Cubicle Salvation: Casual Game Sites


One of the things I hate about my occasional treks to midtown are these cult-like smikers who accost me and ask, “Do you like comedy?” in an effort to corral me into some sleaz-o club with $15 drinks. My friend suggested that I reply, “What’s it to you?” and walk the hell away. Which I will.

Having said that, I have to ask, Do you like casual games? If you do, you’re not alone. So do some of the world’s biggest companies. For them, there’s gold in them thar hills. The people who make money prognosticating such things believe the casual niche will become $1 billion a year business by the time 2008 rolls around, according to Jupiter Research. Right now, the people who make and promote these games are pulling in $350 million a year.

With such success come the dreaded marketing types, and with them come, gulp, ads. Sure, this column is about a couple of casual games that I’ve found on Web, one good, one bad. It’s also about the way ads are presented to gamers. Sometimes, it’s downright obnoxious.

First, take a look at Pogo, the casual game site created by the world’s largest video game maker, Electronic Arts. Here, you can play games for free. But you’ll also have to pay for them: with your time because there’s no way to opt out of looking at ads. One of the great free games on Pogo is “The Sims Pinball,” based on the best selling simulation franchise created by gamemaking genius Will Wright. Just as with any real life pinball game, you get three balls on a table that pops up after you register on the site (Don’t worry, they don’t ask too much info of you to become a member.)

If you know The Sims, you know the game’s often about getting experience for your character. In THE SIMS PINBALL, you have the choice of a few career paths, everything from doctor to slacker. Each character has six experience levels, and its doggone hard to complete your experience with three balls—even with the exciting additions of multiball mode and an extra ball or two.

But here’s the rub. This game is sponsored by Sharpie, the logo of which covers the middle of the playfield. If you rack up a certain amount of points, you’re entered into a Sharpie contest. Thing is, it’s natural for a human to want to score better and better—even if you don’t want a Sharpie t-shirt in the stupid contest. So you want to play again…and again. That’s where Electronic Arts gets you. Every three or four games, your game stops, and you have to watch a popup ad. Which stays up for 30 seconds. It’s kind of like watching a TV commercial, except these ads don’t have video. I take this time to check my email.

My guess is when you go to Pogo, you’ll find a game you like a lot. And because you like the free game, you won’t be bothered by the ads which appear in the game.

On the down side, take the case of Riddler, one of the original casual games sites. These pioneers have been around since 1996. With over a decade to get their act together, you’d think the site would be full of innovation, from games to presentation. If you thought that, however, you’d be dead wrong.

I went to Riddler to play a game called MARIO HALLOWEEN. I’m a big fan of Nintendo’s Mario, and of Halloween, which I consider to be the year’s most enjoyable holiday. So wanting to play was natural. I just had to do it. And yet, Riddler befuddled me before I got to play. In the process of registration, they tried to get me to fill out a lengthy survey. I even filled out a page of the survey before I realized it was an ad that had nothing to do with Riddler. Instead, it was from some sponsor. In fact, it looked like Riddler wouldn’t let me play a game unless I answered these lengthy and personal questions.

Thankfully, when I opted out of the survey, I found I could go back, log in and play the game. Already, my trust in Riddler had been dashed. They were trying to make a buck and they were doing it in an underhanded way. To top it off, the game wasn’t worth the bother. Mario Halloween was an overly simplified, side scrolling affair. It had scary background music, but Mario moved like he was in molasses, way too slow. The goal was to collect coins, but it the whole thing was presented badly. I didn’t want to continue, especially since there were no ghosts or humorously creepy things in the level that I played.

The salient thing about casual games and ads is this: because these online sites are still in their infancy, they probably will listen to you. If you don’t like the ads, gripe in an email. If you feel they’re being unscrupulous, as I did with the shady Riddler survey, shoot them a note. They probably won’t lose the ads. But they may get up off their rear ends to make them just a little more palatable. They definitely don’t want to lose one thing: you.

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

Madden 07
Publisher: EA
Devloper: EA

Marv Levy, the most thoughtful coach the NFL has even seen, said something stirring in his autobiography, Where Else Would You Rather Be? The erudite coach wrote, that on game day, “a wave of ethereal serenity will wash over you, or—at the other end of the spectrum—you will become the victim of a despair so gripping that you can feel it physically.”

This year, Madden 07 lets you feel what Marv Levy felt. That’s because the developers paid attention to the details that make football seem authentic. Its high definition visuals are full of cut scenes that make you feel part of a hyper-real football experience. The in-game scenes look like something out of Oliver Stone’s Any Given Sunday, except they’re better.

That’s right. Some of Madden is better than a highly stylized Hollywood sports film. You see the gritting of teeth as the line strains just before the ball is hiked. You see what goes on in the huddle. One camera angle even looks up at the huddling players from the ground, making them look like mythical gods planning a Grecian war.

