Monday, 19 March 2012

Ms. Particle Man (PC/iOS)

Originally created for Alverno Presents: Sexy Results (a post-modern variety show inspired by the search for the elusive Higgs Boson), Picobots' Ms. Particle Man was introduced to the elite crowd at the Turner Ballroom, Wisconsin, in the form of a one-of-a-kind, hand crafted arcade machine. It's a unique inception that matches the equally original game concept, one that is fully entrenched in the serious world of physics yet represented as an unashamedly retro and non-serious videogame about colliding particles.

Ms. Particle Man's simple blocky style, single-screen levels and bright neon colours brings back memories of playing Exidy's iconic classic Venture. However, instead of raiding dungeons for loot, the player's objective in Ms. Particle Man is to collect all the photons in each level, progressing forward to the 'boss particle' with which you must collide to reach the next area. There are three collider worlds, each with varying physics, characteristics, and challenges.

Depending on the platform on which it is played (PC, iOS, web browser and even XBox 360), Ms. Particle Man can be navigated through the levels in a variety of ways. For this review I chose the iOS version, and thus I controlled my spherical, bow-adorned chum (chum-ette?) using swipes. This was an excellent way to mirror an analogue trackball, the control method of choice for the aforementioned custom arcade cabinet designed specifically for it.

At some points, this control system was deeply rewarding. Mastering finely tuned jumps using forceful swipes then gentle, braking counterswipes made me feel like a physics genius. However, at some other points, this control system proved deeply frustrating. One example was a particularly devilish level in which it was necessary to fight strong gravity in a precise manner; it was simply physically difficult to swipe fast and hard enough without obscuring a large quantity of the screen with my ham fists. A minor gripe, but given the challenges with this game on a touchscreen, I can only imagine the precision required to play would be virtually impossible using a keyboard or other means.

Each level presents its own novel challenge, some of them bordering on puzzles that can be solved in multiple ways. The game environment is constantly changing - a level with little specific gravity (but not quite zero gravity, as Ms. Particle Man will come to a stop based on how much force you swipe with rather than staying in motion) will change to a level with the same gravity but a 'paralysis' field, then morph again into a level with moving 'death particles'. And then, later in the game you'll find yourself in the second collider, which offers Earth-like gravity and a standard platformer feel. In addition to this, level design feels unique while the influence from some of the most famous/infamous game franchises of all time is difficult to miss, giving the game a familiar face while remaining a truly new, pleasurable experience.

However, within that pleasure lies a demon we all know and love; the retro demon, with its razor-sharp horns of no continues and dangerous claws of no saves. This game does not fold to the present day tradition of hand-holding and takes the player back to the era where if you wanted to beat the final level you had to play the whole game flawlessly to get there. Ms. Particle Man takes this even further with a brutal time limit; I'm so used to time counters in games simply being for show or for score, but this one is out to disembowel you. Frantically swiping and tapping whilst the clock ticks down while cursing relentlessly is an experience I haven't had in a while... and I liked it.

Add to this a consistent, beautiful retro style, a fun and interesting soundtrack of minimalist bleeps and beats, as well as knowing nods to many beloved vintage game franchises and you have a spectacular, if short-lived, retro modern masterpiece.

Download the game here (from the Picobots' website).
Play the game online here (at the Picobots' website).
3 out of 5