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Published January 8, 2010

On Monday night, I “officially” designated Uncharted 2 as my “Game of the Year,” but as I pointed out during our podcast, most of my other choices took a more old-school design plan. In the case of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, this meant bosses that always required three bonks on the head to defeat; for Punch-Out!!, this meant straightforward circuits with only a few bells and whistles. While some of my choices earned scoffs from the rest of the Pack, I still stand by them. And none were more elegant than PixelJunk Shooter, a game from a personal favorite dev team, Q-Games.

I won’t rehash the mechanics of Shooter, but what really blew me away about this particular entry in the series was how much you could do with so little. Though the basic controls used the comfortable dual-stick scheme, your little ship could fly circles around its Geometry Wars equivalent. Even with a very streamlined control scheme and visual style, you could:

  • Blend lava, water, steam, magnetic oil and ice for varying and occasionally unpredictable outcomes
  • Slide into different suits so that you could suddenly repel different substances or fly through intense heat
  • Latch onto glaciers, “bucket” plants and water pods to douse the environment and progress onward
  • Open switches, rescue trapped folks, battle monsters and more…

While I realize that these observations aren’t necessarily revelatory, I’m still blown away by the expansive move set in this $10 title, and how many different variables the game asks you to process in any given moment. And if you’ll allow me to get just a bit more pretentious than normal – brace yourselves – I think what defines Q-Games and its gaijin prez Dylan Cuthbert (at least in recent years) as auteurs is deceptively complex resource management in a very old-school package.

On the DSi, the presentation couldn’t be more retro. While Eden and Shooter look gorgeous thanks to bold colors and a crisp display, Q-Games can get away with absolute minimalism on the handheld, which I’m sure is encouraged to some extent because the DSi mini-fridge can only store so many downloadable dishes. When I initially saw screenshots of their games Artstyle: DIGIDRIVE* and Trajectile, I was struck by how simple they looked. The guys behind the organic, sprawling beauty of Eden deliberately going for an NES look? Something was up with that.

*This was initially a Bit Generations title on the GBA in Japan, but it’s new to folks stateside.

And if you’ve listened to just about any podcast from the past three months, you know that I fell in love with both of them. They may lack visual pizazz, but I think I prefer the pared-down look to the techno-club Lumines vibe that’s taken over the genre. (Some of those backgrounds in Planet Puzzle League are eyesores.) There are no distractions in either game – it’s just you, some geometric shapes and a score ticker.

In DIGIDRIVE, the controls are also incredibly simple. The game doesn’t use the face buttons or touch screen at all (not counting the “touch” mode). The only way you can steer black, white and red “cars” down the correct intersecting lanes is by using the D-pad. You use these cars to gather fuel that keeps your curling puck on the bottom screen moving. If you can’t generate enough fuel to keep up the pace, your poor puck is skewered.


I’ve included the above video because I’m not sure I’m up to the task of writing a coherent description. I recall booting up the game for the first time last month sans instructions and being utterly baffled by the action on screen. If the other Art Style games are comparable to rubbing your stomach and patting your head, DIGIDRIVE seemingly asked me to do the same while blindfolded and riding a unicycle. But once I realized my error and watched the tutorial, I began to appreciate how much depth was in such a simple package.There’s about a half dozen risk/reward debates going on simultaneously if you play a round on the harder difficulties. Do I keep amassing fuel or burn it to push forward? Do I try to get fuel reserves in all four lanes for an overdrive, or do I use one lane to push away all of my unwanted cars? Do I split up this fuel tank so that it gets redistributed in two other spots? Etc. (Oh, and you’re constantly watching the bottom screen too to make sure you’re not lagging.) Again, I worry that DIGIDRIVE defies explanation without seeing it in motion, but even though you’re asked to process so much so quickly, it takes a long time before it overwhelms.At least on paper, Trajectile makes a little more sense. One part Bust-A-Move, another part Arkanoid, this new DSi title requires you to launch ricocheting missiles at an arrangement of breakable blocks in order to destroy a handful of scattered mines. Using geometry to angle your shots in a puzzle game isn’t new, but Q-Games mixes things up by giving you a limited set of missiles at fixed launching points. There’s always a need to look ahead to see what you have to work with, especially on the Gold level and beyond. Many of these missiles come in “packs” of two or three (or six if you’re using multipliers), and aiming that many projectiles at once requires both patience and a degree of foresight.

The beauty of this design is that like Picross, it allows near infinite permutations of the same basic concept, and even a seasoned rocketeer will need to rely on trial-and-error in order to conserve ammunition and earn medals. Like the Art Style games, it’s only five bucks, and I do not understand why these games haven’t garnered more attention from puzzle fans.

But then again, I guess the only reason I snapped these up so quickly was the PixelJunk pedigree. Whether we’re talking tower defense economics in Monsters or pollen grabbing from dizzying heights in Eden, Q-Games has become a go-to team for fun resource juggling, and I’ll definitely be keeping a close eye on the team in 2010, wherever their games land.**

**For the sake of “brevity” – I don’t want to pull a Tim Rogers***- I’ll leave out Racers, which I haven’t tried yet, and Star Fox Command, the DS game in the series with Free AJ Membership and RTS elements. Definitely think that last game fits the bill even though I’m not a big fan of the game’s 3D arenas.

***BURN! (No disrespect!)

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