On the Xbox 360 version, the audio makes you feel as close to being in the huddle and on the line as you’re ever going to get—unless you’re drafted by the NFL. The chatter, the crowd’s excitement, the trash talking of the opposition: I’ve just never heard in-game audio that is this thoughtfully executed. And there are audio options, too. Don’t like Madden‘s folksy charm? Use EA’s excitable radio announcer. Don’t like him? Try just the stadium announcer and the crowd with the players talking.

In fact, Madden is all about options. This year, you can control your lead blocker individually at the line. In fact, you can pretty much control any player you like. You can even see the game from their point of view.

What about Madden, the man? Madden himself makes more sense this year. When he helps you choose some play you’ve never encountered even if you played college ball, he’ll explain why it will work for you. For instance, defensive plays with the word “Spy” in them lets your players keep an eye on a quarterback who has running abilities. No matter what your level of football knowledge you have as a fan, Madden will give you more.

Want to take a break from the game? There’s a virtual Hall of Fame here. Not only do you get biographies of greats like YA Tittle. Many of these player sections have short movies rife with their finest plays. Again, you’ll play and have fun. But you’ll learn something, too, something you can talk about with your friends.

Yet Madden 07 is not without its glitches, especially when it comes to issues of what game makers call artificial intelligence. For instance, when I was on third down, had inches to go for a first down, and was 21 points ahead of the New York Giants, Madden suggested that I throw the ball. Now, Madden in real life is a fairly conservative guy. He’d surely suggest a running play in such a situation. Plus, your EA radio announcer makes mistakes, saying things like you had an interception in the last series of downs when you didn’t. These things are not game breakers. In fact, they don’t stop a great game from being great. But the mistakes are indeed disappointing, especially when you’re paying $60 for the Xbox 360 version.

Additionally, the game isn’t completely updated as far as players and coaches go. The injured Curtis Martin is still playing for the New York Jets and the Buffalo Bills have the wrong quarterback. So do the Jets. You can change the players easily with a few presses of your controller buttons. But you wish you didn’t have to, and that this function of player updates was available with a click of the button online.

If you want to take Madden 07 with you, try the PSP version, which is also compatible with your PlayStation 2. Even the Nintendo DS version makes better use of the touch screen than it did last year. Even if you hate Madden, EA may have a football game for you. This summer’s release of NFL HEAD COACH makes you the leader of the team. It’s not just about playing; it’s about simulating everything that happens around a team. Plus, you can even communicate to your players on the field via a headset.

If you haven’t bought Madden in a few years, this is the time to get it, especially the Xbox 360 version. Despite the apparent flaws, it makes you feel the tension, the passion, and the camaraderie that go into the best games of football. In other words, with “Madden 07,” each game of the season has the palpable excitement of a playoff game. Even Marv would love it.

Dead Rising
Publisher: Capcom
Devloper: Capcom

In Max Brooks’s The Zombie Survival Guide, the author asks, “What will you do—end your existence in passive acceptance, or stand up and shout, ‘I will not be their victim! I will survive!'” You’ll need that kind of tough-minded, Gloria Gaynor-endurance philosophy to deal with Dead Rising for the Xbox 360.

As you look at the box, even before you play this mother of all zombie games, you can almost imagine the excitement at the pitch meeting. ‘Hey, guys. What if we made zombies meets Grand Theft Auto? Not only that, what if we put hundreds of zombies on the screen at once?’

Capcom, the makers of the still amazing, zombie-ridden Resident Evil, didn’t settle for mere a hack and slash killing game for “Dead Rising” for the Xbox 360. They were thinking big, really big. There’s a wide-ranging story in which Frank West, a freelance photographer, gets a tip about zombie in a small town mall. The wise-cracking Frank, who’s shot some war pictures in his time, is a big character and fairly ego-ridden (certainly unlike the proud, but psychologically-changed war photographers I’ve met).

Frank has his hired a copter pilot to drop him on the rooftop of the Willamette Parkview Mall in a nowhere town of 53,000 people. Outside, slow moving zombies by the thousands want to get in. Why are they lured to the mall? You don’t know. Why are there zombies in this particular small town? You don’t know that, either. Inside, those trapped in the mall are freaking out. There’s a mystery to solve and you have three days in which to do it (there’s a timer in the game that keeps ticking down to add tension).

You won’t kill any zombie in the first twenty minutes. During that time, however, the drama builds as you make your way from the roof into the mall itself. When Frank does encounter the humans within, you’ll see amazing detail in their facial reactions as they speak. The game play graphics themselves are less thrilling, but pretty intense nonetheless.

In order to unravel the mystery, you must complete various missions which come at you fast and furious by cell phone. As you run through the outdoors, trying to keep zombies away with a sickle or devour them with a lawn mower to try in a quest to save one guy, your phone rings with more missions. It’s a little distracting, but it gets your adrenaline going nonetheless.

