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The Undergarden

Under the radar, out of mind.

This gaming generation has seen an ever-widening gulf between traditional video games (now often dubbed "hardcore" games) and casual games. The former comprises most of what we think of as video gaming: Action, platformers, RPG, racing, MMORPG, shooters, sports, etc. Casual gaming, on the other hand, are generally puzzlers, titles such as Bejeweled or Brain Games. And there's certainly nothing wrong with casual gaming; they can be fun timewasters that often turn out to be just as engrossing as their supposed "hardcore" counterparts. Much of the proliferation of casual games can be attributed to two sources: Nintendo and Apple. Nintendo provided a mobile platform for casual games with the DS, a system where a touch screen leveled the playing field for people who found too many face buttons intimidating. This "open to everyone" philosophy spread with the release of the Wii, which featured motion controls and was aggressively priced, with tons of cheap shovelware just ready to grab the eye of casual gamers everywhere. Apple has been instrumental in the development of the "App," a shorthand term for an application that can be downloaded and used on the iPhone, iPad, or iPod. Apple has further championed the culture of apps over applications by opening an App Store for Macintosh computers. Between these two giants, every electronic company under the sun has embraced the app idea.

the undergarden blue level

Now, Microsoft and Sony, the two other major players in the gaming world, clearly took notice of this trend, and weren't about to fall behind. The best way for these two to get in on the action was to offer low priced casual gaming apps for their online ecosystems, Xbox Live and Playstation Network. Sony's also expanded to offer "Mini" games for the PSP and PS3. At first, the marriage seems ideal. Take simple gaming concepts and spruce them up with glossy HD graphics, and you'll get an obsessive gaming experience that also is gorgeous to look at it. In the best cases, it works. In others, such as The Undergarden, it doesn't.

The Undergarden strives for simplicity. All of the marketing materials make a big deal of its "Zen-inspired" experience and its ability to relax the player. However, in going so far out of its way to make sure the game never does anything that would possibly challenge the player, it also sucks all the fun out of it. The best casual games are simple but do provide a challenge. Look at perrenial fan favorite Bejeweled: Sure, it seeams easy to connect three gems, but your every move alters the gaming board, opening up new opportunities and cutting others off. In that way, you have to look at the board as a whole, not just search randomly for gems that match. The Undergarden doesn't have nearly as holistic of an approach.

You play as a small floating...thing. I'm not sure what you call the main character of the game, as there's no explanation for anything beyond the simplest control mechanics. The closest thing I can think of is a Teletubby, an association I'm sure the developers didn't actually intend. You begin the game in a circular tank, and portals open up that take you to different levels. The goal of the game simply seems to be to get from the beginning of the level to the end. Along the way, you can pick up pollen that will cause underwater flowers to bloom when you're in their proximity. While it's very pretty, it also gets monotonous. The game ranks you based on how many flowers you can make bloom, as well as how many hidden and special flowers you find. There doesn't seem to be any advantage to getting 100% versus 90% or even 95%, leaving me to wonder why they rank you at all. Either make the game a purely sensory experience and get rid of the ranking, which implies a goal, or make the goals more concrete and tailor the game to that experience.

the undergarden purple level

There are only a few obstacles present in the game, mostly in the form of blocks. Some have to be weighed down by heavy fruits, others lifted up by buoyant ones, and a few need to be blown up by explosive fruits. All of the necessary fruits can be found merely inches away from the block in question, leaving no challenge whatsoever. The only other impediment are small sections with strong currents that force you along no matter how hard you struggle. These almost always can be circumvented or tried again to make sure you get to 100%. Again, no challenge whatsoever. The only other gameplay component are little musicians who litter each level. They're different colors and cause different effects (making flowers bloom, making them wilt, making them change color), but there's no real need for them. You can already make flowers bloom with pollen, have no reason to make them wilt, and changing colors seems to have no gameplay advantage (or disadvantage for that matter).

Perhaps I would have been content with the game if the graphics were stunning, but they're not. To be fair, they all look very spiffy, but there's not nearly enough variety to support more than a few minutes of gameplay. The amount of flowers you encounter are incredibly limited, and changing their colors with the right musician doesn't make them any more interesting. Each level looks and feels pretty much the same, and getting through to the end became a chore instead of the soothing experience I was promised. The music is pleasantly ambient, in keeping with the game's aim of being like an electronic Zen garden, but it also means that it doesn't make much of an impression.

I can certainly applaud The Undergarden's developers for trying something different, but the concept here is not nearly strong enough to support the bland and pedestrian gameplay. Even casual games still demand a level of interest from the player, and The Undergarden doesn't have it.