Macworld's 2007 Game Hall of Fame

The past 12 months won’t go down as a landmark year for Mac development. The residual effects of Apple’s switch to Intel-based processors continue to dampen some developers’ enthusiasm for making games for the Mac. And even some of positive developments didn’t come without a caveat or too.

Take the return of Electronics Arts (EA) to the Mac platform. During Steve Jobs’ keynote at the Worldwide Developers Conference, EA co-founder and chief operating officer Bing Gordon game on stage to reveal his company’s plans to re-enter the Mac market after years of licensing its hit games to Aspyr Media. EA and Aspyr didn’t have a falling out—in fact, they still partner on the perennially popular franchise The Sims—but the company decided have a go at Mac gaming by its lonesome. However, getting a Mac product out the door turned out to be a bit harder than EA thought, and the first crop of six games were delivered later than expected (with Madden NFL 08 shipping with some show-stopping flaws on new iMacs that it took EA a couple of months to fix).

Meanwhile, Aspyr, MacSoft and Feral Interactive—three companies we’ve grown to expect big things from each year—really didn’t have the same volume of high-profile, big-selling titles we’ve come to expect, either. What’s more, shelf space for games in Apple retail stores is looking pretty slim these days. Powerful video game consoles are increasingly making PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 the platform of choice for “hardcore” gamers. The net result was that there was little, if any, actual growth in the Mac game market, according to the Mac game publishers we’ve spoken to, despite a substantial uptick in Mac consumer market-share. All those factors coalesced to make the Mac game market look frayed around the edges.

Nevertheless, a few skilled game creators overcame the odds to produce offerings that were memorable, visually stunning, and just plain fun—and those are the products that have won a place in our Game Hall of Fame, our annual celebration of the best that the Mac gaming world has to offer.

If the 10 products that make up the 2007 Hall of Fame class weren’t enough to remind us that there’s plenty of potential waiting to be unleashed, we can also take comfort in the fact that Mac gaming is finishing the year strong. Our eligibility period for Game Hall of Fame honors runs from November to November, and ever since the polls closed on November 1, we’ve seen some great stuff emerge: Guitar Hero III is shipping, for example. A copy of Colin McRae Rally Mac showed up on our doorstep recently. EVE Online, a massively multiplayer online game set in outer space, is now playable on the Mac. And we’ve caught wind of a whole slew of product announcements that should help carry Mac gaming through at least the first part of 2008. Plus there continue to be a veritable onslaught of casual games hitting the Mac space from companies that we’d never heard about two or three years ago. These events, and some good old fashioned optimism, give us a lot of reason to look forward to 2008.

For now, however, let’s take one last look back at some of the memorable Mac games from the past year.

Best Reason to Brush Up on Your History

Age of Empires III:  ; $55, MacSoft

What It Is: Go back to the days of the European exploration and colonization of the New World as you track the exploits of adventurer Morgan Black and his family. You must populate settlements, raise legions of soldiers and fleets of ships, mine minerals for currency, and battle your enemies on your way to victory.

Prepare to conquer the New World in Age of Empires III from MacSoft.

What Makes It a Hall of Famer: Perseverance alone could net Age of Empires III this Hall of Fame honor. Microsoft Game Studios developer Ensemble Studios elected to use a very expensive and Mac-unfriendly physics engine to develop the real-time strategy game. But MacSoft had the will to bring Age of Empires III to the Mac and found the way to do it, basically gutting the physics engine and replacing it with more Mac-friendly technology. This is no slapped-together conversion—Age of Empires III uses a breathtakingly beautiful 3-D graphics engine that will pull you into the action as you play the eight different imperial powers. You can also play against other Mac users online, if you wish.

Best Way to Flex Your Sudoku Skills

Big Bang Brain Games:  ; $30, Freeverse

What It Is: Combining several different games in one, Freeverse’s puzzle-game collection tests your ability to think through problems rather than just react to them, all ensconced in a gorgeous 3-D graphics engine.

Big Bang Brain Games is Freeverse’s clever take on the popular brain-game genre.

