Written by: Bob Mandel
Despite the unprecedented explosion of blockbuster retail releases this holiday season, the casual computer games market — largely operating through Internet downloads rather than boxed products in stores — continues to flourish. These titles generally sell for a lower price, with lower system requirements and lower minimum time commitment to learn how to play, and they arguably provide more bang for the buck then their retail counterparts. Reflecting the imagination of small independent developers, these modest products may also evidence more creativity and whimsy than many of the “me-too” releases from major corporate publishers.
So for the eighth year in a row, while other game sites focus on conventional retail offerings, I unearth for your playing pleasure the very best hidden treasures casual gaming has to offer. To select the 12 award winners for 2007, I spent many hours scouring hundreds of titles developed in countries all over the world, playing through the full registered versions to get a solid sense of their overall value. One of the pleasures of doing this is meeting some of the nicest and most imaginative people on the planet. Because of intrusive and annoying copy protection schemes, along with many gamers owning offline computers which they frequently upgrade, I tested only offerings where it is possible to register and play the single-player mode on a non-Internet-connected computer.
Developer and publisher: Frogames
Although most first-person shooters are expensive boxed retail releases, Penguins Arena — which cutely calls itself a “first penguin shooter” — achieves success as a casual release. The background story is based on a penguin legend revolving around Sedna, the ancient Penguin Goddess: because global warming and pollution have endangered the penguin tribes, and Sedna decides there’s room for only one tribe, combat begins. Your mission is to join the snowball battles and drive the other tribes into the sea. Even if you get blasted into the frozen ocean, where hungry sharks await you, you can quickly jump back into the fight. The action is fast and furious, especially when you fly hundreds of feet into the air and madly try to fall back on solid ground, or when you pummel foes to the brink of disaster and try frantically to finish them off before they blast you back. The adorable cartoon-like graphics perfectly fit the comically whimsical gameplay. You have access to five different weapons and bonuses, four penguin tribes and ten different icebergs. A multiplayer option is available over a LAN or the Internet.
Publisher: Reflexive Entertainment
Developer: Popcap Games
For a novel twist on arcade action involving crazily bouncing balls, Peggle is a fine choice. Your goal is to shoot ten metal balls at 25 orange pegs arrayed in different configurations — a task which sounds a lot easier than it is. With your mouse, you control a launcher, and when you fire a ball, it bounces around the board lighting up each peg it hits until it falls off the bottom of the board. To get help, you’ve enrolled in the Peggle Institute, and ten masters are ready to train you in the skills, wonders and mysteries of Peggle. You get to play 55 fanciful levels with 10 magic powers, racking up bonus points in the process. If you desire human competition, you can face off against your friends in duel mode. Both luck and skill are prerequisites for success in the quest to become a Peggle Master in this highly addictive game.