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Despite the proliferation of games designed for mobile platforms, the casual computer games market continues to flourish. The personal computer, because of its openness and ubiquitous presence, remains a primary development platform. So, while many other game sites still focus their attention exclusively on conventional big-budget AAA retail offerings, for your playing pleasure I have unearthed the very best hidden PC treasures that casual gaming has to offer. This represents the latest in a series of annual awards articles that now has continued for well over a decade, by far the longest consecutive casual-games award series anywhere.
To select the dozen 2011 award winners from an increasingly competitive field, I have spent many hours playing through hundreds of full registered games to discern their overall value. Interestingly, most of the winners emerge from developers outside of the United States. Moreover, because of the presence in many casual gaming homes of multiple computers (some of which lack online access), and the increasing use of intrusive and annoying copy-protection (DRM) schemes, I only tested offerings that had a single-player version that could be registered and played on an offline machine. I also considered only downloadable computer games, not ones played in a browser or on Facebook or Twitter.
The definition of the casual computer game has become quite murky, and some readers might disagree that all of this year’s award-winners belong in that category. The wide-ranging ways used to delineate casual games include the following: A low price point, a small or “indie” development team, and compact code size allowing quick downloads and having low minimum system requirements. They must appeal primarily to consumers who might often buy their games at places such as Target and Wal-Mart. They are games that stay-at-home moms play when they have a spare moment. They have low complexity and sophistication, often facilitating immediate play without having to read complex instructions. Specified game objectives should be easy to complete with mistake tolerance, hint systems, and/or the ability to exit and later continue at any point. The games should not include dark, bloody or morally objectionable material, they should have ports on mobile devices, and should include cute characters (such as cuddly creatures) or low-stress side activities (such as mini-games).
Developer and Publisher: WXP Games (Seattle, Wash., USA)
First-person shooters have become increasingly complex, ultra-serious, and not at all aimed at casual gamers. In this context, this new item is extraordinarily refreshing: a fun, arcade-style FPS that combines shooting enemies with Pac-Man-like pickup accumulation. Instead of the typical, dreary, drab realistic shooter settings, Xotic’s gorgeous widescreen environments in its four-stage campaign are colorful, imaginative and eerily organic. Featured are “hard holograms,” a nice innovation allowing you not only to shield yourself, but also to climb to get a better vantage point or to find hidden pickups. Using an upgradable weapon with multiple firing modes, you can electrify enemies, obliterate Orb brains, trigger magnificent chain reactions and aerial combos, and cleanse the worlds of evil minions. Replay excitement escalates in this PhysX-supported game as you try hard to accumulate more points on each level.
Developer and Publisher: Mumbo Jumbo (Dallas, TX., USA)
Sometimes incredible games emerge that defy easy categorization, and Glowfish is one of them, although it fits somewhat into the action-adventure niche. Your goal is to explore fantastic and intricate underwater environments and try to save your fishy friends and Coralline from the clutches of the evil, menacing Dr. Urchin. Within the many dazzling levels, you and your assistants try to survive through an ever-increasing variety of obstacles and foes. One of the most creative means of attacking a larger enemy is to encircle it and cause it to shrink. The ultimate final battle with Dr. Urchin is an epic one. The music, sound effects and graphics are all excellent, cute but not saccharine, vibrant and bouncy. Along the way, you discover hidden nooks with secret surprises, along with many enticing bonuses. You can play with a gamepad or mouse and keyboard in full widescreen mode.
Developer and Publisher: Alientrap (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada)
This outstanding two-dimensional platformer is heavily influenced by first-person shooter combat action. The backstory has your ship crash-landing on a strange planet, after which you have to make your way through untold hazards to save yourself and your crewmates. What immediately separates Capsized from run-of-the-mill platformers is the hand-drawn, mysterious, organic alien world, filled with the weirdest entities and topography you could possibly imagine. As you play, you begin to realize that beyond the visuals the designers have incorporated extremely clever use of physics so as to expand the range of ways you can accomplish any particular objective. There’s lots of exciting combat, physical puzzle solving, and modes of navigation to hard-to-access places, with the jetpack particularly noteworthy. You can play using the gamepad or mouse and keyboard in single player or co-op mode.
Developer: Games Distillery (Bratislava, Slovakia)
Publisher: Just a Game (Berlin, Germany)
I have long missed the intense whimsical fun of the old Psygnosis classic Shipwreckers, but not anymore, thanks to this highly polished action-shooter with breathtaking panoramic views of naval battles. In a raging sea war, you engage in increasingly challenging large-scale operations involving enemies and allies fighting from above and below in ships, submarines and aircraft. Between missions you can unlock new ship types (each with unique tactical advantages), as well as a huge variety of weapons and ship upgrades. Occasionally you get to command small squadrons in your relentless pursuit of victory. Using mouse and keyboard or gamepad with intuitive controls, you can play alone, or cooperate or compete with other people locally on your computer. A fascinating backstory punctuated by entertaining dialogue and hand-drawn comic-book cutscenes really keep you glued to your seat.
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