In this first of what will become a regular series of articles, I'm highlighting classic and contemporary downloadable games across all platforms – from consoles through PC and Mac to mobile phones – that I believe are worthy of your attention. As you might expect, the majority of these will be indie titles that flew under the radar and didn't get a huge amount of publicity when they were first released – or are classic games that you might have missed.
Mini Metro is a very cool-looking strategy-puzzle game created by New Zealand-based Dinosaur Polo Club that's available on PC, Mac, iOS, and Android. As you can probably tell from the screenshots, which look exactly like the kind of mass transit maps you'd typically find in big city subways, it's all about creating and maintaining efficient underground railroad systems.
The game plays out over a series of maps based on thirteen real-life cities. Each level starts out with three stations that are represented by differently shaped nodes, and the immediate task is to link each station by drawing lines between them, which creates color-coded routes that trains can then start to move along. As your subway system gets underway, passengers start arriving at the stations and hop onto the trains to be whisked to a station that matches their shape. That might sound slightly abstract, but it's intuitive and makes the game very easy to pick up and play.
As the game progresses, more stations are procedurally added to the map, and as each game week turns over, you're granted a choice of additional resources that enable you to continually build out your railroad network by extending routes, adding new trains, or creating new tunnels under rivers. Lines can easily be deleted or re-routed as you constantly evaluate the movement of passengers throughout your system and look for ever-more-efficient ways of ferrying them around. This optimization is vitally important – stations are only capable of supporting a limited number of passengers, and if they get too congested because your service is running too slow, the game ends (assuming you're playing Normal mode). Mini Metro also has a sandbox-like Endless mode that enables you to build a network without fear of the game ending, and a very challenging Extreme mode in which track placement is permanent.
Mini Metro is both relaxing and stressful at the same time. Things start out fairly easy, but the action has a strangely inexorable momentum as your railroad system slowly, but surely grows in size and complexity. As it does, you end up having to juggle your resources to create the most efficient network possible and enable your passengers to quickly and easily move to their various destinations. It's a really absorbing exercise that I found compelling and thoroughly entertaining.
Created by Ghost Town Games, Overcooked is a really fun multiplayer couch co-op game that was released last summer on Xbox One, PS4, and PC. I actually reviewed it in August, but since the game didn't get much in the way of press attention, I thought I'd highlight it here in case you missed it.
Up to four players each takes the role of a cook, and the objective is to prepare and make meals against the clock. The action plays out across a series of 30 kitchens that start out fairly straightforward, but whose layouts and challenges become increasingly more complex and strange as the game progresses.
When a level begins, food orders start coming into the kitchen. These appear as recipes that have to be prepared from scratch. That means collecting the correct ingredients from the pantry, slicing up each item, putting them into the cooking pot/frying pan/deep fat fryer, and then plating the food when it's ready. After that, the plate has to be carried over to the serving hatch to complete the order. And that's not all: On some levels, you need to collect dirty dishes from the serving hatch and wash them to ensure that you have a fresh supply of plates to use.
Each step of the food preparation takes a few seconds to execute, and making this process as efficient and streamlined as possible is what Overcooked is all about. Communication and cooperation between players is key to ensure meals are cooked correctly and on time, because every level has a strict time limit in which you're given to score as many points as possible by delivering completed dishes. The higher the score, the more stars you earn – and stars unlock later levels.
As you progress through the game, levels become more challenging, not only in terms of the complexity of the dishes that need to be served, but also their configuration. For example, you have to cook meals on the deck of a ship, whose motion causes certain parts of the food preparation area to slide across the screen every so often, essentially rearranging the layout of the kitchen. There are also haunted levels where ghostly goings on can move different units around the cooking area, causing chaos to a smooth-running team.
While Overcooked works best as a multiplayer game, it does have a single-player option for the campaign mode. Here, you actually control two cooks, switching between them using L1. It starts out a little tricky coordinating the pair, but with practice you soon learn how to do things like start chopping ingredients, and then quickly switch to the other chef to tend to the stove, or grab more ingredients – or whatever else needs to be done.
Playing solo is definitely quite challenging, but I enjoyed it. It requires a lot of concentration to keep track of everything that needs to be done – especially on later levels where you're dealing with things like the kitchen rearranging itself at regular intervals. Indeed, most levels require you to have a bespoke strategy in place to ensure that you have your cooks in the right place at the right time when things begin to move around. If you don't, it can completely blow your chances of achieving a decent score.
However, while the single-player mode is entertaining, it's nowhere near as fun as playing with other people. Overcooked nails multiplayer perfectly, presenting straightforward tasks that anyone can participate in with a coordination requirement that quickly gets even the most passive, non-talkative players involved in the action. Ultimately, the game is very simple, but the way it manages to keep even the most well-oiled team just a step or two from complete catastrophe is brilliant, and that's what makes the game so enjoyable to play. It's basically a game of controlled chaos, where things can go wrong at any time – and it's that process of keeping everything in order that sucks everyone into the action and makes the game such a riot to play.
If you're lucky enough to have of friends and family around who can take advantage of Overcooked's local-only multiplayer (there's no online component), you should definitely consider investing in the game. It's one of the best couch co-op games I've played in years.
Pocket Card Jockey
The last game I'm going to talk about today is another 2016 release that Nadia loved when it was released on 3DS back in May. Created by Game Freak, Pocket Card Jockey is a bizarre mix of horse racing and a simplistic version of solitaire. I'm sure some people just switched off at the mere mention of those two disparate activities, but bear with me – they come together to create a surprisingly addictive game.
The action opens with your death in a horse race. Fortunately, a kindly angel gives you a second chance, on condition that you combine your poor jockeying skills with something you're gifted at – which just happens to be playing solitaire. The way this works is the better you play at solitaire, the faster your horse will run.
Each race is broken up into three stages. The first section is where you play cards, essentially trying to clear the board by selecting a card with a higher or lower value than the last card played. If you can't clear a card, you flip another one from your deck and repeat the process until you've either removed all the cards, or can no longer play any. Success puts your horse in a good mood, where it paces itself well and has lots of stamina, while failure ends up with your ride in a bad mood, and it becomes difficult to control during the next two stages of the game.
Next up is the race phase where you try to guide your horse down the track by drawing lines for it to follow. Other horses can get in the way, so care has to be taken to try to put your ride into a "comfort zone" where it can run while expending minimal energy. In longer races, you replay the solitaire section several times, building up more energy as you run towards the final stretch, where the horses race for the line. If you've managed to conserve enough energy and stamina, your horse becomes enthusiastic and should be able to break away from the competition and win – but if you haven’t played your cards right, or failed to position yourself well during the race, you'll be overtaken and lose.
If that sounds very simple, it is… in principle. However, the game has a lot of hidden depth. There are a large number of races to compete in, and horses are only competitive for a limited period of time, requiring you to breed new ones so that you can essentially build a racing dynasty. There are also stats to consider, racing forecasts to deal with, and even special cards that can give you a boost, all of which help add multiple layers of strategy to the game.
The only downside to Pocket Card Jockey is that luck can play a part in your success or failure. If you have a bad solitaire draw, your race can be pretty much over before it starts, and it can sometimes be annoying when a horse runs in front of you and blocks your progress. However, the game is so entertaining and addictive, I found I could easily overlook its frustrations, and instead enjoy its many charms.