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The Game Room

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At a Glance
  • GameRanger Technologies GameRanger

  • Cornerstone TSP Games Pocket Tanks Deluxe

  • Freeverse Software Payback

  • The MAME Project MacMAME

  • Garage Games Marble Blast

Sometimes when I play a game, I want a challenge -- a game that takes time to master, that kills me off repeatedly before I finally build up the skills required to take my rightful place as a champion player.

But the fact is, lots of times I'm happy just to while away a few minutes with a fast, easy-to-play game that's simply fun. Fortunately, there are plenty of those games to choose from -- and this month's Game Room has a bunch of them.

Behind the Eight Ball

Garage Games' first Mac game is called Marble Blast, and its basic mechanics could not be any simpler: you have to roll a marble through a maze. It's the maze itself, and the pitfalls and power-ups it contains, that adds the challenge and excitement.

Rendered in a 3-D, third-person perspective, Marble Blast puts you behind the ball as it rolls. If you've ever wondered what it would be like to be the pinball in a pinball machine -- or if you've played Super Monkey Ball on a Nintendo GameCube -- you'll get the basic idea. Each level features a start point, an end point, and a timer.

Negotiating levels is a matter of moving your ball -- sometimes depending on brute force, other times using tricky matters of momentum -- to get to the end point. You have to maneuver carefully across obstacle courses and around sharp corners, steep inclines, and pitfalls. Moving platforms, pounding pistons, spinning fans, and other hazards will get in your way. If you find yourself in a sticky predicament, a new perspective may help; Marble Blast lets you reconfigure your camera settings so you can get a better idea of what's around you.

The power-ups you find along the way also help you through some levels: SuperSpeed makes your marble zoom quickly, SuperBounce makes the ball bounce, Gyrocopter temporarily adds a propeller to your marble so it can traverse otherwise inaccessible areas by air, and there are plenty of others.

The Bottom Line Let's hope that Marble Blast is the first of many Mac games from Garage Games. It's a refreshing bit of arcade fun suitable for kids and grownups alike.

Auntie MAME

I've mentioned MacMAME in this column numerous times, and with good reason: this clever piece of software emulates thousands of the coin-operated arcade games from the good old days when Michael Jackson still had most of his original nose.

MacMAME is the Mac version of a cross-platform, open-source collaboration called Multiple Arcade Machine Emulator. The project's roots date back to the mid-1990s, when MAME creator Nicola Salmoria thought it would be interesting to figure out how old coin-op arcade games worked. More and more of these machines are destroyed, scrapped, and recycled every year, and they represent an important chapter in the history of computerized entertainment, so he started MAME for posterity's sake.

MacMAME emulates the technology underlying arcade games, thereby enabling you to play them, but it doesn't include the games themselves. Those old games work when you install read-only memory (ROM) image files based on the chips in the original games. Some test ROM image files can be downloaded from the MacMAME Web site and other locations. But the fact is, the original game ROMs are all copyrighted by their developers (or whatever company has bought the rights in the intervening years). So while it's perfectly legal to download and use MacMAME, it can't be distributed with the copyrighted ROM images. And you're not really supposed to use those images unless you own the actual chips (for example, if you bought a classic video game or its parts on eBay, from a dealer, or from a junkyard). That doesn't stop some underground Web sites and file servers from offering ROMs for download, but using them is piracy.

If you're willing to pay the price to keep your nose clean, the reward is terrific. MAME is an invaluable tool for keeping these elderly arcade games alive and, what's more, understanding how they work. MacMAME has been improved extensively over the years, and it's a solid Mac application with native support for Mac OS X, support for game controllers, a plug-in architecture developed to handle different graphics-rendering methods, and much more.

MacMAME is supremely easy to use, well documented, and improving with each release. And when you look at those classic games, you recognize just how sublimely simple their game play and design were. MAME stands as a vital lesson to today's game programmers about what makes a game fun to play.

The Bottom Line If you're an arcade-game maven, MacMAME should be the centerpiece of your collection -- along with a drawer full of ROM chips, of course.

