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It's hard to believe that another year has come and gone since I took over stewardship of the great Macworld Game Hall of Fame in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It takes a lot of elbow grease to keep the brass and marble of this noble institution sparkling, but it's a labor of love -- especially when I see the rhapsodic pleasure evident on the faces of the Hall's countless visitors. And who can blame them? Whether you prefer whiling away your day with a game of solitaire or killing time with some Uzi-toting action, we have something for you here.
While we're always busy, the onset of winter signals a particularly exciting time for us: it's when we once again roll out the red carpet to honor the best games of the year. And what a year it was -- 2002 marked the true arrival of gaming in Mac OS X. Rather than merely converting OS 9 versions of their games, game developers spent the past year demonstrating their commitment to Apple's new operating system and taking advantage of what OS X has to offer -- they've improved performance; added unique features; and in some cases, created OS Xâ??only titles. This year's winners are also notable for the depth and breadth of game play they represent across the entire gaming spectrum.
Here's a look at this year's inductees.
Best Casual Game
Jinni Zeala Pinball
Although 2002 brought us an abundance of fantastic card and puzzle games, the top honor for casual games has to go to LittleWing's Jinni Zeala Pinball, published by MacPlay.
LittleWing has a long history of creating top-notch simulations of solid-state pinball games for the Mac -- and Jinni Zeala is one of its finest to date. Unlike developers of computer pinball games that incorporate incongruous video-game elements and physically improbable board configurations, LittleWing prefers a more true-to-life approach. Jinni Zeala's board can stand up to a discriminating pinball fan's architectural scrutiny, and it features baroque and delicate artwork worthy of a game museum such as ours.
The inspiration for Jinni Zeala comes from the Arabian Nights tales. The playfield is an exuberant mixture of pop psychedelia and flashing Las Vegas neon. The ball moves realistically over a complex board that's chock-full of targets, ramps, and holes you can use to activate multiball modes. Collect items in the correct order, and you'll activate one of five different bonus stages; complete them all, and you'll get a chance to score massive points in the Flying Harem bonus stage.
Racking up killer combos for huge points, massaging flippers and banging the table without causing the dreaded tilt.
Who It's For: Folks looking for an authentic pinball experience they can bring with them on their PowerBooks.
From: MacPlay, 214/855-5955, www.macplay.com; $20.
Best Strategy Game
As a strategy game that successfully combines real-time play with an emphasis on military might and economic fortitude, Stronghold is definitely worthy of praise. And in a category populated by formidable challengers, this MacSoft title fittingly stood like a fortress on a hill.
The developers behind Stronghold are the same creative team that helped give rise to Caesar III, an epic city-building game that I had to delete from my hard drive to avoid losing sleep. Ditto for Stronghold, which shares some traits with that elder game.
Stronghold puts you in charge of alternately building and fortifying medieval castles or seeing to their destruction. It sounds simple, but there's plenty here to keep you engrossed. Success in Stronghold depends directly on your ability to create and maintain effective supply chains by harvesting raw resources (such as grain), refining them (into flour, say), then turning them into finished goods (for example, bread). As your needs and the needs of your vassals become more complex, so do these supply chains.
Stronghold also features a collection of challenges, including economic scenarios that test your administrative capabilities, re-creations of historic battles, and a military campaign that tests your ability to fortify your castles against incoming assaults. You can even engage other Mac players online -- if you're lucky enough to find them. And if you grow tired of Stronghold's built-in world, you can create and play your own maps or maps that other players create.
The level of detail in the artwork, which shows bubbling brooks, wild animals, and peasants going about their business.
Who It's For: Strategy-game buffs who have always dreamed of building -- or laying siege to -- medieval fortresses.
From: MacSoft, 800/229-2714, www.wizworks.com/macsoft; $40.
Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos
Too often, game developers try to cash in on the success of earlier games by simply tacking a few new features and a modified story line onto an existing game engine and calling it a sequel. It's rare that a developer is able to revisit an old favorite and turn it into something entirely new without diminishing it's original appeal. But with Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos, Blizzard Entertainment has managed to accomplish this and more -- providing an excellent model for other game makers hoping to evolve their popular franchises to keep up with changing times.
