When it was announced that Sony had sold over a million PlayStation minis, I realised I hadn't played a single one. So I decided to change that. I gave myself $100 and went shopping in the PlayStation minis store.
What's a PlayStation mini? It's a small, cheap, downloadable game, often from a small, independent developer. They can be download and played on both PS3 and PSP.
I decided on $100 since it's the roughly the cost of a new PS3 game. I wanted to find out whether these minis could offer as much as entertainment as a full-priced title.
When choosing the games below, I simply scrolled through the Store and picked games that sounded interesting. I also wanted to ensure I chose a range of genres and styles so as to experience the full breadth of the minis library.
I've written some mini reviews of each below. Then right at the bottom I've got a few more thoughts on the state of the mini art.
Age of Zombies (Halfbrick) $8.45 This is precisely the kind of experience I'm looking for in a Mini. Simple, accessible and packed with charm, this is a twin-stick shooter where you travel through time shooting wave after wave of zombies. The big chunky sprites fondly recall classic 16-bit era titles like The Chaos Engine while the cheesy dialogue and sound effects keep a smile on your face throughout. Brisbane developer Halfbrick has got us off to a very promising start.
Alien Zombie Death (PomPom) $4.95 Another twin-stick shooter, this has less charm but compensates by not conforming to the twinstick shooter template. It takes place on a series of platform that you can jump between while firing left or right. Enemies typically appear from the far ends of each platform and wander across, only occasionally jumping between platforms. There are shortlived powerups and several invincible enemies that serve to change the way you navigate the play area. I like this, as I thought I would given developer PomPom's heritage with excellent PC shmups such as Space Tripper and Mutant Storm.
Archibald's Adventures (Pavel Tovarys) $4.95 This reminds me an awful lot of some long-lost Amiga platformer. You play a kid on a skateboard who finds himself lost in a massive underground complex. It's full of typical platformer puzzles involving levers and buttons and dodging various deadly traps and pits of toxic waste. Yet what elevates it, bizarrely, is the aforementioned skateboard; it brings an element of momentum otherwise absent if you were on foot and able to stop on a dime, and this shines through in many of the platforming and puzzle sequences. I wish it wasn't quite so eager to explain all its secrets up-front, but nonetheless this is a seriously good game.
Car Jack Streets (Tag Games) $6.95 Three great games so far. These PlayStation Minis are fantastic! Oh, wait... Oh boy... Wow... Really? I figured from the name and the blurb that this would be something of a GTA clone. I even thought, yeah, I could go some old-school, top-down GTA action right now. Sadly, there is no old-school, top-down GTA action to be found here. Sure, you steal cars, you have a safe house and a wanted level, there a criminal missions to undertake and even hidden packages scattered round town. But there's none of the thrill of the GTA car chase, none of the cat & mouse danger of avoiding the cops, none of the sense of discovery as you explore the world. The controls are terrible, it looks awful, and oh god, please just make it stop.
Coconut Dodge (FuturLab) $4.95 Phew! That's much better. After the sleazy stench of Car Jack Streets, a bunch of coconuts sounds quite lovely. Oh, I'm meant to dodge the coconuts? Oh well. I guess I can't complain, though. When a game is called Coconut Dodge you have to expect the gameplay to involve dodging coconuts. All you do here is move your crab left and right, dodging the falling coconuts and collecting all the gold and gems and other goodies that are also, for reasons left unsaid, falling from the sky. Occasionally there's a beachball to juggle for a bonus. Silly, simple, but it passed the time and washed the horrible taste of the previous game out of my mouth.
Forest Puzzle (IBA Group) $8.45 This looked promising in the screenshots and description. Turns out to be less interesting in practice. What I thought might be a spooky little brain-teaser is in fact a fast-paced maze game with a generic horror-fantasy theme. Viewed from above, you run through a hedge maze, dodging zombies, golems and bats while collecting a bunch of fairies to open the exit glyph. The bombastic music is hilariously inappropriate, but even that can't quite save this middling puzzler from being a disappointment.
Freekscape: Escape from Hell (CREAT) $8.45 The second platformer on this list, but this time it reminds me of a PSone-era game rather than the Amiga. Like Pandemonium, the action takes place on a series of 2D planes floating in a 3D world. Unlike Pandemonium, however, which was heavy on the acrobatics and sheer speed of movement, this is more about the puzzles. Specifically, puzzles involving using the unique abilities of various creatures you encounter on your journey through the underworld. Solid is the word I'd use to describe Freekscape: it all works as intended and manages to keep you engaged and challenged without ever really generating much excitement.
Hello Flowerz (Virtual Toys) $8.45 The "z" at the end should have been warning enough. Admittedly, I set out to sample a diverse range of minis, and this gardening sim was a deliberate yet perverse choice. I went in hoping for some Harvest Moon or Cooking Mama; I came out bored to tears. You follow rote procedures to grow flowers in the greenhouse before replanting them in very specific spots in your garden or cutting them to use as bouquets in flower competitions. As you do more stuff, you'll unlock more flower types and colours as well as garden decorations. It's not just that it's tedious, it's devoid of the kind of creative expression gardening thrives on. Pass.
