With this update I get to the end of the alphabet for 2d platformers and start on the games I got since deciding to stop adding new titles to random updates, but instead to put them at the end of this section. So yeah, I’m almost to the end of 2d platformers now!
Waking Mars (2012, WinXP+) – 1 player, saves, gamepad supported. Waking Mars is a nonviolent puzzle-platformer from a mobile and PC-focused developer headed by a guy who once worked for Looking Glass Studios. You play as an astronaut on Mars with an infinite-use jetpack, and have to get through many levels by growing life in caverns under Mars. The game takes itself seriously, and your astronaut guy and a woman who helps you out via communications act sort of like how you would expect astronauts to. You do also have an AI companion as well. The caves are segmented with living gates, and the only way to open them is to grow enough life for the gate to open. If you wanted to just blas thte doors open, go play a different game. The amount of life you need in an area to get the doors to open is measured by a level, and as you go the puzzles you will need to figure out in order to get that level high enough get harder and harder. There are two kinds of life, plant-like and animal-like. You grow plant-like life by throwing ‘seeds’ at certain points that have small grass-like plants growing on them. You can grow one plant on each patch of ground, but things are not so simple as just planting stuff randomly; the different plant types interact with each other, and you can also upgrade the patches of ground in various ways as well to affect how the plants grow. The game starts out easy, but figuring out what to do will get tricky later on.
Additionally, as you progress you will also start to run into Martian animal-ish life. Now, this is mostly a simple game, as far as the gameplay goes. It defaults to keyboard and mouse controls, but while I often dislike that, here, due to the slow-paced gameplay, it works fine. You move around the screen with the stick or keyboard keys, and throw things with a mouse button, and that’s about it. It is worth mentioning that the game is also available on phones, which enhances that point. You do have a health bar, but most of the time the only damage you can take is when you fall too far. However, there are some threatening life forms you will have to avoid, so there is some of that element here even if it is not the focus. I like the calm style here and that you spend the whole game growing things, instead of destroying like usual. It can be frustrating if you’re not sure what to do, and late in the game apparently it wants you to get all areas up to the highest life level in order to ‘really’ finish the game which is annoying, but still this is a good game.
Visually, Waking Mars uses a lot of sprite layers to make a pretty nice-looking image with a lot of parallax. Your character may be a vector or polygon-ish thing, I’m not exactly sure, but I decided to leave this game in the ‘2d’ category anyway because everything else is obviously sprite-based, and he may be a sprite as well. The art design is good, and I like the various forms of life you can grow. The backgrounds are all types of caverns, but still wtih all this parallax it looks good. Aurally, the music is okay but not memorable. There is also voice acting for all the conversations, and it’s decent. Overall, Waking Mars is a good, though not great, puzzle game in jetpack-platformer form. The game has a good difficulty scale as you progress and it is satisfying when you figure out what to do to raise the life level. This isn’t a game for everyone, but it is worth a look. Also available for Linux and Mac on Steam, and also available for iOS and Android. The game is supposed to be the same there, but the controls are surely better on a computer.
Word Rescue (1992, DOS) – 1 player, saves, gamepad supported. Word Rescue, published by Apogee and developed by Redwood Games, is Math Rescue’s word-based predecessor. For anyone who hasn’t, please go read my summary of that game, because this one is very similar, except you match words to items instead of solving math problems. Because this game released before Math Rescue, however, in a few ways it isn’t quite as good as its successor despite both games releasing in the same year. In this game you play as either a boy or girl. The controls are simple, you just move, jump, and attack. You die if you get hit and have to restart the level, though you do have infinite lives. This is an easy game so that shouldn’t often be a problem, though, and the game saves your progress after each level you complete.
