anything. Which is ridiculous, because there are basically only three things to control.



Like all great dictators (with the exception of the smug bastards who died in exile, sipping tea with prime ministers before suffering dementia and dying in their sleep) I ended my reign of terror hanging from a lamp post. My dictatorship lasted three and a half minutes. Hoo-rah.

Axis of Evil has plenty of flash but there's absolutely nothing underneath. What strategy you can find is minimal at best. It reminds me a lot of a bad tower defence game, as all you're really trying to do is stop enemies from reaching your city. I'd expect a game like this to involve international relations, balancing your budget, quelling dissent, forming alliances - all the stuff world leaders do. But instead all we have is a poor man's war game with infuriating controls and a difficulty curve that's practically a cliff face. Definitely one to avoid.