DETONATOR (PS2: Midas Interactive)
Bought from local Safeway/Morrisons for 7.99

A couple of weeks ago, a diligent WoS Forum reader alerted this reporter to a thread on another, less intelligent, gaming forum in which your correspondent's name was being taken in vain (as often happens in such places). Against his better judgement, your correspondent read the whole thread, which was a thoroughly depressing experience in which a load of ill-informed idiots stridently shouted down some unfortunate bloke who'd had the temerity to suggest that it was perfectly possible to make modern, high-quality console games for (a lot) less than 200,000. The thread served one positive purpose, in that it ably reminded your debate-loving reporter why he no longer participates in videogaming forums full of idiots, but it also sent him on a curiosity-led quest to find such a game. That quest - which in fact comprised a single and rather un-arduous trip to his local Safeway initially intended for the purpose of purchasing some nice milk brioche rolls - is now over.


Excellently, the game's gloomy, oppressive setting is never explained.

Some time ago, your reviewer picked up a copy of a promising-sounding Dreamcast game, released in Japan late in the console's life, called Bomber HehHe. The game, about laying explosive charges in order to demolish large buildings, sounded like a novel and diverting concept, and your correspondent was foolish enough to believe the review on a poor-quality import-gaming website which confidently stated that the game was easily comprehensible to those not versed in Japanese. Naturally, this turned out to be perhaps the most absurdly inaccurate thing ever published on the entire Internet. The spectacularly unfathomable disc - this reviewer was unable to even start a game - has lain gathering dust on your reporter's extensive game shelves ever since, so stumbling across a game with the same theme priced at just 7.99 en route to the crisp aisle was too much temptation to resist.

As it turns out, Detonator is (as far as it's possible to tell) a very different game to Bomber HehHe. It's a two-dimensional puzzle game with its roots in Tetris (ie the manipulation of a set of pre-defined geometric shapes to fill space) and a demolition theme that's essentially just crudely pasted on top to make it appear less abstract and provide for a visual reward on completion of a level, but it's a superb, engrossing and stylish videogame which proves that even nowadays you don't need a massive budget or a team of hundreds to make a really good game and get it onto High Street shelves.


The 3D effect is purely for show - the game is played only on the top surface.

There are half-a-dozen different game modes in Detonator, comprising a shallow but stupidly entertaining two-player Battle mode, a mindbogglingly savage Challenge mode, and four variants on the basic Normal mode, which increase in difficulty by utilising more complex kinds of "dynamite" and larger floor areas. Each building (there are five for each of the four Normal Mode variants) has a number of floors, each of which is presented as a 2D map. Rather than try to describe how it works, your helpful reviewer has provided a practical example in the form of one of the game's early levels, so if you haven't checked it out already, do so now and then come back. We'll chat amongst ourselves in the meantime.

["...no, I never liked him either. Obnoxious tosser, and the SMELL- hang on, he's back."]

Now, given that the puzzle you've just tried is one of the simplest in the game, you'll understand that 20 buildings with an average of three floors each (there are 60 puzzles in total in the four Normal modes, with buildings having a minimum of one floor, usually at least two and a maximum of five, and you can only save after completing a whole building) is actually enough to keep the average gamer occupied for days or even weeks. In your reporter's semi-humble opinion, Detonator mounts a serious challenge for the title of World's Hardest Videogame, previously held for over 12 years by the Game Boy's astoundingly brutal Hyper Lode Runner. (And we're using "hardest" in the "but fair" sense, incidentally.)

But with a typical level comprising no more than a dozen moves (and very often just five or six), it's so punchy that you'll never have a chance to get bored or frustrated - especially since you can play any of the four main modes (which offer substantially different types of gameplay by each having just one new element in addition to the basic mode) at any time, meaning that you have to be hopelessly stuck on at least four different puzzles before you're completely stymied. (And even then you can always just have a quick blast at the Challenge game, which presents 99 short basic-mode levels one after the other in random order, adding a savagely tight time limit to the move and block limits, and giving you just one life. The preset high-score is 33 levels. Your reviewer's personal best so far is five.)


The two-player Battle mode contains the most ingenious and funny handicapping system ever.

For a game played solely on a series of 2D grids, though, Detonator is also a remarkably stylish piece of work. For reasons which are never touched upon by the game or the manual, the buildings you're destroying are all located in a grey, totally deserted city under a forebodingly black sky. It looks like the global winter of a nuclear apocalypse, and there's an eerie, chilling calm to the 3D flypast of each building you get before starting a level. (And indeed the one you get afterwards, showing the results of your work in action.)

The game also features two "instructors" - one male, one female - who explain how each mode works in the sort of measured, impassive robotic voices found in cars that won't let you drive off without your seatbelt fastened. Adding to the impression, they appear to be reading lines slightly imperfectly translated from Japanese ("Special type dynamite can be used as same as the standard-type dynamite"), in that way that talking cars usually do.

Stages take place to a backdrop of simple, ambient music, and the menus are all sparse, no-frills affairs which let you get straight into the game (all the cutscenes, intros and flypasts are instantly skippable, too). This is beautiful, restrained game construction, in which the developers are more keen to have you actually play with their baby than to show you how much time and money they spent on rendering textures. Not unrelatedly, Detonator is a compelling game, which you can load up just to pass ten minutes tackling one stage, only to end up losing a whole afternoon and giving yourself a sore head from banging it on the table.


Once you've beaten all the stages of a level, the lights go out and the walls come tumbling down.

Detonator, frankly, belongs in a better world than this one. A world where all games were sensibly priced at impulse levels and could be picked up while you were browsing your local supermarket for noodle snacks. A world where games magazines actually sought out interesting things to cover, rather than just regurgitating whatever the biggest load of hype they were spoonfed by PRs that month was and ignoring anything that wasn't the latest crappy 45 "blockbuster". And, of course, a world where videogaming forums weren't populated almost exclusively by clueless, yelping dogs.

Your reporter's no expert in the ways of modern development, having been last involved in the production of a game almost 10 years ago. But it's hard to see how the creation of Detonator, with a handful of simple 3D models and a bunch of 2D puzzle grids, could have occupied more than two or three people for more than a couple of months, and accordingly it's pretty hard to estimate its budget at anything very substantially over, say, 20,000. And yet, this is a PS2 title that can hold its head high in any company, and will provide players with a greater number of entertaining gaming hours than a large percentage of the current Top 40. Its RRP is 15, but it can be widely found for less - as well as spotting it for 7.99 at Safeway, your reporter saw copies at 9.99 in his local Asda, and viewers without big supermarkets nearby can pick it up for the same price from Amazon. If only to avoid making a twat of yourself on forums, this reporter warmly recommends that you do.
 

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