The Game Room

Your cards, letters, and e-mail messages are heartily appreciated, everyone. All of them. Honestly. Even the one negative missive that assaulted me for being, and I quote, "a lackey of the hated oppressors of the proletariat, destined to be one of the first thrown against the wall when the workers break the chains of the industrial bourgeoisie and the Revolution finally arrives."

I mean, what can I say to this? I'd probably start by saying that communism as an attractive image to adopt when cruising bars went out with hubcap-size chest medallions and Aqua Velva, so if you think that beating up a (somewhat) beloved industry figure with your copy of Karl Marx for Dummies is going to help you score, you're sadly mistaken.

Besides, have you looked at my record, sir? In the past few months, my columns have dealt with a collection of games retailing for about $190, a pair of $350 graphics cards, and a collection of traditional games (half of which come from one publisher). So you see, this claim that I'm doing nothing but urging the working class to channel their funds into buying consumer products instead of underwriting the Revolution is just ludicrous.

Now, as always, Andy Ihnatko is the Friend of the Small Developer. And some great games are coming out as shareware. Z Sculpt's Retro ($19; www.zsculpt.com ) seems to have shoved most of the commercial multilevel games off my PowerBook lately. It's a rarely seen sort of game: the combination puzzle and shooter. There's a very nicely written little sci-fi back story of invading monsters and immediate peril to peace-loving humans everywhere, but fundamentally the concept is this: Via a God's-eye view of the world, you pilot a spaceship through increasingly complicated terrain laid with traps; opposing ships to shoot at; and areas where There's Just One Way to Get Through, which you'll discover only through cunning and lateral thinking.

Retro Spectacle: Forget the story -- Z Sculpt's Retro is a cool combination of puzzles and shooting.

It's sort of like Tomb Raider without the breasts.

Retro is the name but it ain't the modus operandi. All of the artwork is shaded in 3-D, and catchy but unobtrusive music and background game sprites pep things up.

Oh, dear Lord, that reminds me that I have to write about a straight puzzle game. Puzzles are swell and all, but how many different flavors of Tetris and Minesweeper can one man be expected to play in one lifetime? Have I sinned that greatly?

And yet I react to these things the same way everyone else does. As with crack cocaine or fresh-roasted pecans, you scoff but sample, and then you get hooked. Factor Software's MacPipes ($5; www.factor-software.com ) is the freshly updated version of a classic. You've got a supply of assorted pipe fittings and a supply of water that's about to come rushing in. You use the fittings as they become available, to lay the longest and most complicated continuous pipeline possible before someone twists the valve.

Play it long enough, and you'll see pipe fittings whenever you close your eyes; you'll know intuitively to put that left-elbow pipe in a spot where you can exploit a crossover joint later on. I actually feel myself becoming more mentally skillful with each passing hour of game play; movie studios should license software like this and ship it on every Adam Sandler DVD.

In the world of Mac games, Ambrosia Software is your Ed Harris or Gene Hackman: whatever it's doing is worth looking at. The fact that the company has spent so many years releasing so many games with hypercommercial production and game play makes me think that either the shareware market is far more lucrative than anyone has surmised or these developers' trust funds kicked in 'round 1987.

And Ares ($25; www.ambrosiasw.com ) just might be Ambrosia's best game, ever. Here's yet another chance to save Earth, but this time the game premise is actually interesting and enhances play. Humans discover an alien beacon emanating from space and dispatch a crew to explore its source. It turns out that the signal was sent from a friendly race as a warning that Earth is about to be conquered by its enemies; said race is puzzled that more of Earth's population wasn't evacuated. Through hardware and strategic advice from that race and others you meet along your way, you must battle your way home to rescue Earth.

Mars Attacks: Ambrosia's Ares lets you realize your plans for world domination-but on a solar-system-size scale.

You'll fight individual ships and fleets, and you'll attempt to conquer whole planets; you'll want to steer clear of some folks completely, and sometimes the best plan is the one you make up as you go along. Ares is impressive because it's a virtuoso performance that draws on all of the best impulses of war-and-empire strategy and fast-paced combat sim; you triumph through twitchy maneuvering and shooting, but only solid planning and tactics will actually win these sorties. It's a great game because it doesn't make the mistake of assuming that the player is as familiar or as enthralled with it all as the game developers. So there's a constant supply of advice (well-integrated into the story) and a couple of tutorial levels.

You'll need them. Like real warfare, the game's action is overwhelming. But even when you lose, you're driven to play Ares again.

Klink's Tanks Of Terror 1.1 ($15; www.klinksoftware.com ) can't offer Pokémon, Warner Brothers characters, or Mario and Luigi, but it brings all of the dopey, nothing-even- remotely -macho-about-this fun of console ultraviolent mini-go-cart racing to the Mac.

Tanks sticks to the mainstays of the genre. Animated and modeled in 3-D (thanks to OpenGL), the game lets you compete in stage after stage (the "after stage" part comes after you've forked over the 15 bucks) of racing around tracks as you accelerate past, shoot, and blow up your fellow drivers.

It's not perfect, but version 1.1 is a big improvement over 1.0. The whole appeal of go-cart-style games is the reduction of the driving challenge to simple steering and braking. Version 1.1 loosens the rules of physics enough that you're not always careening off the track and worrying that you've drunk too much Coke to be able to handle the steering.

Now, let's see: if you add it all up, it looks as though I've just advocated going out and downloading about 25MB of shareware, all published by small outfits. I've definitely put to rest any idea that I'm here only to support the Big Software Oligarchy.

As for supporting the makers of DSL switching and routing equipment -- look, you can't fill the gas tank of a 2001 Lexus with ethics, you know.

Somewhat beloved industry figure ANDY IHNATKO will get back to fighting The Man as soon as he gets past this next level. This is his final The Game Room column; watch for him on our back page next month, and look for a new face behind the controls in The Game Room .

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