Virtual Families

MarcusVirtual Families is the latest addition to the impressive lineup of simulation games from Last Day of Work, makers of the Virtual Villagers series. Virtual Families takes the basic concepts of Virtual Villagers and brings them home ’ literally. No longer are you concerned with a village of people trying to survive the ravages of the wild. Now it's just a single family in a single house. While the concept may seem over-simplified when compared to Virtual Villagers, you'll find that it's less about simplifying the game and more about concentrating on the details.

Virtual FamiliesYou begin by adopting your first virtual person. This is a very important choice to make early on, as the attributes that you settle on will affect how the rest of the game plays out. You can go through any number of different people to adopt. Each has their own physical appearance, profession, salary, likes and dislikes, and opinion on whether or not they want children. This last attribute is of particular importance. Couples who do not both want children can still have children, but you will have to work extra hard to keep them happy. Depending on how you want your virtual family to run, choose wisely.

Once adopted, your person moves into their house. You start immediately showing your person where and how to do certain things. Depending on their profession, show them their work area, be it the computer room, the shop outside, or the kitchen. Place them on the various pieces of litter scattered about the house and show them how to keep the place tidy. If you have played any of the Virtual Villagers games, you'll already understand the mechanics at work here. As your person learns behaviors, you can use one of two paddles to either praise them for an appropriate behavior, or to punish them for an inappropriate behavior.

As the game plays on, you will receive marriage requests from various suitors. Each have their own attributes, professions, and likes and dislikes, and views on children. The important thing here is to find one that is the best match for you little person, although the temptation to go after the one with the big, fat bank account and well-paying career will be hard to resist.

Virtual FamiliesWhether you choose to remain single or to take that marriage proposal, the next thing to think about is growing your family. As a single parent, you will be given the opportunity down the road to adopt a child. As a married couple, you can try to make a baby at any point in the game. Keep in mind that there are factors involved in this process, such as how long it has been since the last pregnancy, the mood of either of the parents, etc. It's not 100% guaranteed to produce offspring, but it usually does. Once a child is born, the mother will have control for the first few months. After that point, the child will be another member of the family, which will require the same behavioral shaping as the parents once did.

There are a number of other things that can and need to be done around the house during the course of the game. You'll notice almost immediately that the floor is in disrepair in sections of the house. There are a number of other problems, as well, such as the leaky watering hose outside, or the garden shed without a door handle. Many of these problems will require the purchase of tools and other items to complete which of course will require funds, so your career of choice is very important.

You can also use money to buy upgrades to your house. You can get things like new bathroom fixtures, a new flat-screen television for the living room, or a peaceful, tranquil aquarium to spend some time with. You will also eventually be able to buy upgrades to you work centers. All of these will affect different aspects of you family, be it happiness, career, or salary.

Just like Virtual Villagers, Virtual Families continues to run even when the game isn't open. It is an important aspect of gameplay, since your family will continue to evolve, even when you are not around. As long as they have food your family can survive a couple of days without interaction, but if you are not going to be able to play for a couple of weeks, you may want to go in and pause the game before quitting. You don't want to come back to a house full of skeletons, do you?

Children that you have will grow to about 18 years, and then go off to college. When it is time for the current generation to move on, you will be given the option to give the house and all of its assets to one of your kids. At that point, they will move in and the game cycle will start again. Going to the Family Screen will allow you to keep track of multiple generations of people that have lived in the house. How many generations can you create?

Analysis: At first glance, Virtual Families seems like little more than a stripped-down version of The Sims. The limited affect that you have on the environment of the home and the house itself is quite evident. You don't have the option of creating a different living space for your families; you can't even move the furniture to a different part of the room. With the exception of upgrades, there is little you can do the physical house. This allows you the time to focus on the interactions with your little people.

The level of interaction with the virtual people in the game is totally up to you. Unlike The Sims, you do not have to watch your person's every move. Your virtual people will do things like get up in the morning, go to work, and eat without extensive prodding from you, as long as they have the supplies and materials required to complete a task.

I've never been a huge fan of the character designs for the Virtual Village series, and the characters in Virtual Families are almost identical. Something about the way the head gets positioned on the body at times, depending on what the person is focusing on as opposed to where they are walking, or what they are working on, just seems unnatural.

Virtual Families is a natural progression of the Virtual Villagers series, and the results are quite good. While Last Day of Work has already announced a fourth Virtual Villagers game set for release later this year, I hope a sequel to Virtual Families isn't out of the question!

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Defender of the Crown

MarcusAllow me to set the Wayback Machine for the year 1986. A new developer, Cinemaware, has decided to bring to the market a game with some of the most beautiful, detailed graphics ever seen. The platform of choice? The venerable Commodore Amiga. The game in question was Defender of the Crown, a strategy title set in the contentious medieval times of England. Unfortunately, the original game was released with many features either incomplete or missing entirely. Later ports would bring many features back into the fold, but none of them surpassed the graphic beauty of the original.

