For the most part, we don't play games - real life is challenging enough, and you can't beat its graphics or immersive experience. But there are still plenty of times when a computer game would be just the thing. Even more so than with other software, we encourage you to check out recommendations from previous years, since many of those games remain extremely enjoyable for those who weren't exposed to them originally, and you can probably pick them up cheaply from previous owners or on eBay.
Serious Flight Simulation -- Some things are predictable, and one of them is Andy J. W. Affleck's suggestion of Solitaire Till Dawn from Semicolon Software ($25). He also reiterated his plug for Neverwinter Nights ($50) from last year before heading into new territory. "This year, my new obsession was my birthday present to myself. I got both a Saitek Cyborg Evo joystick ($70) and X-Plane ($80). The two, together, create a fantastic flight simulation which transcends simple messing about in planes. They become a tool for anyone who wishes to learn to fly. I've been working through online tutorials that discuss the basics of flight (from the theoretical to the mechanical) and working with X-Plane to practice. I certainly don't feel that I could take the stick of a plane after the pilots have been overtaken by food poisoning and would prefer to leave things to the Otto Pilot, but I am having a great deal of fun. On my 1.25 GHz 15-inch PowerBook G4, it runs pretty well, though I can't turn on all the graphical niceties if I want reasonable animation speed. Luckily, X-Plane lets you adjust how much it displays to compensate for older/slower video cards. Do read through their site and make sure you have the right hardware, as the game is demanding. But if you have the right stuff, you can have the Right Stuff."
Five Games to Play with a Five-Year-Old -- Andy didn't stop there - he suggested a slate of games that his five-year-old son likes either to watch or to play himself. The floor is yours, Andy!
Cro-Mag Rally is a great, easy racing game. It's well worth the $20 fee to unlock the challenging higher levels. If nothing else, it was worth getting so that my son and I can both walk around for a few days afterward saying things like "Sticky tires activated!" and "Whoa!" a lot. Maybe that's just us.
NoLimits is a fun roller coaster simulator for $30. Its graphics lack polish in some areas (the landscape is filled with flat trees, and water is a flat surface) but the actual ride can be a lot of fun. It's a lazy weekend morning tradition for my son to climb into our bed, me to get the laptop, and to ride roller coasters. It's a lot of fun. Maybe that's just us.
Pocket Tanks ($16) from BlitWise and Cornerstone TSP Games is a modern take on the classic tank game where you adjust the angle and power of a shot and attempt to hit another tank across the screen. In this version, you have a huge number of weapons to choose from (and expansion packs, which can be downloaded for free or for fee) and terrain that can be heavily damaged in often fun ways.
Super DX-Ball Delux ($16), also from BlitWise and Cornerstone, is another "breakout" style game. The main difference with this one is that it can have non-rectangular bricks that create situations where the ball caroms off in less predictable directions. Otherwise, it has the expected assortment of bonuses including the ability to shoot bricks, turn the ball into a fireball that can detonate groups of bricks, and more.
Then there's the weirdly addicting Snood from Word of Mouse games ($20). Snood has been around for ages, but I discovered it only this year. It's a puzzle-like game in which you shoot silly/ugly faces up into a sea of other faces. Connect three or more like faces, they vanish, and you get points. Simple. But it's the faces and the silliness of the whole game that makes it fun. Maybe that's just us.
Atlantis, Found -- Jochen Wolters wrote, "Even though first-person shooters seem to be grabbing most of the game market mind share these days, some software developers are still coming up with stunning puzzle games, and Atlantis by FunPause is one such game. Little robots push sequences of colored balls through bent pipes, and you insert further balls into these sequences by shooting them from a cannon that slides horizontally back and forth in classic Space Invaders style. When you create sequences of three or more balls of the same color, these balls explode, and it's your goal to make all balls explode before they reach the end of the pipe. Atlantis has great gameplay with cool graphics, decent background music, and nifty extras. It combines a simple game idea with some wicked playing-field layouts to create a highly entertaining game. As an added bonus, unlike most 3D-graphics based games, Atlantis's gorgeous animations run absolutely smoothly even on not-so-high-end Macs like my 867 MHz PowerBook G4. Atlantis is a great example of a game that you can enjoy thoroughly even if you play it only occasionally for a few minutes. Be warned, though: you may find it more addictive than you'd expect at first sight. Atlantis costs $20, and you can play in demo mode for a full hour before you buy."
