Arkedo Series 01 - 03

Games by Arkedo Studio for PS3 and Xbox 360, originally released in 2009.
This time around, instead of looking at one game, we’ll be looking at three. This has a lot to do with the fact that the developer in question, Arkedo, has set out to release a game every month (for as long as they can keep it up, apparently). This series of games is known as the Arkedo Series, the first three of which are:

Arkedo Series 01 - Jump!
Arkedo Series 02 - Swap!
Arkedo Series 03 - Pixel!

As you may be able to surmise by the titles, each of the games tends to focus on a simple gameplay concept. These concepts are then presented in a number of increasingly complex iterations as the games play out, offering variations and layers built upon on the core concept. This was a common practice in older games, particularly those in the pre-8-bit era, when entire games tended to focus around a single game mechanic.

French developer Arkedo pays homage to a number of those classic titles by using a highly pixilated look to the characters and environments. Of course, the color palette, scaling and rotation, and environmental effects go way beyond anything you might have been playing on the Atari 2600. But such is the power of the Xbox 360, and all of these games are part of the Xbox Live Indie Games service.

Arkedo Series 01 - Jump!
On the surface, Jump! has the appearance of an old-school platformer. Your character looks like a cross between Pitfall Harry, Indiana Jones, and Panama Joe from Montezuma’s Revenge. He runs through a number of platform-based environments grabbing pickups and avoiding enemies. Like Pitfall! (which also had an exclamation point in its title… coincidence?), Jump is not a straightforward platformer, but more of a puzzle-based platformer, as each level is centered around the challenge of figuring out how to make it through without getting killed. Often, there is only one solution.

Jump has a somewhat odd premise (but perhaps no more odd than the classics it attempts to emulate): a giant crab has dropped bombs all over the place, and you need to go and pick them up before they detonate. In that respect, this is a timed affair, so you can’t simply stand around trying to figure out how to get through the level… you need to move.

At the outset, you’ll just need to pick up a few bombs and make it to the exit. The HUD shows how many bombs remain in the level, and the exit door remains locked until you grab them all. As the game progresses, you’ll encounter a variety of new enemy types and obstacles, including falling platforms, moving platforms, disappearing platforms, spikes, and boulders. Eventually, it won’t be enough to simply grab the bombs and get out, but rather you’ll find some of them locked away in piggy banks. The banks break based on how much money you’ve collected (indicated by the price above them), which starts the bomb counter a-tickin’.

In addition to grabbing bombs, you can also pick up some other items. Gold coins give you money to unlock Challenge levels and open piggy banks within the level, hearts give you 1UPs (which you’ll need… a lot), and picking up a knife gives you the ability to throw the weapon at an enemy. Knives are one-time use, but they can be stockpiled, and they’re particularly good as a last-minute lifesaver if, say, an enemy is blocking your way and you don’t have time to wait for it to move.

Being a puzzle game at its core, Jump becomes increasingly difficult as the game goes on, slowly building on what it expects the player to do to make it through the level. Once you finally die – and you will die – you start the game over from scratch. There are no save points, no continues, and no passwords. The challenge is to see how far you can make it, collect and hold onto as many 1UPs as you can, and remember the solutions to the difficult levels. Throwing away a handful of lives in a single level is grounds for smacking the proverbial reset button and starting the game again from level 1.

A last bit to note is that there is a fair amount of humor infused into the game. There are little jokes in the level titles – including various game and movie references – and when you die, you’ll get cute messages like “crabs don’t like hugs” and “PROTIP: press A to jump”. Additionally, grabbing enough money in the 30 individual levels allows you to open up a series of 30 more Challenge levels (and getting through those gives you one more even harder level).

Arkedo Series 02 - Swap!
Swap! is a pretty straightforward block-swapping puzzle game. The biggest difference between this game and the hundreds of others like it is the ability to swap blocks not only horizontally, but also vertically. Match any 4 bricks of the same color, and they disappear.

The control scheme is a bit strange here, as Arkedo has assigned cursor movement to the left stick and swapping to the right. It takes some getting used to, but it does allow you to move things along pretty quickly, since you can just hold the stick in one direction and move a selected piece from one side of the screen to the other. You even have the ability to hold down the triggers to increase the speed that the blocks are entering the screen, which is somewhat useful during the very slow opening levels, but not so much beyond that, given that the speed slowly increases as you progress.

As expected, scores increase by getting combos (i.e., lining up series of blocks to clear out multiple lines in one move), and you can also get points by clearing blocks that are adjacent to coins, diamonds, etc. By lining up 4 lightning bolt blocks, you can cause an explosion that clears out a whole bunch of nearby blocks. You can even line up more than 4 for an even bigger explosion. Time Stop powerups allow you to freeze the puzzle’s vertical movement for a little while.