Defender of the CrownFast forward twenty-some years, and Cinemaware, now under a new banner, has released a newly revamped version of the classic game, aptly titled Defender of the Crown: Heroes Live Forever. The graphics may not be as (comparatively) ground-breaking as the original, but the heart of the game remains true.

After the assassination of King Richard, a civil war arises, with Saxon and Norman lords struggling for control of the kingdom. You play as one of four Saxon lords. Each lord has strengths and weaknesses in leadership, fighting, etc. Much of the difficulty level in any game sets as much with your lord selection as your own strategic skills. Your goal is to defeat the Normans, either ally or defeat the remaining Saxon lords, and take your place on the throne of England. The core of the game takes place on a map of England, with various political territories marked out. You begin in control of a single territory, and move your army to capture adjacent territories. As you capture land, your gold value increases, allowing you to buy a larger army or to build fortresses to strengthen the hold on your territories.

When you come up against an occupied territory, you switch to a view of the field of battle, your army on the left, the opponent's on the right. At the beginning of each round, you are given the opportunity to activate a hero card. These cards are collected as you conquer territories, and offer such bonuses as reducing enemy archer effectiveness by 50%, or increasing your knight's effectiveness by 50%. Once you make your card decision, the round begins. Using simple yet effective animation, the battle plays out. If you find yourself outmatched, you can always attempt to retreat. This will often leave you with further casualties, and in some cases will be blocked entirely by your opponent, forcing you to fight to the bitter end.

There are other aspects of the gameplay that take place in the form of minigames. You can raid enemy castles for loot, or, in some cases, to rescue a fair maiden. This is accomplished in a series of one-on-one sword fights with various guards of the castle keep. Instead of the arcade thrusts and parries of the original, you are presented with a series of moves that the enemy will used during the round: attack, special attack, and defend. Some of these moves will be replaced with question marks. Your goal is to best match your attacks and defense against your opponent and hope that the outcome is in your favor. Once you defeat all of the guards of the keep, the treasure, whatever that may be, is yours for the taking.

You can also call or be invited to tournaments. These are either archery or jousting matches, and they can be played for honor or for land. Obviously, playing for honor is the easiest way to get experience with these games, for if you fall on your backside, all that will be hurt is your pride. Playing for land is just as it sounds: you put up a territory against one from your opponent, winner takes all.

Defender of the CrownThe last of the minigames happens when you siege a castle. You start by lobbing boulders at the castle walls, attempting to crumble them. Once you have punched a hole in the castle defenses, you can lob Greek Fire and disease into the castle in the hopes of defeating some of the army that awaits. The more damage you do, the easier it will be to defeat the remaining soldiers and take over the keep.

Analysis: Defender of the Crown: Heroes Live Forever is an excellent successor to the original game. It keeps intact many of the important things from the original game, including the minigames, much of the strategy of the main game, and the beautiful graphics, while giving the game an update that helps to bring it into the modern realm of casual gaming.

The computer AI is something that some players will find a benefit while others will find frustrating. There are five other lords battling against each other for control of the realm. This means that it is possible to go an entire game with little or no interaction with your opponents, save what has been initiated by you. Watching the lords battle amongst themselves can be entertaining, but it can also make you feel more like an observer than an actual participant in the game.

The minigames help to break the monotony of the strategic game. Feeling a bit anxious? Raid a castle for some much needed gold. Feeling competitive? Call a tournament and take your opponents honor or, if your feeling particularly skilled, his land. This is one aspect of the game that I'm glad survived the transition. Not only are the minigames fun, but they also show off some of the best graphics of the game. Moving through the dark depths of the castle keep during a raid is particularly spectacular.

While not as strategically complex as modern games such as Age of Empires or Empire: Total War, Defender of the Crown set the bar for strategy games of the time, and this latest incarnation makes for a perfect introduction to these types of games in a casual setting. For what dost thou await? Get thee out and download this gem! As you command, my liege.

Download the demo
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Mac OS XMac OS X:
Not available.
Try Boot Camp or Parallels or CrossOver Games.

Defender of the Crown is available to download from these affiliates:
Arcade TownBig Fish GamesCasual Gameplay

Cate West - The Velvet Keys

JohnBA new hidden object mystery game has appeared: Cate West - The Velvet Keys! Following the style, story and gameplay conventions set by Cate West - The Vanishing Files, The Velvet Keys casts you in the role of the young scarlet scarf-wearing author/psychic as she digs through occult legends in search of a way to contact departed souls. It's a great-looking game with surprising variety and an enticing plot that gushes out as the game progresses.

catewestvelvet.jpgCate West has the unique ability to see places, people and things associated with items simply by touching them. Naturally, this is quite useful in murder investigations, and that's exactly where Ms. West finds herself in this game. The Velvet Keys begins in an asylum where you look into the disappearance of a former patient, a man you might recognize from The Vanishing Files. Cate uses her ability to search for clues by going through the patient's cell and gathering certain items, hidden object-style. She soon discovers this case may be more complicated than anyone thinks, and after a mysterious man visits her in the middle of the night, things start to get really serious.

