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Last fall was full of big, exciting Xbox Live Arcade releases, but the downloadable well dried up during the heavy retail release season of the winter. Consider The Maw a return to form for exciting digital releases on Microsoft's platform that, though small, feel substantial.
To begin with, there's the super-polished gameplay, a mix of puzzling and platforming that's elegant and exciting. As a small blue alien – the game's website informs us that your name is Frank, although this title is never revealed during the game – your job is to lead around the titular Maw, a growing purple blob who had been imprisoned alongside Frank by a group of faceless bounty hunters. Maw devours everything in his path, particularly cute pink balls called Yums, and gets exponentially larger as he does so.
The gameplay is elegant because the simple concept – pull Maw through the next location so he can eat more and get bigger – never really changes. Even as subsequent levels offer the purple creature new power-ups, your control over him remains essentially the same. Yet through those new abilities, developer Twisted Pixel is able to keep your actions remarkably fresh level to level, constantly teaching new tricks through the player's own exploration rather than drawn-out tutorials or big text boxes. The player's wide-eyed wonder at touring each level and experimenting with each new power mimics that of Frank, as does the attachment to Maw that only seems to grow with the beast.
That wonderfully innocent relationship between Frank and Maw really stands at center stage as the greatest achievement of the game. What the game lacks in detailed environments it more than makes up for in the brilliant family-friendly design of these two characters. Like the first 20 minutes of Wall-E, The Maw doesn't need any dialogue at all to convey emotion, and the lack of any speech beyond cute noises from the leads doesn't get in the way of drawing players in to the game's colorful world. The Maw is basically the videogame form of a Pixar movie, and it pulls it off wonderfully.
If there's one area of The Maw that gives itself away as a cheap, downloadable game, it's the length. Owing partially to an upbeat lack of death in the game, its 4-5 hours can easily be toppled in a single sitting or two. That may not seem like much game for the 800 Microsoft Points ($10) price tag, but considering how polished and focused all of that content is – not to mention the fact that super-cheap downloadable levels are on the way – we'd say it's entirely worth it. If you're a fan of well-crafted children's stories and tightly designed gameplay, there's no excuse not to give The Maw a shot.
Feb 4, 2009