It’s the second round of Dr Steve’s Game Clinic, and both myself and Nurse Miguel have been mopping up the last of the 2018 leftovers, enjoying and enduring some of the more obscure titles out there. Whilst some are the equivalent of the forgotten selection box of biscuits, others have more in common with the gastro bug brought over by your unwelcome second cousin. So, without further ado, let’s open the casebook again.
Marble It Up! – Switch, PC
Sometimes all you need is a shiny marble and some floating blocks to make one of the most entertaining puzzle platformers I’ve played in a while. Marble It Up! hits you with a simple concept: you control a marble and can roll or hop it along winding paths and complicated momentum-based level layouts to reach the end goal as fast as possible. Think Super Monkey Ball, except with static environments and fewer monkeys.
Each of the levels in Marble It Up! has had thought and care put into them, with some being speedy races down huge downhill paths while others are slower and more methodical journeys in marble platforming. If you just want to get to the end of each level and move to the next, you’ll likely feel sour about the small number of stages on offer. However, if you’re willing to revisit the 40 stages to get the best time or unlock hidden marble skins, these minute-long endeavours can quickly become hour-long escapades. Marble It Up! is simple and fun, and I’m excited to dive in again sometime.
Super Hydorah – Switch, PS4, PS Vita, Xbox One, PC
There are a number of reasons why I love scrolling shooter games, from the twitch-sensitive difficulty of dodging swarms of bullets to the gorgeous visuals and satisfying sounds that accompany that action. Super Hydorah manages to get all of that wrong and then some, instead delivering a flaccid and ultimately unenjoyable experience. The game drops you into drab levels set in asteroid belts or alien planets, fighting enemies with equally uninteresting designs.
One of the most annoying aspects of Super Hydorah is how small everything is. Your bullets are small, the enemies are small, and their bullets are small. Their limp attacks hardly pose a threat to you, but your equally ineffective attacks rarely manage to land a hit. The challenge of the game is more of a test of your patience than a test of your skills.
The music doesn’t stand out, but what does is the grating sound effect that constantly plays as you fire your bullets. The repetitive chime barrages your eardrums constantly, and it made me desperately search for an option to mute the sound effects that, unfortunately, did not exist. There’s a lot wrong with Super Hydorah, and little right. When it comes to arcade shooters on the Switch, you have a wealth of better options to go to.
Super Pixel Racers – PS4, Xbox One
If you’re a top-down racing game fanatic and need something to scratch that Micro Machines itch, Super Pixel Racers might be for you. On the surface, it might seem like a simple game cashing in on the trend of pixel-graphic indie games – I mean, “pixel” is right there in the title – but once you dive in, you’ll be surprised by the depth of content on offer here.
When you start the game, you’re gated into C class races in slow and dingy cars. The simple stick-controlled gameplay proved to be a little too simple at first, even with the added push-and-pull of a nitro system fueled by drifting. As I made my way through more of the game, though, I unlocked different race types, a variety of tracks, and most importantly, a huge variety of cars.
While everything is rendered in an uninspired art-style, I appreciate the way the game uses pixel graphics to emulate more realistic phenomena like tire smoke and dust particles. It’s an extra layer of charm that helps give the game a bit more of an identity. Super Pixel Racers is a simple game, but there’s enough quantity of content in there that it just might be worth dipping into for fans of arcade racing.
Scintillatron 4096 – PS4, PS Vita
I booted up Scintillatron 4096 with little in the way of enthusiasm for yet another Geometry Wars clone. At first glance the graphical parallels are depressingly obvious, but once I began to get into the game my opinion was changed. Marrying the twin stick shooter mechanics of Geometry Wars with the colour chaining of English Pool is one of those weird but inspired ideas that makes no sense until you play it. The fact that the game is refined enough to work equally well on the small screen of the Vita as the full size TV is also refreshing.
Where Scintillatron falls down, though, is in its relative lack of variety. Whereas Geometry Wars and its sequels are filled with alternative modes and game styles, Scintillatron has the one colour chaining mode to work through and nothing more. This mode is enjoyable but does feel a little sparse. It’s definitely worth picking up, particularly for the now neglected Vita, but you could probably wait for a bargain price in a sale.
Phantom Halls (PC)
Filled to the brim with camp horror references and knowing pop culture injokes, Phantom Halls is clearly targeted at an audience of horror movie fans. Pitched somewhere between Scooby Doo and the Evil Dead, the game involves an appropriately generic bunch of American teen stereotypes banding together to investigate a series of supernatural events in a local haunted house. What follows is a hybrid of side scrolling exploration and team management which sees you lead your chosen team members through the various floors of the spooky mansion.
The tone of Phantom Halls is resolutely tongue in cheek with plenty of nerdy moments, but it is held back by a repetitive feel both to the gameplay loop and, more annoyingly, the voiceovers. The characters have a very limited range of reaction dialogue that is repeated to the point of being annoying. The difficulty is badly judged too, as the early missions are pretty tough, resulting in some frustrating game over screens before you really get started. This is a shame as the game promises some very cool late content, including a cameo appearance from Bruce Campbell as Ash from the Evil Dead. I gave up long before that point, however, as the repetition quickly sunk in. A lost opportunity in need of some balancing.
Tanglewood – PC, MegaDrive
Tanglewood is a real curio. What at first looks like a shameless retro clone is instead far more of a labour of love. So much so, in fact, that the PC game comes with a full Megadrive (Genesis for our transatlantic readers) ROM which can be played on the original hardware if you have the right equipment. It is particularly unfortunate, given this remarkable dedication, that Tanglewood just isn’t fun.
Many indie games bring the look and feel of classic titles but most of the better examples marry this aesthetic to game design that eschews the worst excesses of their forebears. Tanglewood is unapologetically old-school, and not always for the better. While the trailer promises something interesting the opening of the game is not good. The anthropomorphised fox that you control (why is it always foxes?) is responsive enough, but the levels are empty and far too full of unfair feeling instant deaths. It looks like it opens up later but the beginning was too off-putting for me. As things stand, Tanglewood is an interesting beast, but one that takes too many of the wrong inspirations.
A few hits and a few misses here in today’s case files, but I think it’s safe to say that Marble It Up! is the pick of the bunch this time out. We’ll be back soon with another caseload of the obscure and the unheralded, sifting the wheat from the crap.