The gameplay is also simple. In each level you can wander around collecting items, but your main goal is to, as described earlier, match them to the words which describe them. You touch a word box to make a word appear. Then, all other word boxes turn into pictures. Go find the item somewhere in the level that is of that word and it matches, and match all of the words and items in each stage to move on to the next level. You can also collect letters that make a word which displays on the bottom of the screen; you get bonus points for getting the letters in order. In the stages, the words and objects are scattered around each level, along with other things such as enemies, pits, and more. Yes, there are actual pits and enemies in this game, rare as they may be. Your attack button pretty much kills any enemy in sight when you hit the button so long as you have ammo though,; this is a kids’ game and it shows. There are three difficulty settings, and there are more enemies and less ammo on the higher settings, but still this isn’t a very hard game. The matching-based gameplay is the bigger issue though, as I don’t find it as interesting as solving even easy math problems is, so I don’t find this game as good as Math Rescue is. The platformer element is as fun as ever for an Apogee-published game, as like so many of their games the levels are large spaces for you to explore and collect things in. The game can be fun, as you run around collecting stuff and finding all of the items, but the matching-based gameplay holds it back.
Visually, Word Rescue is an okay-looking EGA game. The graphics look nice, though this game has simpler flat graphics instead of the slightly angled look of Math Rescue, and environments are not as detailed as they would be in that game either. Most levels have just one background layer, but some levels do pull off parallax backgrounds, which is somewhat impressive for the PC at the time; the PC has no built-in parallax hardware, after all. There is also Adlib/Soundblaster music present, which is nice for a time when quite a few PC games still had only PC Speaker support, though there are only a few music tracks. On the whole Word Rescue is an okay platformer for kids which teaches some basic reading and item-recognition skills in an okay platformer. It can be fun in short bursts, but the simple matching-based gameplay and low challenge mean this game is probably one of my less favorite Apogee games today, though it is above average even so. I like that Apogee tried to do some somewhat educational games, and Math Rescue is a good one, but this isn’t quite on its level.
BLACKHOLE (2015, WinXP+) – 1 player, saves, gamepad supported (xinput only). Blackhole is a very difficult platformer by FiolaSoft with a gravity-flipping mechanic and mostly good, but very frustrating, gameplay. The story here is a sci-fi comedy, though. This game is set in the future, and you are the coffee guy on a spaceship that was going around closing black holes which were somehow threatening Earth. This black hole grew suddenly, however, and the ship was pulled in… but instead of being destroyed, you somehow find yourself in a weird space, all alone except for your irrevent female AI voice companion. Your guy does not speak, but the AI does, a lot. Some of her lines are funny, fortunately, and it does take your mind off of the very difficult stages at times. There are options to cut back or remove the cutscenes if you want, though. Blackhole is mostly about its difficult gameplay with gravity-flipping puzzles, though. The game has an overworld you can freely move around, and stages you access from warp points on that map. You have infinite lives here, but have to restart the stage you are in if you die, which will get frustrating. The goal in each stage is to get as many blue ball pickups as you can, of the ones in the stage, and then get back to the starting point. The game has a timer to keep track of how long each stage takes you as well. Stages are small and short, but quickly get crushingly difficult regardless. This game has over ninety puzzle-stages, and because stages are timed and you do not need all of the balls in order to move on there is some pretty good replay value here, so there is plenty of content here for people who like the game. Fortunately you can reset the stage at the press of a button.
The controls in Blackhole are simple. All you can do in this game is move around and jump, and the controls are digital-only, as usual in 2d platformers, not analog. You have no other powers; you cannot control the aforementioned gravity flipping yourself, but instead when you touch a platform emitting white light, you will flip so that that that direction is ‘down’. This means that figuring out which areas you should attach to and which you should not is key to the puzzle design, as you might expect. I have issues with the controls, though. You move pretty quickly, but it’s okay; the jumping is where I have an issue. It feels like you have minimal air control in this game and the physics are strange, so give the slightest touch and you go flying off to your certain doom, as you die if you fall too far or touch any obstacle. You must get your jump starting location, height, and length exactly right every time in order to make jumps, and with these controls that is harder than it should be. An analog control option might have been nice. and this game is almost entirely about hard jumping puzzles, as you try to either touch or not touch those gravity-flip areas while figuring out how to get to the blue balls. Trying to get a jump exactly right, in where you jump from, how much you are pressing left or right both before you jump and as you fall, trying to slide along a wall halfway down a fall after avoiding obstacles above, all while knowing that mess up and you start the stage again, is not fun after the thirtieth time… ugh.