Strategy for Free -- You don't always have to pay much for a good game, as Tim Archer found out. "My 13-year-old son and I have recently gotten hooked on the open source game Battle for Wesnoth. A turn-based strategy game, it's definitely the most elegant freeware game that I've seen in a long time (although FreeCiv is a close competitor). There are lots of user-created scenarios available. We haven't tried the multi-player options available on the Internet (dial-up makes that tough), but there is apparently an active community of players. Inside Mac Games calls it a retro game, so maybe I'm showing my age. Still, my 13-year-old has enjoyed it as much as I. And for us cheapskates, you can't beat the price!"
Meet Your Inner Gamer -- Kate Derie wrote in to say, "I would like to suggest a computer 'game' with an interesting twist. The Journey to Wild Divine includes biofeedback hardware and your performance in raising and lowering your energy level is the key to progressing. It would make a great present to anyone interested in reducing stress or increasing their health-awareness." The Journey to Wild Divine costs $160; expansion packs are also available.
Don't Hold Back, Keyboards Are Durable! This idea came from Andrew Laurence, who, when he's not helping moderate TidBITS Talk, helps moderate his young son. "Baby Banger offers endless amusement for the very young, and blissful relief for the not-so-very-young. This open source application runs in a full-screen white window. Random shapes, in random colors, appear on the screen in response to key presses, accompanied by delightful BEEP! BOOP! SPROING! sounds. My two-year-old has been delighted by Baby Banger since he could sit up and drool on my keyboard."
Handheld Game Device for Linux Geeks -- It was only a matter of time before this happened. Mike Cohen recommended that any Linux geek who enjoys games check out Gamepark's $190 GP2X. "It's a hand-held unit about the size of a Sony PlayStation Portable, but it's based on open source software, running Linux on an ARM processor. It even ships with an SDK so you can write your own games for it. They're just starting to ship, so they're in short supply. I ordered one, and I'm still waiting for it."
More Console Gaming -- In the hard-core gaming world, Macs don't have much of a niche, as Lucas Mathis told us. So what's his solution? "Even though many great Mac games are available, I've pretty much stopped gaming on my Mac. It's easier to play games on consoles. This year's most interesting console is Nintendo's DS (about $140). Basically, the DS is a portable console with two screens (one of them a touchscreen) and voice recognition, which allows for some wild gaming concepts. It even plays older Gameboy Advance games. The DS has a wide variety of games for all ages - games for smaller children (such as Yoshi's Touch & Go or various Pokemon games), games targeted at adults (like Sega's Project Rub or Trauma Center), and tons of games that defy categorization (Nintendogs, a 'dog simulator'; Pac Pix, a PacMan game where you draw the PacMan figure you're playing with; or Electroplankton, a music toy). It supports wireless multi-player gaming - most games support local wireless gaming, and several new titles, like Mario Kart DS and Tony Hawk's Sk8land, support wireless Internet multi-player gaming. Getting online through an AirPort base station is easy, and online gaming is anonymous, so people can't find out each other's address, and there's no way to chat or talk with each other during games, which should come as a relief to parents who have heard what kids tend to say during online matches. Mario Kart DS in particular seems to be highly popular among Mac users. Steven Frank of Panic Software has a blog entry that is being used as a semi-official friend code (Nintendo's name for a user's online ID) exchange point for Mac users. People are even organizing Mario Kart races for Mac users. The DS is suitable as a gift to children or adults. You'll probably want one for yourself, too, so you can beat the person you gave one in Mario Kart."
Remember the 1980s? Adam here. Tristan, who's nearly 7 years old, has shown little interest in computer games, but as a historical learning exercise and to avoid the highly immersive nature of many modern games, we're considering getting a $30 Atari Flashback 2 Classic Game Console. The games look primitive, of course, but I remember them having excellent gameplay from when I was a teenager. Even though they're available for the Macintosh-compatible version of the Stella Atari 2600 emulator, the console moves the experience to the TV, which is already considered an entertainment device, and provides the two joysticks necessary for all the two-player games, which is what we plan to concentrate on.