Cate West - The Velvet Keys packs a fair amount of gameplay diversity into its unassuming package. Not only are there hidden object scenes, but you'll also have to put items back in their proper places, engage in "spot the difference"-style games, find a handful of one item (locating 15 stars in one scene, for example), and complete a few simple mini-games. You're never stuck in one mode for too long, which keeps the game's pace moving at a steady clip.

At the start of the game you can choose between normal and relaxed mode, the former featuring an in-game clock while the latter is without. In most scenes you have unlimited use of the hint button, and it recharges in just a few seconds, which is nice. Be warned, however, that with each use you decrease your points bonus at the end of the stage. Sometimes one more glance at the scene can be well worth the time.

catewestvelvet2.jpgAnalysis: The Velvet Keys had me from the first scene in the asylum. While there were fewer crazy characters and wild conspiracy theories than I would have liked, the story spun by Cate West still captured me from chapter to chapter. It has an intriguing murder mystery/police drama/Da Vinci Code vibe, paired with Cate's psychic powers which makes the whole set-up possible.

The plot will have fans of The Da Vinci Code a little excited, as Gamenauts has woven quite a bit of arcane legend into this tale. Sometimes what the story asks you to believe is a bit far-fetched (one of the characters actually points this out, which made me feel a bit better), but it's all fair in the spirit of the game. I couldn't help but notice the dialogue was more expository in nature, with characters popping in and spouting things like "Ok. I just opened the cabinet.". It's a fair substitute for expensive cutscenes, but the game leans on them just a little too heavily.

Even though Cate West is a story-driven game, there are a number of points-related features present, including a penalty for frequent mis-clicks, chain bonuses, hint bonuses and more. Normally I couldn't care less about accumulating, but the ending you get is based on your score ’ a mechanic I could do without, although some gamers will appreciate the challenge. I don't think a story should revolve around something as non-story-related as your score.

Just like its predecessor, Cate West - The Velvet Keys paints an intriguing mystery with varied gameplay and great artwork. The emphasis on scoring points and its affect on the ending is unfortunate, but the game draws you in so well you'll hardly notice.

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Weekend Download

JohnBThis edition of Weekend Download is dedicated to cells. No, not the kind you find in prison, the kind you find right here, inside your body. The squishy little things surrounded by a lipid bilayer membrane. How about a hand for cells? All 100 trillion of them!

themushroomengine.gifThe Mushroom Engine (download) (Windows, 4.1MB, free) - The Mushroom Engine is a platform game based on Hempuli's original Jump On Mushrooms: The Game, reworked in collaboration with Nifflas. In this game you don't play, you un-play. It begins with the end credits and you undo everything you would have done, from un-collecting coins to un-stomping enemies and so on. You can't break the game rules, meaning you can't do something that would have been impossible if you were playing the game from start to end (falling too far, getting coins twice, etc.). Because you have to mind things like the number of coins you un-collect or bumping into a reanimated enemy, the game plays more like an action-based puzzler. Which is... unique!

madhouse.gifMadhouse (Windows, 4.8MB, free) - Described as a "top-down shooter adventure-RPG with a comical horror theme", Madhouse plays like a cutesy version of an old school zombie splatterfest (Zombies Ate My Neighbors, anyone?), only it's much more than that. Play as a zombie, amnesiac mercenary, deranged sociopath dressed as a clown, a little guy wearing rags, or any of twelve other unlockable characters, each with its own special abilities, weapons and stats. There's even multiplayer support! And don't let the cute pixel graphics fool you, as this one packs quite a lot of blood and carnage into a tiny package.

gate88.gifGate 88 (Mac/Win/Linux, 13MB, free) - A 2D multiplayer action/real-time strategy (RTS) game! You are in control of a small ship that must defend structures placed in the middle of space. As you fly around blasting foes, plop buildings such as turrets and research stations to help expand your little colony. Features multiplayer over internet and LAN.

pandaland.gifPandaland (Windows, 18.8MB, free) - As simple as platformers can be, Pandaland is all about an indie pop girl saving her home from evil brats. Throw cherries to defeat your enemies and grab food floating in the sky to keep your health up. The game is a bit on the short side, but the amount of quirky, colorful settings are worth running through at least once.