In this latest installment, the game series that helped define the term real-time strategy game shifts its focus to more personal interaction. No longer are you fielding armies of Orc grunts against human warriors; in Warcraft III, you lead the charge as a hero who commands smaller, specialized units that must carry out more-complex tasks, such as establishing beachheads for invasions and rescuing towns from onslaughts of foes.
The game features terrific multiplayer action over LANs or via Battle.net, Blizzard's free Internet gaming service. But if you don't have a decent connection or don't feel like playing against other humans, you'll find tremendous challenge in facing off against the game's built-in opponents.
But the thing that truly sends me into the stratosphere about Warcraft III is its world editor. More than just a level editor, the world editor lets you create your own environments, using the Warcraft III engine as a starting-off point. It's flexible enough that you can use your own art and sound effects, and it allows you to script complex interactions with objects and computer-controlled characters. You have to be in OS X to use the editor -- as it doesn't run at all in OS 9.
Blizzard Entertainment also deserves credit for getting Warcraft III out to Mac gamers at the same time as their PC counterparts. This is the first time it has been able to do that with a major release (although last year's Diablo II expansion pack, Lord of Destruction, was also a hybrid release).
New foes -- such as Night Elves and the Undead -- as well as compelling 3-D graphics that help pull you completely into the world.
Who It's For: People who don't just want to play in a challenging fantasy world but also want to build one themselves.
From: Blizzard Entertainment, 800/953-7669, www.blizzard.com; $50.
Best Kids' Game
Moop & Dreadly in The Treasure on Bing Bong Island
As the father of three kids, I'm constantly disappointed by the dearth of truly original kids' games out there. That's why I was thrilled when Hulabee Entertainment introduced its imaginative and entertaining adventure game, Moop & Dreadly in The Treasure on Bing Bong Island.
Moop is a lovable purple creature (who resembles some sort of ape-and-cat hybrid) and constant companion to Dreadly, a rambunctious and imaginative youngster who has a special knack for getting himself -- and Moop -- into trouble. In this game, players help Moop and Dreadly go on a high-seas adventure. The duo must help the denizens of Bing Bong Island find their missing treasure while thwarting attacks by nefarious pirates and saving damsels in distress. Along the way, they solve puzzles, unlock traps, and accomplish other feats of derring-do.
Moop & Dreadly has endearing animation and high-quality voice talent that will immediately appeal to fans of competitor Humongous Software's Junior Adventure series -- which produced popular titles such as Putt Putt and Pajama Sam. Like those games, Moop & Dreadly proceeds in a linear fashion, so it won't be too frustrating for young players. Each screen also sports loads of clickables -- hot spots that yield comical animations or sound effects when clicked on.
This is also one of the relatively few kids' games that run only on OS X to come out this year.
Each chapter of the adventure is introduced like the adventure serials of the Golden Age of Cinema.
Who It's For: Kids aged five to eight (and kids at heart).
From: Plaid Banana Entertainment, 800/289-7949, www.plaidbanana games.com; $20.
Best Old-School Arcade Game
Wingnuts: Temporal Navigator
As a child of the eighties, I spent more than my share of lunch money and allowance at the local arcade. One of my favorite time-wasters was a Taito game called Time Pilot, which is unquestionably one of the biggest inspirations for Freeverse's excellent game, Wingnuts: Temporal Navigator -- the only five-mouser in this list.
In Wingnuts, you're the pilot of a time-traveling aircraft, and you must down squadrons of robot-controlled aircraft programmed by the insane Baron von Schtopwatch, a wisecracking bad guy with a penchant for horrid puns. You'll start by chasing slow-moving and delicate balsa-and-canvas biplanes. You'll then move forward through 30 levels of play -- from World War I to the Jet Age to the modern age and beyond -- as you fight against the forces of evil.
It's a simple premise, but it's fun and extraordinarily well executed. Wingnuts is encouraging proof that old classics can be updated for modern tastes and actually gain something in the process. OpenGL graphics technology is used beautifully in this game with intricately detailed animations. At higher levels, you'll be astounded by the sheer mass of aircraft flying around the screen at once. The sound effects are great, too -- including the roar of individual engines, weapons, and falling shrapnel.
