Sunday, December 30, 2007

2007 Game of the Year

Game of the Year: Chocolate Castle

I have said it before, and I will say it again: puzzle games are all about the puzzles. The rules and mechanics of Chocolate Castle take only a few minutes to learn, but the depth, breath, and pacing of the puzzles in the game are amazing. The best way to appreciate Chocolate Castle to is play Jelly Blocks, a flash based game with similar rules but weak puzzles. Making good puzzles is hard, and this is what Chocolate Castle does well.

Runner-Up: Block 5

Block 5 is your basic collect the whatever (diamonds in this case) and get to the exit game with the usual assortment of items such as lasers, blocks, one way tiles, and teleporters. The reason it ends up in second place is not the novelty of its rule set, but the quality of its puzzles and its high production values. For a freeware game, the graphics and audio in Block 5 are amazing. There are also a large number of user made levels, always a sign of a good game.

Honorable Mention: DROD: The City Beneath

If it was not the sequel to DROD: JtRH, this would be my game of the year. It might be unfair to hold one game to a higher standard because it is a sequel, but there just was not enough new to push it to the top spot in my mind. That aside, DROD:TCB is a great game. It is also one tough go. This a hardcore puzzle game; the weak need not apply. I also really liked the, at times campy, voice acting.

Honorable Mention: Portal

It might seem odd that I only giving Portal an honorable mention when it is getting mentioned as a possible game of the year in some big gaming sites. But, playing through it again a few a days ago, it felt like a tutorial or sampler. It took me a hair under two hours to complete this time. When are we going to get the full game? At the very least, they should have included a level editor and an easy way to load levels. I sense that the next version will be amazing, and it is great to see main stream gamers raving about a puzzle game.

A look back to my previous Game of the Year posts:

2006 Game of the Year: Hex-a-hop

2005 Game of the Year: DROD: Journey to Rooted Hold

Wednesday, December 26, 2007

Dotty & Letty

Title: Dotty & Letty
Author: Jussi Ernsten
License: Freeware

Caiman Free Games is one of the best gaming freeware sites; dare I say the best. The new games list at Caiman is a regular visit for me. That is were I first saw Dotty & Letty. It has since appeared in all the usual places. Dotty & Letty is a fun but flawed puzzle game which can be completed in an hour or two.

The object of each level is to remove all of the blocks from the board. Using the two ladybug looking characters, named Dotty and Letty, you push blocks around. When three or more blocks of the same color form a rook-wise connected group, they disappear. There are rules about which blocks can be pushed. The blocks with an X in them cannot be pushed. Blocks with a single slash in them can only push one at a time, sokoban style. Blocks with neither an X nor a slash can be pushed in groups.

A nice twist is the joker block. This multicolored block can be any color in forming a group. You have to be a little careful when pushing it around as you might accidentally form a group of another color in passing. One great feature of Dotty & Letty is an undo button (backspace) . This saves many a restart when such bonehead moves are made. One logical flaw in the game is when when a joker is pushed into a spot which simultaneously forms two groups of different colors, only one color disappears, and you cannot control which one.

You do control both Dotty and Letty, hit enter to toggle control. The interesting levels require that you coordinate their movement and placement. There are 25 levels in all which must be completed in order. The levels are not difficult, and the level design is on the whole uninspired. I would say about 5 of them, such as level 24 pictured above, are interesting. These five or so levels show that a great game with the Dotty & Letty rules and mechanics is possible. It is worth working through the dull ones to play the fun ones. A level editor would have been nice.

There are also diamonds to collect and a scoring system based on how many diamonds were collected and how few moves were made. The collecting of diamonds is optional, and the scoring system is silly because there are no par scores to shot for. Worse, the game does not record your best score on each level. So, I suggest you disregard the diamonds and scoring and just complete the levels.

Another problem with the game is that it occationally spikes the cpu and freezes for a second or two. Flaws aside, Dotty & Letty is fun, easy, and free.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

DROD: The City Beneath

Title: DROD: The City Beneath
Author: Caravel Games
License: Commercial

I normally do not review games which I have not finished. Well, I have made a few exceptions, such as Enigma and Laser Tank, which each contain over a thousand levels. But, this time I have to admit defeat. I have been playing Deadly Rooms of Death: The City Beneath (DROD:TCB), the latest version in the DROD series, on and off since it was released in the Spring, but have only completed about two thirds of it. I do not know if this version is really any harder than previous ones or if I am getting older and losing it. Doesn't matter, I have enjoyed playing the game, finished or not.

DROD is at its heart a very simple game. The goal is clear every room of various baddies with use of your sword. Each turn, you can move to one of the eight neighboring squares or swing your sward 45 degrees either clockwise or counter-clockwise. If a bad guy happens to fall victim to your sword, it dies. After you move, each bad guy moves. If one of them reaches you, you die. You keep taking turns until they get you or you get them.