Plan It Green

Ms.45To celebrate Earth Day (April 22), National Geographic has sponsored Plan It Green, a casual building sim in the style of Build-a-lot that joins the sparsely-populated ranks of "green" games (see Electrocity, Climate Challenge and even Boonka for more examples).

planitgreen.jpgTrue to its name, Plan It Green focuses on boosting energy credits by designing green buildings and communities using four types of structures: residential, parks and recreation, commercial, and facilities such as power plants. Your goals are structured in a similar manner to most building sims where you must meet certain targets, such as "build a pre-fab home with five upgrades, supply three homes with recycle bins, research eco-industries, etc.". Once you meet the goals, it's on to a new district to make things a little bit greener.

There are just a few things you'll need to pay attention while playing the game, including building materials (which can be ordered via the menu at the bottom), cash flow, and most importantly, district happiness and overall environmental health. In addition to installing Earth-friendly devices in individual homes, you can also upgrade your district with improvements that affect the entire community. Installing a bike path, for example, helps you meet your goals and benefits every structure. You can also turn on a grid to show you which structures are performing the best and which need extra attention. If you demolish structures, you get some of the materials back, which does have economies of scale — the bigger and more valuable the property, the more materials you gain.

As you work through each scenario you unlock bigger, more elaborate ways to save on energy costs, reduce pollution, and make your district as environmentally friendly as possible. Plan It Green doesn't hit you over the head with its cause, opting instead to provide a casual building game with a strong green slant.

planitgreen2.jpgAnalysis: As you'd hope in an environmental game, the visual setting in Plan It Green is lovely — not as gorgeous and charming as Wonderburg, but pretty in an oddly retro way. The cheaper pre-fab and eco-buildings reminded me of Daly City, the suburb that inspired Pete Seeger's song "Little Boxes". You can build things like soccer fields and swimming pools that don't generate income but help you meet your happiness goals and spruce up the place.

The gameplay is very, very fast — if the Build-a-lot series makes you grind your teeth in frustration ("FINISH THE FREAKIN' UPGRADE ALREADY!!!"), you are going to LOVE the snappy pace of Plan It Green. The speed and simplicity of it all does make Plan It Green fall on the easy side, however. There are no ultimate deadlines as in Build-a-lot (which is ironic given that environmental upgrades would surely be imperative, unlike purely aesthetic ones), and the bonus for meeting the five star rating is so unobtrusive I didn't notice it was there for several levels. The tutorial also continues on a bit beyond what is necessary — I found myself thinking "Yeah, just leave me alone to discover things already".

So how good is the environmental message? Plan-It-Green offers the chance to build "eco-businesses" such as a bike shop, co-op food store and organic coffee shop. Aside from whiffing slightly of exclusivity (surely if we're serious about being green, we need to ensure environmentally preferrable products are in big mainstream supermarkets?), there are tradeoffs involved — your Fair Trade coffee may assist small farmers overseas, which is great... but takes up a decent amount of energy to ship to your suburb. Similarly, the best residential structure you can build is called a Zero-Energy Home — a "three storey family home. 100% self-sustained. They do not use a city's municipal energy", which immediately made me think "Why does a single family need a three storey home???" The whole "reduce" part of the "reduce, reuse, recycle" slogan tends to get ignored by people for whom shopping fills the void, and I say that as someone who very much likes filling the void with a spot of Prada.

The biggest surprise for me is that the best environmental power facility you can get, after you've built wind farms, hydro plants and so on, is... a nuclear facility. I'm old enough to remember when that suggestion would get you hung from the nearest old-growth tree, and not necessarily by the obvious suspects. I trust the developers are already living next to a nuclear reactor, and have the usual amount of eyes.

It may fall short of presenting the ultimate in eco-friendly building, but Plan It Green does its part to raise awareness. Beyond its message, however, is a great-looking casual building sim that shaves off frustration and easily competes with the well-established franchises already on the market.

Download the demo
Order the full version

Mac OS XMac OS X:
Not available.
Try Boot Camp or Parallels or CrossOver Games.

Plan It Green is available to download from these affiliates:
Arcade TownBig Fish GamesCasual Gameplay

count-of-monte-cristo.jpgAlthough not one of the best games of its kind that we've come across, Big Fish Games is offering the full-version of The Count of Monte Cristo for only 99 cents! For a limited time only.

A hidden object adventure based on the Alexander Dumas novel of the same name, The Count of Monte Cristo follows (loosely) the same mystery/crime-tinted footsteps of Cate West - The Vanishing Files and Miss Teri Tale while sticking fairly close to hidden object convention. Investigate suspects to determine who is guilty while finding items and playing mini-games in-between stages. It's a lengthy and challenging item hunter with unique locations and an engaging setting.

Again, not a stellar title, but for 99 cents, not a bad deal.

JayTwitter buttonDo you Twitter? Seems everyone is these days. If you have a Twitter account, be sure to follow us @Jayisgames

We'll be giving away random free stuff all spring and summer, including Big Fish Games coupons, iTunes gift certificates, and more! Tell your family and friends to follow us, too. The more eyes watching, the more chances you have to win! :)

(Twitter button courtesy of MilkAddict.)