Attention to detail, such as shot-off airplane parts spinning and splashing into the ocean far below.
Who It's For: Anyone with a Michael Jackson glove or a toreador jacket hidden in a closet.
From: Freeverse Software, 212/929-3549, www.freeverse.com; $25.
Best First-Person Shooter
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault
The opening sequence of the movie Saving Private Ryan, set in Normandy, France, on D day, illustrated the true horror of war and offered a glimpse of just how brave the men who stormed those beaches were in the face of seemingly impossible odds. Medal of Honor: Allied Assault lets you experience a taste of that very battle -- from your computer. It also lets you participate in many other missions drawn straight from what really happened in World War II.
Medal of Honor puts you in the role of Lt. Mike Powell, from the famed 1st Ranger Battalion. You're recruited to go on more than a dozen missions that will take you into Nazi-controlled territory throughout the European theater.
In a year populated by a lot of great first-person shooting games, Medal of Honor stands apart. Thanks to its Quake III Arena graphics engine, Medal of Honor looks fantastic, with careful attention paid to character animation. The game's artificial intelligence, which determines how computer-controlled characters act and react to what you're doing, is on the whole better than that of many 3-Dâ??action games. The addition of realistic era weaponry (and the absence of giant zombie cyborgs or shambling corpses, Ã la Return to Castle Wolfenstein) makes it a challenging treat for hardened game fanatics.
Nazis make for easy (and guilt-free) targets in this game's single-player missions. However, you can also hunt less-sinister targets by taking advantage of the game's great multiplayer capabilities. Medal of Honor's popularity on the Windows platform (and cross-platform compatibility) makes it easy to find other players online.
Medal of Honor: Allied Assault is a sterling example of a game that's greater than the sum of its parts -- a rare treat in this day of plentiful first-person shooter choices.
Nazi characters who actually speak German, not "movie German."
Who It's For: Anyone who's ever wanted to be Sgt. Rock.
From: Aspyr Media, 888/212-7797, www.aspyr.com; $50.
Best Retro Game with a Twist
Instead of merely updating old arcade games for modern audiences, some game developers throw in a case of Jolt cola and an electric shock, and mutate aging games into something completely new. Such is the case with Ambrosia Software's pop-pop. This crazy, psychedelic action game takes one of the original arcade game concepts -- the brick-bashing Breakout -- and mixes it with the fearsome combat of a martial-arts fighting game. The result is unmistakably challenging, addictive, hypnotic, and loads of fun.
Created by Andrew Campbell of Battle-Girl fame, pop-pop has an enormously appealing visual style that's a bit Hello Kitty and a bit Powerpuff Girls, with a few triple-shot espressos added for good measure. To play, you control a pop -- an animated character with a special power -- and compete against a computer- or human-controlled opponent, smashing walls of bricks and collecting power-ups (energy boosters). You use power-ups to befuddle opponents, either by sending bricks their way or by tormenting them with whatever superpower your pop has managed to charge. My favorite, Ducky, sends out flotillas of rubber ducks to create catastrophic rebounding of balls and bricks. To win, you must clear your area of bricks before the other player does. The electronic soundtrack will delight your ears, and a background reminiscent of swimming in a reflective pond will mesmerize your eyes.
With its bright colors, lots of action, and great sound effects, pop-pop is the whole ball of wax. It'll make you wiggle your tushie like you're meshuga. The best part is, you can download it to try before you buy it.
Holding down the mouse button to keep the ball anchored to your paddle, for more precise control and release.
Who It's For: Gamers looking for a novel approach to a tried-and-true gaming idea.
From: Ambrosia Software, 800/231-1816, www.ambrosiasw.com; $25.
Best Games Rescued from Oblivion
Fallout and Fallout 2
Thanks to its new owners, United Developers, MacPlay is once again at the forefront of Mac game publishing. While the company has mainly focused on bringing new titles to the Mac, it recently took the opportunity to revisit one of its most beloved titles. This past summer, MacPlay offered both Fallout -- a postapocalyptic role-playing game originally released in 1997 -- and its sequel, Fallout 2, for OS X. This should delight old-school Mac gamers who long ago gave up hope of ever returning Fallout to their collections.
