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The Game Room: Cheap Thrills

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At a Glance
  • Scenario Software iPoker 2.0

  • MacPlay Bejeweled and Alchemy

  • Ambrosia Software Bubble Trouble

  • Knowledge Adventure Fisher Price Little People

  • MacPlay Heretic II

There have always been a lot of fun, inexpensive games available on the Mac, thanks mostly to the efforts of the countless authors of Mac shareware games. Shareware has always been a good place for Mac game players to find fun without having to spend a lot of money. But now more games for people on tight budgets are coming from a surprising source: publishers of commercial games. Leading the way is MacPlay, with its new Value Series line of games priced at or below $20.

Inexpensive, Not Cheap

Early this year, MacPlay announced its plans to release more than a dozen games in 2002 -- and some game experts scratched their heads. With other Mac publishers struggling to release fewer than half that number every year, how could MacPlay manage? The answer is beguilingly simple: the MacPlay Value Series, a line of games priced at $20 or less. Some are strictly casual games that you play to pass the time, and others are older titles that MacPlay has decided to give one final go-round.

One $20 package, Bejeweled and Alchemy, combines two arcade-style puzzle games on a single disc. Similar to Giles Williams's JewelToy (mmmm; The Game Room, September 2002), Bejeweled assigns you the task of making variously shaped gems vanish by grouping them into trios. Other gems then replace the ones that disappeared, over and over again. Easy to learn but hard to master, Bejeweled is addictive and fun.

Alchemy plays on the medieval concept of turning lead into gold. It provides a game grid and a series of elemental symbols in different colors. To transmute lead into gold, you must match either the symbol or the color to its adja-cent squares; once you've completed the entire grid, the level is done. Sure, it sounds easy, but it gets hard when you have conflicting symbols or clashing colors on neighboring squares.

Both of these games are available for free play online at PopCap Games' Web site (, but the CD versions have been enhanced with new sound effects, graphics, and play modes you won't get online.

Of the two games, I prefer Bejeweled. Both are challenging and fun, but Bejeweled is the more polished. An online version-checking system hampers Alchemy, and it seems to take an interminable amount of time to load.

The Bottom Line

Both Bejeweled and Alchemy offer some casual gaming fun for Mac users in search of something other than the standard shoot-'em-up or arcade-style action game.

Old Doesn't Mean Bad

The casual game market is only one aspect of MacPlay's Value Series strategy. Another part is to convert older games -- which don't cost a huge amount to license -- to the Mac and then sell them for small change. That's what the company has done with Heretic II, a ridiculously fun 3-D action game that will appeal to fans of Tomb Raider heroine Lara Croft.

Heretic II -- first released for the PC a staggering five years ago -- is built on the Quake II engine, used primarily for first-person shooter games. But MacPlay has adapted the engine for a third-person action game -- meaning the game-play view hovers behind and over the shoulder of the protagonist you control.

Here's the scenario: Corvus the Heretic has returned to his homeland after banishment, only to find that a horrifying and maddening plague has overcome his people. He soon discovers that he is the key to their continued survival and must go in search of a cure.

To that end, Corvus searches far and wide across the land, encountering many other beings along the way, defusing traps, and making sense of brain-twisting puzzles. There's nothing new here -- but the game's execution is quite sharp, featuring terrific character animation and challenging levels.

Like most third-person action games, Heretic II suffers from weird and awkward camera control -- it's not hard to back Corvus into a situation that makes it nearly impossible to view what's going on without moving him. When he's dangling from a precarious height or squared off against a ferocious monster, that can be a problem.

The Bottom Line

Heretic II reminds us that a fun game is a fun game, no matter what its age. It's sure to attract

3-D-action fans looking for something new to try. For new iBook, iMac, and eMac owners in search of cheap fun, this OS X-native game is a great option.

Time to Clean the Aquarium

"Squish the fish" is the slogan of Bubble Trouble, an addictive and challenging arcade game from the folks at Ambrosia Software. Do you feel a sense of deja vu? That's probably because Bubble Trouble isn't new -- in fact, it's been around since the mid-1990s. But now Bubble Trouble has a new lease on life, thanks to the OS X-native version. And it's still fun to play, even all these years after it first showed up on the scene.

In Bubble Trouble, you are Blinky, a little yellow fish in a lot of trouble. Chombert the Piranha, Remington Eel, Normal the Shark, and Haarrfish the Starfish are all hungry for some fresh sushi, and guess who's on the menu? But you're not totally without defenses: your oceanic hideaway is a maze of air bubbles, which you (as well as your fishy foes) can pop or push around -- these bubbles can either help you make a quick getaway or be used as effective weapons.

Bubble Trouble draws its inspiration from classic coin-op video games of the 1980s. A 2-D arcade-style action game chock-full of cartoonish and colorful graphics, Bubble Trouble is nonviolent and fun but still quite challenging, especially at the higher levels. In short, it's suitable for the whole family. And if you get bored with the myriad levels that are included with Bubble Trouble, you can even use the included BT Editor application to make your own.

