[7 September 2010]
The hidden object subgenre of puzzle games offers the sort of activity that barely qualifies as a “game” at all. It’s more of a pastime, for it quite literally passes the time, offering the player something to do in between more meaty pursuits. You don’t typically use a hidden object game to be stimulated. You play it because you’re waiting for an e-mail to arrive or a TV show to start or your significant other to get home. Why start something meaty when you can’t finish it? Better to just kill the time with something light.
Given their very nature, then, evaluating hidden object games is a tricky proposition. There’s little doubt that it will pass the time just fine—most hidden object games are triumphs of lowered expectations, and that’s perfectly fine for a genre that has never published a game that costs more than $20. Still, what do we judge them on? The inventiveness of the hiding places? The quality of the scenery? The visceral impact of an activity that brings you back to when you were six years old and flipping through Highlights magazine to get to the good stuff?
In a way, Snark Busters: Welcome to the Club does some of the heavy lifting here by innovating within its genre.
You’re not searching for hidden objects here; you’re searching for hidden pieces of objects. This may not seem like a terribly noteworthy distinction in that the muscles that your brain is exercising to accomplish the task are basically the same, but it allows the folks doing the hiding to break apart the actual items into easily camouflaged pieces. How easily camouflaged? How about looking for the pieces of a shovel when three of those pieces are the stick?
Have you ever tried to find a stick in a hidden object puzzle? It’s basically a straight line. This is kind of insane. Thank goodness for a terribly forgiving hint system, or this would be the first hidden object game to venture into the hardcore. Some of these pieces could have taken a solid half hour to find had I not simply thrown up my hands and begged for hints.
In a way, this is a good thing—the ramped-up difficulty of many of the pieces to be found allows the adult player a little bit of distance from the genre’s reputation as fluff or as kid stuff. On the other hand, it becomes even more of a pixel hunt than these games already typically are. In the more frustrating moments, it’s hard not to just start putting the pointer in a place where you think a piece should be and start madly clicking until you get the positive reinforcement of the happy “found piece” chime and the “satisfaction” of progression. Did you actually “find” something? No, unless burning down the forest to find the path through the woods counts as finding something too. At some point, though, that stops mattering and the only goal is the next scenario. You can only look at a static scene for so long before it starts imprinting itself on your brain after all.
Adding to the need for progression is the presence of an actual narrative, another rarity in the genre. This both helps and hurts the game as well—it’s nice that there’s a reason to keep looking for things, and it allows for some sense of identification in that it’s not actually the player looking for these things but, insteadm an avatar that the player inhabits mostly in the first person. Still, the flimsy narrative and the utterly unsatisfying ending (summarized: nobody learns anything, and you never actually get to “bust” a “snark”) don’t exactly leave the player dying for the sequels that such an ending was supposed to be setting up.
There’s even a puzzle element in that, as you find all the pieces of various items, you use those items on some piece of the environment opening up more places to look for the things that you haven’t found yet. Honestly though, the “puzzles” that this makes room for are so rudimentary as to be almost insulting.
That said, it’s a seven-dollar game. If we reduce this to math, it’s three hours of mildly entertaining timekill for seven bucks, which extrapolates out to more than 20 hours of game for a triple-A major (read: $60) release. This isn’t bad. Still, we’re at the point where $5 and $10 games are doing so much more for us than just killing time, where Xbox Live Arcade, PlayStation Network and Steam are showing us just how deep low cost gameplay experiences can be. There are too many free flash apps that do something too close to what Snark Busters does to justify even such a small monetary commitment. Perhaps if Snark Busters: Welcome to the Club really stood out in any way, it would be a different story.
Snark Busters fails to stand out, offering at least as much frustration and annoyance as innovation and fun. Just because it’s cheap doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s worth the money.