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Xbox Live Arcade is best known for bringing hit indie games like Braid, Limbo, and Bastion into the world. All of these games have simple gameplay-mechanics, coupled with fantastically tight design, and excellent presentation, and while it was not released to the fanfare of these titles, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet really stands among them.

Box Art

Like many of its XBLA brethren, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a 2D side scroller, though instead of a head stomping, jumpy little guy determined to get from left to right, you zoom around in a little flying saucer, able to equip one tool or weapon at a time. Everything is out to kill you or block your way, and the game is largely about exploration and gathering new abilities to unlock new areas in the manner of Super Metroid or Zelda: A Link to the Past.

Main player character

The little ship you zoom around in

Controls are tight and intuitive, making it easy to use all the weapons and tools you eventually acquire. All equipment is controlled with the right analogue stick, which can be problematic when you must be precise, but overall it’s not a huge problem. The camera is completely controlled automatically, and in this case, works beautifully. There’s a diverse set of enemies, which will keep you on your toes, and while some portions of the game are unforgivingly difficult, there is a generous set of save spots, which double as healing sanctuaries to keep you from getting too frustrated. Levels are punctuated with challenging and truly memorable boss fights, something modern games have largely forgotten. These bosses fit each level’s theme and give you a well-deserved sense of accomplishment on completion before allowing you to move on to the next section.

Boss

Bosses have interesting and terrifying designs and will leave an impression.

 

An exploration-based game is no fun if the world you must explore is boring, and fortunately the game does not disappoint. Unlike many other 2D indie side-scrollers (Lone Survivor, Super Meat Boy), Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet ditches the intentionally retro aesthetic in favor of an almost graphic novel style. The game has six distinct sections, each with its own distinct visual-style. Settings vary from damp, swampy caves, to an otherworldly underwater section, to a messy clockwork area, and plenty more. Otherworldly is the best word to describe the colorful artwork, which is truly imaginative and drop-dead gorgeous.

Many of the levels have an underwater feel, but some levels actually take place underwater.

Many of the levels have an underwater feel, but some levels actually take place underwater.

Make no mistake, visually, this is one of the best games I’ve ever played. In terms of its aesthetic, the only disappointment is perhaps the soundtrack, which features an excellent theme song and is otherwise mostly uninteresting. While it’s never bad, it fails to be the positive contributor that the soundtracks of Braid and Bastion were.

Perhaps the game’s biggest shortcoming is its level design, which leaves many areas locked until you get better equipment. This wouldn’t be a big issue if there was a better network of shortcuts, but I found myself backtracking quite a bit to get to locked areas. Additionally, there’s essentially no plot, which isn’t a bad thing (Limbo showed a minimalist plot can be tremendously successful), but also doesn’t win the game any additional points.

The Verdict

Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet puts you into a world that manages to be both dark, but colorful, eerie, and beautiful, and ultimately a delight to explore. I’ve been asked how it compares to Limbo, and I think it has Limbo beat in many ways. While Limbo really set a mood, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet does so as well, but with more fun core gameplay, more variation in the aesthetics, and fewer frustrating roadblocks. Regardless of which game you prefer, Insanely Twisted Shadow Planet is a great game to pick up on XBLA for 800 Microsoft Points (~$10 USD), despite its minor issues and relatively short length.

Rating:

Presentation: 93% – Points deducted for uninteresting soundtrack and lack of plot

Gameplay: 95% – Points deducted for minor frustrating portions, excessive backtracking, and difficultly using robotic arm

Extra Credit: +1% – This game includes concept art, a multiplayer mode, and manages to be both unique and throwback.

Total: 95%

Google has famously cooked up April Fools hijinks for many years. They range from fun Google Doodles, to humorous (and fake) product videos, and any other manner of zany fun they can come up with. Before midnight had even hit the West Cost, my Facebook feed was brimming with posts about Google’s new “Gmail Blue,” a revolutionary update to the popular Gmail service.

The video, framed as a serious product announcement, is comprised of members of the Gmail Blue team talking about how amazing Gmail Blue will be. They use a lot of flowery meaningless phrases like, “moonshot thinking” to build hype for the product which ultimately is simply making everything in Gmail blue including the font, buttons, and logo. The humor is derived from the straightfaced delivery of such a ridiculous idea.

Many may see this video, think it is funny, and think very little else of it, but those who are a little more in the know may notice some fun poking at the expense of Microsoft. The most obvious hint is the name of the video, “Introducing Gmail Blue.” Sound similar to the codename of a forthcoming update to a popular operating system? I could have considered it a superficial detail or a coincidence until I watched more.

The next line that jumped out at me was, “We experimented with a lot of different colors. We tried orange, brown – brown was a disaster. We tried yellow.” Who could forget when Microsoft entered the market of personal media players with the Zune, available in multiple colors including, you guessed it, brown. The brown Zune became the butt of many-a-joke including one by the talented John Hodgman (“PC” from Apple’s “Get a Mac” ad campaign) at the 2007 WWDC where he, doing a comical impersonation of Steve Jobs, claimed he was resigning because of Microsoft’s, iPod killer, “the Zune. It’s brown!”

The final nail in the coffin comes at the very end of the video when Carl Branch, the alleged lead engineer of the project concludes, “I think the first thought that’s gonna come to the end user’s mind, is ‘I can’t believe I waited this long for this,’” which is perhaps a jab at Microsoft’s slowness to update Windows 8 and address the complaints the fledgling operating system has faced.

Some have suggested that this is perhaps a jab at Facebook, which liberally uses blue throughout its website, but I think much more evidence suggests this is targeted at Windows Blue. I had similar feelings towards the 2011 Google April Fool’s joke, “Gmail Motion,” which seemed to playfully point out the impracticality of the Kinect motion sensor.

The question at the end of the day is whether or not Gmail Blue is funny, and while the little jabs at Microsoft are not baseless, I don’t find the video to be particularly clever or humorous. Many people love Google’s April Fools jokes, but some of them feel a bit forced, as if Google feels that they must come up with good April Fools jokes every year, but hasn’t had true inspiration since they changed their homepage to read “Topeka”.

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