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The game industry moves fast. The shelf life of many computer games is now measured in weeks--heck, some console games get discounted faster than dented cans of tomatoes. But low prices can be deceiving, because they don't necessarily indicate low value. If you look in the right places, you'll find some terrific games out there that cost next to nothing--and some that come absolutely free.

All three of the hard-to-find gaming treasures I'm about to share with you have a few things in common. They're inexpensive or free; they don't demand ridiculous amounts of memory or processor performance to operate effectively; and they're safe for the whole family--you won't find excessive violence, sex, or foul language here.

I Remember MCP When It Was a Chess Program

As a youth, I whiled away many an hour in my local video-game arcade, listening to Duran Duran cassettes on my Walkman. Back in the 1980s, Disney released Tron --a movie that gave me (and countless other young nerds) a totally different idea of what one could do with computers . The film mixed computer animation with live action footage to tell the story of a programmer unwittingly placed inside the world of a computer. Although it wasn't the greatest story ever told, the graphics--painstakingly rendered on a Cray supercomputer--were absolutely stunning.

Thanks to the advances in graphics and processing power over the intervening two decades, any PC or Mac can now render graphics of even better quality than the Cray could 20 years ago. That's opened the door for programmers such as Andreas Umbach, who introduced GLtron (an open-source game that uses OpenGL graphics). And thanks to Mac programmer Darrell Walisser, GLtron has come to the Macintosh. Walisser provides regular updates, too.

In GLtron, you and your computer opponents pilot lightcycles across a vast, flat, gridlike arena. As you ride, light barriers stream behind you. Make contact with a barrier--yours or your opponents'--and it will blast you to smithereens. Essentially, the game is a 3-D version of Snake, in which your goal is to trap your opponents and avoid their traps. GLtron gets a bit repetitive after a while, but it's a great deal of fun--perfect for a quick pickup game, and you can't beat it for the price (free).

Even though GLtron has sophisticated animation, it can run at high frame rates, even on slower systems. This should appeal to users of older iMacs and other systems with only modest 3-D-graphics acceleration. A separate team is working on a Mac OS X version of GLtron, so if you've updated your system software, you're in luck.

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Another gem I love is Bushfire. It comes from two brothers, Aaron and Adam Fothergill, who have started a game-publishing and -developing firm called Strange Flavour. Bushfire is straight-up, old-school, side-scrolling fun.

You pilot a helicopter, and your goal is to put out fires in the last forest populated by the rare, endangered goose spruce tree. You control the blaze by commanding parachuters to jump out of your helicopter and by dropping water from tanks on its underside. You have the ability to pick up your jumpers and transport them elsewhere, and you can refill your tanks by landing in forest streams.

The challenges become progressively more difficult with each level. Eventually you must dodge airborne hazards such as flying lava rocks and panicked fowl, try to trap mad arsonists, and rescue civilians whose aircraft have crashed in the woods. One cool feature is an Extras folder full of Easter eggs and other goodies. The more you play, the more you're rewarded.

If you're familiar with classics such as Choplifter or Armor Alley, you'll understand what the brothers Fothergill are attempting here; but the goal in Bushfire is the opposite--you aim to preserve, not to destroy. Bushfire is an extraordinary bargain at $3, given the hours you can spend playing it. It's perfect for a PowerBook and your idle commuting time on the train. Best of all, Bushfire is Carbonized, so it should run on Mac OS X without a hitch, despite previous compatibility problems in the course of development. The most current version as of this writing--1.10--works solidly in both Mac OS 9.1 and Mac OS X.

C'est Fromage

For a game with a completely cheesy plot that's lots of fun, try out Captain Bumper. This comic action title comes from MacRun Games, a new Mac game developer based in France.

Captain Bumper strongly evokes the game style made popular by the 16-bit video-game consoles (such as Super NES and Sega Genesis) ubiquitous in early-nineties households, but the game's design is all modern Mac. You take control of a square-jawed hero piloting a spaceship on a mission to save a damsel in distress (of course). With his bomber jacket, aviator glasses, and jack-o'-lantern smile, Captain Bumper makes his way through space, into labyrinthine caverns, and across inhospitable terrain, all the while fending off the attacks of vicious green alien critters bent on destroying him. You can collect power-ups, recharge your fuel and weapons supply, and boost your shields as you make your way toward the princess.

Captain Bumper is ideal for families in search of addictive fun. The game has cartoonish graphics and rich, colorful backgrounds with great detail. The core engine, developed by Richard Soberka, runs silky-smooth, just like a console title. The music is by Jens Nilsson, who also produced the music for Pangea's Nanosaur.

Captain Bumper's licensing works a bit differently from that of the other games mentioned here: MacRun takes advantage of distribution on the Internet even though it's a commercial game. You can download a two-level demo version from the company's Web site, and if you decide you like it, you pay the $25 licensing fee. In return, you receive a serial number and access to the complete version.

If I have any complaint about Captain Bumper, it's that the game is too short. I'd love to see a level editor, or more add-ons that would continue the fun. Then again, that's what sequels were invented for. In this initial version, Mac OS X compatibility is limited to the Classic environment.

Cheap, Wholesome Entertainment

For me, the three words above pretty much summarize these three games. One is free, another is next to free, and the third is less expensive than many games out there--that means GLtron, Bushfire, and Captain Bumper will eat up less of your money and more of your leisure time. And the best part is, you can download all three and try them right now.

Tron-Inspired: In GLtron, you have to outmaneuver your opponents to avoid being boxed in.Say Cheese: In Captain Bumper, you get the best of old and new--early-nineties-style arcade action and modern Mac design--and a plot the whole family can enjoy.
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