Graphically, Blackhole has sprite-art graphics that look nice but not great. I like the weird, somewhat monochromatic environments and the strange maybe plantlike things growing around, and there is a parallax background, but the character sprites have a very odd art style to their faces that I do not like much. This is a gameplay-first game, but despite that it does look nice enough. There is also some decent music. Still, with how hard this game is due to its controls and level designs, Blackhole can be very frustrating. I’m sure that once you get used to the controls it gets better, but then the game just gets even harder, so that may or may not help. Blackhole does have some good stage layouts with many very tricky puzzles that will take creativity and many tries to solve and some decent graphics, but after a while I quit the game in frustration because of the controls and sometimes maybe too difficult stage designs. This game may call itself a puzzle-platformer, but this is no slow-paced puzzler, it is a test of precision platforming skill that often will be incredibly frustrating more often than it is rewarding. Overall, Blackhole is a decent to good game which can be addictive and fun, and it can be satisfying to figure out a stage and finally get through it alive. However, the game is held back by its weird physics and kind of awful jumping controls. The memorization-based design that requires you play every stage over and over and over and over until you get it right is also sometimes tedious, and I’m not sure if I want to play any more of it.
Blocks that Matter (2011, WinXP+) – 1 player, saves, gamepad supported (xinput only). Blocks that Matter is a puzzle-platformer made by Swing Swing Submarine that has an interesting block collection and building mechanic. In this game you play as a Tetrobot, a little robot that needs to save two game developers who have been kidnapped by a villain. I presume that they made the game. The story tires to be cheesy and amusing, and it is sometimes amusing, but I find the gameplay the main draw here, not the story. The graphics are decent but somewhat average 2d sprite art with a slightly cartoony look. It’s good enough. Fortunately, the gameplay is pretty good.This game has both puzzle and platformer elements, but it is more puzzle game than platformer; you will do a lot of jumping here, but this is mostly a slow-paced game where the main challenge is in setting the blocks up right, more so than dealing with difficult jumps. That will be harder than it may sound though, as Blocks that Matter has good, challenging level designs that will take some thought to figure out.
The game has simple controls: you can move around, jump, drill forwards with the drill in the center of your robot, place blocks, and switch between block types to choose which one to place. You cannot drill while jumping, however, The environments are indestructible, but certain blocks can be destroyed either with your drill or by jumping up into the block from below several times to break it. When you destroy a block, you collect it in your block inventory. Then, when you hit the ‘place blocks’ button, the game pauses and you can place a block. You must place blocks four at a time, Tetris-style; the game explicitly references Tetris when describing the system, so the similarity is on purpose. Because different block types have different attributes, again, including whether or not they can stand on their own in the air or need support either below or to a side, depending, it is important to consider which block types you have and use the right ones in each spot. You can then destroy blocks you have placed, which is sometimes required, though remember that some of their rules hold regardless, such as sand blocks collapsing if they are not supported below. It’s a good system which works well.
So, the challenge here is figuring out where to place blocks in order to get through the level. There are different block types, each with different properties, as well. The puzzles quickly get quite tough, but it’s a fun challenge. In each level all you need to do is reach the exit, but there is also a collectible chest to get in each stage if you want some added difficulty. Figuring out what to do in each level in order to set up blocks to reach the end is pretty fun. Blocks that Matter is a simple, challenging, and fun game worth a look. The game also has a sequel, Tetrobot & Co., which I will cover soon.
