Welcome to the sixth installment of a semi-regular feature here at GameCritics.Com: the Bargain Basement. It's as sure as death or taxes that anyone who takes up videogaming will find themselves rooting through a bargain bin at one point or another. For those that do, few things feel as satisfying as saving hard-earned cash and getting a gem of a game at the same time.
The titles covered below can all be purchased nearly anywhere that has a selection of used or discount games, and in this month's edition every single game is $10 or less! Please keep in mind that since the games recommended in this feature may be older and not on the latest hardware, so it's assumed that the graphics aren't going to be bleeding-edge. The final scores for each title are based on a rating that takes that into account, and does not penalize them by comparing them to today's standards. Gameplay is what we're talking about here. Happy hunting, and more importantly... Happy Gaming!
Super Bubble Pop
Starting things off this month is a newly-released multiplatform disc that appeared in a neglected section of my local gameshop. I didn't think they were still making anything besides children's software for the rapidly-fading Playstation, but Super Bubble Pop proves that there's still a bit of life left in the old workhorse as it heads off to pasture.
A great puzzle game with a techno-dance theme, it's best described as a horizontal sort of Bust-A-Move. Your character is placed at the front of the board, which resembles nothing so much as a really wide pinball machine overlaid with a grid. When each level starts, you're presented with a specific arrangement of colored bubbles at the absolute rear of the grid. You then move from side to side and launch your own bubbles with the goal of clearing the playing field by matching three spheres of the same color. Naturally, more bubbles start creeping in from the back if you take too long. Since more bubbles equal more troubles, it's in your best interest to work fast.
Initially the game seems simple, but that's not the case at all. Every level has a very specific "quick" solution. By observing and mentally processing the colors on the board, a few carefully planned shots will give you victory in seconds. However, you have to think fast. If you can't see the answer or you miss a shot, you've got to deal with a huge mess when the bubbles start piling up. Since they advance too quickly to pop them all by matching, you have three choices: you can escape by hitting a certain number of "win" bubbles placed strategically in the stacks, you can use your character's special attack to clear the field, or you can unleash earned powerups. But, these alternatives are all easier said than done so it's important to conserve such resources for hopeless situations. (There are many.)
With its cool techno theme, matching music and unexpectedly deep gameplay, Super Bubble Pop is definitely worth hunting down. It may lack the staying power or soul-snatching addiction found in classics like Tetris, but few puzzlers this good have been offered lately and the price is right. However, be ready for a challenge. The difficulty ramps up quickly after you clear the Normal levels.
Disclaimer: This review is based on the PlayStation version of the game.
Developer: Lost Toys
Speaking of challenge, that brings me to my next title this month: Ball Breakers. I could make a joke about the title, but it actually does a good job of describing the difficulty of its levels. The apt name aside, the game is a strange mix. On one hand, I think it's a pretty successful sci-fi actioner along the lines of Schwarzenegger's The Running man. It's also the best game sold under the Take 2 banner. On the other hand, the second half's ridiculous difficulty hampers its full potential and causes it to lose significant points. But before I get too far ahead of myself, let me set the scene.
Ball Breakers is set in a dark, dystopian future where convicts are given the chance to compete in ultraviolent sports, with the winner earning a reprieve. One condition (and the game's hook) is that all participants must have their lower torsos amputated and replaced with speedy, rolling balls for locomotion. It makes little sense, but that's forgivable since it's all a thinly veiled way of explaining Lost Toys' pleasantly designed play mechanics.
Each of the game's levels is comprised of deadly minigames that take advantage of your character's spheroid physique, and all are solid and enjoyable. Tag levels are built like skate parks with plenty of halfpipes and ramps. Gauntlet challenges require you to make it to the finish line while avoiding laser beams, spike pits, aggressive guards and other such hazards. My favorite event was King of the Hill, where the object is simply to remain on top of a platform while shoving off all comers. It's harder than it sounds, since one good bump from a challenger sets your orb a-rolling.
As I said before, all of these events work, and work well. Where the game stumbles is that the frustration level skyrockets after the halfway point. Setting proper difficulty seems to be a problem for most low-budget games, and this one is no different. If this aspect of play could have been tweaked, I would have happily given the game another point or two. As it stands, the fast characters are too weak to withstand the physical requirements of melee and the tough characters are too slow to win Races or outpace rapidly submerging floors. I also found the flamethrowers, bombs and electrified water pools to be spread throughout the game a little too thickly for my taste. The odds are definitely stacked against you, and Ball Breakers makes you sweat buckets for every single late-game victory.
In spite of its demanding nature, I still thought the game was quite good and well worth the low price of admission. If the idea of a bloodthirsty, darkly violent version of Marble Madness sounds like your idea of a good time, check it out.
Seek And Destroy
Closing out this edition of the Basement is an absolutely incredible value for a budget title. Called Shin Choro-Q Combat in Japan, Seek And Destroy is the victim of some of the worst cover design and marketing in the history of games. Instead of capitalizing on its lighthearted and highly accessible nature, the PR department tried to appeal to the current hawkish mentality surrounding the "war" on terrorism and trouble in Iraq. However, don't be turned off by the "axis of evil" and other patriotic pandering on the plastic case. Instead of being a dreary military sim, Seek And Destroy and is the videogame equivalent of striking gold.
The game stars Japanese-style super-deformed tanks. (For those unfamiliar with this kind of design, picture a person with a tiny, chubby body and a huge head on top. Then, apply those proportions to a tank, and you'll get the idea...sort of.) Featuring over a hundred real tanks from different countries and time periods, everything from the Abrams to the Wespe is represented in adorably stylized fashion. Add to the mix a staggering amount of customization and you've basically got a hyper-cute Armored Core on treads.
If the visual style doesn't immediately clue you in that the game doesn't take itself seriously for a second, the type of parts you can modify your tank with are proof positive. For example, besides various shells and missiles there are more creative weapons like the huge chainsaw that attaches to your turret. You can also equip yourself with a high-powered laser, huge Kaboom!-style bombs or rocket-powered drills. Taking it even further, you're not limited to commanding your tank on land. Some shops offer float parts for seagoing combat or even wings to take your tank into the skies. That's not a typo… your tank really can fly with the right equipment.
The main game features good variety in the missions as well as the armaments. Most are straight-up "kill everything," but you'll also run across a handful of defending, a stealth mission, a rescue, and crazy bosses. My personal favorite was a huge war machine outfitted with a dozen metal flails.
During this campaign, you'll liberate several towns where you can take a break from the front lines. R&R here takes place in combat arenas or one of sixteen different minigames ranging from obstacle courses to Pilotwings-style skydiving. To top it off, the multiplayer options are great. Besides the usual player vs. player or CPU deathmatch, all of the minigames can be played with a friend. There's also a chaotic Destruction mode to see how many kills you can rack up before becoming a smoking wreck yourself. In short, this game has it all.
I can honestly say that I flat-out loved every second of this disc. The controls are spot-on, the graphics are clean and attractive, there are no camera problems, and it's just right for picking up and jumping in. The difficulty is definitely on the easy side, but the replay is unbelievable with mixing and matching parts, not to mention at least two mission branches in the story mode (possibly more) and the challenges of completing the arenas. Seek And Destroy's quality is absolutely staggering for such a low price. Because of this, it earned a full extra point on its score and has become the most pleasant and satisfying surprise I've had in quite a while. Top marks.