Monthly Column – March 2020 Top 3 Curiosities
With the stresses accompanying the current coronavirus crisis, video games – and a sense of playfulness – can be a crucial outlet. Much as I enjoy horror and intensity, I think we’ve had more than enough of that these past few weeks.
Instead, despite the occasional serious moments and moods, these underrated video games from March all conjure a sense of whimsy and playfulness in some way:
Test Tube Titans
by Ghost Time Games
Combining physics-based kaiju comedy with some unexpected moments of thoughtfulness, Test Tube Titans is a compelling monster-maker simulation.
Simply stated, it’s your job to create giant monsters; the game offers you three choices of the titular titans, and then you can blast them with radiation to mutate them (again, you’ll have the choice of three options). The process is simple enough to be easily picked up while offering plenty of options and decisions to require some actual thought.
The physics part comes into play once you set your titan on the loose. Inspired by Rampage but presented in third-person 3D, “missions” involve causing as much mayhem as possible while avoiding explosions, gunfire and helicopters.
If that’s not enough to grab your attention, the developers at Ghost Time Games borrowed their control scheme directly from QWOP, so to call your titans’ movement “clumsy” or “lumbering” is a massive understatement.
In addition to causing some real comedic moments, this also has the side effect of really creating a classic kaiju movie feel; the actors trapped inside those giant rubber suits weren’t too graceful, either.
Filters and visual effects, as well as a lo-fi electronic score, help to further emphasize the low-budget film flavor, albeit in a stylized way; the graphics on missions, in particular, are more simple than “retro,” so don’t see this as an exact replica of your favorite ‘60s Godzilla knock-off, but rather an artistic interpretation of one.
Also worth noting: Test Tube Titans is unexpectedly thoughtful in some ways, especially for a game about making radioactive monsters and setting them loose to stomp on people. Intermittent conversations with your fellow scientists touch on all sorts of real-world issues, from the exploitative nature of corporate work to the questionable ethics of scientific research.
I found this a refreshing surprise, but if you’re not interested in exploring the effects of capital on nuclear monster research, there are plenty of other modes to explore, plus local co-op and a level editor.
Either way, there’s a ton of depth here, even once you get a grasp on the control scheme.
Recommended by none other than Baba Is You developer Arvi Teikari, Puddle Knights is as charming and fiendish as you might expect.
Playing upon the concept of Medieval chivalry and manners, Lockpickle presents us with a simple – and slightly silly – concept: Bishops and ladies traveling across the countryside in their liturgical and royal finery, respectively, but – horror! – there are mud puddles everywhere! How will they keep the hems of their robes and dresses clean?!
That’s where the humble, loyal knights come in; in addition to their armor, they’ve got long – in some cases, ridiculously long – capes, and a mere cape is an honorable sacrifice to make to protect the dignity of the Church or the reputation of a high-born lady.
Puddle Knights uses this to set up a variety of puzzles expanding upon the Sokoban formula with just a touch of Snake: plan your moves in advance, make sure your cape trails behind you to cover the mud, and don’t get yourself stuck in a corner.
As the game progresses, the chivalrous Puddle Knights’ job grows ever more complicated, but new tools – additional knights, perforated capes that tear away like rolls of paper towels – keep things from getting stale.
I’m not always great at this genre of game, but squat, hapless knights and perfectly pompous head-shakes of Bishops and ladies amused me even as the levels became ever more agonizing.
by Antares Games
Haustoria is a side-scrolling puzzle game weaving multiple artistic influences into a sort of interactive picture book.
Though there are some light action and jumping elements, the focus here is on the puzzle elements. Layers of flat background elements give Haustoria the feel of a picture book composed of individual colored pencil illustrations cut out and layered on top of one another, and one key mechanic involves pinning them in place with a magical thumbtack.
A platform that moves up and down depending on how close you are to it, for example, might be pinned in place so that you can reach it with your jumps.
The puzzles are easy enough to figure out, but the real draw here is the artistry, drawing on multiple European sources. The landscape is medieval Dutch fairy tale – windmills abound – and your protagonist is a bit Tintin and a bit The Little Prince.
The score, meanwhile, is Asian in flavor, with lots of koto and a touch of flute, and while it’s an odd juxtaposition to the graphic style, there’s no denying it adds to the game’s soft, otherworldly feel.
While I don’t love the clumsy rhyme scheme in the occasional text snippets that pop up to move the story along, I did enjoy the Lovecraft-by-way-of-storybook tale of a fairy tale world overtaken by a cosmic plant being, and Haustoria’s world is familiar enough to comprehend while strange enough make exploring it an intriguing experience.
What whimsical lands are you exploring while you’re socially distanced? Let us know in the comments!