KateHeadspinLet me read you a story. It's about a world filled with pop-up people who live in pop-up houses next to pop-up castles and pop-up trees. This is no ordinary fairy tale, though. This is Headspin Storybook, from State of Play Games, which offers a unique spin (literally!) on the spot-the-difference genre.

Click on "play" and the picture book opens, revealing a two-page layout. Your goal is to make the right side of the picture into a mirror image of the left side. You do this by clicking the previously mentioned pop-ups on the right side, making them flip around to mirror the left.

Find and fix all of the differences under the time limit, and you're rewarded with a rainbow or a star shower, depending on whether it's day or night in the little storybook world. Oh, and you get points. The faster you finish, the more points you get. Over 20 levels of gameplay, the images become more intricate, your time limit gets lower and there are more discrepancies to find.

Analysis: Much like Puzzle Defence, Headspin Storybook's graphics are simply adorable. The colors are perfect, the little pop-up people are precious, and the timer and points display fits seamlessly into the overall layout. The solid graphics made me want to dive into this little world, until I started playing the game and realized that my visual awareness skills? Not so hot.

It may seem simple to just find the object that doesn't match its opposite and click on it, but these little pop-ups are tiny and the differences between them grow more subtle with each level. When you hit Level 10 or so and you're faced with a page filled with nearly identical flags, you may resort to clicking around like a maniac. Don't despair, however, since there's no Game Over. If time runs out, you simply lose 1000 points and restart the level with a different layout altogether.

The Renaissance Faire-esque soundtrack fits the mood perfectly, but becomes repetitive over time. Add that to the jarring chorus of "Booo" you get if you fail a level and you may want to turn off the volume on this one, especially if you fail more than once or twice in a row.

Headspin Storybook combines fabulous graphics with a creative twist on a worn-out genre, providing a 20-30 minute diversion that you'll want to keep playing until the story ends.

Play Headspin Storybook.

Thanks for the suggestion, Luke, Denver, and Addison!

Link Dump Fridays

JohnBHow much thought do you put into laundry detergent? I mean, really, is this one of your great concerns in life? Do you wake up in the morning and worry if you made the right decision on aisle ten in the grocery store yesterday? Should you really have gone with that off-brand stuff? Was saving a little cash really worth putting your clothes at risk? Well... was it?

  • icon_visible.gifVisible - Visible is the game you would have to play every day of your life if you had to mind your shadow's well-being. Oh, and if you lived in a 2D platformer. You play both the main character and his reflection below, but instead of avoiding obstacles on one side, you have to mind both. And just because the bottom is a reflection doesn't mean it's the same as the top!
  • icon_germz.gifGermz - A Bejeweled-style game with germs instead of jewels. EWW GROSS GERMS BLECH!!! Fortunately you're zapping the little buggers, and a few power-ups appear from time to time to really get the virii frying. The colored pencil-style visuals are great, and I kinda like the germ sound effects as well.
  • icon_guesstimation.gifGuesstimation - I'm guessing this game is about making guesses. I'm also guessing you'll need to type in the number (according to your best guess) of items on each screen. Then you'll get some sort of "score" (I guess). I dunno, I guess you'll like it. I also guess it was made by Ninjakiwi.
  • icon_thelinegame.gifThe Line Game: Orange Edition - A stylish mouse avoider with a delicious orange flavor. Zip around each level avoiding walls, bouncing things and spinny things (which the game explicitly warns about). Best of all, at the end of each level you are rewarded with a screen full of juice!
  • icon_spinningbubbles.gifSpinning Bubbles - A bubble-matching puzzle game that takes place in a circular arena. Slide around the orb firing colored balls at the cluster of bubbles in the center. You can play the game the normal way, or you can just sit on the side and see how long you can spin the middle structure before you get bored and go back to writing the Link Dump Friday you started half an hour ago!

artbegottiPirate DefenseLook! Off in the horizon! Ships with flags with skulls and crossbones! And tons of peg-legged men hobbling right this way! Why are we under attack? Oh, you say you left our chests full of booty out for easy viewing by off-shore invaders? Well then, I suppose we've got pirates on our hands, and the need to defend against them!

Enter Pirate Defense, a new take on the tower defense genre, made by the good people of Hero Interactive (Storm Winds, Bubble Tanks 2). The pirates may be ascending the hill to nab your booty, but you've got the power of homemade traps to stop them. While some traps allow you to deal out damage to your attackers (stinging bee hives and explosives), others can be used to divert their paths and send them flying into other traps (swinging logs and lures). Just set up a trap, attach a trigger (if necessary), then watch the pirate mayhem ensue. Excellent! Those rough-and-tumble sailors will never know what sent them roughly tumbling.