This is an action game, not a horror-based game. Even though there’s blood and guts when a zombie dies, there’s no real fear here. What you feel is a race against time and a need to solve the mystery to make a big name for yourself in the dog-eat-dog world of photojournalism. As you snap photos along the way and get points for doing so, you’ll search the inner workings of the mall. But the mall itself is a strange place for a zombie game. I understand the need to disrupt a placid suburban lifestyle with the undead and I understand the need to have a huge place in which to set the game. This one has five bookstores and over 20 clothing stores. It’s a lot to explore. But the mall is a little bland to me, as all malls are.

One problem encountered within the first hour dealt with saving the game. If you haven’t saved at various save points in the game, and you get bitten by a pack of zombies, you’ll die. And your progress within the game will die with it. That means you’ll have to start all over again. Capcom should have added an automatic saving feature to Dead Rising. Having the gamer save along the way temporarily impedes the flow of high adventure that the game is so full of.

In Dead Rising, you have a ton of weapons from which to choose, and even a bowling ball will knock down zombies like they were ten pins. When you eat food to increase your health, each food item helps you differently. Potato chips are a quick fix. OJ’s better. When you do encounter a massively powerful enemy, killing him or her will reveal an often-fascinating story. There are about 80 characters in the story with whom to interact, about as many as you’ll find in a good mystery novel like Devil In A Blue Dress.

I’m still trying to deal with the massive, open-ended, go-anywhere essence of “Dead Rising.” In scope, it’s like one of author Neal Stephenson’s books in his Baroque Cycle. It can take a while to get used to the nature of, well, everything. But once you get the gist of Dead Rising, you’ll be well rewarded with rich gameplay and, sometimes, a first-rate story, too.

Tekken: Dark Resurrection
Publisher: Bandai Namco
Developer: Namco

How many times have game players dealt with the evil house that wants to kill you? Dozens of times, at least. You’ve had to deal with it since The Seventh Guest in 1993, and even The Fool’s Errand from back in 1987. So why review MONSTER HOUSE, a movie-into-game that follows in the semi-banal tradition of anthropomorphized scary houses?

Well, it’s creepy and it’s kookie. Really. One of the unexpected delights of the summer is the animated kids’ movie, Monster House. Actually, the idea doesn’t sound so hot: a strange house comes to life, angry and hungry. But the way the flick is so deftly animated and the way the story keeps you interested and thrilled makes it a winner (especially if you see it in 3D).

I didn’t know whether game maker THQ could pull of the frights in the movie. That’s because its last movie-into-game, Cars, was bland at best. Yet I was pleasantly surprised when I played Monster House. Not only do you feel as though you’re moving through an amusement park fun house where lamps try to grab you and trees break through windows to squeeze the life from you, you’ll get scared, too. That’s right: adults will be frightened. So, while this is a game for kids, adults will enjoy playing it with their sons and daughters, too.

Within the bowels of the house, you’ll play each of the three characters in the game, the occasionally bold hero, DJ, can-do smartie Jenny, and Cowardly Lion-like Chowder. Each character is armed with a water blaster gun to destroy, say, evil chairs that come to life and attack you. You’ll be traipsing through a house that’s full of the detritus of the years, even a greenhouse that, says the grossed-out Chowder, “smells like my grandfather’s trailer.” It’s this kind of humor (voiced by the movie’s three child actors), interspersed with the action-horror aspects, that makes the game (and movie) a winner.

That’s not to say Monster House is one of the year’s best games. At certain points, the monsters in the house repeat: you’ll be fighting against a lot of chairs, and that can be boring. While the game has been assailed elsewhere for its unstable targeting, I didn’t find this to be that much of a big deal. What the game lacks in camera angle stability and targeting, it makes up for with ease of play and imaginative action that makes you want to continue on in the game. You can finish the Monster House fairly quickly, in about 10 or 12 hours—which is a consideration if you expect more game play for your buck. However, there’s a fun unlockable once you collect a bunch of toy monkeys along the way. You’ll get to play an old school, 2D side scroller game called Thou Art Dead.

But what did bother me constantly was the lack of the ability to save the game whenever you want to. As an obsessive ‘saver,’ I didn’t like the fact that you must move to save points in bathrooms to reclaim your progress should you decide to quit. Saving things at a bathroom checkpoint should have been flushed before the release of Monster House. It’s a waste of time.

In the Nintendo DS version of the game, you’ll have 54 rooms to explore and shoot up. What I was most enthused about was the amount of monsters that ends up on the screen at the same time. They’ve really squeezed a lot out of the tiny DS’ processing power. You won’t get the same audio as you do in the console versions, however. Instead, you’ll have to read lines of dialog. But there’s nothing wrong with reading. Unless it’s James Frey you’re looking at.