Public Enemy Number One

Freeverse Software's Payback is clearly inspired by the infamous Grand Theft Auto series for Sony PlayStation. In Payback, you're a criminal on a spree -- and you have to rack up points to stay in the game while avoiding incarceration or death. You gather those points by committing crimes. Carjack a taxicab, and you'll gather points. Shoot someone dead in the street, and get some more. Big points come when you participate in elaborate crimes handed down to you from bosses who call you on public telephones. The more crimes you commit, the more likely it is that the police will catch you, so you always have to stay one step ahead.

The game also offers a multiplayer mode that lets four users gather around the same computer -- with multiple game controllers, of course -- for a quick round of fun.

I won't moralize about Payback's subject matter or its soundtrack's profanity-riddled gangster-rap lyrics. It's safe to say that this game is not for kids or for the squeamish. But Payback's graphics look cheap and amateurish. What's more, some of the game's levels are downright bad, due to poor level design.

The Bottom Line Some things are better left in the past. Grand Theft Auto was innovative in its day, but that was years ago. Even $30 is too much to ask for this sort of game.

Tanks for the Memories

If the words Scorched Earth bring back memories of a classic artillery video game, you'll be happy to know that there's now a modern equivalent for OS X. And if you haven't been exposed to this addictive, easy-to-learn game genre, you'll find that Cornerstone TSP Games' Pocket Tanks can provide a surprising amount of fun.

Pocket Tanks is a 2-D strategy game. You operate a tank positioned on one side of a battlefield, and it's your job to lob shells at the opponent -- controlled by either a computer or a human -- stationed on the other side. Each side takes turns moving and firing, and you have to determine the appropriate velocity and angle to strike your opponent dead-on.

To that end, your tank is equipped with a variety of wild and wacky weapons. As each round starts, you and your opponent get to choose from an arsenal of unique munitions -- everything from conventional single or multishot warheads to weapons that harness the very power of nature, burying your foe under piles of dirt or raining down meteor strikes from outer space.

The secret to Pocket Tanks lies in its stark simplicity -- the graphics are spartan, and the controls are easy enough to figure out after a minute or two of play. What's missing is Internet multiplayer capability -- the two-player mode requires that another person be in the room with you, in front of the same computer. I'd love to see some sort of level system or other method for managing a progressive level of difficulty, and the game's preferences should definitely include basic settings such as a player's name. But what's here is pure gold.

The Bottom Line While there's room for some improvement, Pocket Tanks is just a phenomenally fun little game to play -- and the Deluxe version is well worth the modest fee.

Shall We Play or Talk?

GameRanger is a Mac-only online chat service that offers gaming capabilities. Players can log on, exchange messages privately or publicly, and then join or host online games as the mood arises. It's an easy, user-friendly way to find and play Mac games online -- and it's free.

As the longest-running Mac-only online game service, GameRanger has more than 100,000 registered users and works with more than 100 games.

GameRanger features a series of publicly accessible chat rooms that have no particular order or organization. In the more popular locations, chat often turns into vitriolic exchanges stimulated by political and social issues. Fortunately, you can limit displays of profanity via an option in GameRanger's Preferences.

Wandering into a heated argument is hardly the best way for a new user to first encounter GameRanger or online gaming in general -- and it's definitely not a family-friendly introduction. Genre-based organization of chat rooms and more-rigid policing of chats by administrators could resolve this difficulty.

Although GameRanger is free, a new Premium Membership tier gives users access to exclusive features for $50 a year. Most of the premium features are superficial -- appearance changes, better personalization, prioritization in user lists -- but there are a few meaty new options. As a Premium Member, you can create your own chat rooms. You can also set "I'm away" autoreplies and see time stamps on messages from your friends.

The price tag of GameRanger Premium Membership gives me some pause, what with the makeup of the new features. But GameRanger's developer still deserves the backing of the people who use the service, and buying a Premium Membership is an important way to demonstrate that support.

The Bottom Line GameRanger is an indispensable resource for Mac gamers looking to play with others online, even if public chat can get unruly. GameRanger's premium service is a bit overpriced, but it's one way for regular users to support this invaluable part of the online Mac gaming experience.

At a Glance
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