While we're still working on a proper review for this shiny new game, please give it a try and let us know what you think by leaving us a comment. Bear in mind that since the gameplay here isn't exactly like your average TD game, it might take a little bit of experimentation to see how each trap works. Try the pre-set Sample level first to get a quick feel for the overall objective, then experiment a bit by tackling the Fun Modes (Fixed and 100k Gold) to get your sea legs. Next, try your hand at the Regular and Challenge Modes when you think you're ready to tackle the crashing waves (of pirates).

Play Pirate Defense.

PsychotronicSnake BallThis is just the kind of unique thing I like to stumble across. Snake Ball is a little gem from the back catalog of John Nesky, author of the adorable Planet of the Forklift Kid.

True to the title, you play a snake beset by balls. Your job is to score a certain number of points within a certain time limit, by corralling the balls into a pit with your sinuous body. Green balls score a few points, and they have a calming effect on you. Red balls score twice as many points, but contact with them slowly drives you insane.

An insane snake is a disturbing sight, I'll tell you what. It twitches like it's being strangled.

Control your snake's head with the mouse, and the rest of you will follow. At the beginning, your tail will likely be a liability, flailing around and batting valuable prizes into the distance. With just a little practice, though, you can learn to encircle your targets with tight movements and drag them into the pit. Butting them with your head at just the right angle works, too, and random flailing is always an option if you get frustrated.

There are 23 levels, and they get pretty difficult. This is probably not a good game to play with a laptop track pad, or if you like to keep open beverages near the computer. Don't let me tell you what to do, though. Live on the edge.

Analysis: Snake Ball reminds me of Gregory Weir's Sugarcore, with its simple but readable graphics and creative approach to level design. Each challenge has a different twist, whether it be a new type of ball or an unusual limitation. One level gives you a short little snake body, forcing you to make all your points via head-bump. One takes away the time limit, but gradually sucks away your score as well. One type of ball instantly drives you insane if it falls into the pit, while another completely heals your troubled snake mind and awards you points for teetering close to the brink.

These are welcome variations, but the core gameplay is already well designed. You have to flirt with insanity to make points quickly enough, but if you gather one too many red balls, your spasming body will make you nearly useless. That creates constant tension, and the tricks each individual level plays mostly mix up the pace. I just wish there were some way of representing your score, time limit, and insanity level other than an unassuming set of gauges in the corner of the screen.

New elements enter the mix right to the end, and by the last level, the screen is chock full of different threats and scoring opportunities. It's about dancing with chaos. This game is a challenge for sure, but you're not afraid of a little craziness, right?

Play Snake Ball.

ArtbegottiPowerupCan you feel it? That buzzing in the air? That's the feeling of the excitement of a new Nitrome tingling at your senses. Or someone just stuck a fork in the microwave, but it's more likely the former. Power Up is a physics-based puzzler with a high-voltage bolt of challenging fun that lasts for up to 32 levels.

On each level, you'll find two robot heads. One's surging with luscious electric beauty, while the other could use a bit of a charge. Your goal is to create a path of metal blocks to transport some of that electric power from the first robot head to the second. This is done by grabbing blocks with the mouse and carrying them where you want them to go. When your path reaches the goal, you've still got to hold your breath for another few seconds for the robot to charge, so you'd better hope your building isn't too precariously made!

To help you build your paths and towers of teetering blocks, you'll find some levels have magnetic blocks that can hold metal blocks together, honey-covered blocks that can stick to any surface, coffin blocks that help you cross treacherous grounds, tesla coils that can pass electric current between non-adjacent locations, chests that store and move unused blocks, and other tricks to help you get from Bot A to Bot B. Keep in mind though, you've got to keep your current out of water and other dangerous situations, and the current has to pass through electricity-conducting objects to count (so those wood blocks and honey blocks are great for support, but they can also become obstacles if you're not careful).

Analysis: While Nitrome's take on the A-to-B puzzle game is unique, there are unfortunately some notable bugs that may make playing this game a bit frustrating. Aside from some glitches with visual and audio elements (sound effects looping after the associated action has already ended, "collision" clouds appearing where there isn't anything happening at all, etc.), there are also some gameplay glitches to deal with. The physics engine used here gives the objects a bit of "bounce," but perhaps a bit too much bounce. Occasionally, the tiniest collision can send pieces flying in an almost exaggerated flurry of motion. Some players have also noted that the current may flow from one robot to the other, but the second robot does not charge.

The controls for this game can be problematic to get used to as well. When you grab a block, you're essentially holding on to it by the specific point your cursor is on. This means that it can rotate on your cursor's axis, due to gravity. This is useful for flipping blocks to different orientations, but a pain if you just want to lay a block flatly on top of a tower. This, in conjunction with the collision exaggeration mentioned above, means that a very patient and steady hand is useful in completing most levels.