What Makes It a Hall of Famer: Brain games that test your IQ, not your reflexes, have taken the Nintendo DS handheld world by storm, so it was inevitable that the Mac would get its own version. Who better to bring it to the Mac than Freeverse, the king of casual, thoughtful gaming (and monkey jokes)? Freeverse has added some fine touches with Big Bang Brain Games, such as .Mac score sharing, so you can tell others how skilled (or not) you are at everything from call-and-response memory games to Sudoku. You’ll also find some really unique twists, such as Fallacy, a game that tests your knowledge of logical fallacies. (If you’ve spent any time in Internet chat rooms over the years, you’re probably an expert in logical fallacies without even knowing it.)

Best Hookup Between Your Mac and Your Game Console

Connect360:  ; $20, Nullriver

Nullriver’s Connect360 software helps you to get the multimedia content stored on your Mac onto an Xbox 360 console.

What It Is: Mac gamers can’t live by their computers alone. For those people who turn to consoles for their fun and games—and to Microsoft’s Xbox 360 in particular—the Connect360 software makes it possible to stream all of your Mac’s unprotected audio, video, and photos to the Xbox.

What Makes It a Hall of Famer: Still harboring a grudge against Microsoft for operating system shenanigans that took place back when the Mac topped out at 16MHz? Get over it—gamers looking for a rocking-good time with their home-entertainment centers certainly have. The Xbox 360 really does have a broad and entertaining library of games to choose from, and it even makes a halfway-decent media server to connect the entertainment system and networked computers that host music and video content. Unfortunately, Microsoft only makes it a plug-and-play arrangement for Windows-based PCs. Enter Nullriver’s Connect360 to bridge the gap. I use it to serve up music playlists, photo galleries of recent events, and video stored on my Mac, and it works very well—and for $279 less than what I’d have to spend on an Apple TV to do the same thing.

Best Reason to Break Out the Gamepad

Lego Star Wars II:  ; $40, Feral Interactive

What It Is: It’s a story from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, only with Lego-based characters replacing the Wookiees, droids, and Jawas.

Han and Chewie take on Lego form in Lego Star Wars II.

What Makes It a Hall of Famer: Some corners dismissed the original Lego Star Wars as too kid-oriented. No one’s dismissing the sequel, which has solidly established this Lego-based franchise as a real boon to the Star Wars gaming universe. Lego Star Wars II actually follows the events in the original trilogy ( Star Wars: Episode IV—A New Hope,Episode V—The Empire Strikes Back, and Episode VI—Return of the Jedi ), enabling you to play as Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, C-3P0, R2-D2, and all the other characters you’ve grown up loving and pretending to be in backyard laser-gun games. Featuring the soundtrack and sound effects (but not the voices) you hear in the real movies, Lego Star Wars offers a lot of authentic Star Wars gaming, and even involves a certain amount of Lego-brick building (and bashing) fun. What’s more, Feral’s been careful to provide good game-pad support, so if you’re looking for a Mac game that offers a great console-style experience, this is certainly the title for you.

Best Way to Feel like an Outlaw from the Safety of Your Armchair

Need for Speed Carbon:  ; $40, Electronic Arts

The racing game Need for Speed Carbon marks one of the first Mac titles released by game-maker Electronic Arts without the help of a partner.

What It Is: You’re an underground outlaw racer who’s just returned to town after a lengthy hiatus, and it’s time to recapture territory, win cash, and buy new wheels, then customize them.

What Makes It a Hall of Famer: Decent auto-racing games are few and far between on the Mac, so it was with relish and gusto that we tore open the packaging on Need for Speed Carbon, part of a long-running game series from EA that has only now found its place on the Mac. It’s one of the first half-dozen titles EA has released on the Mac by itself—up to now, the company has been content to let other partners, such as Aspyr, publish Mac versions of its games. Need for Speed has never been on that Mac-compatible list, which makes this release even more special. Need for Speed Carbon only runs on Intel-based Macs, but don’t hold that against it—it’s a fun game to play, and worth checking out if you’re looking for some console-style racing fun.

Best Reason to Get That Second Job to Pay for Your Gaming Jones

World of Warcraft: The Burning Crusade:  ; $30, Blizzard Entertainment

What It Is: The expansion pack to World of Warcraft adds two new playable races, a new level cap from 60 to 70, an entire new continent to explore, new capabilities such as jewel crafting, and other enhancements to the massively multiplayer online game.

Meet the Draenei, one of two new World of Warcraft races introduced in the Burning Crusade expansion pack.