The game features 3 modes of play: Castle Mode (story mode taking place in the 5 different regions of the castle), Arcade Mode (your basic score-based play-until-you-die mode), and Challenge Mode (additional challenge-based objectives for players who have completed the game).

Arkedo Series 03 - Pixel!
Pixel! is a bit of a departure from the standard Arkedo formula (if you can call it that), in that it had a longer development cycle, is somewhat more complex, and had the involvement of another studio. The previous Arkedo Series games – and the planned upcoming ones – were each done with a team of 2 people working for about 30 days.

The outside studio is known as Pasta Games (also French), and they are the ones credited with the art and game concept. Their only previous credit was a rhythm-based platformer called Maestro! Jump In Music (see below), but they would go on to create an entirely new game starring the pixellated feline, in the form of Pix the Cat. Aside from a mutual love for exclamation points, the studios clearly share a desire to deliver nostalgia-inducing pixel art-based games.

Pixel goes even further into the pixel dimension than does Jump, featuring playfields with only a handful of colors and a look of something more akin to an LCD-based game rather than simply an old-school console game. The main character, enemies, and block outlines are all done in white, whereas backgrounds and highlights appear in various shades of blue. But even though it looks like something you might play on a Dreamcast VMU, it does have modern graphical effects and music.

The game features a charismatic head-heavy cat who roams mysterious platforming worlds in an adventure that spans the interiors of houses, giant mushroom forests, and futuristic spacescapes. Enemies are just as strange, ranging from walking apples and flowers, to floating octopi, to cows wearing bubble helmets.

All of the platforming basics are in place: jumping on platforms, hopping on enemies to kill them, climbing ladders, bouncing on springboards, etc. You even have a projectile attack where the cat opens its mouth and the word “meow.wav” actually appears and moves across the screen, killing any enemies that it hits.

One of the game’s selling points is the ability to zoom into some of the in-game blocks. Periodically, you will encounter a special block that has a puzzle built in. Examining one of these blocks with your magnifying glass will allow you to go inside the block itself and solve a mini-game to reach the treasure locked within, such as a health pickup.

In addition to the series mentioned above, Arkedo has previously worked on two Nintendo DS releases: Nervous Brickdown, a competent Breakout clone; and Big Bang Mini, a fireworks-based shooter. These games clearly originate from the same pedigree, as evidenced by the stylized graphics, esoteric music, and sense of humor.

After the release of the Arkedo Series, the studio went on to create O.M.G. (Our Manic Game), a bullet hell shmup for the Windows Phone 7. In 2012, they created a beautiful yet mediocre action platformer called Hell Yeah! Wrath of the Dead Rabbit, which was published by Sega.

Pasta Games (or Pastagames) has plans to support itself financially with the development of licensed games, while interspersing some original creative stuff in between. So, for the time being, we’re just going to ignore Build-A-Bear Workshop: Welcome to Hugsville (wow!), and focus on Maestro! Jump in Music. They would later go on to develop Pix the Cat.

Maestro is available on the Nintendo DS, although currently only in Europe. There are plans to release it in the future as a DSiWare title and as an iPhone game, although nothing has been announced regarding the U.S. market specifically (but hey, it’s region free and in English if you’re looking to import).

Maestro isn’t a strictly 2D affair, although it does have some 2D artwork. It features 3D characters and backgrounds, but it is locked to a 2D perspective. You control a pink bird named Presto on a journey through a number of music-based platforming environments. Presto is perpetually propelled forward (like Mr. Domino, no one can stop him), running left-to-right along musical strings that can be “plucked” using the DS stylus. Plucking the strings not only creates music, but can also make Presto jump up or down if he is standing on them at the time. This allows you to line him up with the next string, or to grab pickups which also create music.

In addition to the basic platforming and music, you also have enemies to deal with, which may be destroyed by tapping them with the stylus. The game tosses some level-specific enemies and environmental obstacles your way, such as sombrero-chucking chickens on the back of a train that can only be hit by tapping targets that appear over them. Every 4 levels, you will encounter a boss battle, which occurs as a Simon Says-style mini-game where you must repeat patterns to deplete the boss’ health.

As with any rhythm-based game, timing is key to building up points and progressing through the game, and songs become more difficult to execute successfully as the game continues. You must not only reach the end of the level in order to progress; you must also get a high enough success rate on the musical portion as well. Later levels add new gameplay and enemies, and higher difficulty levels are unlocked upon completion of the game.