Despite the numerous bugs (which may hopefully be fixed in the future), credit must be given for what could be considered a bit of a change of pace from some of Nitrome's other products. Rather than a time-pressured rush to the finish line where three hits means you have to start a level over, Power Up is a game that relaxes the pace a bit. You have all the time in the world to finish a level (although there is a scoring bonus for speedy runs), and you don't have to worry about losing lives. Drop a piece in the water? No problem, you can either fish it out or pull it out of the chest again, depending on the level. Power Up doesn't force you to play any certain way at all. In fact, each level is practically a sandbox for experimentation by itself. Sometimes, taking a few extra minutes to plan out a level makes the victory charge all the more energizing.

Play Power Up!

Weekday Escape

JessIt can't be easy to always be on the road. The constant back and forth between locations, the many nights away from home, the endless string of bland hotel rooms; after a while, even the smallest bit of extra hospitality might be enough to make your day. It's nice when hotels go the extra mile, right? A fruit basket, super-fluffy towels, maybe a glass of complimentary champagne…lovely. In all seriousness, though, I think that the good folks over at G-Sensor, the new escape game from Japanese developer HILG, have gone just a wee bit overboard in their eagerness to please their patrons.

G-SensorAs the game begins, you, an unnamed business-person, have just checked into your room at Uncle Boo's Hotel. You see a questionnaire on the desk; it thanks you for your stay and asks if you have any demands. Cheekily, you write that you wish to be placed into a "safe room" (an odd request, to be sure) and, exhausted, promptly fall into bed. Just as you drift off to sleep, a strange voice echoes in your head: "Certainly, Sir." The next morning, you wake in a different place altogether! It certainly is "safe"; locked up tight, you'll need to solve puzzles and figure out the mechanisms of the room in order to escape. It was nice of the hotel to honor your request so thoroughly…but really, couldn't they have left you the key?

G-Sensor has many of the qualities of a great escape game. It's clear that, especially in regards to the game's puzzles, HILG had some really creative ideas; the last major puzzle in particular I found to be innovative and exciting. That being said, it seems that at times the game does not possess the necessary clues to make the logical leap from problem to solution (this is despite an in-game hint system, which I found to be nearly useless). There are many intelligent and interesting puzzle elements embedded into G-Sensor, but this lack of logical fluidity makes it harder to fully appreciate them. Happily, however, while the game can sometimes be unnecessarily frustrating, it never becomes unplayable and always remains entertaining.

The game's graphics are pretty good, if a bit bland in color, and I'm not sure that they explain G-Sensor's surprisingly long load time. The interface is simple, classic point-and-click, and the inventory system is easy to use. The game does have a bit of pixel-hunting, but nothing terribly excessive; make sure to click all the obvious angles and you should be fine. There's a save feature, which is nice, and the background music can be toggled on and off. As I mentioned earlier, the game does have a hint system; it seems sporadic at best, however, and the Japanese-to-English translation (specifically in the hint system, the rest of the game is okay) isn't great. On a related note, although some of G-Sensor's loading text is in English, make sure to press the language selection button before beginning the game. The button will say "Japanese" when you first see the loading screen; pressing it will change it to "English."

Despite not having quite the professional polish of some other high-quality room escape games, G-Sensor is nonetheless solid, well-plotted and very enjoyable; what deficiencies may exist are mainly made up for by the game's excellent puzzles. So, let's help this hapless traveler:

Play G-Sensor!

PsychotronicPuzzle DefencePuzzle Defence, from Dibblez, is a charming mash-up of the SameGame play mechanic with RPG elements. It's not quite on the same level as Knightfall, but it gives you 20 levels of relaxed, undemanding gameplay, and the graphics are cute.

Scary, adorable monsters are attacking your castle, and the only way to defend yourself is to match them together, puzzle/strategy-style. Your goal is to defeat enough enemies to advance to the next level. To maneuver them together, you have to destroy blocks of landscape. Click on any group of three or more tiles to make them disappear, allowing more mountains, grassland, crops, gold, and creatures to fall in from the top. Once you have a group of two or more monsters, click on it to eliminate them.

If a bad guy reaches the bottom of the screen, it damages your castle and leaves. If a pile of gold reaches the bottom, it adds to your wealth, which you can spend between levels on upgrades.

On later levels, the monsters get stronger and tougher. They arrive in greater numbers, do more damage to your castle, and must form larger groups before they are vulnerable. This gradual evolution of threat and the light customization (I like the upgrade that converts crops to gold) gives Puzzle Defence a little strategic oomph, but really it's just a pleasant way to spend 20 or 30 minutes. The sound design passes the Crunch Thump Crunch Thump likability test, and I generally just want to hug the game and tousle its hair. I'd love to see a fleshed-out sequel.

