The Ryan Lambie Column: The power of gerbils
As Gerbil Physics 2 appears on Xbox Live, Ryan begins to wonder whether the game’s furry protagonists have hypnotic powers...
I've been reading about gerbils. According to the Internet's goldmine of potentially bogus information, Wikipedia, gerbils have been sold as pets since 1964, except in California, where they're banned. (The rumours that this was to prevent Richard Gere getting his hands on the furry little critters is, of course, entirely untrue.)
So far, however, I've failed to find out whether gerbils have, as I've begun to suspect, some form of hypnotic power.
Gerbils featured heavily in Gerbil Physics, the Xbox Live indie game that got me all in a lather at the tail end of last year. Quite possibly one of the most hypnotically addictive puzzle games I've played in years, Gerbil Physics asked nothing more of the player than to blow up little towers of blocks, causing them to tumble beneath a line at the bottom of the screen. Get all the blocks under the line, and it's on to the next level.
The simplicity of Gerbil Physics was such that anyone could enjoy it, regardless of their knowledge of videogame conventions, and thanks to the combination of its cute presentation and violent subject matter, it was the kind of game that could be appreciated by almost anyone, from the hardened FPS addict to the most casual Bejewelled fan.
The appearance of Gerbil Physics 2, therefore, has been greeted - at least in my little house - with the kind of excitement usually reserved for small lottery wins. So tiny, and so independent is its creator, Pencel Games, that I wasn't even aware a sequel existed until I began browsing through Xbox Live's list of new arrivals.
Upon spotting it, I immediately began to burble, "G-G-Gerbils! Gerbils!" like Robinson Crusoe suddenly spotting a rescue boat on the horizon. Upstairs, Better Half Sarah responded to my clarion call.
"Gerbils?" she yelped back through the floorboards. "Gerbils!" I replied, almost throwing the controller out of the window. "Gerbils!" Sarah said, rushing down the stairs.
And with that, the rest of our Sunday was gone. It's fair to say that Gerbil Physics 2 offers broadly the same experience as the first instalment, but more of it (so those with a pathological hatred of either puzzlers or gerbils will want to avoid this game, too), except with a few notable changes.
You still have to use bombs to blow up blocks, and you still have to get the blocks below the bottom of the screen to complete each level. This time, however, there's an entire arsenal of new weapons and toys to play with.
Where the first game only briefly flirted with the possibility of different, Lemmings-like methods of moving blocks around (the rope, for example, could be used to swing blocks into each other, smashing them across the screen), Gerbil Physics 2 takes those early ideas and runs with them.
Now there are catapults, which can be used to flick blocks across the screen, machine guns, whose volleys of bullets can be used to slowly push blocks around, and a laser gun, which makes blocks disappear altogether.
Levels are now far more complicated, and what's more, they're in greater abundance. Where the first game could be completed in little more than an hour or so with a little effort, the sequel is infinitely more challenging, with intricately stacked blocks of different shapes and sizes interacting with the environment in numerous unexpected ways.
Ah, yes, the environments. In Gerbil Physics 2, they've taken on a new depth of imagination, with one level taking place in the maw of a gigantic beast, and others featuring bits of moveable scenery that can be shifted around by fiddling with the bumper buttons.
As an iteration of the first game, Gerbil Physics 2 is simply brilliant. I always said that the original was a perfect proof-of-concept for a larger, commercial release. Less than a year later, Pencel has come back with a game with almost double the number of stages (40 to the original's 24), twice the challenge, and far more crazy toys to play with.
The most remarkable thing of all? It's still not anywhere near the price of a commercial game and will set you back a mere dollar, or around 64p in old money. At that price, it's as damn near an essential purchase as you're likely to get, even if it did make an entire Sunday afternoon disappear before my very eyes.
But then, that's the power of gerbils for you. Despite the lack of information on Wikipedia, they're dangerously, hypnotically addictive. No wonder they're banned in California.