In this grab bag: play shuffleboard with a crocodile, shapeshift through a post-apocalypse, explore a bite-sized space garden, and share a beer on the bed of a pickup truck.
The itch.io grab bag is a recurring feature intended to showcase tiny, curious, and otherwise intriguing games available on the titular digital platform. I am in no way affiliated with itch.io, but I consider it an exceptional platform for indie games and one that doesn’t receive as much attention as it ought to. Hence this post, a snapshot of delightful little gems made by cool people with a lot of heart. You can find them all, and a cornucopia of others, at itch.io, and be sure to check back soon for future grab bags!
Shapeshifting Biker – More Mountains (PC, Mac – Free)
Picture, if you will, Mad Max cruising through a low-poly desert. Now imagine he’s lost his car and picked up a sweet motorcycle – somewhere between a Harley low-rider and a Lego bike – and is being pursued by anonymous black cars that are surely doing the desert no good with all that smoke they’re emitting. As Max bobs and weaves through blocky rock formation he finds himself barreling into a magnetic floating cube, and now suddenly, Max is a corgi.
This is more or less the idea behind Shapeshifting Biker, a Ludum Dare, explore-the-map-and-don’t-die sort of game about a runaway biker with the inexplicable ability to change into different animals. It’s a rather simple affair – cruise around, grab the cubes, change into animals, and don’t crash into anything – and I would have liked to see the shapeshifting ability affect more than just the speed of your bike, but if you are intrigued by the concept of an eagle on a motorcycle (and how could you not be) it’s worth a few minutes of your time, and features a charming folkish soundtrack to boot.
SHRUBNAUT – Andrew Gleeson (PC, Mac – Free)
The first product of a self-imposed game-a-week challenge being undergone by Andrew Gleeson (whose previous work includes art for Titan Souls), SHRUBNAUT is a tiny exploration driven platformer starring an adorable space dude and their grappling gun. What is perhaps most remarkable about SHRUBNAUT is that, for a game developed in 6 days, it feels entirely complete and satisfying. The environment is compact, but the interweaving pathways and secrets give it a sophistication that masks the game’s actual size through being so fun and engaging to explore.
Your only means of interaction with the game is your grappling claw and a few buttons/switches, but that’s really all SHRUBNAUT needs to be an entirely enjoyable 10-15 minute romp through a floating space labyrinth. It’s tempting to say the only downside to SHRUBNAUT is it’s over so soon, but it feels so self-contained and fully realized that I didn’t feel as if I needed more once the credits rolled (or hung, as there aren’t really enough names to warrant a roll). What I do want is to play whatever Andrew Gleeson puts out next for his challenge, which thankfully if things go according to schedule, shouldn’t be far off).
Cuckoo Curling – Grenadine (PC, Mac – Free)
Previously reserved for the rich and the bored on a cruise ship’s deck, Cuckoo Curling brings shuffleboard to the less obnoxiously posh , and in the process realizes every game can be made better by changing its rules to those of Connect Four. Glossing over its somewhat inaccurate title (I’ll take alliteration over pedantic specificity any day), Cuckoo Curling tasks you with pushing pieces across a board in order to place four of them in a connecting line on the other side. Complication matters is everyone else trying to do the same thing, with most games culminating in ricocheting chaos as so many pieces bounce off one another, often straight into the crocodile’s mouth.
Oh, right. Cuckoo Curling has a star tattooed crocodile that eats any piece you send over the end line. This, from where I’m sitting at least, makes Cuckoo Curling worth playing in and of itself. It’s a simple game, but a delightful little distraction with an immensely charming presentation. Seeing the bored onlookers react to your shots is both informative and amusing, with some preferring you to mess up and others delighting in players sabotaging one another. Cuckoo Curling is free for the masses, but if you pony up $4 you can even play with your mates across the pond. Or wherever they live, I suppose, provided they’ve got the internet.
Black Gold – Conor Mccann (PC, Mac – Free)
There are few things I miss from the country as much as the quiet serenity of a night spent sitting under the stars. It sounds trite to say, but in the experience, I can scarcely recall as many moments in which I was so at ease with myself and the world. Something about how the clear sky makes you feel so small has a way of making your problems seem just as insignificant. Black Gold may not be exactly this to everyone that plays it, but as I watched my character sip a beer on the back of a pickup truck, I couldn’t help but reconnect with something I’ve lost in my urban transplantation.
Black Gold is so small and narratively focused that it seems counterproductive to attempt to explain it through text alone. Though there are conversation bubbles and a modest dialogue tree, Black Gold is as much if not more so about being in the place it creates – the constancy of the oil pump, the buzz of gnats, the reassurance of a friend sitting beside you – as what is said there. Sometimes, in fact, there doesn’t need to be anything said at all. Black Gold encapsulates the conflicting sensations of isolation and togetherness found in rural living, and all it needed was a cold beer and a conversation.