June 2, 2012 12:30 PM | John Polson
[Guest reviewer Colin Brown of Backlog Journey looks at the games in The Graduation Bundle, available now from the IndieGames co-created site, Indie Royale.]
Dead Pixels is neat little game where the wit extends far beyond the very clever name. The game itself claims to be "an 8-bit zombie sim", but in reality it's far closer to a mash-up of Left 4 Dead and River City Ransom. So while zombies aren't exactly fresh gaming fodder these days, it's been a while since a beat-em-up with the depth of River City Ransom came along.
I barely even need to talk about the story here, since it's pretty much just getting to the chopper like most zombie games. However, it's important that the presentation gets everything right. Everything from the intro cutscene onwards is perfectly built with all the NES game tropes: you've got your Mega Man influenced character designs, your River City Ransom upgrade shops and your overwrought Ninja Gaiden cutscenes too. If you're a NES fan, Dead Pixels works simply because it's brimming with nostalgia. But on a higher level than the NES authenticity, you have the game's B-movie roots. The whole thing has a pixel based film grain filter, a mid-game intermission for a hot dog and even the Feature Presentation bit from Kill Bill, albeit with a retro twist.
So clearly, I have to grant top marks for presentation. In terms of gameplay, things can be a little bit hit and miss. The game is at heart a beat-em-up, with a campaign divided into a set number of streets full of houses to loot and zombies to kill. You can either shoot or melee your opponents to death, or use a couple of circumstantial special items to get out of a tough spot. One mixed feature is the game's relative lack of ammo. On one hand, it's a neat way of incorporating survival horror elements. On the other, it forces you to rely on your melee far too much, which isn't very cool looking and kind of overpowered against everything but a massive horde of brain eaters.
Melee is also slow, so most of my gameplay strategy was to just run from trader to trader and ignore the vast majority of the enemies. Effective? Sure. Fun? Sort of. Looting never really loses its charm, and the upgrades and new weapons to buy are great. It's just the running that got to me. In fairness, hoarding ammo and running is exactly what you should do in a zombie apocalypse, but it doesn't always make for compelling gameplay. On the flip side, the gun play is a ton of fun, but is limited by the low ammo resources.
But aside from the minor melee nitpick, Dead Pixels managed to be a pretty impressive experience. The atmosphere is great, and the eye for detail gives the game even more charm. It's also got a full local co-op mode, and an additional campaign and survival mode to mess around in. If NES nostalgia is your thing, Dead Pixels does a fantastic job of bringing the B-movie influence to 1980s gaming.
Ever wonder if Captain Viridian had a pet? If he did, it probably would be LaserCat. There's a lot of inspiration from seminal indie classic VVVVVV, mostly due to the shared influence of the many early, unusual and often nonsensical platformers for the ZX Spectrum. Like its predecessor, LaserCat is a relatively open world platformer based on quick reactions and plenty of checkpoints. However, it offers a relatively more traditional experience while also concentrating on exploration over raw difficulty.
LaserCat tells the adorable story of LaserCat, whose equally adorable business partner Owlfriend has been kidnapped by the awful Wizzord. To get him back, you're going to need to collect all thirty keys hidden around the expansive world. It's no easy feat, as you have nothing but a jump button and a series of warping checkpoints to do so. Due to the high number of keys, traps and one-way paths, the majority of the game is poking around and hoping to stumble into a new area, and then snatching up any keys and banking them at the closest checkpoint. There's a map, but it doesn't help a lot with finding unexplored zones. Still, it's relatively free-form and easy to get around to the big areas.
Easily my favourite part of the game is style. While it shares the same ZX inspiration as VVVVVV does, LaserCat uses all sorts of cheatsy improvements to the graphics to create awesome graphical effects like rain and such. Instead of looking like a straight ZX homage, it appears more like a modern graphical interpretation. The soundtrack is pretty fantastic as well, offering up great digitally influenced electronica that was actually quite catchy. My favourite bit is the question bonus round, which is a screen that appears after you grab each key and questions your general trivia knowledge. Don't know when the Battle of Hastings was? Looks like you're not getting a key this time. The questions also allow the clever writing to shine through, with plenty of nifty pop culture references and decent jokes in the questions and level titles.
I don't want to oversell the VVVVVV comparison because they're clearly both very different games that only share the open world concept and general graphical influence. However, if you were a fan of that game, chances are you'll be a fan of this, even without any offbeat mechanics. It's pure, basic, essentialist platforming that's both adorable and quite a bit of fun. It's certainly worth checking out even if you bought the bundle for one of the higher profile titles, because it's very amusing experience from start to end that's well worth the time.
[Dead Pixels and LaserCat join The Ship and several more titles available now in Indie Royale's Graduation Bundle.]