Following last week’s look at 4kPillars and the Flash design challenge that spawned it, I received a number of emails pointing me towards the Java4k contest, a similar competition for a different code base, with a history that stretches all the way back to 2002. If anything, Java4k’s mini marvels are even more astonishing that those served up by GamePoetry.com: the 2009 roster includes colourful snatches of almost every kind of game, each example stuffed into the same, unforgiving space of just 4096 bytes. Always entertaining, sometimes witty, and occasionally even beautiful, these are games that regularly manage to beg the question: “How did they do that?”
It’s hard to overstate the variety on offer. Some of the games, like NiGHTS4k by Orangy Tang, are pure programming spectacle, the colours, complex characters and pseudo 3D presentation confidently existing in that shadowy realm where a clever coder’s sleight of hand becomes something approaching witchcraft. Others, such as Simon Hayles’ dainty 4bsolution, make up for simple mechanics with an elegant visual approach, in this case taking the player on a ponderous tour of midnight moss and wildlife – an entire garden crammed into something far smaller than your average Tweet. And one, zero.one’s Desert Bus, a remake of a gimmicky delight originally included on a Sega CD Penn and Teller title, even allows you to become the butt of some strange, videogame joke as you “experience the thrill of driving a bus from Tucson, Arizona to Las Vegas, Nevada in real-time”, scoring one point for every eight hours spent cruising along a drab, entirely featureless road. Strangely satisfying stuff.
Switching from masochism to gleeful sadism, however, the star of the contest – and the actual winner, as it happens – is Markus Persson’s self-assured Left 4k Dead, a loose homage to Valve’s four-player new classic, rebuilt as a surprisingly tense arcade shooter. As with many of the best mini-mini-games, there are plenty of signs that Persson’s title has actually benefited from a pared down approach: the decision to let the protagonist’s flashlight beam dictate the boundaries of the playing area makes for a smart series of close-up surprises, and the simple top-down perspective reveals an unexpected insight into Valve’s own secret debt to the likes of Smash TV and Total Carnage, with every horde rush recalling wave after wave of Mutoid Man’s co-stars, with a good part of the visceral fear effect relying on the sheer force of the numbers stacked against you.
But perhaps the most satisfying aspect of this stumpy reimagining is the fact that the designer has found the space to squeeze in a bit of style along with the carnage: a powdery TV static flicker ominously coats proceedings from the off, and the colour palette is a moody series of military greens and greys, all the better to highlight the splashes of vivid crimson as the violence erupts. With game mechanics every bit as clever as the punning title, this 4k wonder would be a smart timewaster even if you weren’t aware of the technical achievement that lies behind it. Quick, slick, and powerfully atmospheric, Left 4k Dead provides yet more proof that good things really can come in small packages.