It's the game industry's dirty, little secret: Casual games are exploding. More people play these short online games like PAC-MAN and even BINGO than play the highly touted console games. Yet console games get all the glory because of their high production values and inspired graphics.

Even though the graphics on casual games are decidedly old school, arguably, casual games are more addicting than, say, Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas. Once you find a casual game you like, my bet is you won't stop playing it: Especially after you make friends who play the same game with you online. There's a great variety of these offerings, too, since they cost so much less to produce (thousands, rather than millions, and in some cases, hundreds). In fact, if you make the trip to Garage Games, you can create your own game—if you're focused and have the time (along with a decent idea). I'd make one in which a Mario-like character has to run and jump over all the characters in the Bush administration, and senators like Hillary and Chuck who supported the war in the first place, too. After clearing each level, you get closer to getting the troops out of Iraq. But that's just me.

All of these games are like the classics of yore right in your Web browser, and they play seamlessly. You'll get a quick fix full of visceral thrills, and you'll play easily by using a few simple keyboard controls. For instance, in PRESIDENTIAL KNOCKOUT, you can choose to be either Bush or Kerry, battling it out with boxing gloves on the White House lawn. If you pick Kerry, however, be careful. The embattled president is a pretty feisty boxer.

The BBC, of all media entities, created a lowbrow game in tandem with its TV comedy show, Look Around You called DIARRHEA DAN. Dan has trouble finding a clean toilet, so you have to help him find one. Part trivia, the game lets you know that the average human spends three years on the throne during his or her lifetime.

Beyond the quirky, there's the addictive. In BEJEWELED, for instance, you align gemstones horizontally and vertically, level after level. It's easy to pick up, but hard to master, the perfect litmus test for an online game. I found myself addicted to LIGHTNING POOL, in which the designers created so many variations on the classic game that you can't stop playing. Hard core pool players will eschew this game, but I love the playing pool with, say, a golf putter. It's simply one of the most creative casual games on the Web today.

While there are no print publications devoted to casual gaming, Millions of Games on the Web collects and links to so many new ones each day, you'll likely find it hard to keep up. Start with the site's listing of Top Ten games (currently Lightning Pool leads the pack of the most played games).

Most of the U.S. TV networks have computer games based on their hit shows. The supernatural mystery show, Lost, in fact, has three of them on the show's official site, the best of which is a short adventure game in which you traverse the island. It's not only compelling, it's as creepy as the show itself. You can also find games based on the TV game shows Jeopardy! and Wheel Of Fortune online.

Casual games are geared toward busy adults, primarily women. But whatever age you are, once you begin looking, you're sure find casual game that will suit you, one that you can't stop playing. You'll probably meet some pals online when you play, too. Is a MySpace for casual gamers far behind? Probably not.

Check out reviews of all the latest and greatest games (updated every week), along with past faves in NYC Guide.

Cars
Publisher: THQ
Developer: Rainbow Studios

Some people say adamantly that Disney's acquisition of Pixar was a mistake, that Pixar has seen better days, and that the studio is beginning to pump out the same kind of computer animation time after time. While I don't agree, CARS isn't the greatest Pixar movie of all time. In fact, for all its warmth and cuddly-ness, it's probably the weakest. And that may be because racing cars aren't that cute (Disney's Herbie, The Love Bug being the exception). They can be sexy; they can be strong. But they're not adorable like toys or superheroes or little fishes. Creating an irresistible family story around cars just isn't that easy. Having said that: Ladies and gentlemen, start your engines. There's a lot to like in the video game version of the animated Pixar movie, Cars. There's a fair amount to dislike as well. The question is, does the great stuff that's in the game win the race over the stuff that's not great at all? The answer's yes…with reservations.

When you put Cars into your drive, you really don't get an alluring opening movie to put you in the spirit of the game. Instead, you're optimistic rookie Lightning McQueen, dropped into a very easy race against the other cars in the vista-filled desert environment of Radiator Springs. Here, you'll get an idea of the unique personalities of the other vehicles when you accidentally nudge them or crash into them. You'll also be able to drift your car, or, as the game calls it, Power Slide.