Curse of the Crescent Isle DX (2015, WinXP+) – 1-2 player simultaneous (single system only), saves, gamepad supported (xinput only). Curse of the Crescent Isle DX is a retro-styled pixel-art platformer by Adam Mowery with gameplay inspired by Super Mario Bros. 2 (USA) crossed with a puzzle-platformer. You play as either a King or Queen of a somewhat fantasy-Middle Eastern kingdom, who has to save the day because your daughter the Princess and the Prince she was going to marry were kidnapped by a villain who wants to conquer the land, instead of allowing the peace that marriage would have brought. It’s great that you can play as either gender in this game, that is somewhat uncommon. In this classic-styled platformer, you explore through mostly-linear levels, trying to go from left to right. There are the usual pits and such to avoid, but as in Mario 2, when you jump on enemies you are not damaged, but instead stand on top of them as they move around. From here you can either walk around carrying them over your head, or stand on them and move around holding them below you. When standing on a monster, you bounce upwards if you touch a spike, other monster, or breakable block. You can also throw the creature you are currently carrying. The controls are okay, though they are a bit slipperier and less precise than I would like. This is also another game you want an xinput controller or d-to-xinput emulator for, because it is harder with a keyboard. Still, the game has some good ideas. You have three heart-shaped hit points per try, and can refill them with heart powerups scattered around the levels. You have infinite continues from the beginning of each level, but there are no checkpoints within each stage so you need to learn each one to finish it. The game will save from the last level you reached, in the Continue option on the main menu, but it also has a password system for access to any stage, if you know the passwords. I don’t understand why it is a password system instead of just a level-select which unlocks levels as you reach them, but it’s better than nothing.
But returning to the gameplay, Curse of the Crescent Isle’s unique element here is not just that you can carry enemies, as that has been done before. It is that each enemy type has a special ability that you will need to use in order to make it through the levels. So, one drill-like monster allows you to break through blocks, above or below depending on where you are holding it; another allows you to move along the ceiling or floor of the level, depending; another, made of ice, instantly freezes over enemies and water when you touch it to them; and more. This is where the puzzle element of the game comes in to play, as you play a level while trying to figure out how to use the monsters in order to get through the stage. It can be a fun challenge and there are some good puzzles here, but the game is frustrating at times, unfortunately, as it has many trial-and-error elements. You cannot look around the stage and pits are everywhere, but is that pit a bottomless pit, a way to get to the next part of the stage, or an optional area with a heart in it? There is no way to know without going down there and maybe dying, if it happens to be a pit. And even if it isn’t a pit, it is easily possible to get stuck in levels in places you cannot get out of, if you fall down the wrong pit without the right monster that will let you escape. The developers knew this, so there is a ‘restart level’ option on the pause screen. That’s nice, but it would be better if there weren’t so many random traps like that. This is mostly a fun game, but due to the controls and level designs it gets frustrating at times.
Additionally, the game is not very long and has low replay value, as levels are linear and there are almost no collectibles to find. The only things in these stages to find, other than the monsters and scattered heart refill items are coins. There is one giant coin ‘hidden’ in each level, though early on they are easy to find. I know modern puzzle-platformers often don’t have them, but it might have been nice to see more collectibles. Beyond the main game mode there are two other options, a boss rush and a speedrun mode with a timer, but they don’t add much to the game, and this game is one that will probably take most only a few hours to finish. You could play as the other character, but they play the same so it is only a visual difference. Still, this is a cheap downloadable title, so for the amount it costs you probably get your money’s worth. There is also a two player co-op mode, on a single system only, which could be fun to check out sometime, though this is mostly a single-player game.
Visually, Curse of the Crescent Isle DX has a nice, 4th-gen-style pixel-art look, with good, large sprites and lots of visual detail and parallax. The game doesn’t try to specifically look like something from any one classic console, but it has a good look to it and the art is pretty good. The chiptune-style soundtrack is also very fitting for this kind of game, and there are some decently nice tunes. However, the menu presentation is extremely basic, as the main menu is a text-only menu with an extremely large and ugly block font with two columns of text options to scroll through. You can’t press left and right to go between columns either, but have to only use up and down. It works once you get used to it, but the main game looks nice, so it’s too bad the menus are so basic. And again that password option is odd; I see from the patch notes that the save-game features were added in patches, so I can see leaving this in after it was supplanted, but why not put in a level select menu too? It’s a minor issue, but is worth mentioning. Overall, though, Curse of the Crescent Isle DX is a good game. It may have some flaws, including some control issues and short length, but the somewhat original and yet familiar gameplay mostly works quite well, and it’s fun to play through this game, look at the visuals, and figure out the puzzles. This is an enhanced version of a game originally made for Xbox 360 Xbox Live Indie Games, where it should still be available. Also available on Mac and Linux on Steam, along with the PC. There also was a Playstation Mobile version, though it was only briefly available before PS Mobile’s discontinuation and shutdown.