Hysteria Project (Sanuk Games) $2.45 Essentially a Choose Your Own Adventure book played out via live-action sequences with interstitials asking whether you want to "Go left" or "Go right", this fails miserably for the two reasons you'd expect. One, it's nothing but trial and error gameplay. Two, the story - basically a mash-up of every teen horror film ever made, minus the sense of humour - is utterly uninteresting. Making things worse are technical flaws, such as the "Saving. Please don't turn off your console" message that pop-ups all the time, robbing every single scene of its dramatic tension. And the ultra-lo-res video is little more than a blurry mess when played on PS3 and any modern TV screen. Steer well clear.
Kahoots (Honeyslug) $4.95 This is better. We're back in puzzle-platforming territory where you're tasked with manipulating the environment to allow a pudgy little critter to make it to the exit of each level. You do this by moving the blocks of which each platform is comprised, some of which have special properties - ie. bouncy pads, trapdoors, spikes, etc. Beneath the op-shop charm of its presentation - levels are made from blankets and buttons and those boiled lollies your grandma eats - lurks a surprisingly cunning puzzler. Kahoots is by no means a cool game, but it's a nifty head-scratcher that's well worth your time.
Numba (Cobra Mobile) $2.45 A grid of numbers is rarely the most inspiring view to be greeted with upon start a new game. But give Numba a few minutes and you won't care as you fall under its mathematical spell. It's all about spotting patterns, highlighting sequences of numbers or groups of a kind. Powerups are spread across the grid, focusing your attention on including those numbers that'll reward you with extra time or score multipliers. Each new level adds more numbers and special blocks (ice blocks that thaw after a set number of turns; fire blocks that burn out; even blocks that randomly change numbers each turn). It's wonderfully simple, with each addition complementing the core concept, and effortlessly addictive.
Pallurikio (Playstos) $6.95 While some developers use small downloadable titles to hone their skills in clones and homages, others clearly see minis as a test bed for quirky ideas. Pallurikio falls into the latter category: a platformer without a jump button or direct character control. Instead you charge a meter by holding down a button and, when you let go, your blob will boost in the direction you've indicated with the thumbstick. It takes some getting used to, and initially you'll be waggling the thumbstick around as if it controlled your character. Stick with, though, and you'll discover an unusual and mostly enjoyable platformer.
Piyotama (SCEE) $6.95 At first I was bewildered and stumbling like a blind man. After one pitiful attempt, the mechanics driving this match-four puzzler began to coalesce. You can shift one horizontal line of eggs at a time, extending its length beyond the play area by three eggs. Juggling the position of these leftover eggs is how you're able to form new lines of four or more eggs of the same colour. It's a long way from knowing how the game works to mastering it, however. I'd need considerably more practice if I'm ever going to spot the patterns and intuit how things are going to fall three moves ahead. Maybe I'll get that practice playing this on PSP, but probably not on PS3.
Sneezies (Chillingo) $4.95 Despite its name, this is a relaxing affair. It's one of those games where you get one chance to trigger a chain reaction across the screen and clear a certain number of objects - in this case the very cute Sneezies of the title. Trouble is, that's all there is to it, and ultimately there's very little gameplay and an awful lot of luck. It's well-presented, vaguely meditative and strangely compulsive in the same way Peggle is, but afterwards you'll be wondering why you just spent half an hour of your life with it.
Stellar Attack (Laughing Jackal) $6.95 There's the potential for a good game here that mixes colour-matching with some old-school shmupping. Your must destroy circular turrets, each of which are surrounding by variously coloured balls which you must clear by shooting them with the same-coloured laser from your ship. Adding to the strategy, many of the balls carry power-ups to aid your cause. But it fails because the controls are pointlessly complicated. Instead of being locked in orbit around each turret - like Gyruss, for example - you can move anywhere you like. As a result, you'll spend most of your time struggling to point your ship in the right direction; the rest of the time unable to even see the turret or balls you're supposed to be shooting at.
Vibes (Laughing Jackal) $8.45 I wasn't quite prepared for how difficult this rhythm game would be. Its mechanics have more in common with the likes of Gitarooman than Rock Band, requiring you to point the thumbstick towards notes as they travel towards the centre of the screen while hitting or holding the appropriate face button when the notes reach their destination. It's challenging, for sure, even on the easiest setting, and I like how it isn't merely a Frequency or Guitar Hero clone. But I didn't always feel like the note chart had much to do with the actual music, and yeah, I spent too much time flailing around totally out of time and feeling inadequate. Nice idea, but too hard to be enjoyable.
In Conclusion: For my hundred bucks I managed to score myself sixteen games. Of those, I can see myself playing at least ten of them again. That's a decent ratio. And of those ten, I can see myself loading up the likes of Numba, Piyotama, Age of Zombies and Alien Zombie Death on a regular basis whenever I have ten minutes to kill.
You see, although all these games are perfectly playable on your PS3, they feel far better suited to the PSP. Certainly, in terms of their native resolution, they look much better on the handheld's smaller screen. But more than that, they're almost all designed to be played in short bursts and with uncomplicated controls - just a dpad and face buttons in most cases.
And that's an issue for the minis. The PSP is struggling. The PS3 isn't. Still, if you've got a PSP, and the current software drought has got you down, you'd do well to check out the minis. In many ways, these games are far better suited to Sony's handheld that the majority of major PSP releases that still feel like they should be on console.
Have you had much experience with the PlayStation minis? Do you play them on PSP or PS3? Do you agree or disagree with my mini reviews above? And what are some of your other favourites?
[Thanks to the excellent PSPminis site for the above screenshots.]