But after that initial race in Full Story mode, I began to see some problems. First, there are long load times between the movie-like scenes and this wait dampened the anticipation I had. I wanted to put my virtual pedal to the metal, and not be daunted. While the second race was a lot of fun, I couldn't progress to the next level until I finished a hunt for postcards (which was not that interesting). You may be able to avoid the postcard hunt by playing the Compact Story mode, which is more geared toward kids. 

This, of course, isn't true racing. If you hit another car, for example, it doesn't sustain physical damage. But the car does scream and yell, saying mildly humorous things like, "Hey, you almost took off my bumper," if you crash into them. Also, if you're near another car, Lightning will utter things like, "Can I get an autograph?" or "You're that guy!" repeatedly. After a while, it gets annoying. One of the things you can do is to take various Sunday drives across the open environments. During that time, you'll get used to maneuvering your car and also find little lightning bolt icons which add points to your score when you drive through them.

What kept me going when things got a little dull was the driving soundtrack, which includes everything from Edgar Winter's old school "Free Ride" to the All-American Rejects' Night Drive. Also, while I enjoyed Owen Wilson's voice acting, the older fellow in me marveled as I heard the dulcet tones of the great Paul Newman in a video game. To me, this was as much of a charge as listening to Marlon Brando in the recent The Godfather game. 

As you progress and try valiantly to win the Piston Cup, you'll find all sorts of races including "Monster Truck Mayhem," "Sally's Sunshine Circuit," and "Sarge's Off Road Challenge." You'll be able to track down speeders in a cop car and even assume the role of a car from the wrong side of the tracks that steals things. Since the offering was developed by the same people who gave the world the "MX vs. ATV" games, it's got pretty amazing automobile physics, especially during the off road race. (Tip: if you're buying a handheld version of the game, skip the Gameboy Advance and DS versions, which aren't that hot at all. Get the more console-like PSP version instead.)

Ultimately, Cars, the videogame, is a lot like Cars, the movie. It's a good game with honorable intentions and a warm, virtual heart that sometimes plays great and sometimes gets boring. Unfortunately, it doesn't come up to the level of the stellar The Incredibles game or even the Toy Story game for the original PlayStation

Hitman: Blood Money
Publisher: Eidos
Developer: lo-Interactive

Over a hundred years ago, Sigmund Freud wrote, "No one, who, like me, conjures up the most evil of those half-tamed demons that inhabit the human breast, and seeks to wrestle with them, can expect to come through the struggle unscathed."  So it is with The Hitman, also inelegantly named Agent 47. 47's no psychoanalyst, but he's got the demons on him nonetheless.

Of all the dark characters in the world of gangland style video game shoot 'em ups and stealthy spy thrillers, Agent 47 may be the most compelling. That's because he seems to have the deepest back story and a real personality that's not one-dimensional. Sure, 47 benefits from having four installments of the HITMAN video game series which reveal his character's proclivities. 

But, as an assassin, he's a loner, introspective, and outside of society.  He's not only a bald rebel without a cause; he's genetically engineered from the bad seed DNA of five of the worst criminals the world has ever known. He can kill ruthlessly. Yet he's scared of needles and, as a youth, lovingly cared for his pet rabbit. He also has a bar code tattoo on the back of his head so his creators can find him easily. All of this makes his complexities even more interesting. 

Hitman: Blood Money starts out with a haunting version of "Ave Maria" as a crow flies onto the shoulder of the statue of the Virgin Mary in a cemetery. The opening movie then cuts to a dramatic action visual of 36 people dying in an amusement park as a Ferris wheel crashes to the ground. That's followed by a montage of newspaper clips showing the park's owner on trial, and, ultimately, being cleared of all charges. A grieving but vengeful father hires 47 to rid the world of the Swing King, the amusement park owner.

Although the first level is a tutorial, it's a lot of fun since it takes place in the run down, ocean-side park which is richly detailed, and kind of scary. You'll distract guards with the throw of coin, and get to your prey with easy-to-follow directions that appear onscreen. As the levels progress, however, the game turns much harder—quickly—and a mystery begins to unravel.  Apparently, a rival wants to remove the bald 47 and will stop at nothing until he's eliminated. 

