Like a pureed blend of Tetris, Harmonix’s cult-classic Amplitude, the wickedly obscure PlayStation game Vib-Ribbon, and some fashion of Windows Media visualizer, AudioSurf might just be one of the best indie games ever made. For one, its content is only as limited as your personal music library.
The game takes the songs from your hard drive and turns them into a Tetris-flavored rollercoaster ride, a unique gameplay experience that’s built off the rhythms and tempos of whatever music you feed it. It’s the sort of thing you could see going horribly wrong if not built properly, but in the case of AudioSurf, the precisely correct mixture of simple mechanics and challenging, high-level play is on display. In effect, it’s the sort of game that anyone can appreciate, whether you’re hardcore, casual, or somewhere in between.
The concept is pretty simple. When you load up a song, it maps the track into a level. In the level, you control one of several different available ships using the mouse or the analog stick on a controller. The ship travels along a path alongside various colored blocks. Hitting the blocks sets them on a grid below your ship, and creating combos of three or more blocks removes from the grid, and nets you points.
Different ships end up with different types of blocks to play with. Mono ships, for instance, only have limited strings of colored blocks which all connect to each other, as well as gray blocks, which are meant to be avoided, since they don’t provide combos.
Other types of ships deal with several different colors of blocks at once, and only same-colored blocks will create combos. These other ships also tend to have abilities unique to them. One has the power to make one color of blocks disappear from the grid, while another can rearrange the blocks on your grid in random order, and so on.
There are added score bonuses tallied at the end of each stage for doing everything from getting through the whole level without hitting a grey block, to simply reaching the end with no leftover blocks of any kind on the grid.
While all of that sounds rather par for the course in a basic puzzle game, the thing that lifts AudioSurf well above the norm is its musical element. The way you move through the stage is entirely determined by the makeup of the song you pick.
Slower tracks translate into literal uphill climbs, whereas faster songs are quick downhill rushes. Bouncy songs have your ship bopping along to the rhythm, creating a challenging and sometimes vexing experience.
Half of the game’s addictiveness comes from simply trying to see what songs make for the best and craziest levels. The best part is that it doesn’t really matter what type of music you listen to, so long as there’s a rhythm underneath it. You can gum up the works a little bit if you throw in classical or opera music without drums of any kind, or anything that’s exclusively vocal. But other than those exceptions, just about anything else will create something playable and fun.
Even better is the game’s community element. Leaderboards are kept for every single song played by a user connected to the Internet. High scores are divvied up by difficulty level, and any time your top score is bested by another user, the game actually sends you an e-mail telling you which song and who beat it. This e-mail system is downright insidious in the way it practically demands that you return to the game to reclaim your score.
The only flaw with the leaderboard system is that everything is based on ID3 tags for your mp3s. That means that live songs and remixes that aren’t necessarily labeled as such often tend to get lumped in with the normal song boards. There is a moderation system in place to review songs that might have been renamed illegally to screw up the scoring, but considering how scattershot people’s labeling of songs tends to be, you’re going to have to put up with some inconsistencies.
Those issues are a small price to pay for what is, in essence, one of the best and most addictive music games to come along in years. The gameplay may be simple, but the sheer variety of content and high-level challenge presented on the higher difficulty settings are more than enough to suck any music fan in for hours and hours on end.
The fact that the game will only cost you $10 on Steam (the only place to download it, currently) is even better. If you’ve got even a halfway decent-sized music library and an affinity for puzzle games, you’d be insane to pass AudioSurf up.
As an aside, if you’re on the hunt for some cool songs that make for thoroughly excellent levels in the game, here’s my personal top 10 out of the dozens and dozens of songs I’ve tried. Obviously you should give these a listen before you buy ’em to make sure they jibe with your personal tastes, but from a gameplay standpoint, you should at least get a good challenge out of these.
1. Chemical Brothers – “Star Guitar”
2. Bumblebeez – “Dr. Love”
3. BT – “Never Gonna Come Back Down”
4. Fischerspooner – “Emerge”
5. LCD Soundsystem – “All My Friends”
6. Boris – “The Woman On the Screen”
7. M83 – “Gone”
8. Crystal Method – “Starting Over”
9. Dillinger Escape Plan – “Milk Lizard”
10. The Velvet Teen – “GyzmKid”
What does this score mean? Check out our review scoring breakdown.