Play Puzzle Defence.

artbegottiTantrixIn 1988, Mike McManaway invented a board game using red and black cardboard tiles, which he called "The Mind Game." Since then, the board has been eliminated, the tiles have become more colorful and made of Bakelite, and the game now known as Tantrix has fully evolved. This online solitaire version is designed to introduce some of the basic strategies of Tantrix, a game that falls in the category of "simple to learn, yet difficult to master."

For the Discovery and Xtreme modes, there's only one simple rule to follow: All of the touching sides of your hexagonal tiles must match in color. Using this rule, your challenge is to create a loop of one color, using all of the given tiles. Each tile contains three segments of a colored path, which can twist and turn in many directions. In Discovery mode, you're told which color to use to make your path; in Xtreme mode, you must figure it out on your own. To move a tile, click and drag it to a location on the grid. To rotate a tile, click on it. Your goal is to make each loop in as little time as possible.

In Solitaire mode, your challenge is to shoot for a high score using all 14 tiles. While you're not required to form a complete loop of one color, the length of the longest chain of a single color determines your score, and forming a loop doubles the score of that chain. Thus, the highest score possible is 28 points. To play, click the "Next Tile" button on the right to get a randomly-selected tile. Place it on the board where you'd like, but remember that once the next tile is revealed, you can't change its location. In addition, one more rule is added to the mix: If there's an open area on the grid surrounded by three tiles, the first playable tile that fits must be played there. This can hurt your strategy, as it can keep you from playing a needed tile elsewhere on the board. If you think you've had a high-scoring run, you can submit the total of your last five games to a high scores board.

Analysis: This friendly solitaire version is an excellent introduction into the world of Tantrix. Although it might not have the renown of other board games like Scrabble, international tournaments are held annually for the multiplayer version of the game. With a 20-plus year history, Tantrix continues to attract new players.

One problem with this particular implementation is that the Discovery and Xtreme modes are in fact nearly identical. While the point is that one guides you gently by helping you decide which colors to match, and the other leaves you on your own, both introduce tiles in the same order. This follows the suggested rules of the physical version of the game, but doesn't translate well to digital.

The real gold is the Solitaire mode, which poses a unique challenge every time you play. The random selection of tiles almost feels like you're playing an opponent, since you can't determine how the game will change next. The tricky part is getting five high-scoring rounds in a row to submit to the high scores table. With persistence and planning, anything is possible.

If this mini-version of the game tickles your fancy, be sure to check out the official Tantrix website for more about the game and tournament information. If you want a "easy-yet-hard" puzzler to snack on, give Tantrix a shot.

Play Tantrix.

MarcusPlanet BasherUpon first look, Bad Viking's (Popopop) new title Planet Basher looks like some simplistic ballistics-y physics-y star collecting toy. Take your slowly rotating cannon at the top of the screen, line it up with some stars, and fire. The rocket you launch collects any stars that it touches before it drops off the bottom of the screen. Woohoo. But that was before I bought my first planet.

Once you fire all your shots and collect as many stars as you can, you go to an upgrade shop where you can, among other things, buy planets. So I bought one, placed it on the screen, and went to the next level. I fired my first rocket directly at the planet, and it bounced off! It was then that I realized the true fun of this game. It's about building bounce trails with enough planets to keep your rocket in the air long enough to collect the 200-stars-in-one-level necessary to win the game.

When it comes to spending star dust, there are a number of other opportunities, such as upgrading your rocket's star magnet and the fuel for said magnet. This gadget pulls in stars from all around you in a mass of magnetic attraction, for as long as the fuel holds out. The star shower allows you to make the stars fall faster and more frequently for a limited time. You can also increase the size of any planet on the playing field. All of these objects and upgrades are crucial to completing the mission.

Analysis: Planet Basher is a strong game, the kind that comes out of nowhere and kicks you in the butt. Fortunately, it sticks around to give you a pleasing gaming experience. Planet Basher's game style isn't easy to categorize, but the closest I can come are the pachinko simulators in Japan or PopCap's recent hit Peggle. [Ed. - You might also try John Cooney's Hedgehog Launch for a game with a similar structure.] Bouncy-bounce off of the planets that you've set up, collect as many stars as possible, and upgrade yourself into a position to collect all 200.

Game execution is pretty much flawless. I didn't come across any weird glitches or pockets of questionable game-physics while playing. The ability to shuffle around planets in between rounds is very nice, giving you a chance to close up holes in your rocket shots. Graphics are appropriately bright and bouncy. The music is nice, especially the rock riff used for the main game. Extremely cool, Bad Viking. Keep up the good work!

I've been able to complete the game in 18 rounds. Apparently, good players are completing it in around 10 rounds, while some have even managed it in 5. I guess with a couple of well placed planets, some excellent shots, and a cool hand on the star magnet, it could be possible. Either way, Planet Basher is a blast to play.

Play Planet Basher.

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