The tension you'll feel during the dozen missions is palpable. During a mission that takes place on a Mississippi river boat, you'll have to kill six gang members and a boss. And during a level in a casino à la Las Vegas, you'll find a case full of important DNA. But you'll have to kill a sheik and a scientist before you're through. You'll also find yourself at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, although a post-Katrina scenario would have been more frightening.  And, like this year's 24 on TV, you'll have to deal with a devilishly evil White House official in the Oval Office.

This is a thinking player's game rather than a strict shoot 'em up. You'll have to strategize and prepare for your assassinations. If you simply go in with guns blazing, you'll soon die. This stealth requires a lot of exploration of the various environs. But because the levels are so beautifully designed and graphically stunning, you'll enjoy the sights (along with the creeps you meet) pretty much everywhere you go. 

Hitman: Blood Money isn't for everyone. It's an M-rated game with guts, gore, and cussing. But for those of you who can deal with the mature themes, Hitman will reward you with great gameplay and a nicely written story. Just as in Die Hard: With a Vengeance, you'll "Think fast. Look alive. Die hard." And you'll do that every minute you play.


Table Tennis
Publisher: Take2/Rockstar Games
Developer: Rockstar San Diego

When you talk about it with the folks that have seen the exhibition, everyone agreed the recent Whitney Biennial kind of sucked. I mean, what was with those dull, deli canopies from the Reena Spaulings gallery? But two things didn't suck, and the reasons for their unsuckiness had to do with a good idea conceived and executed simply. Tony Conrad's pickled raw film stock in canning jars says a lot about the idea of preserving film if you look at the things with a Monty Python-esque nudge-nudge wink-wink. And the documentary about the anti-St. Nicholas craziness in Austria called "Kranky Klaus," with its coal-in-the-stocking meets-bullying-frat-boys-for-a-night-of-mischief is just a lone video camera or two following the herd of mythical, antlered Krampuses as they harass the local villagers. Both are simple. But both are so effective, they're ingrained within the consciousness of $15-paying museum-goers forever.

When Rockstar, the pseudo-controversial video game company that created the violent Grand Theft Auto franchise, sent over a game called TABLE TENNIS, I almost thought it was a joke. I laughed, Maybe this is some early public relations idea to promote Grand Theft Auto 4. I mean, where's the complexity for the next generation system? It's too damn simple.

But, yes, it's a ping pong game. Now, ping pong games in video gaming are nothing new. Everyone knows that 1972's Pong, the original video game, was a version of table tennis. Since then, there have been dozens of such offerings for everything from your Palm (Table Tennis 3D) to your mobile phone (3D Slam Ping-Pong). But none has had the panache and the attention to detail of Rockstar's Table Tennis.

First, the graphics are pretty darn mind-boggling. You might think, who cares—it's just a table with clunky paddles and a hollow, celluloid ball.  But what's stunning is the way the life-like characters react to winning and losing. Not only do they look human, they act human. They get angry; they sweat; they talk to themselves, either to calm down or to pep up. They have egos and they live for applause from the crowd.

I seriously expected to play this game for a few minutes and then get on to the next thing. But with my first point, I was excited. By the end of my first match, I was hooked. That's because the simplicity of the game is deceiving.  You don't have to move your character from side to side: the game does it for you. All you have to concentrate upon initially is moving the right thumb stick forward and releasing it when you want to hit the plastic ball. It's so much fun that I looked into the history of ping pong. It's a game that began in the late 1800s as a form of indoor tennis played by well-to-do Victorians who were addicted to tennis. But they couldn't play outside in the nasty English winters. Supposedly, they initially used a rounded Champagne cork as a ball and a stack of books as a net.

Fast forward to 2006. With the Table Tennis video game, there is such a subtlety in the way you hit the ball that it's almost poetic. Not only can you add topspin and backspin, you can add left sidespin and right sidespin. By pressing the right trigger on your controller, you activate something called Full Focus. With three levels of focus, your game play gets better and you're truly in the zone. When you get a little better, you'll be able to tell what kind of spin is coming at you, and you'll be able to counter that spin.

There are no real ping pong champs in the game. But the ones that have been imagined not only have their own playing styles (anything from fleet feet to killer defense). They also have personality. You'll meet a variety of players as you move from the various tennis circuits, some of which are seedy and some of which are so full of people, you'll get nervous.

