Making 'em Like They Used To: Star Guard
Our inbox runneth over with much-appreciated links to this free, indie BBC Micro-esque platformer. A game of minimal controls and beyond minimal graphics, it pulls off the remarkable feat of evoking a grim invasion - you as one of a Spaceman army invading a Wizard's fortress, occasionally encountering doomed comrades, but always pushing on, against the endless tide of bright red monsters. Ah, even names like 'spaceman' and 'wizard' are so warmingly reminiscent of an age when a character required only a title, not a complicated backstory, love interest, long-lost son, eight different kinds of amnesia and the forename Jack. But that's not the whole of Star Guard's cleverness.
Its greatest strength, to my mind, is throwing out the old-school traditions of difficulty. It does certainly get tricky, requiring the platformer standbys of carefully timed jumps and learning enemy patterns - there's something of a Metroid vibe to it. But you don't get punished for failing to meet one of its challenges - you're just plunged a few feet back to most recent checkpoint, and carry on. Lives are not finite, but the small mound of green pixels that mark your corpses are a maudlin testament to your ineptitude. However, death is useful - I ritually found myself sending in a suicide spaceman, taking out an enemy or a mine so that the path was clear for my next go. It was massively inefficient and began to encourage a worrying disregard for my little spacemens' lives, but it created flow rather than frustration. It made me feel like I was achieving, even when I was being incredibly lazy.
However, it doesn't leave people who pride themselves on their gaming skill, and demand their games to be hard, out in the cold. At the end of each level, your score alters dramatically depending on how many times you died. So play well, and a big number reflects it. You can chain shooting and jump together to create a supremely elegant sense of momentum and action, as this video demonstrates:
Man, I'll never be that guy. And I'll certainly never be the guy who hits Tab in the main menu screen to activate the semi-secret hard mode.
All this is set to to a strangely affecting mix of plinky-plonk retro noises and semi-nihilist messages from your unseen commanders. Incredibly accessible yet nonetheless fairly hardcore in its way, it's bleak, charming, clever and masterfully minimalistic. Grab it for no-pennies from here.