Looking back on my own experiences in video game development, contests and jams have been a huge driving factor in my progression and great practice in actually finishing projects. In fact, of the twenty-five games currently listed over on my games page, a whopping nineteen of them were created for some hosted event that had a deadline. One of the game jams that has gained massive popularity in recent years is Ludum Dare. Although I was unable to participate this time around, I thought I’d once again take a look at the top 10 finishers overall (focusing on the ‘compo’ category, which requires developers to work alone and finish in 48 hours). I enjoy using this as an exercise in game design as I look at how other talented developers interpreted the theme, and then executed quickly on that vision. The theme for Ludum Dare 38 was “Small World,” and here are the top ten games!
tinyarena by rxi is a frantic platforming shooter, reminiscent of Super Crate Box or Towerfall, that emphasizes the world feeling “small.” This is not enforced in the level design as much as the gameplay, where everything moves fast and you always feel in close proximity to your enemies. rxi has proven to be quite talented when it comes to Ludum Dare, with his game Tangent placing third in the previous competition. In this entry, what has to be more impressive than anything is the artificial intelligence. The game is very much in a style that would normally cater to local multiplayer, but he manages to include bots that not only provide an entertaining “campaign” mode, but can even hold their own against the player one on one. I will say that some of the later levels left me a little frustrated with the pinpoint accuracy that some of the stronger bots could snipe me with, but overall I felt like they created a very compelling experience. The fact that this respectable AI was added (along with the creation of the entire game) in just 48 hours, is really admirable.
9. The Shifting Catacombs of Mu’ralagh
The Shifting Catacombs of Mu’ralagh (be careful not to cough up mucus saying that one) by Madgvox express the “Small World” theme in two ways. One, the game level simply looks like a small part of a massive desert landscape; and two, the level shifts and changes formation to uncover new passageways within the same small area. The graphic style has a lot of charm, and the visual effects are very satisfying. I definitely think it is an example of a game that had to cut scope given the time restrictions, because there are really so many more directions that could be explored with this formula. None of the puzzles were anything that I hadn’t seen in similar games, and as a result I moved through the game quickly, but it was cool to see how the level transformed over time. I have seen the concept of a single level that transforms several times, but it was refreshing to see it with a different spin on the theme, and the focus more on puzzles than live action.
8. It’s A Small World
There are so many different ways to approach a Ludum Dare theme, and I think one that is often forgotten is that of a narrative. It’s A Small World by Daniel Mullins follows that path and does it brilliantly. The odd premise of carrots married to rabbits living in harmony is enough to draw the player in, and you will quickly be wondering about what is happening and how the theme is going to be incorporated. I don’t want to spoil any of it, but I thoroughly enjoyed the story and especially the ending. As long as you don’t mind a little mature language in the dialogue, I encourage you to give this one a quick run-through. Very creative use of the theme, and the graphics and general transition effects are great.
7. Path of the Rabbit
No Ludum Dare list would be complete without Daniel Linssen (Managore), right? He consistently wins or places high in almost every Ludum Dare (this was his eleventh entry), and this was no exception. What impresses me most about Daniel’s entries is how different they each end up. Often times, participants will loosely involve the theme so they can focus on sticking to their strengths, but Daniel manages to capitalize on his strengths while still integrating a strong and creative connection to the theme. Path of the Rabbit takes clear inspiration from the board game Tsuro, but makes some key changes that really make it interesting. For one, it is a solitaire experience, and you can see what tiles are in the queue, leading to a more thoughtful and puzzle-like experience. But on top of that, he introduces the concept of water, carrots, and enemies. Just like Tsuro, moving along a path to the edge of the “board” loses you the game. But now you must manage two other losing conditions: running out of water and getting killed by an enemy. You have to strategically plan to move to oases to replenish the water you lose with each placed tile. Additionally, you want to plan to attack enemies when you are at full-strength (that’s strength in carrot units), so you can not only survive, but gain “levels” to enable you to defeat stronger enemies later in the game. It all comes together into a satisfying puzzle with a nice blend of tactics and strategy. Another solid entry from Managore!