In both Fallout and its sequel, you don your leather and hockey pads, in best Mad Max style, and roam the land seeking parts and supplies to help equip a ragtag bunch of fellow Armageddon survivors. Both games are rendered from an isometric perspective, just like more recent fare such as Baldur's Gate II or Icewind Dale (two other MacPlay offerings).
Despite their age, both programs make for compelling play. In some respects, Fallout and Fallout 2 are just as fresh and unusual as they were when they were first introduced (in fact, this is Fallout 2's premiere on the Mac). Of course, the genre has evolved since the games debuted, and some gamers may be put off by the rather plodding turn-based action, as well as by the limited graphics and interface.
Here's to hoping MacPlay can dig a few more hidden gems out of its catalog and update them for OS X.
An odd 1950s bit of "duck and cover" set in an alternate universe.
Who It's For: People who watch The Road Warrior and wish they were there.
From: MacPlay, 214/855-5955, www.macplay.com; Fallout, $20; Fallout 2, $30.
Best Third-Person Shooter
The mean streets of New York. A rogue cop on the run for a crime he didn't commit. An underworld crime cartel he must stop at any cost. The worst blizzard anyone has ever seen. Nope, we're not talking about a very special episode of NYPD Blue. It's Max Payne.
Third-person shooters have long been a popular alternative to the first-person shooter. In these games, you track what's going on from a camera view set behind and above the main character, rather than through his eyes directly. But as a result, third-person shooters have suffered from a complete lack of precision when it comes to aiming and controlling weapons, especially ranging weapons such as rifles and guns. Targets are usually smaller and more distant, and the over-the-shoulder perspective can sometimes distort your perception of where things are.
The developers of Max Payne came up with an interesting solution: Bullet Time, a slow-motion trick that's straight from the movie The Matrix. Bullet Time lets you line up and squeeze off your shots in real-time while all the action (and, indeed, your own reflexes) continue at a slower rate. The bottom line is that it works, and it's one major reason why Max Payne is worthy of recognition in this year's Game Hall of Fame.
Bullet Time factors into your game play the same way health points and ammunition do -- it's a limited resource you can replenish from time to time, but it must be used sparingly. That's good, because otherwise Max Payne would get old fast. There's no multiplayer mode in this game, so once you've played through the missions, you're more or less done.
Max Payne's developer took a lot of chances with this game, from the graphic- novelâ??influenced panels of interstitial artwork to the melodramatic voice-overs that fill up the film noirâ??style sequences with cheesy abandon. But all together, the game is really fun to play, and I'm certain we'll see Bullet Time put to good use in other games soon.
Pausing in the middle of a jump makes the camera rotate around you in a Matrix freeze-frame style.
Who It's For: Anyone looking for an entertaining (albeit blood-soaked) noir yarn.
From: MacSoft, 800/229-2714, www.wizworks.com/macsoft; $50.
Best Adult Game in Kids' Clothing
The big-eyed robot and colorful, cartoony backgrounds may make you think that Pangea Software's Otto Matic is just for kids, but after a few minutes of getting beaten over the head by a giant robot-eating onion or chased by a shambling slime-blob, you'll realize you were sorely mistaken.
Otto Matic is a noble robot on an important mission to save humanity from the clutches of the Giant Brain from Planet X and his fleshy-headed minions. All that stands between them and total galactic domination is Otto Matic, who travels to Earth and various alien worlds rescuing human hostages, collecting power-ups, avoiding pitfalls, and beating back vicious flora and fauna that would just as soon reduce him to spare parts.
With flying saucers, killer tomatoes, a theremin-influenced soundtrack, and Flash Gordonâ??style ray pistols, Otto Matic revels in the trappings of vintage B-movie science-fiction classics. In fact, the self-effacing sense of humor and whimsy is unquestionably a hallmark of all of Pangea's finest games.
If Otto Matic has passed you by because you didn't purchase a new consumer Mac last year (it shipped on iMacs, eMacs, and iBooks), fear not -- it's still boxed and on store shelves, thanks to Aspyr Media.
Using Otto's jump jets to hop over water and bash through barriers.
Who It's For: People who watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 and think, "Hey, that movie wasn't so bad."
From: Aspyr Media, 888/212-7797, www.aspyr.com; $35.