HAUNTED: Halloween ’85 (2017, WinXP+) – 1 player, no saving, gamepad supported (xinput only). Haunted: Halloween ’85 is a modern indie NES game that was first published as an actual NES cart in 2015, before also being released on PC here. Indie developers have been making new games for old consoles since the ’90s, but it is rare to see one of those games also release on Steam like this one has. Because it is a real NES game, unlike most retro-styled indie games this one actually has to stick to the NES’s limits, which is nice to see. The game was developed by Retrotainment Games and published by GamePump, a new publisher who were going to set up a subscription service, but gave up on that and started publishing games on Steam instead. Their first title was the puzzle game Lit, and this one is the second. Haunted: Halloween ’85 is a sidescrolling platformer/beat ’em up, with beat ’em up-style combat as well as tricky platform-jumping segments. This is a nice-looking game with some good ideas and gameplay, but also flaws that hold it back. The story is that you are Donny, a boy in the year 1985 who is late to school. He rushes to school, only to find… zombies everywhere! So, you set off to find out what’s going on and get past the undead hordes. It’s a simple plot but it works, though the intro may be a bit more verbose than this game needs. You can skip it by hitting a button, though.
The controls are simple, as expected for the NES: one button jumps, and the other punches. If you punch quickly you will do a three-hit combo, and each hit of the three does more damage than the last, one to two to three. You can also do a four-damage strong punch by hitting down+punch together. Combat is simple but can be fun, as you punch zombies, ghosts, posessed objects, and more. You don’t have a great deal of range, but if you keep hitting punch you usually won’t take damage to enemies coming straight at you, though making sure to be in line with your foes is important. On that note, as for jumping, it has issues. First, when you stop pressing left or right, Donny takes a few steps before stopping moving, so the controls are not as precise as you’d like. You jump high as well, so while you do have air control while jumping, landing where you want can be tricky and you will often have to hit back in the air in order to land on a platform. Every level of the game requires you to get through platforming gauntlets made up of stretches where you have to jump between very small platforms over death pits, too. With a little practice you get used to the controls, but while not awful, they could be a bit better.
Levels are made up of two main elements, platforming parts such as described earlier, and larger open flat spaces where you fight enemies. Now, sidescrolling beat ’em ups can be too simplistic, and it’s never been a genre I often love. Many sidescrolling beat ’em ups almost exclusively play on one flat plane, but this does not; instead, there are bumps, multiple platform layers, and more. The combat may be simplistic, but at least the level designs mix things up a bit. The platforming segments add to the variety too, and the tension. Part of that may be because of the controls, but with practice you can get through. Unfortunately though, to save cart space and cover for its classically-short length, this game has limited lives and continues and no saving, much like so many games back then. I have never liked this kind of design much and it’s no better here, but at least you do get five lives per continue and three continues, and there are 1-ups available. Still, I’d really like some way to start from levels I have reached. The game is fun enough to be worth playing some of anyway, but it’s worth mentioning.
Visually, Haunted: Halloween ’85 is a decently nice-looking NES game. As with all NES games the title has tile-based graphics with a limited color palette, and fitting the theme this game uses a lot of black. The tiles and sprite art are mostly good. The music is, as expected, chiptunes, and they are solid compositions which fit the creepy theme. Overall, Haunted: Halloween ’85 is an okay game with some okay combat and level designs. Movement and jumping controls could be tighter and you can’t save, and the gameplay is very simplistic and can be repetitive, but still genre fans should give the game a look. Also available on a cart as a homebrew NES release.