6. Tub of War
Tub of War by quill18 uses toys in a bathtub as its interpretation of the “Small World” theme. The impressive 3D graphics really capture the feeling of looking down into a child’s bath-time setup, complete with realistic sinking of objects to the bottom of the tub. The gameplay itself involves steering a boat to rescue toys while fending off enemies such as rubber duckies. I wouldn’t call anything in the design particularly innovative, but it is remarkably polished for a game made in 48 hours. quill18 is popular for his Let’s Plays as well as Unity tutorials, and his Ludum Dare entries consistently show what he is capable of in such a small amount of time.
5. Paisley Princess
Paisley Princess by Will Blanton takes the classic RPG formula and squeezes it into a world of tiny 5×5 rooms. The minimalist adventure totally nails the feel of the genre, and mixes in some refreshing humor that pokes fun at cliché gameplay elements. Nothing about the game was all that challenging, yet there was an intangible addictiveness that kept me playing to the end. I like how Will’s approach to the theme was to take a genre that is normally associated with large, spanning maps, and distill it into the tightest of spacial restrictions. A well put together and charming entry for sure.
Planetone by Michael Shillingburg is the first Ludum Dare entry I have played that wouldn’t be classified as a game, but rather as an interactive tool. The planet represents a music sequencer with the active bar moving around the planet laterally. Armed with a color palette and a few plant types, you have the freedom to place different flora on the planet to create impromptu audio loops. In an interesting twist, some of the plants actually grow and change each time they are played, providing a less static and more “living” experience. The whole thing has a lovely aesthetic and it is fun to just put down random plants to see what it sounds like. Obviously not a lot of game design analysis to be done on this entry, but I appreciate the creative change of pace and I am impressed by the level of polish.
3. Gravity Trails
Gravity Trails by electr1ca is a variation on the classic “planetary platformer.” You control a little character jumping from planet to planet in an effort to deliver a letter to a mailbox. Most of the gameplay was fairly traditional compared to what I have seen from this style of game, though I will say that towards the end there were some interesting arrangements and creative level design. I tend to be a masochist who loves difficult but fair games (and particularly platformers), so for me the game seemed to end just as the difficulty was starting to get interesting. But for a Ludum Dare entry, the whole thing was definitely pulled off well.
U-Turn by Benjamin Soule starts out with a tiny platforming level where you need to run and get the flag. At this point, you have to turn around and go get the flag back where you started. This process continues over and over until you are killed by some obstacle. What makes the game interesting is that every time you get a flag, something is added into the level to make it more difficult. This is very reminiscent of Death Dash from Ludum Dare 37, but here I think the execution is even better. One big reason for this is that the added obstacles are randomized, so every game feels different. Combine that with a surprisingly large variety of hazards and fast gameplay, and you have a really addicting high score-based arcade game. The core concept is one that has been done before, but there are some really creative design decisions that were made in U-Turn that separate it into something special. Not to mention, it is always cool and impressive to see what people are able to do with the PICO-8 console.
And finishing in first place for Ludum Dare 38 is Smalltrek by Impbox! His interpretation of the theme was to have small planets with various types of aliens, each requiring different criteria to be met in order to achieve peace. I have seen many examples of sliding puzzle games, but I’m not sure I’ve see one that has this particular kind of twist. Each alien type has rules for what constitutes whether it is happy or not with its current placement. Some are as simple as needing to be next to a rock or a plant, but as the game progresses, new types are introduced, varying from needing an open space next to them to multiplying to take over all reachable spaces when united. During the early puzzles, I worried that it might devolve into a game where you simply slide things around without a plan and eventually stumble on a solution; something that I don’t think makes for a satisfying puzzle game. But I quickly realized that was not the case as some of the alien interactions made it clear that I had to approach each level with a specific strategy. It definitely seems like a game that could be a great fit for mobile, and I think the core concept is strong enough to allow for a lot of creative expansion with new alien types. A well earned first place finish in my book.
Another weekend down that yielded a multitude of new original games. I am a big believer in game jams being one of the best ways to sharpen your game development abilities and flex your creativity. I wish I had the time to go through more entries, but looking at the top ten gives me the opportunity to get inside the minds of some of the more successful jamming developers and learn from them, as well as appreciate what they were able to create. Congrats, not just to them, but everyone who participated; no matter your skill level, making a game in 48 hours is something to be proud of!