While it’s easy to say these days, I’m an indie gamer. Sure, I’ve played my fair share of AAA titles and love many of them, but the smaller games have always been my sanctuary. All too often I’d play a big budget game and like about 80% of it…there would always be that “if only it did this” moment and ultimately I think indie games make those moments realities. Of course, these days indie games aren’t just limit to your platform of choice, they’re also in the movies. There’s the mother of indie games, Indie Game: The Movie, that is good and decent but now we can expect a whole lot more where that came from, including Game Loading: Rise of the Indies.
More indie love
I found a link to the trailer for Game Loading on Twitter (sorry, forget from who) and it appears the film is still in Kickstarter mode. The story doesn’t sound all that different than any one you’ve heard, read or seen before and while I’m sure the movie will be worth a watch, the one part of the trailer that caught my attention wasn’t the movie concept itself but a mobile game shown in the background. It was only screen for a few seconds but it got my eye because it was a shmup (arcade shooter) that looked a little different than most.
I paused the video to see it closer and the game layout had a cute shmup on the left and colored blocks on the right, looking like they were part of some puzzle, like Tetris. This game looked to combine block matching with a shmup…but how? Unfortunately, the game shown didn’t include a name so I didn’t know what it was or where to find it, or if it was even out yet. Google to the rescue.
I did a simple search for “puzzle shmup” and after a few minutes found an image of the game I saw in the trailer. The game was Toybox from Barrel of Donkeys, and thankfully it was out and ready to play (apparently it came out in 2012 to some accolade, go figure). After investing this much effort to discover this game I quickly handed over the $2 in the App Store and as I had hoped and expected, the game delivered and had me hooked.
Toybox won’t test your super-awesome shmup skills as you might expect. If you’re used to bullet hell shooters then you’ll find Toybox lacking…at first. Where Toybox makes up for in bullet quantity if makes up for with the added puzzle aspect of the game. While you’re using your left thumb to dodge bullets with your spaceship, your right thumb is working a grid of falling blocks that appear when you shoot special baddies on the left. If you shoot a marked blue bad guy, a blue block appears on the grid and you have but a moment to select which column it will fall. When you match three same-color blocks you’ll get a power-up, points and it will clear the screen of enemies and bullets.
Neither the shooting nor the block matching is anything new. Both follow the patterns we’ve all played with for years, but the combination of the two will make your brain hurt. The goal of Toybox is just like any other shmup…get a high score…but to do so you need to do more than just dodge bullets, you have a to match blocks. So how do you dodge bullets and shoot bad guys while also keeping track of falling blocks? And therein lies the genius of Toybox. Keeping track of both challenges is a lot of fun and incredibly satisfying when you succeed and progress.
A new level every week
Any shmup gamer will tell you playing is all about knowing the patterns and sequences of levels. You just play over and over and surviving is just a bi-product. I think that’s why a lot of people like them. You feel like you’re beating the machine at its own game while also increasing your own brain power (or so it would seem). But one frustration point I have with any “standard” shmup game is it always seems you only get so far before it just gets too hard and that ends up being your stopping point.
There might be 10 levels to a game but you always die at level 8. Sure, you’ll get by eventually but all too often you hit a wall and stop playing and replay is limited by that fact alone. Toybox, whether intentional or not, seemingly solves this problem by releasing a new board every week. When you download Toybox you get one level and only one level but it has an expiration date. You have seven days to master the board and put up your best score before things reset and a new level comes down. So if you have trouble with a particular level and can’t seem to put up any decent score, you know all you have to do is wait. You can keep playing and trying your best but in the end you know the pain will cease eventually, and then maybe the next board will be your master level.
The best shmup controls ever
Aside from Toybox just being straight up fun, the controls are by far the best and most satisfying I’ve ever seen in a shmup. Most shmups that I’ve either put your ship immediately under the thumb or give you a designated zone where you drag…and neither make you feel like you’re in controls. Toybox solves this by putting your ship just above your touch point, so you can always see your ship. You can change control types a little as they offer an “exaggerated” scheme that puts the ship even further out from your touch point. I’ve found this mode to work the best as it lets you move your ship with minimal thumb movement. It’s easy to blame controls when playing a shmup on your phone but in Toybox I’ve never yet sworn at my finger, just my brain.
Split your brain
I’m not sure if Toybox is some sort of left-brain/right-brain game or not but it sure feels like it. I keep finding myself focusing too much on one challenge, either the bullet dodging or the block matching. The path to a (quicker) high score is clearly matching blocks but there’s nothing stopping you from ignoring the blocks and just dodging bullets, effectively making any high score a result of survival, not unlike any regular shmup.
I’ve become a real fan of games that combine tried-and-true game mechanics and don’t hide that fact. Toybox could have dressed things up in some weird way to try and make it seem overly complex but it took the simple and safe route, and because of that I’m betting it will become one of my all-time favorite iOS games. Plus I’m still striving to be “1st in the world” when it comes to score.