Bucketball is a brand-new physics-based game from Arseniy Desrosiers (Gamebalance) and Florian Himsl (Komix). If you've already guessed that the general thrust of the gameplay has something to do with "buckets" and "balls," then congratulations, your amazing brain is way ahead of the curve and you win your very own Shetland pony.
No, seriously, simplicity is the name of the game here (well, actually, it's "Bucketball"), and indeed, the interaction of balls and buckets is the theme. You get 20 levels to test your skills of aim and timing. Each level presents you with a certain number of differently-colored buckets, and the same number of differently-colored balls. Your job is to get the right balls into the right buckets by striking them with invisible vectors of force. The fewer strokes it takes to complete a level, the higher your score. Easy, casual, no fuss, no muss.
The mouse controls everything. When you bring the pointer near a ball, a little arrow appears. Hold the mouse button to build up power, and release to fire the ball in the direction of the arrow. This control method feels comfortable and undemanding, which matches the general vibe of the game. There's no timer or official target score for any of the levels, so you're free to play with the physics and take as many shots as you want. You can even strike another ball while the previous one is still in motion. If you'd rather go for the minimum number of shots and max out your score, you can restart a level at any time with no penalty.
Analysis: Bucketball drew me in right away. Desrosiers' lively musical score has a threatening undertone to it that belies the bright, clean graphics. That tension makes more and more sense as the level design gets meaner and meaner, but the lack of forced goals keeps the edge off for a while. It takes quite a bit of precision to succeed after the first few levels, but it feels great whenever you make a shot. The balls have a solid sense of weight but almost no elasticity (I'm guessing they're supposed to be wooden croquet balls or bocce balls), so you can't really rebound them off anything. You just have to hit them at the perfect angle with the perfect strength, and that means every shot is an honest test of skill.
Nevertheless, the level design eventually gets quite tricky. A ball flung straight up at maximum charge will reach about halfway up the screen before falling back to earth; but if you need to hit a target higher than that, you'll have to be clever. A bucket will spit a ball out at high speed if it happens to be the wrong color, and although that feature first appears to be a punishment, it eventually may prove useful. Not that I'm giving you a hint or anything. Try not to allow the wrong ball to fall into a bucket pointed directly skyward, because that means the ball gets rejected straight up, and it usually falls right back into the same bucket, only to be spat out again. This cycle usually only repeats itself two or three times before the ball lands to one side, but it's still annoying.
Another problem becomes apparent when you have several balls lying close to each other. Because you can't select a specific ball directly, it can be hard to get the little arrow connected to the right ball and pointing in the right direction all at the same time. It sometimes comes down to a difference of mere pixels, which is a little too much precision for my taste.
Finally, I have to offer a warning. 20 levels doesn't sound like a lot of work, but when the difficulty curve is shaped like an open field with a giant skyscraper at one end, you may experience some frustration. Allow me to illustrate:
You know how you felt when you were a little kid, and you went miniature golfing for the first time, and you didn't care about boring grown-up things like "keeping score" and "staying out of the decorative waterfall"? Miniature golf was fun, right? The whole place was packed full of cool moving machine parts, you got to whack one hard object with another hard object, and every time you randomly managed to get the ball in the hole after about 8 wild swings, everybody clapped and made cute little patronizing "Yay" sounds. Except you were a kid, so you didn't realize that the indiscriminate emotional rewards were damaging your internal motivation, and you just lapped up the praise like a hog with a face full of buttermilk. Life was good. Golf was your new best friend.
And then came The Hill.
There was always a hole featuring a pyramid—or sometimes a cone—with the goal set at the very pinnacle. If you didn't hit the ball absolutely straight, it would curve pathetically off to the side; if you hit it straight but not hard enough, it would only reach halfway up the hill, and then come rolling pathetically all the way back to your pathetic feet while your sister laughed at you. If you hit it too hard, you would skip right over the hole at light speed and bonk your sister in the elbow, which she totally deserved. But no matter what you did, no matter how many strokes you took, you would never be able to actually get the ball in the hole, and all of a sudden you did care about your score, and this stupid hole was ruining it, and your sister was still laughing, and you were going to spend the rest of your life here, with a million strangers staring at you, thinking "Gosh, what a stupid kid. He plays golf so stupid and he has stupid braces. I'm sure glad my kid was born with ten thousand perfect teeth and he gets a hole-in-one every time, especially on The Hill, which is the easiest hole on the whole course, unless you just happen to be the THE STUPIDEST, UGLIEST CHILD IN THE ENTIRE WORLD." And then you stopped trying to get the ball in the hole and instead just flailed blindly at it with your club until it flew into the next-door merry-go-round and knocked the head off a plastic flamingo.
Remember that feeling? That's what Bucketball is like. Haaaaarrd. It might be the very last level that breaks you, or the pain might come as early as level 7, which resembles The Hill a little too closely for comfort. But I'm not really complaining. Any game that can dredge up childlike emotions so deftly is doing something right, even if it's playing a little bit dirty.