capsule review

SketchFighter 4000 Alpha

At a Glance
  • Ambrosia Software SketchFighter 4000 Alpha

    Macworld Rating

Almost every male I know has spent some part of his middle school tenure doodling in the blank pages of a notebook, often creating elaborate battle scenes involving military jets and tanks, or spacecraft and bug-eyed alien menaces shooting laser beams at one another. That’s the improbable lineage of SketchFighter 4000 Alpha, one of the most fun and endearing action games to emerge from Ambrosia Software in years.

Contrary to the “alpha” demarcation, which can connote a product still in development, SketchFighter 4000 Alpha is done and out the door, and more than ready for prime time. The primitive-looking two-dimensional graphics—seemingly drawn with a felt-tip pen on top of graph paper—work perfectly.

But don’t confuse the hand drawn style of the game with simplistic game mechanics. SketchFighter uses a robust OpenGL-based graphics engine that smoothly renders the game in full screen or windowed mode (at various resolutions). What’s more, the game utilizes its own built-in online chat service to help you locate other players for cooperative or competitive gameplay.

SketchFighter puts you in the cockpit of a spaceship that looks like a lawn dart (at least at first) as you navigate the treacherous caverns of a hostile alien menace. You have to blast your way past other spaceships, stationary guns and other obstacles as you make your way to bosses—giant ships, bug-looking things, and so on.

Fight to a Draw SketchFighter 4000 Alpha’s hand-drawn graphics may look primitive, but the game uses a robust OpenGL-based graphics engine and features sophisticated built-in chat capabilities.

You’ll also have the opportunity to collect powerups which will change your weaponry to different types: you start with a pellet blaster, move up to beam weaponry, and get wave cannons and missiles. There are also rocks in the caverns that you can blast to collect material to replenish your hull strength, which will get depleted by alien fire and by banging against the cavern walls.

The different weapons and various hazards you pass through are also almost the only color you’ll see in this game, just as if you’d reached into your bookbag and pulled out a yellow or red marker for some touch up to your drawings. When you blow up the bad guys, left behind on the “paper” are smudge marks, just as if you’d erased them using one of those big pink jobbers you’d find in your pencil case on the first day of school.

Some of the levels are big, some are small, and sometimes you’ll pass through a gate that will lock behind you, or you’ll have to find the key to unlocking a gate that prevents you from going any more forward. There are also plenty of stations along the way that enable you to save your progress. It’s all pretty standard shmup (that’s gamer lingo for “shoot ‘em up”) fare, but it’s extremely well executed.

Another exceptional angle to this game is the fantastic multiplayer gaming. As I mentioned, a built-in chat client enables you to easily connect to other SketchFighter users on the Internet, and you can set up either cooperative or competitive games by distinguishing how many minutes you’ll play and what arena you’ll play in. You can also play two-player games locally, each of you using different keys on the keyboard.

Regardless of what mode you choose, you’re “tethered” to the other player using an elastic cable, like a rubber band. In cooperative games, you and the other player work together to blast as many enemies as you can in the allotted time; in competitive modes, you end up competing for points, but not directly blasting each other, as you’re still tethered together and everything in the arena is headed your way. There are ways of temporarily incapacitating your opponent, such as swinging around obstructions at high velocities, thus pinning the tether and sending your opponent flying wildly off at another angle. Online game scores are also recorded on the SketchFighter server, for posterity’s sake, so you can compare your skills to other SketchFighter veterans. (The best times achieved by single players are also recorded, in addition to multiplayer games.)

It’s a neat twist on online gaming, and I’m happy to see the game’s developers create a unique way to experience head-to-head competition.

If all that wasn’t enough, SketchFighter has one other trick up its sleeve: A level editor. The level editor stores the files you create in a custom files folder that SketchFighter instantly recognizes and can load, so you can create whatever your imagination can dream up, just like in middle school. Sure, the tool’s a bit more complicated to use than a pen, some graph paper and your imagination, but you’d be surprised at how easy it is to work with after you’ve had some practice. You can read the manual, too: PDF documentation is included.

For what it’s worth, SketchFighter 4000 Alpha is a Universal Binary. And its publisher has wisely priced the game at $20, making SketchFighter an excellent value. And you can always download it from Ambrosia’s Web site and play with it a bit before deciding on whether it’s right for you.

SketchFighter does have a few flaws—I ran into a few graphics and rendering problems on some levels, and judging from the comments I see on Ambrosia’s Web discussion boards, I’m not alone.

The bottom line

SketchFighter is a retro joy, not only for its bored middle school look and feel, but for its 1980s-style shoot-em-up action. Sure to be a bona fide classic in no time.

At a Glance
  • Macworld Rating

    Pros

    • Coop and competitive multiplayer with built-in game finder
    • Includes level editor
    • Online score sharing

    Cons

    • Some graphical glitches
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