But the real magic and wonder of Table Tennis comes with Xbox Online play. You can volley with up to eight players in a tournament online. When you have a rally against someone from, say, Olympia that goes over 100 hits of the ball, your heart starts pounding and you wear the look of grim determination.  You'll probably hear a lot of bragging through your headset. But you can turn that off. 

The upshot? Because Table Tennis is so easy to pick up, it will probably introduce a lot of casual gamers to the Xbox Online experience. That means a more mature crowd, and a more civilized game with fewer moments of Madden-like trash talking. But Rockstar's ping pong game will have some competition soon: Nintendo is creating a table tennis game for its Wii system to be released in the fall. If it works as well as Table Tennis, they should subtitle it "Kranky, Pickled Mario Pong."


Da Vinci Code
Publisher: 2K Games
Developer: The Collective

All the way back, back more than 80 years ago, H. L. Mencken did a telling thing. He had a funeral for the gods, dozens of gods like Furrina, the Roman water goddess, and Enurestu, the Assyrian god of war, gods who were no longer worshipped. He posed, "Where is the graveyard of dead gods? What lingering mourner waters their ground?" It all makes me wonder if our current gods will, centuries later, go that same way. Right now, God is big, the Christian God, the Jewish God, the Muslim God, and you shudder to think that has to do with the horrors of war. But God is popular again, and that's one of the reasons THE DA VINCI CODE became a mainstay for readers in the Western world. Of course, they had to make the book into a game, so game geeks could worship in their button pressing way, too.

Movie-based games have always had a checkered history, and it's rare that these offerings are equal to or better than the hits that preceded them. Still, The Da Vinci Code occasionally has some compelling things going for it.

The Da Vinci Code book has been on the New York Times best seller list for 163 weeks. Despite middling reviews, the movie took in $77 million here in the U.S. last weekend. So everyone wants to play the game, right, in order to live in Dan Brown's world of strange religion and complex quandary?

In its behalf, the DVC game is a kind of throwback to times when adventure games were the big things in the industry. You examine things and pick things up and use them to solve the case. That's because, at its core and beyond the controversies, the book and game are mystery stories.

As you begin, you'll be confronted with a dead body bearing a pentagram in the Louvre museum, just like in the book. As in any mystery that involves a conspiracy, there will be a lot of talking, deduction, and clue finding. All this can be as frightening as Freddie Krueger when dealing with the more fanatical elements in the game. 

At its best, Dan Brown's book lets you learn new things. You can discover interesting aspects about anagrams and ancient history from the game, too, but the conversations among characters do get a little dry—quickly. But it's fun to search around in the museum among the priceless artworks (and you don't get the dreaded symptoms of museum back, either). Although the puzzles can sometimes be a little too simple to deal with (even if you haven't read the book), you do get the feeling of a great mystery: You feel tension and you get the creeps from time to time.  

While you'll explore crypts, find cylinders with messages, and even fight occasionally, there are still two things missing. You don't really get a sense of reward for the accomplishments you make when you solve bits of the mystery. Perhaps that's because the characters act so wooden and so bland.  Finally, you'll wish they would have added more to the game, more puzzles, more plot, more history, more excitement.


Over The Hedge
Publisher: Activision
Developer: Edge of Reality

OVER THE HEDGE is a platformer, not an adventure game. But if you made games from animated movies, you'll delight in the humor that's presented. Here, the characters are never boring. In fact, they feel alive as an old Bugs Bunny cartoon. Everything from the way the animals move to the one liners they spew will make this game sing to its target audience: big-eyed kids with unsullied senses of wonder. 

The movie-based game features a motley crew of animals who are trying to make their forest safe from an ever-encroaching suburbia full of McMansions and uncaring humans. There's even the evil Exterminator, who can get the animals to turn on one another. When you choose a character to play, you'll also have a sidekick, who'll help you on your missions. There are also various mini-games to play, the most enjoyable of which is racing radio controlled cars. While an adult would feel the game is too simple, it will easily capture (and perhaps inspire) the imaginations of children, who'll love the personality-rich characters, the lush environments, and the ever present humor. 

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