River wolf. Space sheep. Selfless alpaca. Selfish reindeer.
I know you told Father Crimbo you wanted Porpentine prose, but she’s traveling and asked me, Noyb, to write in her stead. There, there, reader. D…don’t cry! She’ll be be back very soon! Maybe some free games will help pass the time?
Gridrunner++ by Llamasoft
Jeff Minter released his 2002 glowy shooty sheepy game Gridrunner++ as donationware last month, and it’s still worth a go if you missed out on its original release or Adam’s words when it happened. The Gridrunner series takes strong cues from the core loop of Centipede: worm-like enemy chains slither around the screen dropping pods when you destroy their individual segments. Fail to shoot the pods and they’ll restrict your movement, in this iteration by firing lasers in the four cardinal directions. Save sheep to increase your multiplier and upgrade your basic autofiring weapon, culminating in a giant sheep’s head bouncing around and wrecking everything.
I appreciate Jeff’s respect for the player when it comes to chasing high scores. In many score-based games with difficulty curves you’re forced to repeat the dull early levels again and again just to reach the later levels where you might make some improvement. Gridrunner++ lets you continue from the latest level where you had the most number of lives, score intact. You’ve already proven you can do it once, no need to do it all again.
Standstill Girl by Sky Scraper Project
Standstill Girl is an RPG starring an amnesiac protagonist with a traumatic past slowly uncovered by fighting allegorical monsters. Standard setup, but I liked the details of a world frozen in time full of human NPCs you’ll never again interact with and the narrative implications of the game’s combat system.
The developers have streamlined your RPG stats into just Stamina (health), Power (attack strength), and Speed (turn frequency). You gather a number of skills throughout the game, but are limited to only choosing five active skills (plus a single passive perk) to use in any one battle. You typically gain one EC (mana) per turn, but most useful skills require two or more EC to cast. Unless you grind, most enemies can kill you in two or three hits. Blocking is essential to halve enemy damage, but the block skill takes up one of your precious skill slots. All but the least powerful attack spells damage yourself.
Each battle is a tragedy in miniature where the system gives the player character no choice but to endure pain. Harming yourself to harm the enemy, taking care not to open yourself up to fatal damage. Finding the time to care for yourself, physically incapable of always being on the attack. Limitations and sacrifice imposed from above without explanation. It frightened me how quickly I became accustomed to this sadistic system once I settled into a routine strategy.
Kirisame Blade by ねこびっくり
I am not good at side-scrolling shoot-em-ups. In games where all of the enemies appear from the right side of the screen, you’ll usually find me hugging the left side of the screen where I have the most time to react to incoming bullets.
Kirisame Blade does not give me that option, focusing entirely on a single close-range weapon — a pair of energy blades that you can hold in front of your ship to form a laser spear — that forces me to play aggressively if I want to damage enemies at all.
The game is still under development, so there’s only a single level and a boss. Short. Sweet. Hyperfocused.
Christmas Alpaca Adventure by Daniel McFarline
It’s the mid 90s. A younger me receives a copy of The Lion King for the Mega Drive. Level 2. Between simian puzzle segments Simba, lion prince and furry Hamlet analogue, rides an ostrich across the African wilderness, dodging trees and bushes while running at full speed. Controlled by my young hands one or both inevitably smacks headfirst into a branch. An instrumental arrangement of “I Just Can’t Wait to be King” plays in the background, but with the way I play Simba never does become king or even reach adulthood.
Christmas Alpaca Adventure uses the same running and jumping base but is even more difficult, giving you a separate jump button for each character — Santa Claus and his alpaca friend — and frequently separating the two fragile partners.
Only play Christmas Alpaca Adventure if you can handle the responsibility of multitasking and platforming while a beloved children’s character repeatedly gets bashed against a sturdy wall. The Night You Failed to Save Christmas And Let Santa Die Like 47 Times.
one-two by Noah
You can probably guess what it’s like to play one-two from the screenshot. For the most part, you’d be right. Vertically-scrolling shoot-em-up. Abstract visuals. Screen-filling bosses. Massive explosions. Absurd bullet density. Giant lasers. Chill music.
I didn’t expect unlimited continues. Unless you specifically choose a one credit mode the only penalty for losing all your lives is score, letting players like me stumble their way to the end. A minor gesture towards including an audience beyond hardcore shmup players, but one I appreciate nonetheless.
Alice Mare by Miwashiba
Moody adventure game where you explore the Grimm and Carroll-inspired nightmares of four young boarding school students. Childhood homes are a repeated image, a muted sensation of unease when trauma invades a familiar space.
The constant presence of puzzles is tenuously justified at best — the Chesire Cat asks you to solve the old wolf-sheep-cabbage river crossing riddle during the Little Red Riding Hood section — and while none of the puzzles are that taxing, the slower ones still muck around with the game’s narrative momentum.
If you enjoy this game or Standstill Girl, do thank vgperson for translating them from the original Japanese. The games we in the West see are but a fraction of what’s out there. It’s always appreciated when someone spends time to help a text-heavy game cross the language barrier.
Dracula Cha Cha by Lobo
Joyous one-switch autorunner starring Dracula, themed around Christmas and set to Jim Lowe’s “Green Door” for what I assume are perfectly good reasons.
Mechanically and aesthetically it steals broadly from Konami’s Tomena Sanner. Bright colors. Floating collectibles. Glib newscrawl. Obstacles and enemies dispatched in unpredictable ways.
Stay away from the reindeer. That ruminant jerk loves pulling you into an impromptu game of rock paper
shotgun scissors while the timer ticks down.