Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Strawberry Jam Review

Strawberry Jam, developed and published by Red Games.
The Good: Simple mechanics, different game rules
The Not So Good: Nothing terribly original, campy MIDI music and sound
What say you? A Tetris-like game that is not unique enough: 5/8

The success of Tetris has spawned many imitators trying to cash in on the success of the original. Its simple gameplay appeals to all types of players. Strawberry Jam, one of the approximately 57 Jam games available from Red Games, is similar to Tetris, in that you must fill in a grid with differently-shaped objects. Will Strawberry Jam offer sufficient innovations on the base game to make it distinctive?

Strawberry Jam does not feature cutting-edge graphics or sound, even for its genre. While the graphics do their job in making the game easy to navigate, Strawberry Jam is devoid of any flair to make the title stand out. The graphics are very simplistic and run at relatively low resolutions (800 by 600 pixels). There are hardly any special effects, other than the bubbles disappearing when removed from the board. Similar games such as Sky Bubbles at least feature some sort of panache to make the game stand out against the pack, but Strawberry Jam keeps it very basic. The sound isn’t much better. The game features a seemingly random collection of outdated MIDI music that is generally annoying. The sound effects are digitized children’s voices and other basic sounds. I’m certainly not setting the bar extremely high for a puzzle game such as this, but the graphics and sound could at least be brought up to date to compete with contemporary puzzle games. As it stands, Strawberry Jam certainly does not compete against similar titles in terms of graphics and sound.

All of the shortcomings in graphics and sound could be forgiven if Strawberry Jam has decent gameplay. The gist of the game is to fill a 4 by 4 square with bubbles of various configurations. You are given four areas to fill in, and the bubbles appear from the bottom of the screen. You must fill in each 4 by 4 area completely, which is where the difficulty comes in. The other Jam games are similar, except they use scoring differences that aren’t made very clear on the games’ websites. You can play each game in either action or strategic mode, the difference being the time you have to place pieces. There are also six game modes available. You are either given four lives (you lose a life when you surpass the 4 by 3 overflow area), two lives and a limit on the number of sets, or one life and a restriction on placing objects in the overflow area. The other three modes are exactly the same except that control is reversed every five sets. While it’s nice to have different game modes, the changes are very superficial and you end up playing the same way in each game type. I would like to give the user the option to customize the gameplay to their liking, rather than leaving the decision up to the developer. Strawberry Jam plays a lot like Tetris, except that it’s slightly more challenging because you have to fill in a larger area. Plus, the bubbles come from the bottom, which takes some getting used to: I would rotate the pieces when I meant to drop them (and vice versa), being more accustomed to the Tetris control scheme. While there have been some trivial changes to the gameplay, Strawberry Jam still just ends up being a retread of the game mechanics we’ve seen countless times before.

Generally terrible graphics and sound aside, Strawberry Jam doesn’t bring enough new ideas to the table. The game is different, at least on the surface: the bubbles move up, you get four areas to place bubbles in, and you must completely fill in an area. Still, you can’t help but feel like you’ve played this game before. The outdated graphics and sound do not help the suspicion that Strawberry Jam was released 15 years ago. Strawberry Jam does not offer anything that makes you want to play it over better-looking and distinctive puzzle games. A puzzle game does not need awesome graphics in order to be compelling, but it does need at least a semi-original idea. The changes to the Tetris formula may be there, but they are not radical enough to make Strawberry Jam special.