Gear Head ($1.00) is the kind of game you’d get if Mario was a car nut instead of a plumber. Given his Italian heritage, you could probably find him extolling the value of a Fiat on some street corner in Milan. Or, considering his wealth acquired over the years, maybe he’d be a Maserati or Lamborghini guy. If you’re picking up princesses from fancy castles, you need to look the part, right? Yeah, Mario would be a boss, blasting Jay-Z’s ’99 Problems’ on his way over.
Unfortunately, Gear Head in reality is nowhere near the original kind of fun you could have envisioning Mario in a three-piece suit and playing a high-stakes (and high buy-in) game of poker, Peach on his arm feeding him Martinis, dueling Bowser not with the bottom of his boot, but with his mind. Nor is Mario the only mascot referenced.
A platformer with very familiar mechanics, you’ll bop the skulls of many a docile animal, breaking ‘?’ and ‘!’ bricks with your head. The latter ‘!’ blocks supply you with car parts to rebuild your stranded wreck at the end of each level (each stage requires a set amount to be collected), while the question bricks award you with ‘gears’ that work primarily as your health. Get hit by an enemy, and the gears will scatter, with the next hit being fatal, a la Sonic.
The game is split into three hub worlds of four stages apiece. With no continues and only a small reserve of extra lives (more can be earned by completing each world), you’ll have to play it somewhat smart, planning jumps and attacks accordingly. Gear Head does a nice job of accentuating that challenge, as well, putting you on a timer and running its routes through enemy-lined corridors with low ceilings.
Snow World? You bet your ass you get a Snow World.
It’s all fine, albeit very pedestrian, until the third hub of levels swaps out cute animals for head-stomp-resistant zombies (this is XBLIG; you didn’t think the Undead would be left out of the fun, did you?). Though this move turns out to be a pretty smart one, as it forces you to rethink previous strategies and play more frugally. It’s not a drastic change, of course, but for a game that played it virtuously-safe prior to them, zombies help the cause here.
It’s still all mimicry and borrowed parts from other platformers, but Gear Head does a better impersonation than most. Though as has been the case before with fan projects, that statement works both with you and against you. I’ll drag out my line: A dollar is a cheap introduction, yes, but when the much better originals are always widely-available, there’s little reward in playing a low-rent homage.