Why It’s a Hall of Famer: Michael Corleone said it best in The Godfather, Part III (which is not a massively multiplayer online game): “Just when I thought that I was out, they pull me back in.” World of Warcraft isn’t an easy habit to shake by any stretch of the imagination—different playable races in the game and different character classes give you a lot of options to explore. And The Burning Crusade expansion pack adds even more options than before, making that burning sensation to play—and pay World of Warcraft’s monthly service fee—stronger than ever.

Most Gratuitous Use of Acid-Spewing Alien Sphincters

Prey:  ; $40, Aspyr Media

What It Is: Fortunately the only game to feature acid-spewing alien sphincters, this first-person shooter puts you in the shoes of Tommy, a disenfranchised young Cherokee, who’s trying to rescue his girlfriend and grandfather from a biomechanical alien spacecraft (which, not coincidentally, ejects plenty of acid from nasty-looking orifices).

The visuals are stunning—and occasionally unsettling—in the first-person shooter Prey.

What Makes It a Hall of Famer: Prey looks great and plays beautifully. It also incorporates some really unusual game play, thanks to its prolific use of dimensional vortexes that will spit you onto the walls and ceilings of the rooms you’ve just left. Jumping from one part of a room to another, walking on walls, and otherwise thumbing your nose at gravity can be disorienting—but it’s also completely unlike any other game you’re used to seeing on the Mac. For the mature gamer—and believe me, Prey is not intended as fun for the whole family—this is an adventure worth taking.

Best Throwback to Junior High School

SketchFighter 4000 Alpha:  ; $19, Ambrosia Software

What It Is: Hearken back to those idle school days, when you spent idle moments in class scribbling drawings in your notebook. That’s the inspiration for SketchFighter 4000 Alpha, a shoot-’em-up game that uses that hand-drawn look for some crazy, crazy fun.

Notebook doodles spring to life in Ambrosia Software’s inventive SketchFighter 400 Alpha.

What Makes It a Hall of Famer: The charmingly unsophisticated graphics might fool you into thinking there’s not much to SketchFighter 4000 Alpha other than blasting your way past other spaceships. But it also offers phenomenally fun cooperative and competitive multiplayer gaming with a built-in game finder and the ability to share your scores with other players online. And if the whole pen-and-paper look isn’t do-it-yourself enough, SketchFighter even includes a level editor that lets you create your own missions. At $19, this game is a steal—download it now and relive the good old days of middle school without the threat of detention or getting stuffed into your locker.

Best Way to Emulate Minnesota Fats

The Sims Pool:  ; $5, EA Mobile via the iTunes Store

The Sims Pool makes the most out of the iPod’s controls.

What It Is: Head on down to the local billiards parlor and take on your fellow Sims one would-be hustler at a time—using nothing more than your fifth-generation iPod’s Click Wheel.

What Makes It a Hall of Famer: The iPod isn’t an ideal gaming platform—the device’s small size actually works against it, to some degree, and its tiny screen can cause some eyestrain. Still, the game developers who have created titles for the iPod have had a good time really exercising the little device’s capabilities, and nowhere is that more apparent than in The Sims Pool, a game that borrows liberally from EA’s The Sims franchise. As in other Sim-based games, the better your Sim does on the felt, the better your Sim feels. And the pool part of the action (Eight Ball and Nine Ball) is a lot of fun to boot.

Best Floor’s-Eye View of Your Games

TreyChair:  ; $239 to $269, depending on material, TreyChair

What It Is: With the TreyChair, gamers finally have a seat that eschews some of the sillier touches in favor of more practical features.

Pop off the top of the TreyChair, and you’ve got a rocker-style seat to plop in front of the television.

What Makes It a Hall of Famer: I’ve sat on my share of game chairs over the years, and most have been variations on the same theme—chairs with embedded speakers or lights or some other gadget you have to plug in. The end result was usually cables getting tangled in the legs and bound up in the casters of rolling chairs. The makers of the TreyChair took a different direction. This chair, which looks good enough to sit in an office cube, a home office, or a dorm room, actually breaks into two pieces: you can take off the top and can set it on the floor, rocker style, and the base can function as a tray table. It’s a great way to get into the game, whether you’re playing on a console through your TV or, as I often do, by setting my MacBook Pro on the tray. The tray’s also handy for keeping a bowl of chips and a can of soda at the ready if you’re just a spectator.

[ As Game Room columnist, Peter Cohen is curator of Macworld ’s Game Hall of Fame in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. ]

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