Developer: Shrapnel Games/
Publisher: Shrapnel Games/
ESRB Rating: E
Release Date: 11/19/09
Rumors of arcade games’ death have been greatly exaggerated. Admittedly, most modern games hide the bulk of their content behind unlockables, tutorials, and outright padding. Also, there’s been a sea change in game design to favor accessibility, often at the expense of challenge. However, there are occasionally games like Brainpipe that remind gamers that fast access to compact challenge is still fun.
The Quick And The Dead
There’s a lot of ado in Brainpipe’s marketing about how it’s a game of transcending humanity. You achieve this by racing through the corridors of your mind and collecting glyphs. However, this is all presumably a smokescreen to conceal Brainpipe’s true identity:it’s a pickup-and-play twitch game that combines rapt attention with precision control.
Somewhere between a tunnel shooter without the shooting and a racing game with bad brakes, Brainpipe’s closest living relative is probably Aaaaa!. You plunge through psychedelic tunnels, dodging around and threading through procedurally placed obstacles. Your speed inexorably rises over 10-20 levels until there’s a split second between seeing an upcoming obstacle and crashing through it. You can slam on the breaks to stop for a moment, but they only hold for a second or two before you’re back at top speed. Add a few Glyphs you’re supposed to collide with, and Brainpipe becomes a game of sorting friend from foe at breakneck speed.
Games like Brainpipe are masters of immersion. After all, if you’re not concentrating on the game, you’re losing. At the higher difficulty levels, blinking is contraindicated with side effects ranging from death to instantaneous death. Granted, the game starts out at a more stately pace and a single collision doesn’t spell instant death, especially with a regenerating health mechanic. However, there’s a contiguity to the obstacles so you rarely crash through just one. If you’re fleet of finger, you can brake and swerve from catastrophe, but transitioning from perfect to Game Over doesn’t even require a second at the highest difficulty. Whether that sounds like a warning or an invitation is largely up to your tastes. It’s worth noting that, even at its hardest, Brainpipe feels fair. Like playing hard mode in Guitar Hero, you’ll compensate for the speed by reading ahead.
Solid controls help foster that fairness. We tested three of the of the four available platforms, and they all managed the problem of 2D controls in 3D space quite well. You guide your first-person plummet by aiming a spherical reticle, a bit like manning the helm inside a flying eyeball. On Mac and PC, your gaze tracks to the absolute position of your mouse. The iOS port spawns a dime-sized D-pad anywhere you touch, analogous to the controls for Super Mario 64 DS, but without the fat finger problem. In both cases, your eyeball drifts wherever your gaze lands, and movement feels quick and reliable enough to navigate incoming hazards.
Brainpipe also has the common courtesy to treat you like a competent gamer. All of the game’s content is available from the first time you play. Confident gamers can bypass the easiest difficulty levels and even start play at the end of the game. This is only really feasible because the gameplay is fundamentally the same from start to finish, but it’s still refreshing to see a game with virtually no padding.
Off The Rails
There’s more to Brainpipe than challenging gameplay, and the presentation is more than a little trippy. The tunnel walls writhe with colorful plates, and they become garish blur at speed. There’s so much moving and flashing onscreen at any given moment that it’s a testament to the visual design that you can see at all. In defiance of conventional less-is-more design principles, the colorful tumult looks quite good; stills don’t really do it justice. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that Brainpipe runs slippery smooth with fairly modest system requirements.
Brainpipe’s award-winning audio is even less conventional. It’s not exactly a soundtrack in the composition sense of the word, but more of a soundscape. As you rush through the brain, you’ll hear passing thoughts by sheer virtue of proximity. The brainpipe is littered with scraps of music, environmental sounds, and the throbbing hum of passing hazards. The jumbled soundscape speeds and slows with your pace, so a fragment of opera will stretch to a dull hum and snap back like elastic when you apply and release your brakes.
Sometimes It’s Just A Cigar
Maybe arcade games aren’t dead; they’re just indie. Brainpipe manages to be simple but not easy and hard but not bad, which is practically alien these days. It trusts you to choose your own entry level, and it doesn’t pull punches. Add to that its relative brevity, and Brainpipe makes an eminently portable game. However, the downside to all that is the gameplay is homogeneous, so if you don’t like Brainpipe in the first 30 seconds, it won’t really grow on you. All together, the game is a little steep on computers, but an absolute steal on portables. Give it a shot if you want something to literally occupy your mind.
What It’s Worth:
•To The Hardcore: $5 (demo)
•To The Genre Fan: $5 (demo)
•To The Casual: $1 (demo)
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