This is the one hundred sixtieth entry in the Scratching That Itch series, wherein I randomly select and write about one of the 1741 games and game-related things included in the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality. The Bundle raised $8,149,829.66 split evenly between the NAACP Legal Defense and Education Fund and Community Bail Fund, but don’t worry if you missed it. There are plenty of ways you can help support the vital cause of racial justice; try here for a start. Lastly, as always, you may click on images to view larger versions.

Our one hundred sixtieth random selection from the Bundle for Racial Justice and Equality is replicating itself while consuming all other organisms in its path. It’s Cell Tune, by Niklas Rievald, and its tagline in the bundle reads:

A life simulation game where you design creatures on a microscopic level an…

That’s right, it’s time to create some life!

Cell Tune is kind of like a puzzle game, in practice. There are twelve levels, and each tasks the player with designing an organism that will emerge dominant once the time limit is up. Organisms are built from square cells of different types. The most common is a green cell that distributes energy throughout the organism. Blue cells provide a constant, low thrust in one of four directions, allowing organisms to move. Red cells consume any cells they run into, letting organisms eat each other. Purple cells confused me at first, but they help organisms bounce off of each other, or off of the walls of the rectangular arena. When a purple cell collides with something, it activates a powerful jet (again, in one of four directions, chosen when building the organism) for a brief time, typically allowing organisms to rebound after collisions. Lastly, the all important egg cells — which must be placed on the exterior of the organism, I believe — will spawn a copy of the organism once it has accumulated enough energy (more energy needed for larger creatures).

I’m actually still a little confused by energy, actually. Organisms can absorb it when they eat the cells from other organisms, which makes sense. But it seems they also passively generate it over time? Because some organisms don’t have any red cells to eat with, yet are still able to reproduce. Anyway, once players have designed their organism, they can start the level and sit back to see what happens. Every level features some creatures that don’t belong to the player (shown in a darker shade of green), and there’s no direct control. The little lifeforms swim around on their own, eating things and hatching their eggs. As long as at least 50% of the cells on the screen belong to the player’s organism or its offspring when the timer runs out, the level is complete.

Early on, I built some pretty simple organisms. An arc of red cells on front, a few green cells in the middle, and some blue propulsion cells and eggs on back. These little guys were pretty effective at eating other hapless organisms (and sometimes eating their own offspring), and didn’t have much trouble dominating the early levels. Later, I faced some really large blobs, so I built a silly looking wall of destruction that meandered slowly in one direction, annihilating everything in its path. It quickly ran into a wall and got stuck, and then hatched a new wall of death behind it that promptly ate its parent. But by then it had consumed so many of the other cells that it was still the dominant species at the end.

The levels start to get pretty tricky farther in, however. Perhaps my favorite level introduced a bunch of walls to the arena, so everything was confined to a snaking corridor. With no direct control, it was difficult to make an organism that could actually navigate the hairpin turns and go eat the other organisms. Instead, they just got stuck, reproduced, and then started eating each other. I eventually bested this level by creating a small creature with no red cells at all, just some tendrils festooned with the bouncy purple cells. Since it was so small, it could reproduce quickly even without eating anything, and it simply clogged the corridors with biomass until there was no room for any other organisms to grow.

Players can save up to six organisms they’ve designed, in order to use them again or modify them for new levels. In practice, I needed adjustments every single time, but I liked that I could build off of creatures I’d made before rather than having to start from scratch each time. Even so, in the later levels I was revisiting my organism designs over and over, trying to tweak them enough to give them the edge. I only managed to finish eight of the ten levels, often feeling that I’d almost managed to win but just couldn’t get that last bit I needed, no matter how many changes I made to my lifeforms. One level completely walled off the other organisms from mine, and featured a much shorter timer too. I simply had to design a creature that would reproduce fast enough to outpace the other creatures, who already had a head start in terms of sheer biomass. I failed that level with about 47% of the biomass so many times, and I didn’t know what to do to get those last few percent.

Even though I gave up before completing every challenge, I liked Cell Tune a lot. The presentation initially seemed a bit barebones, its menus functional but unrefined, the square cells that make up its organisms plain. But in motion it looks surprisingly good. There’s clearly some fluid mechanics simulation running in teh background, as organisms don’t just trundle forward in a straight line, they drift and tilt believably in invisible eddies. Longer appendages bend, causing organisms to whirl around. It’s possible to create an organism that spins itself so quickly that it jettisons its outer cells in a spray of centrifugal force. Even when there’s not too much happening, the flicker of energy passing between cells within an organism is mesmerizing. Sound, however, is rougher. I think there’s some kind of reactive music system in the game, but it’s hard to tell how it’s related to what’s happening on the screen. Instead, the music lurches through awkward tempo changes, and sometimes emits glitchy pops instead of pleasant synth tones.

While I didn’t want to stick with Cell Tune all the way through its toughest levels, I could see the right kind of player getting really into this. It’s fun to whip up a weird creature and just see what it does, and once the systems start to make sense it’s rewarding to build just the right type of organism for the test ahead. There’s also a level editor that lets players create their own challenges, or just muck about with some silly critters. If that sounds cool to you, give Cell Tune a look. If you missed it in the bundle, it’s normally sold for a minimum price of $4, but at the time of writing it’s half off for a minimum price of $2. Niklas Rievald says it will remain discounted until he finds a way to restore the kick drum to the music system without causing glitches.

That’s 160 down, and only 1581 to go!