The complications come in two forms. First, the movement rules for each baddie is different. The simple roaches simply move towards you. The queen roaches move a way from you and lay eggs which then hatch into roaches a few turns later. The second complication is the objects such as switches, doors, one way tiles, trap door tiles, and what not; there are too many to mention.

The combination leads to some very interesting and tough puzzles. Each room is essentially a self contained puzzle. In order to kill all of the monsters in room, you usually have to think about it carefully. If you die, you start the room over or at a save point. Once you defeat all of monsters in a room, usually a door opens allowing access to another part of the level. Once all of the rooms in a level have been completed, you can move on to the next level.

What is new in this version versus the previous ones? The biggest change is a story, scripting and voice acting. All three are very good for an Indie game. The graphics are a little bit better, but I actually thought the shading sometimes got in the way. There are also many new monsters and objects. Each level introduces a couple of new things and I never felt overwhelmed. Instead of listing them, have a look at the wikipedia entry for a DROD:TCB. Having not finished the game, there are a few things on the list which I have not seen in the game yet.

As with any puzzle game, it comes down to the puzzles. Here DROD:TCB scores well. The quality and diversity of the puzzles is excellent. Some puzzles are hard, I have to say. And you have to experiment with the new objects to understand their effect. You also have to deduce the movement rules for the monsters. Early on, I had a helper who explained things to me, but I accidentally killed her. Actually part of the fun of the game is figuring these things out for yourself.

Another wonderful feature of DROD is the DROD community. There is an impressive list of user generated Holds (a Hold is a collection of levels). Each hold is rated in both its difficulty and quality. This two dimensional rating system is great. Part of the reason that I have not finished the game is that I have spent too much time on the user made holds instead. Many are quite good. There is also a active forum for getting hints and discussing computer games in general.

DROD:TCB has an atmosphere that should not be missed by hardcore logic/puzzle fans. The only downside to the game is that the rooms often must be completed in sequence in order to move on. This caused me to put the game aside for a while. But always I returned. I am sorry I waited so long to review it. Buy it, play it, beat it. I will beat it someday, I hope.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Portal Revisited

A month ago, I had an entry on Portal. I did not realize at the time how much traction this game would get in the mainstream media, well the mainstream PC computer media. It has gotten many positive reviews. Some examples are in GameSpy, IGN, ShackNews, and GameSpot. The Maximum PC podcast crew even mentioned Portal when talking about possible games of the year. More interestingly, Portal is getting attention outside the usual gaming sources. For example, John Dvorak has mentioned it on Cranky Geeks and TWiT. Ok, he mentioned how much fun his kids were having playing Portal.

Do these people know they are playing a puzzle game? It is great to see so many people enjoying a puzzle game. Over the last five or more years, puzzle games have been equated with casual games such as Bejeweled and Big Kahuna Reef. This has really hurt the puzzle game genre. The developers lost sight of the hardcore puzzle gamers leading to a dearth of such games in the usual distribution chains. The best thing about Portal is that it shows developers that there is money to be made in puzzle games.

My opinion of Portal has not changed, "Portal is a great idea, needs more levels, steam sucks." I have learned a couple of things about the game which I wanted to mention. Basically, I just wanted show my excitement that a hardcore puzzle game is getting some attention.


I am just not a fan of Steam with all its ads and DRM crap. The website has another example of the dark side of Steam. I realize I am a crank and no one else cares. Still, I have to say it.

Narbacular Drop

The development team at Valve that built Portal largely came from the group of DigiPen students that made Narbacular Drop. It is an impressive if flawed game. As you might guess, the basic idea is the same as Portal: get to the exit by forming portals in the walls, ground, etc. I remember playing it briefly when it was released. It had very dark graphics and was too easy to get suck. So, I did not give it much of a play. Luckily, someone at Valve looked past these flaws and saw the potential of the portal idea. Narbacular Drop is still available for free if you want to take it for a spin.


My main complaint about Portal is its length. I shot through the game about 10 hours. Admittedly, I did not replay the levels in difficult mode. That is a rookie way to make a puzzle game harder. Many players have spent 30 hours getting through the 17 levels even in basic mode.

I mentioned that a level editor was needed. Despite a lack of a built in editor, people have been generating levels on their own. One repository of these levels is Now, to access these levels, you have to manually load them using the console. It is a cumbersome process and directories in the directions were not correct for me. Stick with it and you will have a bunch of new Portal challenges. Unfortunately, the quality of the levels at varies. It would be nice if the levels were rated similar the rating for DROD holds.

To really take off, Portal needs a simple way to load maps. There is some information on how to make Portal levels on Steams development wiki. I really hope this encourages people to make their own levels. Time will tell.

Weighted Cube

The weighted companion cube which plays a special roll in the game has become a fan favorite. A template for paper model of the weighted cube can be obtained at and There is even rumors of a plush toy version being available at Steam Store sometime soon. This would make for a nifty stocking stuffer for any Portal fan.