The Bottom Line

Now that Bubble Trouble has been updated to run natively in OS X, a whole new generation of Mac gamers can become addicted to this entertaining arcade classic.

A Poke in the i

If your card-game tastes tend to stray to higher-stakes fare than the ubiquitous solitaire, you might be interested in Scenario Software's iPoker 2.0, a significant update to the company's impressive poker game.

iPoker features 11 built-in shills -- computer-controlled players with unique playing styles and psychologies. To add to the realism, each shill is animated via thumbnail QuickTime videos, so you can watch real humans react to the hands they're dealt and the pots they win or lose.

With more than 80 game variations, you'll stay busy for a long time in iPoker. The game sports impressive customizability: you can tweak just about every aspect of game play, from the specific playing styles of your opponents, to the stakes, to the game rules themselves -- you can even craft your own variations. You can also select from different card designs and tabletop patterns and colors to suit your mood. Fortunately, if you mess things up to the point of unplayability, you can reset almost every option in the game to its default value.

iPoker makes use of digitized and synthesized speech, so you can even get a play-by-play account from the dealer's perspective. The game also sports a tutorial mode and can help you choose which cards to discard if you wish.

iPoker is great at what it does; the one thing missing is online play. Poker is at its essence a social game, and although the QuickTime-

animated computer players help simulate the feeling of sitting around a real poker table, they're no substitute for the real thing.

The Bottom Line

iPoker is an admirable OS X-native version of one of the most popular casino card games around. With multiplayer support, it would be even better. Hopefully, Scenario Software will ante up for online play soon.

Fly the Friendly Skies

Air travel is fascinating for kids, so it's fitting that Knowledge Adventure should team up with Fisher Price to produce Little People Discovery Airport, a new game based on the popular line of toys for toddlers and preschoolers.

The game features animated Little People who populate a make-believe airport full of fun activities for youngsters. There are five separate activity areas, each staffed by a different character and emphasizing a different skill-building activity.

You can help Michael paint, build, and decorate airplanes, which you then get to see fly around. Pilots Paula and Maggie fly to vacation spots that you choose -- each representing one of the four seasons -- navigating a maze of clouds on the way. In the Control Tower, Eddie needs your help to figure out which plane is ready to take off next -- it's an exercise in pattern recognition. Sonya Lee teaches number recognition and counting by getting pets ready to go on a trip and feeding them before the flight. And Sarah Lynn needs help getting bags to the correct planes; this area of the game emphasizes shapes and colors.

Knowledge Adventure says this software is compatible with OS X 10.1.2 or later, but the company adds that compatibility comes only via Classic mode. Though the game runs fine in Classic, the publisher's claim of OS X support is misleading.

The Bottom Line

If you don't mind running a Classic app on your OS X system, you'll find a delightful and fun game for toddlers and preschoolers. Don't count on capturing the attention of kids who already know shapes, colors, and numbers, but it's a fun diversion for young children.

OS X Controllers: Where Are They?

Since Mac OS X's initial release, gamers have been waiting for OS X support for game controllers such as game pads and joysticks. While such amenities are largely superfluous for the first-person action games and strategy games that make up the bulk of commercial A-list game releases -- the vast majority of users who play those games rely on keyboards and mice -- they can be an important addition for many arcade-style action games, not to mention flight simulators.

Unfortunately, developer support for the technology that enables OS X to support game controllers transparently has been slow to come. That technology is called HID Manager, and it's been in OS X since the summer of 2001.

InputSprocket (HID Manager's equivalent in OS 9) provided game developers with an easy way to tack on controller support without having to program an individual user interface that let gamers customize a game controller's button assignments and controls. HID Manager isn't as user friendly: it doesn't provide a user interface for programmers, forcing them to make their own input screens to handle controllers.

That's not to say HID Manager doesn't have any support. More and more games support the new OS X technology. Developers are patching commercial and shareware games to support HID Manager, and new games are beginning to support it as well.

If you're impatient to use your controller to play a favorite game that hasn't yet been updated to support HID Manager, fear not: there are solutions -- as long as you're willing to shell out a shareware fee. By the time you read this, the $20 USB Overdrive ( will, hopefully, have been updated to support game controllers (at press time the maker of USB Overdrive, Alessandro Levi Montalcini, had promised but not yet delivered support). CarvWare's $15 GamePad Companion ( is another alternative. This software works just fine with OS X, and it's compatible with a growing number of USB joysticks and game pads. In both cases, you can download and try these apps before you buy, so give them a shot and decide for yourself which is best for you.

Both programs come in particularly handy for older software that is no longer being updated. But should you have to spend extra money for game-controller support in your new games?

Generally, no -- at least if the game has been in development since mid-2001, when Apple added HID Manager to the list of working OS X technologies. Check with the publisher of any game that interests you to see if the game supports controllers, and demand support if it's not already there.

At a Glance
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